The Mantra That Keeps Me From Trying to Fix Everything

Managing everyone’s constantly changing emotions is a full-time job, and I’m pretty sure I want to quit.

This is a submission in our monthly contest. October’s theme is Determination. Enter your own here!

One sunny day this summer, on a hike in Maine, one of my daughters was complaining. She was complaining about doing a very short hike (about 400 feet) to get a view of Acadia National Park after biking on wide smooth carriage trails with her cousins.

I know. Ridiculous, right?

My insides squirmed. How privileged of you! How dare you be complaining! Don’t you realize how lucky you are?! Lucky to be on vacation, lucky to be in a national park, lucky to be with your cousins and your parents, lucky to be doing something fun and healthy.

More complaining and then some arguing ensued. My emotions ran away with me, there among the pink granite and pines. They hijacked my body and made my blood boil. My daughter’s unhappiness became my unhappiness. I seethed, cresting the hill. I tried to take in the mountaintop, the ocean, and the tiny islands dotting the Maine coast. They were there, but I couldn’t see them clearly. My view was clouded by frustration. How could I be raising someone who doesn’t appreciate this?

My sister-in-law, who was on the summit already, looked at me. She shared what a friend of hers says to her about dealing with her children, “Be like a colander.”

“What?” I said, confused. I stared at the tiny boats floating like small toys in the bay.

“Let your child’s emotions, whatever they are, flow through you. Don’t hold on to them. They are her emotions. You don’t have to carry them.”

Whoa. I stopped. I looked at her freckled, sun-kissed face and her wind-tousled hair.

“I don’t have to carry them,” I repeated.

“Nope,” she said, and joined her son and husband at a rocky overlook.

This idea was revolutionary.

So I stopped. I let my daughter walk ahead, and tried to be like a colander. She huffed and puffed on the hike down, complaining to the wind, as I joked with my sister-in-law about the movie “Frozen” (we also may have sung a little bit).

The colander idea clearly links to my current meditation practice. I’ve been practicing for a while (using the Calm app). Like many people, I have a very active mind, like a hamster on a wheel. When thoughts come in during mediation, I’ve been learning to note them, as in, “I see you there, but I am not going to focus on you right now. I am going to focus on my breath instead.” Then I say to myself, “I am inhaling…. I am exhaling,” to refocus. I try to picture my thoughts floating down a river. I think, There you are. There you go, floating away. I’ll get to you at some point, just not right now.

While I’ve been able to do that in practice, filtering my kids’ emotions on a regular basis has been much harder to do. As parents, we are biologically hardwired to feel our babies’ emotions and to help them in times of distress. As they get older, this can become overwhelming and overbearing, not to mention exhausting. Managing everyone’s constantly changing emotions is a full-time job, and I’m pretty sure I want to quit.

So, back to the colander.

I started imagining my colander. What would it look like today? That day, mine was a shiny, sparkly hot pink, made of stainless steel. I have no idea why, but I pictured it like that. Water and emotion flowed right through my hot pink colander.

When I was frustrated later, I pictured it again. It helped me think that I am not my emotions, or the emotions of my family. I don’t have to fix everything.

This can be used with anyone who works closely with children, or any humans actually. We can stay with the discomfort of someone else’s emotions without becoming those emotions ourselves. We can show empathy and be with our kids, students, friends, and co-workers without being sucked down a river of emotions ourselves. This might help us be less tired, less on a roller coaster, and more able to manage our complex, daily lives.

So, when faced with strong emotions from a child, partner, family member, or work colleague, I ask you: What color is your colander?

Alexa, What Does It Take to Be Human?

Could a tiny smart computer fill in all my gaps in parenting? The better question is, should it?

Mattel pulled a much-anticipated and hotly-debated toy recently.
Aristotle, a device geared for children anywhere from infancy to adolescence, was set up to be the kid’s version of Alexa. It boasted features such as the ability to soothe a crying baby, teach ABCs, reinforce good manners, play interactive games, and help kids with homework. Marketed as an “all-in-one nursery necessity” on Mattel’s website, it also offered e-commerce functionality that would enable Aristotle to automatically reorder baby products based on user feedback.
This little gadget would be the next big thing, engineered to “comfort, entertain, teach, and assist during each development state – evolving with a child as their needs change.”
You see where this is heading.
How much do we let artificial intelligence narrate our children’s lives? How can we put something like this in charge of soothing our kids to sleep, teaching the alphabet, and eventually helping with homework?
Could a tiny smart computer fill in all my gaps in parenting? The better question is, should it? I know what being saddled with my phone and Wi-Fi all hours of the waking day does to my psyche. What could it possibly do to a toddler or an 11-year-old?
The director of the M.I.T. Initiative on Technology and Self, Sherry Turke, said something in her approval of Mattel’s decision to nix Aristotle that made me pause: “The ground rules of human beinghood are laid down very early” and these machines have “changed the ground rules of how people think about personhood.”
Is this true? By creating Siri and Alexa and all manner of innumerable smart devices, have we changed what it means to be human?
Do you remember the little origami fortune tellers you could make out of a paper? You’d ask it a question – say, “who will I marry?” or “will I have a pool when I grow up?” – and then you’d pick a number, count it out, and open the flap to reveal your future.
I never got the pool. But I also never forgot that it was just a game. I didn’t really think I would marry David or Nick. But maybe if I carried it around all the time and asked it every question from age eight and onward, I would forget it was not, in fact, in charge of my fate.
Turke went on to say that “we can’t put children in this position of pretend empathy and then expect that children will know what empathy is. Or give them pretend as-if relationships, and then think that we’ll have children who know what relationships are.”
Have the things that used to define us as highly evolved creatures – our rationality and morality and curiosity – changed so much? Do we still care to defend right and wrong and ask why of the universe or are we content to ask Siri? Do we, the grown-ups, still know what empathy is? When I watch the news, I wonder.
Do we know what it means to develop and nurture and uphold sustainable relationships? I hope so.
Aristotle was a free-thinking scientist and philosopher. He was a man who believed in things acting according to their function. I do not believe he would have entrusted the development of our children’s minds to a computer. I’m not even sure where he’d put artificial intelligence in the hierarchical system. Is it animal, vegetable, mineral, or none of the above?
The ground rules of “beinghood” are constantly evolving, but the core of what makes us human stands. We still care enough to write great literature, fight injustice, love and lose and love again, and cancel a toy before it begins to raise our children. We still hold a tiny bit of prescience over the rightness and wrongness of where our curiosity is leading us.
As long as we are able to look up from our toys and ask of each other and the world, “What does it all mean?”, our humanity remains intact. Technology is a marvel and a necessary in the modern world, but it cannot define us. This is a new game we are playing, and we must play it wisely.

5 Sensory Experiences That Can Enhance Learning and Benefit Any Kid

Sensory experiences can help increase focus and concentration and calm anxiety and hyperactivity in all kids- not just those with special needs.

Sensory experiences can help calm kid’s anxiety, increase focus and concentration, and reduce misbehavior. Although focusing on sensory experiences is highly beneficial for kids, kids will not all react to these experiences in the same way. While sensory experiences have often been associated with children with special needs, they can help increase focus and concentration and calm anxiety and hyperactivity in all kids.
The available research suggests that incorporating sensory experiences to children’s everyday experiences can make it easier to meet the needs of even the most challenging among them. Below are five practical tips to help you incorporate sensory experiences to help your child find calm.

1 | Create a “sensory space”

A “sensory space” is a space filled with varied sensory resources where your kid can find calm. Creating a specific space has been found to help kids struggling with anxiety and anger. In one study, researchers created a “sensory room” filled with a variety of resources such as a mood lamp, a projector, aromatherapy, music, and bubble tubes. The researchers observed and recorded how often each child visited the sensory room. The results showed that the kids who visited the sensory room most had greater self-esteem and also improved emotional well-being.
A “sensory space” does not necessarily have to be a “physical space.” An alternative can be a “sensory box” where you put a variety of sensory items that your child can pick and use whenever he feels the need to. Varying the objects – smooth surfaces, rough surfaces, different smells – makes the sensory experience more fulfilling.

2 | Turn to aromatherapy

The sense of smell is a powerful sense connected to the brain. This explains why essential oils impact behavior. Research suggests that aromatherapy can have a healing and calming effect. There are different ways that aromatherapy can be used to make the sensory experience even more powerful. For instance, combining smell and touch by using essential oils to massage your child’s feet or toes can have an immediate calming effect.
The possibilities are endless when it comes to using aromatherapy but not all essential oils are appropriate to use with children. Before using essential oils with your child, inform yourself about the precautions to take and the oils best adapted to calm kids’ anxiety and hyperactivity.

3 | Provide multisensory experiences

In one study that sought to determine whether multisensory experiences helped children learn better, researchers associated different colors with music, scents, art, poetry, literature, and colored lights. They found that children who were taught colors using multisensory experiences were better able to learn different colors.
Multisensory experiences are those that enable kids to use their different senses. For example, aromatherapy play dough helps kids engage their sense of smell and touch. Remember, however, that all essential oils used with kids should be safe for them and should be diluted first if they are to come into contact with your child’s skin. Another multisensory experience could be playing soft music as your child is playing with her blocks or with sand.

4 | Incorporate sensory experiences throughout the day

Any activity that encourages children to use their senses is a sensory activity. Playing with water or grains, smelling the roses, jogging, running, playing with sand, listening to music, and dancing are all sensory activities.
Different activities respond to different sensory needs. Activities such as swinging, jumping on the trampoline, and doing aerobic exercises release endorphins that help decrease anxiety. Chewing chewy foods, sucking or blowing are different sensory experiences that may also have a calming impact on your child. Finger painting is a great sensory activity. Incorporating different activities throughout the day is a great way to help your kid find focus and calm.

5 | Use deep pressure and movement sensory activities

The pressure exerted by weights has been found to help calm kids’ anxiety and hyperactivity. For instance, weighted blankets have been found to create a natural calming effect.
Although they are frequently used with children with special needs (for example autism), they are also effective with high-energy kids. Many parents have reported benefits with their children, including better sleep, waking up more rested, and happier and more focused kids.
By exerting pressure on the body, weighted blankets release neurotransmitters that have been proven to have a calming effect on the body. Wrists and ankle weights may also have the same effect.
Activities that involve heavy work – raking leaves, pushing against a wall, pushing a heavy cart – have also been found to be effective in focusing kids’ attention and reducing anxiety.
While the information provided here can help calm anxiety and hyperactivity in all kids, it is provided for informational purposes only. If your child has a sensory processing disorder, please contact your therapist before trying the activities proposed above.

How Kids Can Cope With Stress in Our Unpredictable New Reality

This practice gives kids strategies for developing self-awareness, improving mental focus, handling emotions, and increasing kindness and empathy.

In the aftermath of hurricanes Harvey and Irma, six of the largest school districts in the United States closed, and 1.7 million American students missed school. This figure doesn’t take into account school interruptions after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and elsewhere where officials have no clear timeline for school re-openings for over 350,000 students.
According to some experts, such school closings could have disastrous consequences the likes of which we’ve seen only after Hurricane Katrina. I worry about the students in Texas, Louisiana, Florid, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands who have been displaced by these recent storms, because they may experience the kind of stress my New Orleans students had to handle in 2005 and 2006. Officials on the ground are already reporting a mental health crisis in Puerto Rico. And, as if the hurricanes aren’t enough, scenes of assault weapons spraying bullets on a crowd in Las Vegas pop up in our children’s news feeds and cause more anxiety.
After Hurricane Katrina forced evacuations and devastated New Orleans, I returned home and volunteered to teach creative writing in a public school. My plan was to help children write stories to express their emotions and creative voice. I quickly discovered, however, that many of my students had high levels of anxiety and poor academic success. They had difficulty focusing in class, following my instruction, and sitting still to write. They also fought with each other on the playground. As I got to know them, I learned why.
Many of these children were growing up in poverty, and their families had limited resources to evacuate during the storm. Some had stayed in New Orleans and witnessed trauma. After Katrina, their families moved to other cities – often living in shelters – and my students had missed school. Like many displaced children, they exhibited depression, anxiety, and behavioral disorders. Some also faced other adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), including abuse, neglect, exposure to unsafe environments, and a broken family structure.
Research has shown that children who experience stressful events at an early age may have behavior problems and below-average academic and literacy skills. They are also at increased risk for developing health problems as adults. The good news is that children often respond well to interventions, including classroom mindfulness activities. With a mindfulness program, teachers have reported improved classroom behavior of their students especially in the areas of paying attention, self-control, participation, and respect for others. As a long-time practitioner of mindfulness, I decided to teach my students mindful techniques at the start of each writing class.
Mindfulness is a method of paying attention – on purpose, with kindness and patience – to what’s going on inside and outside of you in each moment. This practice gives adults and children strategies for developing self-awareness and acceptance, improving mental focus, handling difficult emotions, and increasing kindness and empathy. In my writing class, I taught my students many of the mindfulness exercises I still use today as a way of preparing them for the day, and for writing. Here is a sample:

Mindful breathing

Feel your breath come into your nose or mouth, into your lungs, and into your tummy. Feel your lungs release each breath before you take another. Put all of your attention on the air going in and out. If you start thinking about something, shift your attention back to your breathing. This exercise helps you focus on where you are and what you are experiencing in your body in the moment.

Squeeze and release

After taking three mindful breaths, focus your attention on your feet. Squeeze all the muscles tight and then release. Move your attention up your body, squeezing and releasing all your muscle groups until your reach your head. End with three more mindful breaths. This exercise, too, brings your awareness to the physical sensations in your body. You can try it lying down to help you relax.

Mind bubbles

Try this one as a way to release the stressful thoughts that are bothering you. Think of your worries as bubbles that pop. Take three mindful breaths and imagine holding a bubble wand. Breathe in and notice your worry. Breathe out and blow your worry through the wand to form a bubble that floats away and pops. This is a way to see your thoughts as temporary and release them. Repeat the visualization until you feel ready to continue your day. This exercise may not take away immediate problems, but it gives you a tool to release troubling thoughts so you are better prepared to face your life.

Finding the pause

Breathe normally, and at the end of each breath, notice the short pause before you breathe in again. Relax a different part of your body during each pause. Continue as long as you wish, relaxing your whole body a little more with each pause. This exercise helps you handle your emotions and problems with more confidence.
I taught my students these or similar techniques, which we used before writing. In the absence of a controlled study, I can only report that I saw many changes in my students over the school year. At the start of my class, the majority of my students could not write a complete grammatical sentence much less a story with an intact narrative thread.
By the end, every student contributed at least one complete story to our classroom collection, which we printed and bound. They also performed on stage, many reading their writing aloud to a packed auditorium. They also improved in paying attention and controlling their behavior. We simply got along better by the end of the year, and my students were calmer, at least in our classroom.
For the teachers and school administrators who have been affected by the 2017 storms, I wish them courage as they face the challenges of returning to school. They too had to evacuate or shelter in place and may struggle to create a safe environment for their students who could be traumatized. I hope they can put interventions in place that allow for healing and growth during this tough time.
No matter how bleak or surreal our daily reality becomes, our kids don’t deserve to fall into a desensitized-yet-anxious funk we often feel, especially after a series of crises. We owe them a way to cope. Mindfulness is a helpful tool.
For more on mindfulnes, visit Barefoot Books. Whitney Stewart is the author of “Mindful Kids: 50 Activities for Kindness, Focus, and Calm“.
 

Surviving the Common Cold: What the Research Says

While everyone has a cold treatment they swear by, scientific research has its own favorites. Here are a few therapies the data does (and doesn’t) support.

As soon as you touch the door handles in your child’s classroom, you can almost feel the germs latch on. Your partner mentions her secretary has the sniffles, and you immediately notice the back of your throat starting to scratch. Your cousin posts to Facebook his kids are just getting over a bad cold, and even though he lives across the country, you know it’s coming for you anyway. Getting sick is nearly impossible to avoid when you’re parenting youngsters with underdeveloped immune systems.

But at the very least, you can avoid ineffective cold remedies. While everyone has a cold treatment they swear by, scientific research has its own favorites. Here are a few therapies that the data does (and doesn’t) support.

Elderberry

Elderberry is the most recent trend in cold and flu remedies, but don’t overlook this newcomer. A small study of flu patients found that those who took three teaspoons of elderberry syrup four times a day for five days were symptom-free four days sooner than those who took a placebo. Another small study found that air travelers who took elderberry supplements were less likely to contract colds, and those who did had less severe cold symptoms.

Zinc

Zinc won’t stop a cold in its tracks, but it’s still one of your best bets. Research has shown that taking zinc within the first 24 hours of symptoms, and continuing through the length of the cold, can reduce the length of a cold by an average of one day. Sure, one day might not be much, but if it’s the day that you have to coach your kid’s basketball game or nail a big presentation at work, it might be worth it. 

Other studies have even found colds to be reduced by as much as 35 to 40 percent.The downside of zinc is a potential for bad taste and nausea. Be sure to take zinc on a full stomach.

Echinacea

Echinacea is often touted as a way to prevent colds but the jury is still out on this one. A study found that taking 900 mg of Echinacea a day did not reduce the likelihood of contracting colds or the severity of symptoms. Other studies, however, found the opposite. A meta-analysis from University of Connecticut claims that Echinacea can reduce the chance of contracting a cold by 58 percent, and reduce the duration by an average of 1.4 days. Echinacea is ineffective for children.

Nasal irrigation

Your sister-in-law swears by it. Your mom keeps calling you to ask if you’ve tried it yet. But it’s just so dang gross. Can you really shoot water up your nose to make the gunk come out, and is it even worth it?

Yes, yes it is. Researchers believe nasal irrigation, often referred to by the brand name “Neti Pot,” may help relieve symptoms of acute respiratory tract infections with minimal side effects. If you can get your child to do it, it’s effective for them also.

Over-the-counter medicine

For children, the dangers of over-the-counter medications likely outweigh the benefits. Several studies have found that antihistamines and decongestants are no more effective than placebos for treating coughs or promoting sleep in children, but are in the top 20 substances leading to death in children younger than five years of age.

For adults, cough medicines with dextromethopran modestly decrease cough severity and frequency compared to a placebo.

Honey

The easiest remedy to convince children to take might also be one of the best. Buckwheat honey is more effective than placebo for reducing coughs and improving sleep for children, but should not be used in children younger than one year due to the risk of botulism.

Vitamin C

Put down the glass of orange juice. If you are already sick with a cold, it’s too late for Vitamin C to do you much good. Research has found that taking 200 mg of Vitamin C before getting sick can help reduce the duration of cold symptoms by an average of one day. For most people, however, taking the vitamin did not reduce the likelihood of getting a cold.

Essential oils

Peppermint, eucalyptus, teatree – when it comes to cold and flu season, are these potions essential or another brand of snake oil?  Unfortunately, research on the effectiveness of essential oils remains pretty weak. Eucalyptus and peppermint oil, however, have long been used as decongestants. Neither should be used on children younger than two; in fact, peppermint oil can cause life-threatening breathing problems for infants.

If sleeping with Vicks VapoRub and socks on your feet sounds like a sweaty and sticky torture, feel free to skip this remedy. There is no evidence to suggest that it works. A study in the journal Pediatrics, however, notes that parents have found it effective in helping their children get a better night’s sleep when applied to the chest. However, camphor oil – a main ingredient in vapor rubs – can be toxic to children under two and should not be used on infants.

Sleep

“When you’re sick, rest is best, rest is best,” our friend Daniel Tiger loves to remind us. Of course, for a parent, resting is far harder than taking a vitamin supplement. But research shows that sleeping six hours or less a night can makes it four times more likely an adult will catch colds compared to those who slept seven hours per night. Those who regularly slept less than five hours of sleep had a nearly a fifty/fifty shot at catching a cold when exposed to a virus, compared to an one in six chance for those who slept seven or more hours a night.

Antibiotics

Quite simply, there is no way an antibiotic will help the common cold. Colds are viral infections, and antibiotics treat bacterial ones. Research backs this claim up. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) also cautions that antibiotics are not needed for sinus infections caused by viruses.

If your favorite remedy didn’t make the list, don’t discount the placebo effect. Snuggling up with your favorite tea or your grandmother’s chicken noodle soup will do you good even if they don’t decrease cold symptoms by a statistically significant amount.

The Case for Boredom to Ignite Our Minds

We may assume that curing boredom is a good thing for all of us. But researchers fear that not being bored is the problem.

The demands of careers and parenting mean we’ve lost time to let our minds wander. There are always tasks that need to be handled.
Then there’s the other obvious way we cure boredom should it have a chance to strike: technology. Smartphones give us the opportunity to constantly engage with social media, games, news, or countless text threads. All of these serve as distractions that keep our minds from dealing with boredom for even a minute.
We may assume that curing boredom is a good thing for all of us. We’re not bored, the kids aren’t bored, we don’t have to listen to the kids complain about being bored, and everyone can grab their smartphones or tablets should boredom arise.
But researchers fear that not being bored is the problem.

Why we need boredom

Research shows that people will go to extremes to avoid sitting alone with their thoughts. Studies found that boredom can cause excessive drinking, gambling, and eating when we’re not hungry.
Fortunately, most of us don’t have to engage in these harmful activities to stave off boredom. Unfortunately, we turn to smartphones as a safe option when they are not.
According to studies used in author Manoush Zomorodi’s TED Talk, we now shift our attention every 45 seconds while working because technology makes it easy to do so. We also spend time checking our phones when we don’t even know what we’re looking for. Notifications constantly pop up, and we become Pavlovian in our responses to them, searching for them when they’re not even there just because we can see the phone.
A recent study showed that even having our smartphones in the room with us lowers our cognitive function.
Smartphones and the way we use them keep us from allowing ourselves to get bored, and that means we’re missing out. When bored, the brain goes into default mode. It’s in this mindset that we can reflect on our past and problem solve for our future.
When bored, we daydream, we create ideas, and we stick with a train of thought that can lead us to create. A study even found that participants asked to perform a boring task before solving a problem using creativity did a better job than those whose brains weren’t first prepared by boredom.

How to be bored in the technology age

Journalist Manoush Zomorodi launched a podcast in 2015 that challenged listeners to engage with technology responsibly and put some boredom back in their lives. It wasn’t a cold-turkey technology detox. Most of us have to use some form of technology for jobs or communication with others. Zomorodi launched her challenge to help people learn to do it responsibly.  She wanted participants to give themselves time during the day to free their minds from simply staring at a screen for no reason.
Her challenge led to a book that came out this year titled “Bored and Brilliant: How Spacing Out Can Unlock Your Most Productive and Creative Self”.  It details how to engage responsibly with our phones while giving our brains the sacred time they need to be utterly bored.
Challenges include deleting our favorite apps from our phones or walking without a phone in our hands for an entire day. None of these challenges seem that hard until participants are forced to perform them.
That’s when many who signed up for the challenge on Manoush’s podcast realized they were addicted, though some had inklings of that before. It’s why they signed up in the first place. Most of us know we are missing time we used to have, time where our minds roamed and we used wonder and curiosity to cure our boredom. Our brains had room and time to develop ideas.
Children born into the smartphone age need to be trained to use technology responsibly because they will not remember having all that tech-free time. That longing we have to unplug will be foreign to kids who live electronically plugged in at all times.
Parents can set the example by using self-control and making technology work for their lives, but not take them over. In the process, they teach their kids the sacred practice of boredom.
These simple guidelines are a good start:

Keep the phone out of the bedroom

Let those boring moments before sleep get the creative juices flowing and preserve rest. Phones in the bedroom can cause sleep problems.

Go hands-free

When walking or driving, don’t hold a phone like it’s an extension of the body. Instead of focusing brain power on looking at the phone or wondering when it’s going to offer a notification, go hands-free and let the brain go into default mode.

Set times for engagement

Those in the technology development industry have no problem admitting they are creating a product, and they want it to be as addictive as possible. Manoush believes that it’s so hard to be bored because our technology is designed to draw us in.
To combat this, set up rules and times for engagement. Don’t let tech designers decide how and when you use technology.

The long-term payoff

Creativity was identified as a leadership competency that CEOs look for in employees. Creative people may be hard to find if we now live in a society that doesn’t value boredom. We are also living in a society full of people who feel guilty about the unhealthy relationships they have with their phones.
We can change the course, though, and raise a generation that benefits from technology while still using their minds to create and problem solve without distractions. We can have the conveniences that smartphones offer without the addiction or the brain drain they cause.
It’s as simple, and as difficult, as embracing boredom.

Beyond the Family Pet: How Animals Enrich the Lives of Kids

Not only does contact with and knowledge of animals, both pets and wildlife, make kids smarter, but it also makes them healthier.

It was after dinner, and I was at the sink washing the dinner dishes when my son shrieked.
“It’s a raccooooooooooon!” he yelped, jumping up and down in excitement as his eyes bulged. “A REAL RACCOOOOOOOOON!” he trilled.
“Huh?” I stumbled back from the sink and looked around the kitchen.
“ON THE ROOF OF THE BARN!” His entire body was trembling. I followed his pointed finger and watched the fat, banded critter through the window as my son loudly narrated its every move.
When it was gone, I turned to him. “Have you seen a raccoon before?” He looked at me. “Like at the zoo or something?” He stared blankly. “How did you know that was a raccoon?”
He smirked as he strutted out of the room. “I just knowed, Mama.”
Later that night, as I made a final sweep through the toy room to tidy a few last things, I found a small plastic raccoon, perched atop some blocks arranged in the shape of a barn. It was my turn to smirk, remembering the wildlife set he got in his stocking as I placed the little raccoon back into its bin amongst gray wolves, grizzly bears, and elk.
Like most parents, I am in constant awe of what my children learn through their interactions both with the natural world and at play. They are always picking up on tiny details that I miss or fixating on particularities that I find unimportant. Children are the observers of the world.
And when it comes to animals and the natural world, I have even more reason to be in awe. Not only does contact with and knowledge of animals, both pets and wildlife, make my kids smarter, but it also makes them healthier.
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Young boy with his well-trained 4-H calf.

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Physical benefits of animals

The health benefits of pets are well-documented. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention devote an entire page to the specific health benefits of having a pet, including increased exercise and outdoor activities along with increased opportunities for socialization.
What’s more, exposure to pets can actually decrease the risk of developing allergic sensitization into young adulthood. While scientists have not determined the exact relationship between owning a pet and developing allergies, they suspect that high-dose exposure to certain pet danders and allergens triggers a non-allergic immune response.
Further, simply being in nature has health benefits as well. In fact, children who are regularly exposed to nature experience decreased stress levels and bolstered resilience for coping with stress.

Animals as therapy

Not only can animals prevent children from getting sick, but they can help in treatment, too. Animal therapy has roots going back to the Middle Ages, when doctors in Belgium noticed that patients who rehabbed alongside animals had better prognoses than those who did not.
Animals often have a profound calming influence, unlike that achieved through human interaction or companionship. One study found that simply watching fish swim around an aquarium could lower someone’s blood pressure, which might explain the abundance of fish tanks I’ve noticed in doctor’s waiting rooms.
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safari limited farm animals and house pets

Parent Co. partnered with Safari LTD because they know an appreciation for animals and curiosity go hand in hand.

 
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Another study found that petting a dog decreased the stress hormone cortisol in a stressful environment significantly more than resting quietly did. Visits from pet therapy animals have been shown to decrease the stress hormone epinephrine in cardiac patients, and having a pet present decreases heart rate and blood pressure more significantly than having a friend or family member present.
The therapeutic benefits aren’t limited to physical symptoms, either. Animal therapy is often used for psychiatric and behavioral therapy as well. Taking care of animals has been shown to increase children’s self-esteem and confidence while helping them to develop empathy and perspective-taking skills. Horse therapy has had proven results for autistic children, improving their subsequent interactions with family pets as well as their general attitude and behavior toward animals.
One of the most successful and ambitious programs to incorporate animals into therapy is the Green Chimneys residential program in New York. Here, children aged six to 18, many of whom have experienced extreme neglect or abuse, develop a sense of self-worth as they learn to care for pets, farm animals, and even hawks and falcons. Some children tend to injured animals or go on to become guides or caretakers for the animals when visitors come to experience farm life for a day.
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Boy training pet dog
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Environmental benefits

Our kids aren’t the only ones who benefit from learning about and appreciating animals. Our environment benefits, too. The more students know about local wildlife, the better they absorb ecological lessons about the environment and conservation. This, in turn, leads to a generation more likely to value pro-environmental behaviors.
Children who play outside and are exposed to wildlife regularly form emotional attachments that last well into their adult years and translate into pro-environmental behaviors, like recycling and alternative energy use.

How to get started

How can a parent set their child up for successful interactions with animals? How do we ensure that the first experiences with a family pet or new wildlife are positive ones?
By bringing realistic animal-themed toys and books into the home, parents can introduce both pets and wildlife in a controlled and safe environment. These toys, books, and games can spark conversation, inspire questions about how to act appropriately around new animals, and get your child excited about meeting them.
These kinds of toys can even prepare your child for broader lessons. In one study, preschool children who participated in guided play with animal toys were better able to absorb a subsequent lesson about the food chain.
You can support your child by role playing how to approach a new animal using realistic animal toys. If it’s a wild animal, this might mean giving the animal plenty of space and not moving erratically. If it’s someone’s pet, it may mean asking permission before you greet it and offering a hand to sniff before petting. Children who talk about and practice new interactions go into them with increased confidence and a higher likelihood of success.
Teaching your child different animal names and breeds will build even more interest and confidence around animals. For more ideas about introducing your child to the wide world of animals and preparing them to reap the rewards of a lifelong relationship with nature, check out some of the many free activities and resources available online.
Children who care for and about animals enrich their lives physically and emotionally and are more likely to grow up to be stewards of the environment.
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Parent Co. partnered with Safari LTD because they know an appreciation for animals and curiosity go hand in hand.

4 Ways to Go From Overwhelmed to Lightheartedness

If you are tired of being overwhelmed and are looking for some lighthearted relief, these four tips can help you through.

I can recall a time when I was waitressing and I got myself in the weeds. I felt like my head was spinning in a million directions. Even though my heart was racing, I managed to look at my friend and chuckle. “It’s so crazy,” I said, “all I can do is laugh.”
Today, overwhelmed looks much different. Three kids, a house, and several jobs later, I am still practicing how to balance the demands of life. That is until I learned how to reconnect to the lightheartedness I once had. It is just four simple steps, and this article shows you how.
Here is the thing about being overwhelmed. If you haven’t noticed it will spike the sensations in your head and chest. For example, you may experience it as increased tension in your head, neck, and shoulders. This tightness almost always seems to come with a catch. Suddenly you are more critical in nature as your expectations go up while your level of satisfaction goes down. Sure, you may get the job done, however, functioning from a state of overwhelmed almost always seems to come with a consequence.
You see, when you are overwhelmed you may be physically present yet emotionally elsewhere. You have one foot in the room and the other foot in the direction of the door. If you are tired of being overwhelmed and are looking for some lighthearted relief, these four tips can help you through.

1 | Get into your body

My new definition of overwhelmed is when you attempt to go about the tasks of your day without being connected to your body. The first step of decreasing overwhelm is to notice and connect to your body and the easiest way to do this is through conscious breathing. This means to pause and breath in and out of your nose (inflating your abdomen on inhale) and deflating it on exhale.

2 | Turn down the intensity

So often we get overwhelmed because we believe we have no control. My friend, this could not be further from the truth. Think about turning down the intensity as you might turn down the brightness of a lamp. Go outside and take in nature, or take a moment and visualize yourself turning down the radio (your thoughts). How would it feel to turn down the noise? Notice how your body adjusts and releases tension as you do this.

3 | Honor your choices

I once talked to someone who was so overwhelmed he wanted to quit his job. I asked him how he would get money. He wasn’t sure, he just felt over extended between work and school. I suggested he cut his hours first to turn down the intensity, that way he wouldn’t feel the consequences later when he was unable to fill his gas tank. You see, this is what feeling overwhelmed does – it puts you in a box of all or none thinking.

4 | Focus on service

I find when people get overwhelmed they focus on all the things they have to do or what is left undone. Nothing makes you feel more alone and unsupported than thinking in this way. Instead of asking what you should do, focus on how you may serve. Becoming service-focused allows you to be connected to something greater. When you serve, there is no right or wrong, it just is.
Try these four techniques out and let us know how it went in the comments below.

Karaoke Therapy is the Family Bonding You've Been Missing

Besides improving our mood, singing karaoke offers many physical, emotional, social, and educational benefits.

A few weeks ago on a Friday night, I was feeling grumpy and unmotivated. The kids were bored and I didn’t have the energy to deal with it. I was about to head upstairs to my bedroom and hide from my family, but then something shockingly spectacular happened. My husband turned on our karaoke machine and our house became a happening spot. All of our moods transformed almost immediately as we sang one upbeat song after another. We became obsessed with trying to come up with the next best song to pull up on our karaoke machine. I think two hours flew by before our voices started getting scratchy and we went to bed.

Singing has always been one of my favorite go-to stress busters. When I’m alone in the car, I love to blast the radio and sing along to my favorite tunes. My children love music and singing as well. They are always walking around the house belting out a song they heard in movies like “Trolls” or “Sing,” and sometimes they even make up their own songs. We’ve also caught my son singing in the shower on several occasions.

We happen to be somewhat of a musical family: I sang in the school choir growing up and now my kids and I take piano lessons. However, the beauty of karaoke is that you can be a total amateur and have a terrible voice, but you can still reap the numerous benefits that singing provides.

As pointed out in a previous Parent.Co article, scientific research has found that the act of singing (as opposed to just listening to music) can naturally boost our mood because we release endorphins, the “feel good” chemicals in our body. Besides improving our mood, singing karaoke offers many physical, emotional, social, and educational benefits.

Physical

  • Breath better: Singing helps slow our heart rate and improve our breathing pattern. In addition, when we sing karaoke, we are usually standing up and using our whole body to get into the song. This forces us to breath more efficiently and easily because the muscles from our diaphragm and lungs become fully expanded and our abdominal muscles more relaxed. Finally, our lungs get a workout when we use proper singing techniques and vocal projections.
  • Strengthen immune system: A study at the University of Frankfurt found that singing can improve our immune system. Professional choir members had their blood analyzed before and after an hour-long rehearsal. The results showed that the amount of proteins in the immune system that function as antibodies, known as Immunoglobulin A, were much higher right after the rehearsal in most cases.
  • Improve posture: To be a successful singer, we need to stand up straight with our shoulders and back properly aligned. Therefore, karaoke is a fantastic way to show our children how to develop good posture.

Emotional

  • Express feelings and emotions: When we belt out a song that has meaning to us or inspires us, we trigger an emotional response within ourselves. Singing, therefore, helps us express our feelings and emotions in a creative way. Karaoke also gives us the opportunity to express a specific song and its meaning using our own style and personality. When we do that, we communicate in an emotional way to ourselves and our audience.
  • Increase happiness: When we sing a happy, upbeat tune, our overall mood improves because it is enjoyable and distracts us from our daily commitments and worries. In addition to releasing endorphins, we have a tiny organ in our ear called the sacculus that creates a sense of pleasure when we sing.
  • Reduce stress and anxiety: Karaoke does wonders for reducing stress and anxiety, so much so that it has been used as a type of therapy to help people get over their fears or phobias. One study out of Japan analyzed over 19,000 men ages 40 to 69 and discovered that karaoke reduced their stress levels and lowered their risk of stroke and heart disease. First of all, singing releases muscle tension and decreases the levels of the stress hormone cortisol in our body. Singing also provides a sense of relaxation to let us enjoy the present moment to the fullest.

Social

  • Build confidence: Singing in front of a crowd takes a ton of confidence, so karaoke gives your kids that special experience that will help them grow and develop. At first, they may feel shy and awkward, but with some practice, karaoke will help build their self-esteem. Public speaking is considered most people’s top fear, so your children will have a leg up by practicing with karaoke. This hobby is sure to help your kids overcome their fears and challenges – lessons that they can take with them throughout their lives.
  • Practice team work: When we do karaoke with others, we have to work together to coordinate that we are singing either in unison or at the appropriate alternating times. This creates a type of teamwork approach. Our kids can learn how to encourage their singing mates so that everyone is successful and has a good time.
  • Bond with family: Karaoke is an amazing way to bring your family together to do something creative, meaningful, and fun. You will enjoy introducing your kids to the “oldies” that you grew up with. What a wonderful way to create some lasting memories for your family!

Educational

  • Stimulate the brain: Singing can be complex. It requires a lot of brain power to follow along with the rhythm, melody, and lyrics. This challenge causes activity in the neurons of our brain that bring together emotional, physical, and psychological changes.
  • Improve reading. Karaoke is no simple task. The lyrics flash up on the screen and we need to react quickly by reading accurately and then singing them. Once your children are pretty comfortable with reading, karaoke can help them master their skills. Karaoke makes learning reading fun since it’s set to music that they enjoy. It also provides a change of pace from the typical reading hour before bedtime. Karaoke tends to be ideal for visual learners who learn by seeing and doing. Start off by practicing singing along with your children to one of their favorite songs – nothing too vocally challenging. After some practice, let them sing without the backup vocals. Eventually, they will be able to sing using only the instrumental track.
  • Sharpen memory: Singing along to a song requires us to use the memory section of our brain. Even though the lyrics are in front of us on the screen, we still access the memories we have in our brain about the song if we have heard it before. This helps to stimulate our brain and improve our memory muscle.

The next time you are looking for an entertaining activity for your family, head for the karaoke machine. Your children will grow in so many tremendous ways, all while having a blast singing their favorite songs.

How to Make More Time to Tackle that Stack of Books on Your Nightstand

If all else fails, tell your kids you’ve given yourself reading homework. Chances are, they’ll be happy to hold you to it.

Make the lunches. Find the missing soccer uniform sock. Glue the toy’s head back on. Drive the car pool. Make it to work on time.
There’s nothing quite like a parent’s exhaustive to do list. After reading bedtime stories and overseeing school reading log entries, why add “reading books for my own pleasure” to your bursting schedule? Here are some compelling, science-backed reasons:

A book a day (or week, or month…)

Book reading is a well-documented brain boosting exercise. One study even suggested that regular book readers live longer. Someone recently pointed out to me that our time in the parenting trenches span fewer years than those we hope to enjoy in a relationship with our adult children. I’m up for anything that protects my brain from debilitating diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia so I can enjoy my family – without doing their laundry – for decades to come.

Add an extra “r” for reading

Parents need rest and relaxation as much as anyone. Pick up a book! One British study recorded significantly lower stress levels after participants read for as little as six minutes. You can’t even drive to a yoga studio that fast. Is there something specific dragging down your emotional wellbeing? Bibliotherapy is a growing field that uses book recommendations to help you conquer what ails you.

Break out of your parenting bubble

Brain imaging research shows that reading about an experience sparks remarkably similar brain activity as living it does. Reading can also improve empathy, which we could all use as much of as possible these days. I recently read “The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley,” by Hannah Tinti, which tells the story of a father’s life through the bullet wounds from his bouts of crime – talk about suspending judgment long enough to take a walk in the shoes of a different kind of parent.

Show your kids that reading is worth your time

Most parents want their kids to be good readers. Even though your habit might be to collapse in front of the TV at the end of a long day, keep in mind that your kids learn to do as you do. Research shows that more time spent reading is correlated with academic success. You probably aren’t able to devote 80 percent of your day to reading like Warren Buffett, but even allotting 10 extra minutes per day for family reading time can make a big difference over time in children’s reading development. It’s clear parental reading is good, but so are exercise, nurturing your marriage, chocolate, and many other competitors for your limited free time. So how do you make it happen?

Find a book to hook you

I always read more when I become engrossed in a great book. One of my favorite family anecdotes is about my great grandmother’s tendency to become so absorbed in a book that her children would find her after school sitting right where they’d left her: at the table reading. She wasn’t known for her housekeeping but she lived a long and full life, so perhaps there’s something to be learned there. And for goodness sake, don’t waste your time trying to finish a book you hate. Gretchen Rubin, happiness and habit guru, urges those who want to read more to get comfortable quitting books they don’t like and moving on to ones they do.

Find the right time for reading and make it a habit

The stress-relieving powers of book reading make it a helpful bedtime habit – much more effective than screen time. Personally, I don’t need any help falling asleep, but enjoy waking up early to write or read during what I think of as my “Drinking Coffee Alone Time.”
You might work reading into pockets of time during your day. Keeping a book in your bag encourages you to read during wait time when you’d otherwise probably just look at your phone. While the benefits of traditional book reading don’t all apply to audio books, they can be a way to continue with a book you’re enjoying during your commute or while doing housework.

Find your accountability strategy

This year my sister and I formed a book group with some local friends. Not everyone finishes the book every month. After a little while, our conversations tend to turn to school bus drama, nap schedules and other parenting minutiae. Still, having the date on the calendar has motivated many of us to read when we might otherwise not have.
Your book-reading friends don’t even have to live nearby. Sites like Goodreads connect you to other readers in your social networks. You can get the satisfaction of adding a finished book to your list (and can even brag about it on Facebook, if that motivates you.)
One friend simply made a resolution to read one book a month for a year. She did it, and logged some great titles.
If all else fails, tell your kids you’ve given yourself reading homework. Chances are, they’ll be happy to hold you to it.