Turns Out, Screen Time Does Influence IRL Learning

A recent study suggests media activities can provide kids with valuable learning, teaching problem-solving strategies that have real-world implications.

Ask my son what happens when you watch too much TV and he’ll be straight with you: “Your brain turns into mush.”
You can thank me for that one.
Back when he was still in my belly, I read the parenting book, “Brain Rules for Baby by John Medina”, and drilled the following phrase into my brain: “Face-time, not screen-time” (and I don’t mean FaceTime).
Medina explains that babies and toddlers need face-to-face interaction in order to form healthy social, emotional, and cognitive skills. This made total sense to me, so I resolved to wait as long as possible before exposing my son to TV or letting him get his hands on a tablet.
After waiting the recommended two years – okay, fine, it was 18 months – I began allowing him to view a little bit of TV at a time, just so I could get something – anything – done. As he grew older, that amount increased and the type of screen-time expanded, but so did my guilt and concern over it.
“Face-time, not screen-time,” a little voice whispers in my ear each time my son reaches for the remote or gleefully plays the Nick Jr. app on my husband’s iPad (reserved for extra stressful situations). But, another voice tells me to let it go, because I really have to nurse his baby brother or cook dinner or get us through airport security (read: extra stressful situation). And besides, he’s four now, so more than a little screen time won’t hurt…right?
Some recent research has found that, around age five, certain media activities may even help children learn. But can the skills they learn from a screen be useful in real life? In 2016, Joanne Tarasuik, a researcher at the Swinburne University of Technology in Australia, set out to answer that question with a study that looked at how Australian children between the ages of four and six solved the same puzzle using a touchscreen tablet version and a tangible, wooden version.
She and her team found that children could indeed transfer skills they learned from working on the virtual puzzle to solving the physical one, demonstrating that screen-based skills were translatable to the real world – although in the age of smartphones and Facebook it can be hard to know what’s real anymore.
Because that finding contradicted most of the research that had come before it, the team decided to replicate their study using a different group of children from a different culture for reliability purposes. In the repeat study, recently published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, Tarasuik and her colleagues teamed up with researchers in Croatia and studied a group of Croatian children using a puzzle called the Tower of Hanoi, made up of wooden pegs and discs.
The children tackled the puzzle using the tablet version and/or the wooden version. Researchers measured the amount of time and number of moves it took for the kids to complete the puzzle. They observed whether practicing on the device enhanced the children’s performance on the wooden version.
According to Science Daily, “The children all needed a similar number of moves to complete the wooden puzzle, regardless of whether they had practiced using the virtual puzzle, the physical puzzle, or a combination of the two. From the first to final attempt at the puzzle, all the children also improved their speed,” thereby replicating their original finding that four- to six-year-old children can take knowledge gained from a screen-based activity and apply it in a new, physical, practial context.
Clearly, not all screen-time is created equal. Researchers hypothesize that passive screen-time, like watching a video demonstration, will lead to different learning outcomes for children than engaging in an interactive app. The results of this study suggest that certain media activities can provide children with valuable learning experiences, teaching them problem-solving strategies that have real-world implications. It also shows how further research on the learning value and real-world applicability of touch-screen technology for children of different ages could be beneficial.
While it’s clear that we need more information on this important topic and I’m not about to let my son ‘go to town’ with the TV or the tablet, I guess I should admit that not every screen will turn his brain to mush.
But those YouTube videos of people opening toys and Easter eggs will.

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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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.

What Does Single Motherhood Mean for Kids?

Surprise! A growing body of research finds kids in single parent households aren’t sentenced to lives of poverty, crime, or addiction.

The most common message to parents of all family types is that divorce is horrible for children, and all social ills are rooted in the recent surge in single motherhood, most especially unwed mothers (eek! Unmarried women having sex and babies!). If you’re inclined to unconsciously buy into this thinking (and therefore hold yourself back unnecessarily), do not under any circumstances google “Ann Coulter + single mothers.” Also, remove from your mind President Reagan’s admonishment of the “welfare queen” (whom no one was ever able to find, and who in fact was a propaganda construct), or George W. Bush’s $1.5 billion failed Healthy Marriage Initiative, aimed at curbing all the supposed misfortune rooted in the upward trend of unmarried moms.

Instead, a growing body of research finds that children who grow up in single parent households are not sentenced to lives of poverty, crime, or addiction simply by way of their parents’ marital status. In fact, by many metrics, the majority of kids who grow up with single mothers fare just as well as their peers raised in traditional, nuclear, two-parent households. For example, in one study of 1,700 children by Cornell University researchers, found that single mothers’ education levels and abilities as parents had far more influence on their children’s academic abilities than their relationship statuses or even incomes – and this was true for all races.

In fact, lots of research comes to the same surprising conclusion: It matters little the family structure that a child grows up in, though it matters a lot the dynamics of that family. For example, children whose parents have a high-conflict marriage fare better after their parents break up, and the vast majority of children of divorce do just fine within a few years of the split. One nationally representative study of all kinds of family types found that it didn’t matter if the children were adopted or if the parents were married, single, or remarried. What does matter, found the study, published in the National Journal of Marriage and Family, was whether the home was ruled mostly by harmony or by acrimony, and whether the children experienced a warm, secure environment or a cold and neglectful one. Research also found that children raised by single mothers tended to have closer relationships with extended family like cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents, and other adults in their lives. This, I will argue, is something most Americans could use more of.

In other words, family is indeed what you make it, and you can create that warm, secure, and loving home life that is the springboard for a healthy child, regardless of what your family looks like. Just as you have countless opportunities to build a career and earn, you also have the freedom to build a family that you are proud of, to raise wise, thoughtful, hardworking, loving, and kind children. You can and will build not only a home life in which you and your children thrive, but a larger web of loved ones and community members who rise up and support you – and whom you support in return.

That said, I won’t sugarcoat this: There is plenty of very legitimate research that finds that children raised by single mothers are more prone to not-great outcomes, including teen pregnancy, dropping out of school, and incarceration. However, studies also point out that correlation does not automatically equal causation. In the most stark contrasts between kids raised by single mothers and those raised in two-parent households, when controlled for poverty, maternal depression, and lack of support, outcomes are more or less the same.

Another factor in the outcome for kids: All children fare better when both parents are actively involved and co-parent amicably. Many studies found that poverty associated with single motherhood is the common thread in families that fare worse than two-parent households – not the solo parenting in and of itself. It’s not rocket science why. With just one income and no second parent to help with childcare, single parents have to work more to pay for the basics, and have higher child care costs and fewer dollars for music and sports lessons, SAT prep tests, healthy food, or real estate in safe neighborhoods. Plus, poverty, or any financial hardship, is tied to depression, anxiety, and generally being a stressed-out mom with less patience for her kids and more arguments with the adults in her life.

One of the most cited studies about single mothers is the harm caused to children by the instability of boyfriends moving in and out of their home and lives. Leading researcher on single mother families Sarah S. McLanahan, of Princeton University, found that children raised by single mothers (who tend to be younger and poorer than married moms) are more likely to struggle academically because these single moms have less stable relationships with their children’s fathers, and men overall, with new boyfriends and their children moving in and out of the family home.

This research is important, and I urge you to heed it. However, do not let it scare you into celibacy, or shame you into sneaking or lying about your romantic life, or keep you up late worrying that decisions that led to this point have sentenced your children to a crappy life. Far from it.

Instead, this research highlights a mother’s relationship instability, which is within your control. The research is not about financially independent, unmarried moms who date a bunch of people without committing to them. The risks associated with partner instability have little to do with men who do not live in your house, who are not automatically designated boyfriends, and do not move in with their children or spur other major life changes that come with serious, committed relationships. The risk of negative outcomes for your kids, we can assume, plummets if you have a healthy attitude about romance, and if you are financially stable enough that you’re not compulsively tempted to cohabit out of financial destitution rather than healthy commitment to a shared future with a person you love.

Excerpted from THE KICKASS SINGLE MOM by Emma Johnson with the permission of TarcherPerigee, an imprint of Penguin Random House. Copyright © 2017 by Emma Johnson.

Moms-To-Be, You Should Still Get Flu Vaccines

A clickbait article is spreading like, well, the flu, and is likely to significantly impact pregnant women’s behavior at doctors’ offices this flu season.

A study published in the journal Vaccine has identified an association between the flu vaccine and miscarriage. The finding of the study is quite narrow: women who had a spontaneous abortion (SAB) were more likely to have received flu vaccinations during the 2010-2011 and 2011-2012 flu seasons. The study’s authors are cautious about their conclusions: “This study does not and cannot establish a causal relationship between repeated influenza vaccination and SAB, but further research is warranted.”

That disclaimer isn’t stopping needless panic in pregnant women as this is a finding tailor-made for clickbait. This article is spreading like, well, the flu, and is likely to significantly impact pregnant women’s behavior at doctors’ offices this flu season.

Some analysts have already offered good reasons not to panic. Emily Ramirez at Pregnant Chicken suggests that the 2010-2012 flu vaccine, which was developed in response to H1N1, was a unique vaccine, so findings based on miscarriages during that period might not be applicable to other years. Lena H. Sun at the Washington Post notes that the median age of miscarriage recorded in the study was seven weeks, a time when the risk of miscarriage is high and when many women don’t even know they are pregnant. Sun hypothesizes that the flu vaccine-miscarriage link could be explained by some women’s overall use of health care. The women in the study who had miscarriages were enrolled after seeking medical treatment for their miscarriages. Women who seek treatment for miscarriage are also more likely to pursue other preventive health measures (like flu shots), which might explain the association discovered by the researchers.

One more reason not to panic has nothing to do with the specific study findings, or with the particular time period that was studied. It’s where the article was published.

What does a journal say about its articles?

When a scientific finding gets reported in the news, the title of the journal is often an afterthought. In sparse Associated Press Style, the journal isn’t italicized or underlined, so it often doesn’t even stick out to readers. But the journal titles often offer helpful clues to readers trying to interpret a study’s findings.

One of those hints is a journal’s “impact factor,” a number that shows its importance relative to other journals in its field. A journal’s impact factor is calculated by totaling all the citations of articles from the previous two years and dividing it by the total number of articles published in the journal during that time. The result is the average number of citations each article in the journal receives.

Impact factors are not without controversy. Averaging the citations for a journal’s article makes it appear as though all articles are equally influential, when of course there is often great variety of impact. Furthermore, practices like publishing literature reviews (summaries of the known scientific literature about a topic), tend to up a publication’s impact factor because they are widely cited.

Although it is an imperfect measurement, a journal’s impact factor offers a sense for the journal’s prestige. The higher the impact factor, the more prestigious the journal. The 2016 impact factor of the Journal of the American Medical Association is 44. For The New England Journal of Medicine, it’s 72.

The 2016 impact factor of Vaccine is three.

Does this mean the articles in Vaccine are not credible? Not at all. It just means that they are not frequently cited by other medical researchers.

There could be many reasons for lower citation rates. A low impact factor could be an indicator that the journal’s articles are not considered credible by other researchers. But a low impact factor could also indicate that the topics studied by the journal are for a narrow audience of specialists.

Although an impact factor can’t tell you whether an article in a journal is good or even true, it does tell you that it is expected to be a field-transforming article. Both the New England Journal of Medicine and the Journal of the American Medical Association frequently run articles about vaccines. You can bet that if the authors of this article had identified a causal link between the flu vaccine and miscarriage, they would have published in one of those journals.

The New York Times interviewed Vaccine’s editor-in-chief Gregory Poland about his decision to publish these findings. Poland asserted that the piece was well-designed and raised an important question. But when asked if he thought the flu vaccines caused the miscarriages, he answered “Not at all.” The Times piece also mentions that this article was rejected at two other publications before being accepted at Vaccine, but that fact should not be taken as a marker of quality. Scientific researchers regularly submit multiple times before receiving an acceptance.

Who is vaccine research for?

The authors of the study assert that the findings should not change vaccine policy. The editor of the journal that published the study thinks that the flu vaccines were not the cause of the miscarriages. And yet, the reporting of this article is leaving readers with exactly that interpretation.

This brings us to an important question. Who are the results of scientific research for? Should the public be reading the tentative conclusions of scientific journal articles? Should journalists be reporting on them?

This study does not suggest any behavioral change for pregnant women. Instead, it poses an interesting question for future research: is there something different about that 2011-2012 vaccine that is not yet understood? Could further study of that vaccine contribute to increased vaccine safety?

These are great questions for “the pre-eminent journal for those interested in vaccines and vaccination.” These are terrible questions for pregnant women, or soon-to-be-pregnant women, or women who experienced miscarriages who are now blaming themselves for getting vaccinated.

Perhaps that’s why, ahead of Vaccine’s publication of this article, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a preemptive “warning” to the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, not about any dangers posed by flu vaccines, but to “help them prepare for a potential wave of worry from expectant moms.”

It would be unfair to expect scientific journals not to release their results to the public; in fact, doing so would slow the pace of scientific discovery. It would likewise be unfair to expect journalists not to report on those findings. But it’s even more unfair to drop such findings in front of readers – readers who will make health choices based on those findings – without providing appropriate context for interpretation.

If Women Were Erased From Movies, How Much Would the Average Script Change?

If you were to scan 1,000 random film scripts, you might notice a common trend: female characters are rarely central to the plot.

If you were to scan 1,000 random film scripts, you might notice a common trend: female characters are rarely central to the plot. While this might seem preposterous, a group of scientists from the University of Southern California’s Viterbi School of Engineering’s Signal Analysis and Interpretation Lab (SAIL) conducted this analysis and confirmed there is a serious entrenched gender inequality issue plaguing the film industry. Women and girls are still lacking opportunities, and the spotlight.

Using computational language analysis and interaction modeling tools, the team pulled nearly 1,000 random film scripts and analyzed the dialogues to track any patterns or themes. The researchers analyzed content of the characters’ language and their interactions across gender, race, and age. Beyond the cast, they also looked at genre and the production teams across films including writers, directors, and casting agents. The findings allowed them to quantify the sophistication and the tone of language of 7,000 characters and over 53,000 dialogues.

Of the scripts analyzed, men had over 37,000 dialogues, while women had just over 15,000. Beyond the volume of dialogue attributed to men, male dialogue contained more words related to achievement, death, and more cursing than the dialogue scripted for women. Women portrayed just over 2,000 characters, whereas men portrayed almost 4,900. Overall, female characters, regardless of race, tended to be about five years younger than their male counterparts.

The study also revealed that there were seven times more male writers than female writers, almost 12 times more male directors than female directors, and a little over three times as many male producers than female producers.

The researchers also used a graph theory to determine how central characters are to the plot of a movie by analyzing the ties and relationships to the other characters within the film – assigning dialogues to specific nodes or hubs. They found that when removing the female character nodes from most movie genres, the plot and the relationships did not need to be altered significantly. The exception was when women were in horror movies when they were most likely to be portrayed as victims. Thus, female characters could be easily removed from most scripts and not cause much of a disruption in flow or outcome.

Shri Narayanan, senior author of the study and a professor in computer science, linguistics, psychology, neuroscience, and pediatrics, said that the data from their research reveals that gender inequalities in film are real. “What we’re seeing is trends in unconscious biases,” he said in a phone call. “We’re providing one more objective way to look at the data that science can back up.”

A separate study conducted at the University of Southern California revealed that only a third of speaking parts go to women in the world’s biggest movie markets. The study, commissioned by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media and supported by UN Women and The Rockefeller Foundation, concluded that “girls are nowhere to be scene” and that no matter where in the world the film is released, female characters cannot escape an emphasis on appearance. Additionally, according to an article in AAUW Outlook magazine titled “The High Cost of Hollywood’s Gender Bias,” women are often portrayed in traditionally female-dominated occupations, such as teachers, nurses, and waitresses, and underrepresented in high-level occupations, such as doctors, lawyers, and engineers.

Off screen, the underrepresentation of women in positions at all levels of the film industry is called the “celluloid ceiling,” a metaphor for the material that was once used to make film stock (strip). San Diego State University’s Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film released its annual Celluloid Ceiling report earlier this year, revealing that women constituted just 17 percent of all directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors, and cinematographers working on the top 250 domestic grossing films in 2016. Women directed just seven percent of the top 250 in 2016, a two percent drop from 2015 and 1998, the first year the study was conducted.

Geena Davis, Oscar-winning actress, advocate, and founder and chair of the nonprofit Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, believes that entrenched gender inequality in film is a problem that can be fixed. “We can absolutely fix it overnight, the next TV show – the next movie can be gender balanced,” she said, in a recent NBC News article. Adding, “When the needle moves on onscreen representation for the first time in seven decades, that will be historic.”

For parents, talking to our children about gender inequalities opens the door to action. When we have these hard conversations, children become more aware of the biases and can use that information to make a difference. With media, help them choose movies and TV shows that give women equal time in the spotlight and support women behind the scenes. Common Sense Media will soon be developing their ratings system to also account for representations of gender. Until then, look for productions directed by women and those with strong, central female characters.

What movies and TV shows would you recommend? Share in the comments!

Master Your Habits in Four Easy Steps

There are good habits and bad habits. How can we more easily break the ones that need breaking and form the ones that are actually beneficial?

I picked up the book “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life and Business” by Charles Duhigg with the specific intent of curing my morning “snooze” habit.

You see, I waste 30 to 40 minutes each morning torturing my husband through the synthetic sunlight and multiple rounds of birdsong emanating from a fancy light-up alarm. It is a habit beyond reason. Plus, I could really use the extra time to work on lengthy morning negotiations with our toddler (“I will give you one pretzel if you get in the car right now,” etc. etc.)

Thanks to “The Power of Habit” I did cure my morning snoozing, but more on that later.

The more I read, the less important snoozing became as there were much bigger takeaways to be had. Here are a few.

1 | What is a habit? Cue, routine, reward

The first revelation came with Duhigg’s simple breakdown of what constitutes a habit. I began thinking this was a powerful and complex mystery, and came out knowing that it is a simple, changeable, three-step loop: cue, routine, reward, and the loop is driven by a craving.

The clearest example from the book is smoking. “When a smoker sees a cue – say, a pack of Marlboros – her brain starts anticipating a hit of nicotine.” That would be the craving. The routine is smoking. The reward is the nicotine rush.

Our brains use habits like tools. We have reptile-like cores that perform actions without any conscious thought. This allows us to complete complex processes, like backing a car out of the driveway, while our conscious minds are elsewhere. In many ways, this is helpful, but in modern society, with temptations like smoking, snacking on unhealthy foods, and watching too much Netflix, it can hurt us as well.

2 | Create a habit: learn to crave exercise (or anything else you hate)

When I stop to think about it, I have long list of habits I’d like to create. Those include exercising, eating better, writing regularly, and cooking at home. Conveniently, the book uses exercise to explain how habits are created.

Duhigg sites a 2002 study from New Mexico State University that tracked 266 people who exercised three or more times per week. He analyzes the specific “craving” these participants had cultivated in order to drive their habit loop. In one group, 92 percent of participants craved the “feel good” endorphins a workout provides. In another group, 67 percent craved a sense of accomplishment that came with tracking their performance.

Anyone can use this information to exercise more, according to Duhigg. “Choose a cue, such as going to the gym as soon as you wake up, and a reward, such as a smoothie after each workout. Then think about that smoothie, or about the endorphin rush you’ll feel. Allow yourself to anticipate the reward. Eventually, that craving will make it easier to push through the gym doors every day.”

3 | Change a habit: swap the bad for the good

The key to eradicating a bad habit, like snoozing repeatedly, is not stopping altogether (which can be nearly impossible thanks to those reptile-like brain cells), it’s replacing just one element in the habit loop: the routine.

“If you can use the same cue, and provide the same reward, you can shift the routine and change the habit,” says Duhigg.

I examined my bad habit in detail: My cue is the phone alarm. My routine is to hit snooze. My reward is lingering in that delicious, relaxing, semi-awake state, where I’m still warm in my bed and just conscious enough to appreciate it.

I  needed a new routine, something that would allow me to stay warm and in bed, without hitting snooze and falling back to sleep.

I’d been wanting to try the paid version of the meditation app, Calm. It offers a new 10-minute guided meditation each day. This was my answer.

The app took the thinking out of it for me. I could open it instead of hitting snooze.

My new pattern: My alarm goes off. I open Calm, pop in headphones and start the session right away. I get to stay warm in bed for 10 minutes.

Going smoothly from groggy to mindful works well for me. Meditating in the morning is much easier than trying to meditate at night. As a bonus, I still get 20 to 30 minutes to spend talking my toddler into putting shoes on! Thank you, Mr. Duhigg.

4 | Keystone habits: get your whole family in on the action

What surprised me most was learning that both individuals and companies use a concept called the “keystone habit” to kick off widespread improvement. Keystone habits are habits that seem small and offer small wins. Their magic lies in convincing people that bigger achievements are within reach and this causes a chain reaction of improvement.

Again, Duhigg uses exercise as an example, saying, “Typically people who exercise start eating better and becoming more productive at work.”

Family dinner is another well known keystone habit. “Studies have documented that families who habitually eat dinner together seem to raise children with better homework skills, higher grades, greater emotional control, and more confidence.” Such a small daily ritual does all that.

Besides creating the momentum of a consistent “small win,” keystone habits can help children exercise willpower like they would a muscle. “That’s why signing kids up for piano lessons or sports is so important,” says Todd Heatherton, a researcher from Dartmouth who has worked on willpower studies and is quoted in the book.

“It has nothing to do with creating a good musician or soccer star,” Heatherton says. “When you learn to practice for an hour or run fifteen laps, you build self-regulatory strength. A five-year-old who can follow the ball for 10 minutes becomes a sixth grader who can start his homework on time.”

I never thought about structured activities for kids in this way before. I also snoozed so much on weekend mornings that the thought of rushing out to kids’ activities has always been quickly curtailed. However, while I’m riding high on the “small win” of morning meditation, I plan to tackle family dinners and an activity or two for the kids next.

Proven Tips to Help Reduce Your Kid's Emotional Vulnerability

What if you could reduce your kid’s emotional vulnerability? Here are a few tips you can borrow from the ABC PLEASE method.

What if you could reduce your kid’s emotional vulnerability? Research suggests that you can. The Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) was initially developed by Dr. Marsha Linehan to help treat patients with borderline personality disorders, but it’s now commonly used by clinicians to help people struggling with various psychological issues.

Over the years, DBT has been found to be particularly effective in helping in the development of emotion regulation skills. Specifically, the ABC PLEASE program developed under the DBT framework provides tools to deal with emotional vulnerability. Although it is a specialized therapy that can only be applied by highly trained practitioners, some of its underlying principles can be easily applied at home to help kids learn to regulate their emotions. Here are a few tips you can borrow from the ABC PLEASE method.

Accumulate positive emotions

Kids accumulate positive emotions when they participate in positive events. Helping your kid focus on positive emotions can help reduce his emotional vulnerability. Encouraging your kid to do things he enjoys – reading books, hanging out with friends, playing video-games – helps him accumulate positive emotions. The more positive emotions he has, the less likely he is to suffer from emotional vulnerability.

There is also evidence that images that evoke positive emotions can help improve one’s moods. In other words, funny movies or humor can help kids reduce stress. Several studies also suggest that viewing positive images is an effective distractor from negative emotions. Thus harnessing the power of positive visualization (having your kid imagine things he likes or displaying images of things he likes) can help kids increase their positive emotions.

Build mastery

Your kid is more likely to develop positive emotions when she feels competent. A kid’s emotional vulnerability reduces when she develops a sense of accomplishment. It’s important to set reasonable expectations and gradually raise those expectations when she attains them. Remember that expectations set too high or too low can lead to frustration.

Cope ahead

Coping ahead begins by teaching your kid to identity different emotions. It also means helping him understand that different emotions can be described in different ways and are often interlinked. For instance, anxiety and insecurity are always associated with fear.

Once your kid is aware of the different emotions, developing an action plan for dealing with difficult emotions can help reduce his emotional vulnerability. Different, easy-to-adapt, emotion regulation strategies can help kids learn to cope when they encounter difficult emotions. In other words, a kid who is aware of the different emotions and how those emotions are manifested in his body is more likely to be aware of emotional triggers and to apply effective techniques to prevent a meltdown.

Effective techniques can include activities such as breathing exercises to help your kid relax, or activities that help distract from difficult emotions like reading, cycling, or listening to music.

Helping your kid practice different scenarios, especially focusing on how he reacts to difficult situations, also helps develop his “coping ahead” skills. According to the ABC PLEASE method, developing a plan to deal with difficult emotions ahead of time helps reduce emotional vulnerability.

Physical well being

Illness negatively affects emotional vulnerability. If your child is highly emotional, consulting a professional can help you ensure that her problems with emotions do not stem from her physical health. Physical well being means consulting a professional every time there is a need to, and respecting his or her recommendations.

Physical well being also includes issues such as fatigue and hunger. Your kid is more likely to be emotionally vulnerable when she’s hungry, thirsty, or tired.

Low immunity

Kids with low immunity are more emotionally vulnerable. Low immunity can be the result of poor eating habits, lack of exercise, and environmental issues. Ensuring kids eat right and get exercise can help reduce their vulnerability. Encouraging your kid to connect with nature every day can help create more positive emotions.

Eating healthy

According to the ABC PLEASE method, eating healthy foods can help reduce kids’ emotional vulnerability. It’s important for kids to eat regular and balanced meals.

Avoid mood-altering substances

Certain foods have an impact on kids’ emotions. An increasing amount of evidence suggests that cutting out certain foodstuffs from your kid’s diet could help reduce anxiety and hyperactivity. Non-prescribed drugs or non-respected medical prescriptions can also have an impact on kids’ emotions, and mind-altering substances can increase kid’s emotional vulnerability.


Fatigue increases emotional vulnerability. To reduce emotional vulnerability, kids need sufficient rest. According to the National Sleep Foundation, missing as little as 30 to 60 minutes of sleep time can have a negative effect on kids’ behavior. The foundation points out that kids, unlike adults, don’t slow down when they need sleep, they wind up. The foundation provides useful information on how much sleep babies and school-aged kids need.


Regular exercise can help kids reduce their emotional vulnerability. Even a few minutes of free play everyday can help increase kids’ positive emotions.

Although the tips presented above can help your kid work on his or her emotional vulnerability, they will not solve serious psychological issues your kid may be struggling with. Seeking help from a healthcare professional is a sign of strength, not weakness. A professional can help you develop an appropriate action plan adapted to your kid’s needs.

Inspiring Imaginative Play in the Logical, Literal Kid

Play is a critical component in optimal development for kids. Yet, for some, imaginative play may not come naturally.

Childhood. It conjures up images of happy children twirling in the sun, contented children entranced by finger-painting, laughing children pretending to be kings and queens assisted only by their imaginations and a crown constructed from paper and glitter.
Then there’s my kid, looking at me like I have no right to reasonably function in the adult world when I suggest he might like to play dress-up, too.
“Why?” he asks, heading to a quiet corner by himself. “Why would I do that?”
Play is a critical component in optimal development for children. It is so important that it’s protected as a childhood right by the United Nations. Yet, for some children, play may not come naturally. For these children, the best option for developing their concept of play is to meet them where they’re at with acceptance, some excellent resources, and a bit of extra knowledge. You may even find your own ability to play expanding as you support your child along the way.

Let’s Play! But quietly. According to the plan.

Playing is often thought to encompass only open-ended activities. Point a child at some creative materials and let them go!
But not all children respond to unstructured activities and would rather pit their creative abilities against participating in this kind of play. Particularly logical and literal children often dislike free-form activities, preferring instead to play according to a plan or with a specific goal in mind.
To cater to this type of play, parents may need to adjust their environment and expectations. Providing quiet spaces with low lighting may help prevent children from feeling overwhelmed, as can giving specific instructions. They may prefer to play at desks rather than on the floor, feeling more comfortable in an organized environment where they can see the toys and materials available to them.
By changing your expectation of noisy, messy play to quiet, refined play within an organized environment, you can teach your child how they function best and what they need to play happily.
group of wild animals in an imaginative grouping

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Parent Co. partnered with Safari LTD because they believe in the power of imaginative play.

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Maybe they are creative?

Creativity is thought to be a core component of play, but the definition of creativity itself is not limited to one concept. Reframing children’s perceptions of themselves from ‘not creative’ to ‘creative’ may help them accept activities they previously might have shunned.
Creativity can be found through the use of an object in an original manner, or maybe through a focus on aesthetics and elegance. From this, we can see that a child who insists on using the ‘right’ shade of blue for the sky can be just as creative as a child who gleefully splashes rainbows around. It would be unfair to discredit a child who is focused on aesthetics rather than originality; understanding that this is a form of creativity can go a long way towards helping a child see themselves as a creative being.
Comment on your child’s ability to set up the farm animals ‘perfectly’ as a positive attribute. By drawing a child’s attention to her attention to detail and ability to focus, she might begin to value her own work and seek out additional creative opportunities. If you have a child who has to get things perfect, then find the time, space, and materials for that perfection to happen.
two boys playing on the floor with toys for creative play

Follow, rather than lead

Children may play best without adult intervention. Co-opting play could make them less likely to play with you or in front of you. If this means you have to take a back seat when the figurines come out, do it. Children may also pick up on the fact that you don’t like the same things they like, or that you don’t approve of their choice of toy (the first toy my son took to bed was an egg whisk).
Research has shown that the fastest way to stop a child playing is to take over, and the second fastest is insincere praise – or, in fact, any praise at all! Linear children who may be more logical and literal than their peers may also be more sensitive to criticism, and strangely, praise can sometimes feel like criticism. If your child feels that the purpose of creativity is to make you happy rather than enjoy themselves, then they’re not likely to stay motivated.
Keep your point of view of their creative endeavors out of it, and focus instead on the aspects that your child loved. Ask questions about which part of the project he enjoyed the most, which was the hardest, which part he is the most proud of. Noticing things about your child’s creativity is great. Adding a value judgement or taking over is likely to backfire.

Get the good stuff

Obtaining the right type of materials for creative work is imperative. Children engage much less in creative play when the toys they’re playing with are from the latest movie or TV series. Toys that are not branded increase a child’s creative potential. Unbranded toys, such as those from Safari Ltd, allow children to imprint their own thoughts and feelings onto a character instead of following the storylines they’ve seen before.
Toys can also function as literacy props for children. Adults can scaffold a child’s play by introducing a new character or scenario and then see how their children adapt to this new development (taking care not to take over!).
This emphasis on generic materials also relates to craft. Huge amounts of glitter are much less useful than vibrant pencils and sheets of paper. Investing in appropriate resources to expand on your child’s journey in play is crucial to maintaining their interest and providing opportunities for creativity.
The benefits of play are immense. Play allows children to explore their inner worlds and develop skills and talents. By following your not-so-typical children’s interests and providing them with the appropriate resources and environment, you can help them develop their creativity – without insulting their sensibilities with the dress-up box.


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Parent Co. partnered with Safari LTD because they believe in the power of imaginative play.

Why a Simple Walk is the Brain and Body Boost You Need

A walk might take a little longer than a run, but the boost to your health will be the same.

–Every Thanksgiving, my dad would push the family out the door right after the feast when any normal human would burp and take a nap. He’d grab his jacket from the hook on the wall, clap his hands together, and issue the decree we all knew was coming, “Okay, time for a walk!”

There was no use fighting it. Only the elderly got a pass. No one would get pie until we’d done our time outside. We’d trudge through the woods near our house, stomping the November cold from our feet. We’d spot wild turkeys and deer and a few raccoons. They looked on, nonplussed by our presence on their turf. By the end of it, we’d scrape our boots and walk through the back door feeling…better. We’d chased off the tryptophan and replaced it with a humming energy from the cold outdoors.

Everybody knows exercise is a necessary part of life, but it doesn’t have to be a run, hot yoga, or any other form of high intensity physical fitness. It can just be a walk and it really can do wonders. In a study reported on by The Atlantic, it seems that “regardless of whether exercise was vigorous (running) or not (walking), as long as participants used the same amount of energy, they saw more or less equivalent health benefits.” A walk might take a little longer than a run, but the boost to your health will be the same.

Once I’d hit adulthood, waking up meant waking for a run. My shoes and clothes would be waiting for me in the bathroom, because who has the mental capacity to sift through shorts and socks at five a.m.? It’s how I started my days. It stirred me up enough to be a functioning human and provided a mental clarity to get me through the workday.

Then I got pregnant with twins. Many women can run while pregnant, but I wasn’t one of them. I was high risk from the start. You don’t mess around with twins. So I stopped running. In all honesty, I thought it would be harder to give up than it was. I was tired. Man, was I tired, and my joints ached from the weight of growing two people in tight quarters.

Instead, I would walk slow laps through the park. I would walk on my lunch break. I would push my older son in his stroller in the cool of the afternoon. It was so much easier. You can walk anytime, anywhere. You don’t need special clothes or a set pace and it doesn’t take any psyching up to go for a walk. It might seem more efficient to run, as the American Heart Association recommends 25 minutes of vigorous exercise three times a week to the 30 minutes of moderate exercise you would get walking five times a week, but this doesn’t factor in the overall ease it takes to build walking into your everyday life. If you live in an urban area, it can simply mean skipping the bus in favor of walking to work, or it could mean taking a stroll around the block during lunch while you listen to your favorite podcast. You can do it alone or with co-workers or with kids. It’s sneakers and a half an hour. It’s doable.

I also noticed less joint pain and less back pain through my walks. This isn’t surprising. Walkers always keep one foot on the ground whereas runners have a moment in every stride where they linger in mid-air. As a study from Harvard Medical School pointed out, “What goes up must come down. That’s why running is a high-impact activity. Each time they land, runners subject their bodies to a stress equal to about three times their body weight. In just one mile, a typical runner’s legs will have to absorb more than 100 tons of impact force.” That’s a lot of repeated pressure on your joints. It’s why the risk of injury is “20 percent to 70 percent” in runners and only “1 percent to 5 percent” in walkers.

I did wonder, however, if the benefits would transfer over after pregnancy. I wasn’t in a hurry to pick up running again while recovering from a c-section and managing three kids under three. Walking suited me and our new family, so I kept at it. It helped me settle me back into my pre-pregnancy weight without having to think much about it, which should be no surprise as according to a study by the American Society of Nutrition, walking is a key factor in long-term weight management.

Beyond the physical payoffs and the ease of it, I found that walking also influenced my creativity. When I walk, the environment reached all my senses. The smell of wet leaves, the transition under feet from pavement to gravel to dirt, the sounds of distant cars and birds, all of it served to give my creative mind room to roam. One study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology concluded that “walking opens up the free flow of ideas, and it is a simple and robust solution to the goals of increasing creativity and increasing physical activity.” It’s true. I get my best ideas outside.

It took me a long time to equate walking with exercise, but now that I do, it feels natural in a way that running never did. It’s organic. From lazy strolls after dinner to summer sunrise hikes, walking just happens. It’s twenty minutes on my lunch hour. It’s walking to the park instead of driving there. It’s a choice that has become natural and flexible and feels more like exploration than anything else. Running seem more like “exercise,” but walking, for our family, has proved to be the healthiest choice.

Practice for Discipline and Enrichment, Not Perfection

Practice is only one of many other personal factors that predict how much kids learn.

Practice makes perfect as the old adage goes, yet cases of failure abound, despite copious practice. Science now suggests that while practice will definitely make your kid better, it won’t necessarily get him to perfection.

A recent study analyzed the performance of more than 11, 000 participants in music, games, sports, and educational and occupational domains, and found that those who regularly practiced performed better than those who did not. However, the researchers also found that practice was only one of many other personal factors that predicted just how much was learned. Here are a few tips to help your kid make the most out of practice.

1 | Practice, yes, but the right way

Practice will always produce results. There is no doubt that practice will improve your kid’s performance. However, the type of practice makes a lot of difference.

A recently concluded study suggests that how we practice matters as much as how often we practice. The study examined over 800, 000 gamers to determine how practice affected their gaming performance. The researchers found that, despite practicing for the same amount of time, some players performed better than others. In other words, these players learned more efficiently than others. It was found that high performers spaced out their practice better and used more varied approaches to practice.

A different study came to the same conclusion. It found that kids performed better in math when problems were spaced out and mixed. In other words, learning was optimal when students were presented with problems drawn from different lessons rather than practice problems on the same topic. According to the study, mixing problems (many practice sets and problems on different topics) helps kids learn better because it’s more demanding and requires that kids pay greater attention to the problems presented.

2 | Don’t forget the “space effect”

Spacing out practice sessions also helps, as many studies have demonstrated. Evidence suggests that spacing reduces the rate of forgetting over a wide range of ages, settings, and tasks. Spaced practice improves retention, problem-solving skills, and the ability to assimilate new knowledge more easily. Instead of scheduling two-hour practice sessions, schedule four 30-minute sessions over a longer time frame.

3 | Not everyone will be perfect in the same thing

In a recently published study, neuroscientists examined the brain activity of 15 young adults and found that practice did not account for all learning. In other words, the researchers found that individual talent had a significant impact on how much was learned. After examining participants’ brain structures, the researchers were also able to accurately reveal those who learned quickly and those who didn’t, irrespective of practice. The study found that participants’ predisposition largely affected how they learned.

A different study came to similar conclusions. After analyzing chess players and musicians, the researchers found that it takes more than deliberate practice to become an expert, and that practice accounted for only about a third of observed differences. In other words, hard work can make us good, but it will not necessarily make us great.

The researchers suggest that accurately assessing people’s abilities and whether or not they are able to achieve their goals given their abilities gives them a realistic chance of becoming great. In other words, working from your kid’s abilities and interests will lead to greater success than forcing kids to consistently practice for something they have neither the skills nor the interest to undertake. Although encouraging your kid to practice her violin lessons will improve her performance, it will not make her perfect if she’s not inclined to the violin.

4 | Work on your kid’s self-confidence

A study published earlier this month examined the extent to which kids self-perception was linked to their performance over time. Drawing from a large-scale data set, the researchers found that kids who had a positive view of their ability in math and reading performed better in these two domains. In other words, the kids’ concept of their ability had a significant impact on both their motivation and performance. (Self-concept is defined as the perception of the capability to succeed.)

Much evidence suggests that kids who are confident in their abilities generally perform better than those who aren’t. When kids are motivated, they also perform better socially, academically, and psychologically. Motivating your kid is, therefore, the first step toward helping him develop his self-concept of ability. What does he know? What is he capable of doing? How do you set reasonable expectations? How do you ensure those expectations are being met? These are some of the issues that can help you guide your kid toward greater performance.