Tag Archives: development

Long Lasting Lessons

Many of the first things we learned about childhood and parenting are lessons that still have meaning for us today, as we parent our near-adult children. Sure, in the beginning we learned things about breastfeeding and diapers and how to juggle energetic and very needy kids (sometimes we really juggled them, right dads? But that’s another story). Some of these skills we may hope never to use again. (Really. No more diapers. Thank you.) But we also learned about what goes into making people out of these little creatures …. We learned about the stages of development and how a strong thread runs through the life of a child, a thread of love that we offer and never impose, a thread of care and assistance that we never force, but is always at the ready.

We learned that children change as they grow, and we are seeing changes today that we learned about 18 years ago, changes that we anticipated and prepared for, and in some ways orchestrated, thanks to the things we learned in our first parent ed classes.

When a young parent attends a mandatory evening of a parent education, and listens to the experts talk, what are they learning? It’s tempting to view such required events as wasted time. “How important is it to become an expert on this stage in my child’s life anyway?”, we might think. “I don’t need anyone to tell me how to parent my kids, and besides I’ve got fifteen more years of education (and meetings) to go! Shouldn’t I be saving up for the teenage years?”

But at these meetings, especially the early ones, we’re not just learning how to parent preschoolers. We are learning how to parent. And many of the lessons are for life. It’s not just because the early childhood experts get to teach you first, but because they understand the foundational aspect of what we offer our kids at this age.

Some of the lessons that last: how to talk to your kids so they will listen; positive discipline; setting limits; developmental milestones; conflict resolution; temperament; screen time; sibling rivalry; healthy parenting partnerships; and, how the brain grows and works.

Susan Stone Belton, parent coach and early childhood development specialist at Parents Place, spoke at one such mandatory parent education meeting last night. As she delivered her list of best practices to the room of preschool parents, she cautioned against thinking that this was all about preschool: “I would give the same talk to parents of 8th graders!”

We can vouch for that, and add that much of what we learned back in the day still means a lot to us as we watch our almost 18-year-old son finish high school and face the future. That is we still see him as a growing person who needs us (in a different way than he did when he was 4, to be sure) and who we love, as much as we can. But the really great thing is that we are also seeing the man that we laid the foundation for 15 years ago, thanks to the people who taught us what they know about how people grow.

 

This post originally appeared on the Parenting on The Peninsula Blog

The Preschool’s Secret Weapon

There is a prejudice about learning that preschool teachers face, especially in our hard-driving academic culture.

This prejudice is the belief that an environment designed around play and exploration is not academically stimulating enough to prepare children for later school success. Couple this belief with the slippery slope of always wanting to start “preparing” our children at earlier and earlier ages so that they will never be behind, so that they will always be ahead of the game, and preschools come under a great deal of pressure to introduce more and more conventional academics.

But the secret weapon of the preschool is that early childhood education is a holistic deal—learning happens in a social/emotional/intellectual landscape. Young children learn (find meaning) through their senses, relationships, perceptions, and emotions. There is no way at this age to isolate an academic subject from this contextual field and present it as symbols on a piece of paper (as is common in later education).

Take language: when many children first encounter preschool at around age two, they have a vocabulary of roughly 350 words. As they enter the ‘school’ world, they find themselves in new environments, they face new problems, and they experience a sudden increase in the number of relationships, all of which leads to an explosion of language. By the time this two-year old reaches 1st grade, they will have multiplied their vocabulary by 4 or 5 times.

But it makes no sense to say that academics don’t start until elementary school, or that preschools don’t focus on cognitive development. The foundations of later cognitive success are laid in the holistic learning environment of the preschool. In fact some of a person’s most important cognitive growth is happening during these early years. Language itself is the basis for communication, and communication is the basis for learning. Communication skills are first learned in relationships, because relationships require young children to make sense of competing agendas, and language is the essential skill here, because the way that children negotiate emotional and social complexity is with words. Language won’t be mastered unless it is first mastered in the context of developing relationships and social interaction, which are the first and best curricula of the preschool classroom.

Even solo fantasy play is critical to the development of these social/emotional/intellectual skills … because it provides the social and relational contexts denied to a child by reality, enabling them to practice at things that are not possible in the ‘real world’. Where else, after all, can a child practice being a hero, a warrior, part of the royal court, or that most challenging role … a parent. In fantasy play, the child is learning the basic languages (social, emotional, and yes, academic) of roles they will not be qualified to fill for decades. Talk about being ahead of the game!

So, as the debate on academics continues, look on the giant playroom of the preschool as a laboratory for the scientific advancement of foundational cognitive skills. You can see the beginning of a great education here. You just need to know what to look for.

 

This post originally appeared on the Parenting On The Peninsula blog

Parenting Is Like Oxygen

Holding a baby feels powerful. We feel it, and at some level we know that the infant experiences it too. Our heart warms. Our belly fills with butterflies. Stress melts away. The skin tingles. We know something important is happening and that there are physical implications, for us and for the child. It feels healthy. For a parent, there may be no words for what is happening, though science is increasingly able to provide words for those who want them.

From a story on NPR, new evidence that a lack of parenting and attachment effects the growth of the brain. We know that a lack of attachment to a parent or parent-figure can lead to several problems, including under-functioning immune systems, emotional disorders, and difficulties with relationships. In the worst cases, neglected children can fail to thrive, experiencing severely inhibited growth, unable even to take advantage of calories when there is enough food. Now, researchers are discovering that the physical structure of the brain is effected by the level of care a child receives in the early years. While it is not irreversible, a child with no parent-figure to bond with may have significantly lower growth in several areas of the brain.

While the science is encouraging and provides for deeper understanding, most parents we know are way ahead of the game. The expert’s findings add little to what we know when we hold a baby in our hands: our children need us. We know this at a deep level, even though we don’t have the x-ray vision to track brain development. To hold a child is to know, for all the miraculous insight that technology provides, that scientists have probably only just begun to scratch the surface of what is made possible by a parent’s love.

“Parents are playing a really big role in shaping children’s brain development. Parenting … is a bit like oxygen. It’s easy to take for granted until you see someone who isn’t getting enough.” –Nim Tottenham, associate professor of psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles

This post originally appeared on the Parenting on The Peninsula Blog

Failure has its benefits

Babies and parents form a perfect teaching and learning environment, one in which perfection is not required. After birth, the natural connectedness and comfort of the womb gives way to an environment where connection and comfort must be actively provided by a parent — it takes more effort. Usually the joy that attends the arrival of the child is enough to keep parents close and attentive, and that bond will grow with the healthy parent, who responds quickly and easily to the child’s cries. But this easy connection does not last.

Around the time that a mom and dad start to return ‘to the real world’ and begin to try to balance parenthood with their other adult responsibilities, everybody’s patience will be tested–especially baby. They’ll cry a little bit longer … and mom or dad will be a bit slower to respond. This will feel like failure. Yet, as long as these failures aren’t catastrophic or capricious, but come gradually as the child and parents acclimate to the developing family situation, then these failures have their purpose.

When we fail as parents, new perspectives are allowed to grow in the infant: trust, patience, self-confidence, and other self-sustaining strategies. And in a healthy rhythm of family life, these new perspectives will always be balanced with knowledge that one is cared for and loved, that connection and comfort will come. Imperfections in the family help a child learn important lessons about their own resources, and how to endure life outside of paradise.  The gradual but inevitable distancing, the inevitable testing separation, is a part of being human, and should not be feared. In fact, parents ought to get used to it, as this is the one constant in parenting. It ends only when your child becomes an adult.

Don’t get us wrong. We aren’t encouraging parents to quickly teach infants the cold, hard facts of a solitary life. Parents should respond appropriately to whatever needs their infant communicates: for holding, for feeding, for quiet solitude, for play. But given that most parents will do this to the best of their ability, we think it’s worth remembering that failure is normal, and the experience of it is an important part of a child’s development.

Strategic Engagement

We’ve been thinking about how teachers and parents engage with children. While children do their thing, we see a spectrum of engagement, with active engagement on one end and detached observation on the other. Each are appropriate and have their benefits … the key for adults is being mindful of what kind of engagement is called for in a given moment.

When adults are well attuned to the children in their care, they know when to let a child be and when to step in to enhance or deepen the learning process.

There are times when we lead children and are fully engaged. Adult-directed play is an important part of learning, as we create scenarios for children to encounter classic problems and search out workable solutions. Adults provide safe boundaries for exploration and as much guidance as is necessary for kids to find unique (and practical) ways of overcoming obstacles. Too much distance at a time when children need guidance may lead to the kind of failures and disappointments that make a child wary of taking on challenges.

Children should also experience free exploration and play in an environment of non-directive, observational engagement. In this case, adults observe from a little distance, in order to avoid interrupting a child’s creative work. In addition to benefiting a child, from this distance adults can discover something about who our children are. When adults step back, children move at their own pace, create their own kind of order, furnish their own worlds. Too much involvement when children need freedom can lead a child to mistrust their own impulses, to incorrectly assume that they must only do what adults want them to, to shy away from thinking for themselves.

It takes some practice, and patience, to be mindful of where a child is, what their momentary needs are. It’s worth the effort. Ultimately we want to engage kids in a way that encourages them to risk new ventures, both creative and practical. When a child is learning how to create … they need a measure of freedom and a sense that their creativity has value in itself. When a child is learning how things work, they need a measure of guidance and support so that developmentally technical challenges don’t overwhelm them.

Learn these subtle skills and kids grow by measures more confident and free, able to tackle a variety of the challenges our world throws at them.

You Can’t Say You Can’t Play

Really great story of a hero kindergarten teacher who tries an audacious experiment in kindness. Author and kindergarten teacher (and MacArthur Genius Grant recipient) Vivian Paley’s story is told on This American Life in a recent re-broadcast.

A highlight: 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders being nostalgic about the kindness of their younger selves. Be sure to listen through to the end. So encouraging.

http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/27/the-cruelty-of-children?act=3

(11 minute long audio, available through the player on the radio show’s site)

Utility and Experience

In class yesterday, Anghelika introduced rhythm sticks to a group of five-year-olds. Rhythm sticks are foot-long wooden sticks for knocking together–these simple toys/tools are fun and noisy, so are an easy sell to kids. But they also offer a number of covert benefits for a growing mind. With some care on the part of the teacher, kids can smack away while “accidentally” learning rhythm and math, following a leader, and working together.

In the midst of the knocking and counting, Anghelika noticed a single student holding her sticks in the middle, while the majority held them by the ends. We thought about this and it occurred to us that for most of the kids, there was an understanding that the stick could be a tool or instrument. Tools and instruments are for doing something with, for making music: you hold tools by their ends. For this student, however, the stick was for holding, not so much using. The thing had not yet become for her a utilitarian object: she had a stick to hold, and holding means grabbing it in the middle. From her perspective, we imagine, holding on the end is a nuisance: it requires more strength, balance, and what’s the point anyways? She had something in her hand; it felt good!

Sure, this is on the one hand a simple opportunity to introduce the idea of utility to students along with different ways of interaction. She was open to instruction that day, and her particular relationship to the object was no cause for concern. She would have gotten it, no problem.

On the contrary, there is enough emphasis on utility in our education system … what’s wrong with relating to an object for the way it feels in your hand? We take notice of this outlier for the uniqueness of her interaction. Sure, there’s an opportunity to teach her about the tool and it’s usefulness, but there is also an opportunity for us to learn something about her perspective and what is important to her in the moment. Both are true, and rich opportunities for growth, in her, and in our community perspective.

The wrong approach to the situation would be to correct her grip and tell her the “right” way to hold a stick, to point out “how the other children are doing it”, and call attention to some failure on her part to align with the crowd. The right way would be to acknowledge and respect her way for what it is, letting her speak to her own reasons why. Then, together, teacher and student can work out the best way to hold a stick for different uses.

Screen Time

The people who study development in young children admit that we don’t yet know the effect of video screens on the brains of the very young. However, we hear a common warning from these same camps: children under the age of three should not be pacified with video screens. This includes phones, tablets, computers, and TVs. Ok, we know: this is hard. Recommendations for the later years vary, but some say that an hour a day should be the max for kids up to age nine.

If we don’t yet know what effect a video screen has on a young brain, we do know that what young children need is physical human interaction and engagement, balanced with times of quiescence. Quiescence is unstimulated inactivity, and is the soil out of which grows creative and imaginative play. No matter how interactive an app is, there is a serious limit to how creative you can be within the fixed boundaries of a glass screen.

Any repetitive stimulation effects brain wiring. That is, you train a brain to depend on a source of stimulation. Too much exposure to limitless visual excess can wire a child to expect instant gratification (and not just of a visual nature) and become intolerant of any environment where they cannot have what they want when they want it.

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(Image from eBay user l8ouise, who will sell you an iPad mount for your baby’s car seat … if you are determined to do your own research on these matters.)

Attachment 101-What Infants Want To Know

There is a moment repeated hundreds of times in the first months of life, each a connection between mother and child, each one a building block adding up to a child’s sense of self. This is attachment Attachment is an infant’s emotional connection with their principal caretaker that is the basis for the capacity to love and live together. It’s essential.

In the middle of last century, a psychologist named John Bowlby proposed the theory that attachment is not a way to get other essential needs met: attachment is a need all its own. Infants need to eat, we know this: an early view of attachment was that bonding with mother ensured survival by making sure a child was fed and cared for. Bowlby’s insight was that an infant may be fed and cared for by anyone, no attachment required. Children who left London during the bombing raids of WWII were fed and cared for by extended family members in the countryside, but often became severely depressed and unwell. Babies raised in orphanages who are fed and have their basic needs met may nevertheless fail to thrive and sometimes simply perish for lack of meaningful attachment to a caretaker. The need for attachment is as essential to survival as food.

Why is attachment so essential? Althea Horner, in her way-cool book, Being and Loving, notes five questions that need answering in the earliest season of life. The answers to these questions are provided by parents, depend on the nature of the attachment, and become the basis for essential belief systems about the child’s self:

  1. What am I like? … Am I worthy of love and care?
  2. What are others like? … Are people for me? Are people caring and safe?
  3. What are relationships like? … Can relationships be sources of good?
  4. What do I have to do to be safe? … Is it safe to cry out? Is it safer to be invisible?
  5. What do I have to do to feel good about myself? … Will soothing come from outside of me, or am I responsible for my own comfort?

Attachment is the process by which we form mental models that remain our primary way of seeing ourselves and others. These early ‘models’ stay with us and influence a lifetime of decision making.

Attachment 101

Attachment Parenting

When we set out on the parenting journey in the early 90’s, Anghelika was studying early childhood education at Pasadena City College, and we read books like William Sears’ excellent Nighttime Parenting. We learned about “attachment parenting”, though we did not have nearly the understanding of it that we do now. We might have summed up this approach by describing our family bed. … We knew that it had to do with allowing our child to decide when she needed to be near us, and then responding according to her needs (young children are selfish, and appropriately so). Allowing our child to come to us on her schedule would ultimately encourage her to explore ‘separateness’ with more confidence and courage.

In subsequent years, we’ve seen lots of parents raise lots of kids, and while attachment parenting is now widely practiced, we have at times seen a kind of reduced version of attachment at work: as practiced it can look more like ‘possession’ or ‘unfailing provision”. The mother that thinks attachment means ‘keeping their child close’, or that they must ‘meet all their child’s needs’, even before the child asks, is misunderstanding how attachment really works, and risks short-circuiting a child’s healthy development.

We have a lot to say about this subject and will cover the topic in subsequent posts, but today we want to say one important thing about attachment: attachment and separateness go together.

Good attachment doesn’t just lead to good separation, it requires it. How a parent allows their child to be apart from them is a critical part of healthy attachment. A child has periods of drawing close and seeking attention, and also has periods of drawing apart and …seeking nothing. These quiet times, or empty times, are necessary for a child to learn the boundaries of their own experience as an individual. When a parent interrupts such quiet times, it’s often to meet their own needs, not the child’s.

When children are ready to walk, it would be disastrous to carry them everywhere. In the same way, when a child is ready to explore alone, or simply to be alone, it would be a disaster to never let them exercise that muscle … to develop inner responses to the world as themselves. A parent’s intrusion on this process, imposing our meaning instead of letting a child find meaning themselves, can short circuit a child’s development.

… stay tuned for more on attachment.

Nighttime Parenting: How to Get Your Baby and Child to Sleep, by William Sears, MD