Thursday, March 14, 2013

What Temperamentally Sensitive Babies Can Teach Us

Did you hear this great NPR story about babies sensitivity level and their later resilience? Scientists are learning to understand the difference between babies with varying degrees of nervous system sensitivity. Knowing this can help them understand how some kids are able to be more resilient in the face of challenges, such as poverty, while others are less so. It turns out that babies with sensitive temperaments are more vulnerable to outside influences (particularly parental responsiveness) in both good and bad ways. In the best of situations, with responsive, attentive caregivers, these sensitive children tend to thrive and often have fewer later behavior problems than even their less-sensitive peers. In less-than-ideal settings in which caregivers are not responsive to their needs, these sensitive children often exhibit problematic behavior later in life.

I've written about this topic here several times, but I continue to be amazed by this research. It has the potential to be so hopeful. Babies with sensitive temperaments are often fussy and irritable as infants and yet, with the proper care, they can grow to thrive. Although we often think of temperament as an innate, unchangeable characteristic, this research clearly shows that how temperament plays out over a lifetime is largely up to one's environment, especially parents and caregivers.

Photo credit

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Tips for a Child-Centered Disney Vacation

So you may read the title of this post and think it sounds ridiculous. How can a Disney World vacation not be child-centered, right? Well, having just returned from a Disney family vacation, you would be surprised at how not so child-centered it can be; but only if you allow it.

My husband and 3 year-old son joined our extended family for a trip to Disney World around the holidays. Disclaimer 1: We are not huge Disney fans, but our other family is and we went to join them for a family celebration. In general, I enjoy Disney movies and my son watches some of them. However, I'm not a fan of some of Disney's marketing practices (like marketing to newborns) and I do think it contributes to the vast over-commercialization of childhood. That being said, we decided this was a good time to join our family on the trip and for our son to see Disney with his extended family.

Disclaimer 2: My background is in Sociology so I tend to approach large social gatherings (like Disney World) from perhaps a more analytic/social science perspective and that's part of the goal of this post. My other goal with this post is to really offer some tips for those who may be planning a trip to Disney (or other similar amusement parks) with young children on how to enjoy the trip and not overwhelm your child.

1. Lower your expectations. For many families, a visit to a park like Disney World comes with a lot of anticipation and high expectations. Most families save money for months for a trip like this and if the kids know about the trip ahead of time, they are probably dizzy with anticipation. If you are traveling with young children (under 6), I encourage you to dial down your expectations of how much you will be able to reasonably see.
We visited Disney World at a very busy time (near New Year's) and it was evident that high expectations were clearly at play. Those of you with young children know that they are easily over-stimulated and do not usually handle waiting well. These factors combined with large crowds make for a difficult combination in a place like Disney World. I saw many miserable kids waiting in lines or sitting in strollers for long periods of time. Many families seemed reluctant to cut the day short because they wanted their children to see one more thing or ride one more ride. I would encourage parents to not be afraid to leave if your child gets overwhelmed and just can't cope with over-stimulation any more.

2. Let the kids play. When your arrive at a park like Disney (especially at a crowded time), there is a tendency to make a mad dash to do as many attractions/rides as possible. Of course, the rides and shows are the main point, but try to allow your children some time to just hang out and play. On our visit we found several play areas for young kids and let our son run free for awhile. This does a world of good for keeping young children in good spirits. In fact, our son said several times, while waiting to get on a ride or other event, "I just want to go play." This speaks volumes, doesn't it?

3. Allow kids have (age appropriate) input in the agenda. With time and financial constraints at work in a place like Disney World, it is easy for adults to completely run the agenda and not let the kids have some sort of say in what happens. Of course, young children cannot completely dictate the schedule, but allowing them even a little input in what you do each day can really keep them on track. My son is only 3.5 but we would ask him which order he would like to do things or pick one ride he wanted to ride again, etc. This really helped him stay motivated when we were doing something he was not as excited about.

4. Take the time to see a few characters (of your child's choice). I think many parents do wait in line (sometimes very lengthy lines) to see the Disney characters that their child wants to see. This may seem like a waste of time, but I think it really was worth it to take the time to do this. For very young children with vivid imaginations, the idea of having a favorite character come to life right in front of them is really special. I really enjoyed seeing my son get excited to see a couple of his favorite characters (especially the ones that aren't masked and can talk). Personally, I felt like this was more enjoyable than many of the rides. Depending on your child's interests and personality, this may be worth the extra time.

5. Come prepared. This is probably an obvious one for most parents, but coming prepared with plenty of snacks, drinks, etc. is crucial to helping your child enjoy the day. If the park is crowded like it was when we went, your child may spend quite a long time sitting in a stroller or waiting in line. Having snacks and drinks handy for these times was essential. You are allowed to bring snacks and water into the park in a bag or backpack so you don't have to rely solely on expensive park food.

*Most importantly, don't forget this is supposed to be fun.* With all the build-up that comes with a trip to Disney World (or similar park), it's important to remind yourself that is supposed to be fun, not work. Some parents I saw looked like they were on a mission to get as many events accomplished in one day as possible. Personally, this sounds like a recipe for disaster to me. A trip like this is tiring, especially with young children, but try to remember to just enjoy the time spend with your family and not put too much pressure on yourself.

In the end, I was glad we took this trip to Disney World, even though we are not huge fans. It was great to spend time with family and nice to see my son enjoy the park with the innocence of a young child.


Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Letters to Santa

Have you heard of the app-based magazine for kids and parents called Timbuktu? I discovered it a few months ago and it is not only fun to read with your child, but it is also just pretty to look at. The folks at Timbuktu recently brought my attention to their cool blog as well. Every so often I will be sharing a post from them for you to enjoy. First up today, a little comic relief with kids letters to Santa.

Today on Timbuktu, you’ll find the guide to write the ultimate letter to Santa Claus. For additional inspiration, we’ve selected 10 incredibly funny letters to (or about) Santa!
1 – We need an architect!
Leo is worried that his mom’s chimney won’t be big enough for Santa to pass through.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Early Education: Beyond the Headlines

I posted this Babble article the other day about early education in our country and it prompted me to really think about this issue and how the media portrays it. As with any attention-grabbing journalism, the author pulls you in with an opening line that is bound to get your attention:

The way we middle-class, degree-holding types typically think early childhood education should work is the following: read books early and often, talk often to our babies and make frequent eye-contact, enroll the little one in the best preschool we can afford around the 3rd birthday, start Kindergarten between the ages of 4 and 6, panic if son/daughter cannot read or write during that first school year.

Then, of course, the author goes on to question all of the above assumptions that we “middle-class, degree-holding types” believe. Clearly, the author knows the fears of every middle-class parent and knows how to get their attention. When you really consider the substance of the story, however, you find that there is really nothing new here in terms of academic research. As one of my ever-so-observant child development colleague, Lisa Sunbury, pointed out, much of this research is well-circulated among early educators, but perhaps not much among the average parent.

At the end of the day, the article is basically arguing that play and conversation with adults, not rigorous academic schooling, is what sets kids off on the right foot educationally. Like with many media stories, however, this is not the dichotomy that is presented. The phrasing of the article makes it sound as if you have the choice to either: (1) stay at home with your child and converse with them constantly or (2) put them in a preschool or other child care arrangement and have them suffer the ill-effects. Um, no, I don’t think that is the choice here.

As with most issues, the choices and possible outcomes faced by parents are neither that simple, nor that easily categorized. Yes, the research clearly shows that it is important for children to converse with adults and for adults to try to answer their questions (even the seemingly endless 3-year old ones). Most parents, however, do have other responsibilities. Many have outside jobs, most are shuffling older children to school; we all have chores and adult responsibilities of life. This means that some of sort of child care arrangement is necessary for most young children, even if it is just a few hours a week.

So the question usually is not whether you put your young child in some sort of early education program, but what kind and how often.

As with many things in parenting, it seems that balance is the approach most supported by the research in early education. While children can learn from exploring on their own, they do often need some adult guidance on how things in the world work. This is often the source of all their questions in the preschool age—the “what’s, why’s, and how’s” all help them understand the complex world around them. Because of this, it is important for parents and teachers to try to answer these questions, even if you don’t really know the answer.

The opposite extreme we have seen in recent years, however, is the pushing of an academic, adult-led curriculum into the preschool age group. Research continues to show that this is problematic, especially for long-term academic success of students. Sure, you might be able to push a 4-year-old to learn to read, but does that really matter if by middle school they hate reading? This is what some research is beginning to show, like this study which found that 4-year-olds who attended an academic-focused preschool were more likely to have lower grades by sixth grade than those who attended a more child-centered preschool.

So, as opposed to what the media portrays, I think the question of early childhood education is not, “preschool vs. no preschool” or even “completely child-led learning vs. teacher-led academics.” It’s a much more nuanced approach that includes a good dose of adult (and peer) interaction to help kids understand the world, but not too much adult pushing of academic “drill” or worksheets that can diminish kids’ innate desire to be learners. 

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