Saturday, November 25, 2017

Gift Guide for Raising Kids Who Care

My four-year-old was at it again.

He, his big brother and I were doing our usual Target run and they had convinced me to go to the toy aisle. What was I thinking?

The whining and begging from the little guy began pretty much as soon as we entered the first aisle that contained Hot Wheels or Nerf guns.

"Mom, can we get this?" he asked-whined (parents, you know that's a real phrase)

"No, sweetie," I say in my trying-to-not-get-upset voice. "You know I said we are just looking, not buying today."

"But Mooooooom, it sooooo cool," he says in that dramatic voice.

You parents know how this goes and it hardly ever ends well. Many times, we leave the store with someone crying (hopefully not me).

I get it. He's only four. Only recently has he gained any mental capacity for thinking of anyone outside himself. He's emotionally immature; he's still learning to regulate his emotions. And those toys are SO tempting. Luckily, my eight-year-old has matured to the point where he can handle the toy aisle without fits of whining.

Unfortunately, as the holiday season approaches this focus on toys, rather than gratitude or giving tends to only increase in our kids. So this year, in thinking about how to approach the holiday season, I decided I will focus on helping parents find gift ideas that will actually help kids grow in the emotional and social skills that we want to encourage.

In other words, gifts that will help them grow more towards gratitude than "gimme." The core of this mindset is a set of social and emotional skills that take years to build. However, parents can be key guides in this development process. Through interaction, connection and modeling your kids' social-emotional skills can blossom. Unlike the "hot" toy of the moment, the gift that these social-emotional skills bring is happiness and contentment that is much deeper than one season.

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So without further ado, here is this year's holiday gift guide for raising kids who care:


These games may just seem like family fun (which they are) but they all involve trying to perceive another person's thoughts or feelings--key emotional skills that our kids can develop.

Gift Guide for Raising Kids Who Care

What's It?
A family game that focuses on cooperation, instead of competition. Players try to think like other players--now that takes some emotional skills.

Gift Guide for Raising Kids Who Care

I didn't realize this was an actual game! We have played versions of this classic alphabetical listing game for years. Good for practicing the skill of working together (plus you get to review the alphabet for younger kids).

Gift Guide for Raising Kids Who Care

Q's Race to the Top
I'm really excited about this one because it involves both active play and social skills. Kids have to advise the characters on what to do in certain social situations. Plus there are cards to perform physical skills involving balance and coordination.

Modeling Kindness

In addition to learning about sharing and kindness, we also have to act on these values too. There are many fun and meaningful options for doing kind or charitable acts together with our kids.

I have just heard about this subscription box but I'm so excited to try it with my kids. Most kids love doing crafts, but parents, you know the drawback--tons of crafts just laying around your house collecting dust. This solves that problems in a charitable way! Kids make the crafts but then they are shipped off to charities that can use them. Awesome idea!


The Doll Kind
A doll that actually teaches kids about the value of kindness...and then models that very lesson. Each doll comes with kindness tokens that kids can give to others to "pay it forward" when someone has been kind to them. Bonus--for each doll purchased, another one is donated to a child in need (like hospitals or shelters). Brilliant!

Building Connection

Of course, the best way for kids to learn crucial social-emotional skills is through a warm, responsive relationship with parents. Parents modeling empathy and kindness with their kids is the best way for kids to see emotional regulation in action and learn it themselves.

In our busy world, however, it is often hard to find those moments to really build connections with our kids. Between school, extracurricular activities and job responsibilities, finding time to really connect with our kids can be tricky. These gift ideas help make finding that connection time easier and still fun.


storieChild Books
I have only recently heard about these beautiful books. We are all used to those generic books that you can have your own child's picture or name included. These are SO much better than that. You get to choose your child's pictures, but also their story. You can include details about their birth, their interests, their dreams. Each story is unique to your child with your text embedded in a beautiful storyline. This is such a great idea! What a better way to bond with your child than to sit down and read their story together.
Right now (through 11/30/17) get a FREE Christmas e-book of your child's story. Use code +EBOOKFREE95 at checkout. (Be sure to select the "buy now, make later" option).

Gift Guide for Raising Kids Who Care

The Read-Aloud Family
If you are not familiar with Sarah Mackenzie and her blog, The Read-Aloud Revival, you should be! I love all her writing and book suggestions, but I am really excited about this new book. It illustrates how reading aloud with your kids, even after they can read on their own, can help strengthen relationships and build their emotional skills. She understands how the stories that we read can give us strength and teach us all foundational emotional lessons. This one is even on MY Christmas list.

Podcasts are another why I find time to connect with my kids. It may sound silly but all that time riding in the car can quickly turn into wonderful conversation or fun bonding time just by the addition of a podcast topic.

Here are a few of our favorites:

My new absolute favorite venue for listening to kid-friendly podcasts. This app provides a huge selection of podcasts--stories, interviews, music shows and yes, even games. My boys are HUGE fans of ExtraBlurt, a podcast quiz show. We have had tons of fun listening and answering back while driving in the car. They have even picked up some new vocabulary words just from listening.

Leela Kids
If your kids are like many I know and have a Kindle Fire Kids Edition, then it may be tempting for them to be glued to games all the time. This podcast app offers an endless variety of listening choices for kids--stories and shows centered on their favorite topics like space, science, animals, and music. It helps pull their minds off games and enlightens their imaginations and understanding of feelings and characters. IOS version Android version

Dream Big Podcast
This great show is hosted by 8-year-old Eva (with a little help from her mom). She interviews ordinary people who have "dreamed big" and are now living out those dreams in cool jobs like astronaut, neuroscientist, or gymnast. The show is inspiring to kids and entertaining for adults.

Circle Round
If you love getting caught up in a story, this is the podcast for you (and your kids). These short stories are engaging, legendary and sometimes even teach a good lesson. Great listening for helping kids understand feelings, characters, and develop a wonderful imagination.

Short and Curly
If you kids are like mine, they ask questions all the time. The other day, my 4-year-old actually asked why the sky is blue. Now, I may have a higher education, but even that one stumped me! This is the podcast to help answer all those questions (and ones even 4-year-olds haven't thought of). Great bonding time while listening.

Books With Emotional Lessons

Books are the best way to share a variety of important lessons--friendship, traditions, being brave, etc. Books also have the wonderful ability to help kids learn how to put themselves in another's shoes and understand feelings. Plus, spending time together reading is a time of connection that you and your child will cherish forever. 

The message focuses on the idea that although we are all different, we are each lovely in our own way.  (ages 4-8)

Pass It On
A book with a simple message of passing on kindness and good cheer to those around you. (ages 3-7)

We Are All Wonders
Most of you are probably aware of the book Wonder. Well, this is just the shorter, picture book version for younger kids. I got this a few months ago and have read it with my 4-year-old about 100 times! He loved it and it sparked a lot of good conversations about why people are different.

The Invisible Boy
A lovely book for all kids, but especially the quieter types who may feel "invisible" at times. A story of friendship and learning that we all have talents--even if we're quiet.

Myra Makes
This book falls more under the category of a workbook, but it still focuses on promoting empathy in kids. The workbook itself tells a story and with each activity, the kids try to help Myra get to Cloud City. The lessons focus on care for the earth, healthy living, and cooperation. Great to keep little minds busy on those long road trips or plane rides.

Pretend Play

As I've written on many occasions, play is really the engine of learning for young kids. There is no better way to gain social skills than through pretend play. It allows kids to gain insight into another's perspective (the basis for empathy), test role and boundaries. Of course, there are tons of pretend play toys out there. I tend to gravitate towards ones that are simple and represent roles that kids see commonly in daily life.

Police costume
I've written before about the developmental benefits of dress-up play and it doesn't have to be Halloween for this to be the case. Kids love dressing up and taking on all the details of a different role or personality. Perspective-taking skills at their best!

Pretend cleaning set
Okay parents, you will love this one. A toy that encourages cooperative skills and reinforces the need for chores! My boys always loved helping me clean when they were about 2-3 years old. Encourage that love of cleaning with real, hands-on toys that look and function just like the adult version.

Dollhouses are not just for girls anymore! Now that there are these nice gender-neutral ones on the market, any kid will want to try it out. Role-playing "mom," "dad," or "baby" is one of the best ways for kids to learn empathy and perspective-taking.

Puppets are really underrated in today's world of high-tech toys. We have only had a few in our house, but the kids always come up with such creative ways to use them--reenact stories, battle each other, or take on all sorts of silly voices. Believe it or not, this all helps build emotional and cooperation, and language skills.

Okay parents, I hope these ideas give you a little jumpstart on holiday gifts. Focusing on items that build social-emotional skills will result in many meaningful benefits for your kids for years to come. Best wishes this holiday season from The Thoughtful Parent!

Monday, November 13, 2017

A Thoughtful Alternative to Elf on the Shelf that Will Teach Your Kids Lifelong Lessons

Today is World Kindness Day! Who knew such a celebration existed? Really, though, shouldn't every day be kindness day?

As parents, I think one of our main goals is to raise kids who care for others. But, guess what? Our kids don't always get that message. Several surveys have now shown us that despite our words, kids think we value other things over kindness. Results from this year's Highlights State of the Kid report illustrate this:

- almost half of kids surveyed (44%) said they think their parents' top priority is their happiness

- 33% of kids thought doing well in school was their parent's top priority for them

- only 23% of kids said that they thought being kind was their parent's top priority for them

In other words, it seems like there is a gap in what we think we are communicating to our kids and what they are hearing.
Kids are hearing that we want them to be happy and achieve more than we want them to be kind.

This Holiday Season Introduce Your Kids to a Kinder Alternative to Elf on the Shelf

Kindness Builds True Happiness

Of course, we parents know that being kind and being happy are not mutually exclusive. They go hand in hand. As study author Christine French Cully points out,
“Maybe part of the message we aren’t always sending to our kids is that yes, we want you to be happy, but part of being happy means thinking about the needs of others sometimes.” 
We know from experience that being kind actually makes us feel happier. Now research is backing this up too. New studies show that compassionate or kind acts do spark connections in the brain that promote feelings of pleasure and happiness.

This Holiday Season Introduce Your Kids to a Kinder Alternative to Elf on the Shelf

Fostering Kindness

The holiday season is just about upon us. This is a perfect time to help our kids see, in a lovely hands-on way, how kindness builds on itself. The Kindness Elves are a wonderful way to do this with our kids.

Let's face it, The Elf on the Shelf is a popular holiday tradition, but what does it really teach? I don't want to get too serious here, but really this tradition focuses on encouraging good behavior as a way of avoiding negative outcomes (no toys!). In other words, fear becomes the motivating force here. Kids want to do good for fear of getting no presents at Christmas. Deep down, we know (and research backs it up) that fear is not really an effective long-term strategy for teaching moral lessons. As this great article points out, we want to "raise a good person, not just one who's afraid of being bad." 

The Kindness Elves focus on the opposite--kindness for kindness sake. They offer wonderful ideas for everyday acts of kindness that kids can do. With this approach, kids learn quickly that kindness is it's own best reward. The feelings of happiness and joy you feel when you do something helpful for another person is the best type of positive reinforcement.

The Kindness Elves bundle

The holiday season is the perfect time to introduce your kids to the Kindness Elves. You might want to get yours soon so you'll be sure to have it before the holiday season really gets underway. They come in several different varieties (e.g., skin tone, hair color, etc.). The best part for parents is that the kindness ideas and cute cards are already done for you. No scouring Pinterest to find ideas each day.

We started introducing the Kindness Elves a couple of years ago in my house. The boys love it! In fact, my 8-year-old asks when "Elfie" is coming back each year. The acts of kindness are simple but meaningful. We also have a lot of fun figuring out where in the house Elfie hid each night while we were sleeping.

The Kindness Elves

Curious about how kids develop empathy (the basis for kindness) over the course of their development? Check out this post:

Related posts:

Don't forget to download your FREE cheat sheet: 5 Common Child Development Myths...Debunked. An invaluable resource for parents!

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A Thoughtful Alternative to Elf on the Shelf that Will Teach Your Kids Lifelong Lessons

Thursday, November 9, 2017

The Secrets of Pre-K that Every Parent Should Know

Before I get into this week's post, I wanted to share a wonderful podcast I found just this week. It's called Dream Big and it's actually hosted by 8-year-old Eva (with a little help from her mom). My kids and I just started listening to it in the car and it is really inspiring and entertaining. In each episode, Eva interviews a person who dreamed big and is now living their dreams with a cool job like neuroscientist, astronaut or entrepreneur. If you're looking for non-screen time entertainment that actually inspires your kids and sparks conversation, check out Dream Big!

The Secrets of Pre-K that Every Parent Should Know

Now on to this week's post...
You walk into a pre-K classroom and you see several groups of 4-year-olds playing at different areas in the room. One group of students is playing at a pretend grocery store. They are deeply immersed in "buying" and "selling" toy fruits and vegetables. A teacher stands nearby and asks them open-ended questions like, "what does the cashier do?" or "how much does a banana cost?" 
Another group of students is building with blocks on the floor. They are working together to build a tall tower. Another teacher is asking probing questions like, "how many blocks do you have stacked so far?" and "what will happen if we stack another block?"

As a naive bystander, you wonder if the kids here are really learning anything? I mean, aren't they just playing? What are the teachers doing just playing with them? You start to wonder if pre-K is really worth the money you are paying for it.

As a parent, you may have had an encounter similar to this one. Maybe you were touring preschools in search of the right one for your child. Perhaps you saw this as you watched your child at preschool prior to pick-up time.

As adults, we often have preconceived notions about what "schooling" should look like and include. Doesn't preschool mean a teacher in front of a group of kids instructing them in the ways of ABC's and 123's? What is often missed is the subtlety of how children learn and the beauty of children's development. Research and real-life experience tell us that all people learn best when they are actively engaged with whatever it is they are learning. This is especially the case for young children. And what engaged kids more than anything else? Play! Although kids can learn through worksheets and flashcards, the lessons that benefit them the most and that they will keep in their little brains for years to come are those learned through hands-on engagement, which usually happens through play.

The Secrets of Pre-K that Every Parent Should Know

In her new book, The Most Important Year: Pre-Kindergarten and the Future of Our Children, author Suzanne Bouffard brings to light these issues of learning, play, and child development. As I mentioned on my Facebook Live last week, this book is must-read information if you have a child approaching pre-K's why:

** Packed with research, but still approachable. It takes real skill to pack lots of research into a book and it not sound like a textbook. However, Suzanne Bouffard does it! She uses a wonderful storytelling style and incorporates the top research in the field in such a way that it's enjoyable to read. You feel like you are just following along with a few families as they visit preschools.

** Explains play-based education. For me, this was one of the big highlights of the book--a detailed explanation (with examples!) of play-based education and WHY it is the preferred method for teaching young children. As a parent, this is what you want to know--how is my kid learning through play and what does it look like in real life. This book delivers on this point.

** Why education policy matters. I think many parents struggle with understanding how national education policy and funding affects their local schools. This book explains in real-life examples how national policies towards early education and K-12 education impacts preschools in our country. If you want insight into how schools in lower SES neighborhoods struggle or why staffing in preschools is so difficult, this opens the door to all those issues.

All these points are wonderful, but perhaps the best lesson I learned from the book was one that may not be so easy to see. Her discussion of how preschoolers learn and examples of play-based learning gave me more confidence as a parent that I can help my child learn through play at home. Many of us send our kids to preschool (myself included) but the other 5 or 6 hours of the day I sometimes struggle to know how to engage him in play and not allow him to zone out in front of a screen. This book really offers insight into the use of open-ended questions, open-ended toys and an understanding of how preschoolers learn to help parents incorporate guided play at home. After reading this, I realized all the little things I do with my 4-year-old at home or while running errands really do help him learn important lessons. Singing songs, asking him questions, teaching him about how things work in the world, are not just wasted words...this is actually the best way for him to learn.

This video explains the benefits of play for learning:

Hopefully, you will find this aspect of the book helpful as well and gain confidence in your ability to parent your preschooler in such a way that incorporates a bit of playful learning.

Are you searching for a preschool or pre-K program for your child soon? Not sure what to look for?

Sign up and download this FREE Parent's Guide to Pre-K. Take it with you on your preschool tour!

Share this post with your parenting friends!

Click below to see related posts:

The Hidden Effects of Early Childhood Programs

Why Preschoolers Don't Follow Instructions (and ways to help)

The Subtle Beauty of Child Development: What is Lost When We Push Too Hard

The Most Important Year

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The Secrets of Pre-K that Every Parent Should Know

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

The Truth About Trying to Make Kids Happy (and what we can do instead)

Remember how you felt when your kids were babies and they would cry? Other people might be bothered by crying, but we moms are undone by our babies' crying. I remember being shocked by my physiological reaction to my son's crying--I would become so distressed I could hardly carry on a conversation and my blood pressure would rise. It was like nails on a chalkboard.

I would do anything to help him stop crying.

We now know that this reaction is not just new mom craziness. It's actually a physiological reaction that all moms experience due to an interesting mix of hormones and brain chemistry.

The Truth About Trying to Make Kids Happy (and what we can do instead)

Fast forward a few years and we learn that not every cry from our child is as pressing as the next. By the time they are toddlers we learn that sometimes they cry out of frustration or boredom. We start to realize that we can't always make them "happy." We can't make the tears stop by simply feeding or changing a diaper. They now have bigger emotions that they need help managing.

It was at this point in my parenting journey that I realized that maybe my child's "happiness" shouldn't even be my goal in parenting. I slowly started to realize that there were some bigger emotional goals I had for my children than just happiness.

The Lesson of the Old Boots

This idea has stuck with me and came in handy the other day with my 8-year-old son. He was getting ready for school on the first snowy day of the season. It came a bit early this year and I was not prepared with new snow boots, gloves, etc. He started putting on last year's boots and they were a bit worse for wear if you know what I mean. Some parts were torn and the strap didn't tighten as well as it should. He was getting more and more frustrated, complaining about how he needed new boots. I explained that I was planning to get new ones, but I just hadn't gotten to it yet. He was about to start to "lose it" when another thought popped into my mind.

Before even thinking about it much, I blurted out, "you know, some kids in the world don't even have boots. They have to walk to school in the snow with just regular shoes on."

The Truth About Trying to Make Kids Happy (and what we can do instead)

Okay, I realize I just sounded like my mother (or grandmother). The words just came pouring out of me before I even could consider them. worked! He settled down, put his boots on and went to school quite nicely.

Looking Beyond Happiness

"Why was this helpful to him?" I wondered. Then it hit me. He didn't need for me to "fix" the situation of the boots. He was old enough and capable enough to deal with torn boots for one day. He needed me to hear his feelings and most importantly, he needed me to provide a context of meaning. By giving him some meaning for his frustrations, I gave him an emotional coping strategy for his situation.

This is ultimately what parents do--we are the meaning-makers for our kids until they find ways to make meaning for themselves.

Now this situation was minor and almost insignificant, but consider all the other situations that he might face in the future that I will not be able to "fix": the first time a girlfriend breaks his heart, that time he bombs a test in college or that first job that he doesn't land. Even if I had all the resources or connections in the world, I would not be able to take away these struggles or moments of suffering.

The Truth About Trying to Make Kids Happy (and what we can do instead)

Unlike when he was a baby, I can't "make" him happy by stopping the source of his discomfort. The discomfort I feel because of his suffering is not easily pushed away either. This is why I quit making his happiness my main goal. I started looking beyond happiness at some deeper emotional skills that will serve him better.

A Hand to Hold

This reminds me of all those research articles I read while working on my dissertation (I knew those would come in handy someday). I was working on a project that studied how moms coped with divorce, so I read a lot of research on stress coping and meaning.

What we see is that one key way people cope with stressful events is by making some sort of meaning from it. 

Most of this research focuses on very stressful life events like divorce, death, or being the victim of a violent crime. But the lesson here for smaller stressful events is the same--finding meaning in our suffering is perhaps one of the best coping strategies we can employ.

For parents what this means I think is that we can't always take away our children's suffering, but we can help them find some meaning in it. In other words, we can't stuff down their emotions--but we can hold their hands and walk beside them while they walk through those difficult emotions to find some peace on the other side.

Ultimately, meaning, not happiness, is the best gift we can give our children.

Why I Quit Trying to Make My Kids Happy
Related Posts:
What is the Goal of Childrearing?

We Want Our Kids to be Kind...But How Do We Foster It?

4 Parenting Lessons Research Taught Us in 2016

Related Resources:

How to Talk so Kids Will Listen

Coping Skills for Kids Workbook: Over 75 Coping Strategies to Help Kids Deal with Stress, Anxiety and Anger

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