Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Book Review: How to Keep Your Helicopter

If you have been reading for awhile, you know that I occasionally do book reviews. In the past, I have done reviews of child development books, but today it's time for a children's book. Author Ben Greene asked me to take a look at his book, How to Keep Your Helicopter and share it with my kids.

From the title, it's a bit of a mystery as to what the story, How to Keep Your Helicopter is all about. After a few pages of reading, however, you soon realize that it's all about sharing. Great topic for a children's book! Most kids, even into elementary school, have trouble sharing at times. Sharing with siblings seems to pose an especially tricky problem, if my kids are any indication of what commonly happens.

In the story, big brother Benjamin is not keen on sharing his special toy helicopter with his little sister Sandy. Now, that's a common problem for us, isn't it? Most children have a favorite toy (or a few) that they do not like to share, even if they are otherwise good at sharing. So the mother in the story helps show Benjamin a clever way to interact with his sister that does not really involve him having to give up his helicopter. In the process, he learns to play well with his sister and everyone is happier. At the end of the story, he actually becomes more interested in playing with his sister (in this new way instructed by his mom) that he actually forgets about the helicopter. Ultimately, this poses a new sharing challenge, as Benjamin and Sandy want to both play with a new object. Luckily for the mom, there happens to be more than one of this new object so each child can play with one.

Overall, I felt the story had a good message. Learning to play with one's siblings in a way that entertains both children is a great skill to learn. This can often be difficult for the older sibling to learn, but with help from guiding parents (as shown in the book) it can be a good approach that helps solve problems with sharing and general sibling disagreements.

One aspect of the book that I did not find particularly helpful was the point at the end where the mom pulls out two objects for the kids to use during play. To me, this seemed to just undermined the whole point of the book, which was to teach about playing well when there is only one object. Parents cannot always provide multiple toys for kids so that they are not required to share.

The book is written in a kid-friendly way, that parents can appreciate too. I will say that I was not a fan of the illustrations. They are a cartoon style that kids might enjoy, but not my personal favorite style, That, however, is just a point of personally preference.

If your children have trouble sharing, this is a good book to explore with your child. It is, however, really less about sharing than about interacting with younger children in a way that lets all children play well together.  That is a useful skill for all children to learn too, but if you feel that sharing everything (even favorite toys) is an important message, then I would choose a different book.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Say it Again: Repetition Aides Language Development

We all know that young children love repetition. If you have been around a child under the age of 3 lately, you know this well. They repeat questions, they repeat words, they repeat actions....over and over again. For us adults, this is honestly kind of annoying, but for these little ones, this is learning at its best. Practice makes perfect, as the old saying goes. Little children know this well and they inherently know what their brains need.

It turns out that repetition is helpful for young children before they are even verbal. New research coming out of the University of Maryland is showing this clearly. In a recent study, researchers evaluated 121 infants (7 months of age) and their later language development at age 2. The authors specifically wanted to understand if the amount of repetition in language that the infants were exposed to was related to their later language development.

Not surprisingly, the researchers did find that repetition makes a difference. The more words mothers spoke to their infants, and the more repetition all predicted better language development at age 2. Researchers believe that this repetition may help prime children to understand how to "segment" words. Segmentation involves how children learn to break up fluent speech into individual words. Obviously, this is a crucial task that children must learn in order to learn language.

These findings are very instructive and helpful in thinking about how children learn language. For years, we have known that the number of words a child is exposed to early in life can have strong impact not only on their language development, but their lifelong academic trajectory. As I have written about before, this exposure (or lack thereof) can also present a source of inequality among children of differing socioeconomic groups. Children in lower socioeconomic groups tend to be exposed to fewer words, which is often associated with a later achievement gap as preschoolers.

From this new research on repetition, we can see that it's not just the number of words, but also their repetitiveness that may make a difference in language development. We are continuing to see how language is really a gateway skill to many aspects of development. Language is one of the skills that makes us uniquely human, it connects us to each other, to knowledge, and to the world around us. So in talking to our youngest children, we are not only establishing a crucial bond with them, we really are setting the stage for much of their future development.

ResearchBlogging.orgNEWMAN, R., ROWE, M., & BERNSTEIN RATNER, N. (2015). Input and uptake at 7 months predicts toddler vocabulary: the role of child-directed speech and infant processing skills in language development Journal of Child Language, 1-16 DOI: 10.1017/S0305000915000446

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Countercultural Thoughts on Play, Education, and Parenting

Welcome to the new and improved The Thoughtful Parent! I decided I needed a more professional look, so thanks to the wonderful work of Elle of EAE Design, my blog is looking new and shiny. Thanks Elle!

This week's post is really a convergence of thoughts that have been coalescing in my brain lately. If you read this blog regularly (or follow my Facebook page) you know I am a big proponent of play-based education for young children (preschool age) and not pushing academics too soon. This attitude is based on a growing line of research that supports this approach.

Several articles in the media lately have made me think about this approach with an even wider lens.

Ponder this with me: what if a culture of education and parenting that encourages play, movement, not overly pushing academics, and a little risk-taking actually helps our children develop better? 

What if this approach might even reduce some fidgeting and ADHD-type symptoms? Of course, a lot of research needs to be done to support all of these factors together, but there does seems to be a trend in the information we know so far.

- We know that play is crucial for the development of young children. Play actually changes the brain and helps kids learn how to interact with one another. These social skills in turn, predict better academic performance, Play also helps kids learn better by helping their brain focus on what's important.

- Studies have shown that children who run and play (not organized sports) at least 70 minutes per day, have improved thinking skills, especially on skills like multitasking.

- Other developed countries like Germany and France do not emphasize and push academics at early ages like we do in the United States. Yet, despite this more laid back approach, their students tend to outperform American students on academic assessments. Many other countries do not even try to teach kids to read until they are 6-7 years old. Some schools in the U.S. try to encourage reading or pre-reading even prior to kindergarten. Note: these countries do tend to be much less socioeconomically, culturally, and ethnically diverse, which puts the U.S. in a different category of educational challenges.

- ADHD is complicated, but some research is showing that the fidgeting behaviors may actually help kids concentrate better than when forced to sit still. The physical movement helps "wake up" what scientists believe to be an "underarousal of the brain." You can clearly see how this finding might relate to a lack of playtime and movement in our society and schools.

- We are beginning to see the value of reasonable risk-taking for kids' development. Although it is difficult as a parent to allow your child to try something new, some degree of physical risk-taking has been linked to better psychological health, confidence, physical coordination, and ironically, less dangerous risk-taking later on.

- In a related issue, we are beginning to see the hazards of "overparenting." The first generation of children raised by "helicopter parents" are now entering college and some of what college professors are seeing is not promising. Many young adults are entering college are anxious, depressed, and unable to function well without a parent directing their lives.

After reviewing these findings, you can see how all these factors seem to center on ideas that are somewhat countercultural in our society: movement, imagination, risk, letting go. Imagine an education and parenting culture in which getting your kid to read by kindergarten was not demanded. Imagine what school would look like if kids were allowed ample time to play and move (even within the classroom perhaps). Imagine a playground where the words "don't climb on that" or "be careful" were rarely heard. Imagine teenagers who were given age-appropriate responsibility to manage some of their own affairs (like filling out their own college application).

We cannot recreate society and education by simply imagining it, but this research should help us all to keep our eyes on the goal. The goal for me is to help my children development in a way that represents the best of their abilities, personality and uniqueness. But my other goal is to raise a child that turns into a responsible, kind, well-functioning adult. Sometimes this goal can be clouded by the societal pressures we all experience. I think it's just a good reminder to understand that what might be best for our children, may not always be what our popular culture represents.

Photo credit

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Looking Beyond “Quality vs. Quantity” Time with Kids

As a person trained in the methodology of family science, there is nothing that bothers me more than when the media misinterprets a research article. Researchers know this happens frequently and are often leery of publicizing their work (even interesting work) because of this issue. Case in point—the recent study that was all over the media concerning the amount time parents spent with their children.

You probably read the headlines—“Parents, give up the guilt, study says quality time matters more than quantity.” It is quite telling that almost every article that discusses this study includes the word “guilt.” This tells me that this is an emotionally charged issue, not just for the readers, but perhaps for the journalists writing the articles.

First, before I delve into this further, let’s look at the basics of the study:

  • the study examined children ages 3-11 and adolescents ages 12-18
  • the outcomes that were assessed in the children included emotional adjustment, academic achievement and behavior
  • the authors looked two types of time: (1) accessible time—time in presence of mother, but not engaged in an activity; (2) engaged time—basically any time engaged with the mother in an activity
  • the data came from time diaries from one weekday and one weekend day.  The authors “created” weekly sums by extrapolating 2 day sums to a full  week (they say this is a common practice)
  • they also looked at children and adolescents’ time spent with their father (alone) and both parents
  • as usual, the study include other structural factors—mothers’ education, family income, family structure (i.e., two-parent, single parent, step-family, etc)

 First, the main finding that prompted all the headlines was this one: the sheer amount of time mothers spent with their children was not associated with any of the child outcomes. It did not matter when the authors looked at engaged time or accessible time; the amount of time was not related to outcomes. This was for children only; there were some relevant findings concerning time spent with adolescents (I’ll save that for another post).

Okay, that is interesting but does it imply the headline that “quality trumps quality.” In contrast to virtually every media outlet around (except notably the Brookings Institute), I say “no.” This finding does not imply that quality trumps quantity when it comes to time spent with children. As the authors themselves point out, they did not specifically assess “quality” time.

“although we examined engaged time, in which children and mothers were interacting with each other, we did not focus on quality time – the amount of time in particular quality activities with children, such as reading or eating meals together versus watching TV or cleaning with them – neither did we assess the quality or tone of mothers interaction with children, such as warmth, sensitivity or focus.”

To adequately assess the question of quality time versus quantity of time, a study would have to specifically measure these two concepts distinctly and compare them. This study did not do that. Although this study did separate out engaged and accessible time, it did not define either of these as “quality time.” From this study alone, we have no better understanding of what “quality time” actually looks like or what types of activities might be more beneficial for children. This was not the goal of the study, yet the media has extrapolated from this study that “quality trumps quantity.” Yet another disappointing example of how the media often overlooks the details of a study to get a flashy headline.

As I mentioned, the word “guilt” was included in almost every story written about this article. What does this tell us about the state of parenting today? Apparently, we as parents (perhaps including the journalists) are dealing with a lot of guilt. I understand this. I am a stay-at-home parent so I spend a lot of time with my kids and I still feel guilty at times. Yes, I put my kids in front of the TV sometimes just so I can have a few moments of peace or time to cook dinner. Is the answer to this to believe whatever the media tells us to moderate the feelings of guilt? I believe not.

How about taking a different approach? How about we “own” these feelings of guilt and use it as an opportunity for self-reflection. How are our children doing? Are they misbehaving at school or acting particularly rebellious at home? If so, maybe this is a sign that we do need to spend more time with them. However, it’s not because we feel guilty; it’s because our children need us. If our children are overall adjusted and seem to be functioning well, then maybe our guilt it just societal-driven and not based on anything real.

We all face many pressures as parents in today’s culture. I think the key is to take some time to really look at your specific family and decide whether your choices to work or stay at home or work part-time are really meeting the needs of everyone involved. If so, then have confidence in your parenting and the idea that you are doing best you can. Please do not buy into this media-contrived idea of “quality vs. quantity.” This is not the answer; parenting and life are much more complicated than that. 

ResearchBlogging.orgMilkie, M., Nomaguchi, K., & Denny, K. (2015). Does the Amount of Time Mothers Spend With Children or Adolescents Matter? Journal of Marriage and Family, 77 (2), 355-372 DOI: 10.1111/jomf.12170