What iPads Can’t Do

“A child starting school today has to be prepared for the world of 2030 and after, a world even more digitized than today’s world,” says Maurice De Hond, a Dutch entrepreneur and an Education For A New World initiator. “But most schools are preparing their students for yesterday’s world.” [source]

Do you remember your first computer? I do. When I was a kid, my family had an Atari system that plugged into our TV and allowed my older brother and I to play “educational” games. Many of the games we started with involved familiarizing us with the keyboard. Letters would float down the screen at increasing speeds and we would have to strike the correct key on the keyboard before it landed at the bottom. I remember the experience being both somewhat mindless and somehow rewarding (I now know that each correct key strike was stimulating the reward center in my young brain). Even then, it was surprising how much time could be lost to the machine. My parents, skeptical of the educational value of anything with a screen, set strict limits on how much time we could spend with the computer. They were smart to do so, not only because we now have the research to show how important it is to limit screen time, but also because keeping the games out of reach much of the time kept them appealing for a longer amount of time than the games themselves seemed to warrant.

I wouldn’t have imagined then the world that we live in today, where computers ride in our pockets and double as phones and video devices and cameras. We saw glimpses of the future all along the way to where we are, in science fiction novels and movies and in the imaginings of technical visionaries, but none of these glimpses could prepare us fully for the complexities of our plugged in lives. The computers that I interacted with as a child didn’t truly “prepare” me for the computers of my adult life because new devices necessitate new skills, new understandings. As a child, in awe of technology and how things worked, plugging simple programs into a simple computer to prompt it to say “Hello, World!”, I would not have been able to fathom how easy the technology of today has become. The children of today don’t even need to know how to point-and-click to navigate an iPad, so it’s absurd for us to think that the use of these intuitive devices is somehow “preparing” them for a future we haven’t yet seen.

It’s a waste of our time here and now to attempt to think of the challenges our children will face in this faceless future. What history shows us, however, is what skills have always been of value and so will most likely continue to be needed in the future, no matter what that future looks like. Skills like problem-solving, creative thinking, cooperation, persistence, and engagement. We know that screen media actively interferes with the development of many of these skills in young brains, but we continue to tell ourselves that what kids need is tablet computers, e-learning, and a steady drip of technology. We seem to make the mistake of thinking that “smarter” technology (that is, technology that does more for us) makes for smarter people, but it’s quite the opposite. If we’re not careful about what skills we truly focus on passing to the next generations, we may plateau technologically, without great creative minds to take us to the next level. Our glassy-eyed little iPad navigators may not be capable of, nor engaged in, creating a future different from what they see on a screen, having been raised to consume rather than construct.

The article quoted above is about “tablets replacing teachers” in Dutch schools. The article states that “multiple studies” have indicated “iPad–based learning is correlated with higher performance and comprehension,” but a few of the studies are a bit suspect (one in particular being funded by Apple). In thinking critically about iPads as teachers, I would ask where children are practicing the real world application of the information and skills they’re soaking up via apps. One of the studies looked at students’ use of an Algebra I app. Students often wonder when they will ever apply Algebra in the “real world” (the answer being, of course, all the time in figuring out everyday equations like how much gas you can afford to put into your car or how many pounds of apples you could purchase at the grocery store), so it seems that it may be of value to our understanding of what learning has transpired to provide students an opportunity for real world application. The studies speak of the children’s “engagement” with the devices and their performance on standard tests. If the world of tomorrow centers on filling in all the correct digital bubbles, we may be okay after all.

We know that learning is a lot more than digestion and regurgitation, so we have to question what the incorporation of the latest technology really gives to students. Could there be a place for an iPad in a learning environment? Absolutely. Can an iPad be a tool that helps to improve performance in a classroom centered around test results? No doubt. But can an iPad understand and connect with your child? Can an iPad celebrate their accomplishments, bolster their spirits in defeat, or change its teaching style based on their learning style? Perhaps not. An iPad won’t advocate for your child. An iPad won’t hug them. An iPad can teach, in a limited, closed-ended capacity, but an iPad can’t be a teacher.

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Where Learning Happens

“Growth demands a temporary surrender of security.” – Gail Sheehy

Some of the best advice I ever heard of a pediatrician giving a parent was, “It’s good for him to do some things that are uncomfortable for him.” This advice was given in relation to a young child feeling uneasy about a new experience. Note that the advice of the pediatrician did not suggest that the child should face his discomfort alone, without empathy, or be so uncomfortable as to suffer. But that mild discomfort of doing something new, something unpredictable, is almost always a source of growth. It’s often in that discomfort that the best kind of learning happens.

Let me tell you about my young friend, C. She is twelve months old and not yet walking, but she crawls with great speed. Sometimes she shuffles forward on her knees, sometimes she stands and “cruises,” holding on to the low counter. C. is a highly competent mobile infant who, when self-motivated, can move with ease from one place or position to another. Sometimes, however, C. longs to be rescued. When rescue fails to materialize, C. can become quite dramatic. In a word, she screams.

The other day, C. was outside and I was inside. She was playing at a water table with some peers, splashing and cruising along the edge. Her primary caregiver needed to take a break and the person who came to give her the break was a stranger to C. This made C. nervous, so she began to cry. I heard her, understood the cause, and opened the door. “C,” I called, “would you like to come inside for a little while?” When she saw me, she reached her arms out towards me. “Come on over,” I encouraged, “I’m right here waiting for you.” She wouldn’t come. She screamed intermittently instead. “I hear you, C. You’re asking me to come and pick you up. But I’m asking you to come over here to me so I can do it,” I said. Now, the caregiver who was there covering for C’s primary caregiver had moved away, so she was not blocking C. from coming towards me or interfering with our interaction in any way. She asked, “Do you want me to pick you up and take you to Jenn?” and C. shook her head, shrieked, and waved the caregiver away with one arm.

C. continued to scream for some time. I know her well enough to recognize that she was mad. It made her mad that I was not going to go to her and pick her up. “You’re really mad that I’m not coming to you,” I said. “I’m waiting for you right here. Will you please come to me?” I was sitting on the floor just inside the door and I reached out out my arms, then signed, “Come-here.” C. frowned, moved forward half an inch, then stopped and screamed again.

While we were discussing the situation, several preschool teachers were passing by our classroom and yard. Each one, without fail, was drawn close by C’s screams and asked, “Can I help her?” I would explain that I was waiting for C. to come over to me so that I could hold her. “Let me get her for you,” several teachers said, and moved to open the gate to our yard. I stopped them. “Thank you, but C. can come to me when she’s ready,” I said. They all were visibly taken aback (“She’s so upset!” they all observed), but for me, as a teacher, this was a learning moment. I wanted C. to realize that she doesn’t need rescue. She doesn’t need to wait for someone to come and get her when she’s uncomfortable. She is capable of moving her body and I want her to know it.

I wanted pretty badly to go and pick C. up, cuddle her close to me, kiss her all over, and tell her that everything was okay. It’s not easy to see babies in distress. I was perhaps even more uncomfortable in this moment than C. herself, as I second-guessed my plan to “make” her come to me on her own, but I worked to project an aura of calm reassurance as I talked her through the experience. As I talked to her, the other children were gathering around, watching. “C,” I said, “you could crawl over to me. I’m right here. I’m going to stay right here close to you.” When I mentioned crawling, a few of my walking infants dropped to all fours and crawled between C. and myself. “Look,” I said, “L. is showing you how she can crawl just like you do.” C. watched quietly, even smiled, then resumed screaming. I waited.

And waited.

And waited.

It seemed an eternity, but was actually less than fifteen minutes, all told. In the end, C. sighed a heavy sigh, then crawled quickly to me and climbed into my lap, screams silenced. I hugged her. “You crawled to me on your own and now I can hold you,” I said. She leaned back against me and we sat that way for a little while, both of us enjoying the quiet.

Did C. stop screaming for rescue that day, forever? Nope. A similar scene plays out a few times a week, but increasingly less often now. C. is becoming even more competent in her movement. I still second-guess my choices, but with or without me, she’s growing.

“It is not change that causes anxiety; it is the feeling that we are without defenses in the presence of what we see as danger that causes anxiety.” – Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey

Another child, B., likes to climb to modest heights in both our indoor and outdoor space and then shriek to be rescued. If caregivers come close to her, she’ll leap recklessly from where she has climbed, so we began to keep our distance a few months ago, choosing to talk her down instead. B. also does this with her parents at the park. It became something of a game for them when she first began to want to climb, and an unfortunate pattern developed. They weren’t sure what to do about it, but complained of her recklessness. I suggested that we all work together to help B. discover a sense of herself in space and to tune in to her own abilities to navigate tricky situations. (If B. was not safe, we would of course assist her immediately.)

In the classroom, B. teetered atop a platform, shrieking and leaning towards her caregiver, who sat calmly a few feet away. “Will you come back down the steps or the slide?” she asked. B. looked to the left (steps!) and then the right (slide!) and then cried, looking at her caregiver. “You can come back down, B.,” her caregiver assured her, “You can sit down and go to the slide,” she pointed to the slide. B. looked to her right again, uncertain, then fussed some more. “If it seems too high, you could sit down,” her caregiver suggested. B. repeated, “Sit.” “Yes, you could sit down,” her caregiver said again. B. sat, then scooted towards the slide. “It looks like you will come down the slide,” her caregiver observed. B. briefly fussed again, reaching towards her caregiver, who moved closer to the bottom of the slide. “I’m right here, waiting for you,” her caregiver told B. B. then slid down the slide and clapped for herself at the bottom. “You came down the slide,” her caregiver said with a smile.

“… by stretching yourself beyond your perceived level of confidence you accelerate your development of competence.” –Michael J. Gelb

It can be hard to determine when to help children, when to support or encourage them, and when to rescue them. It’s not always a black and white, right or wrong issue. It’s a delicate matter of careful observation, knowledge of the individual, and timing. In my experience, it’s uncomfortable for adults. Children aren’t the only ones learning and growing in these moments. At the end of the day, these are often the moments that I reflect back on — these moments of screams and shrieks and occasional tears. I always wonder if I made the right choices, providing the correct balance of support, autonomy, freedom, and assistance. Do my infants and toddlers believe in their own competence, as I believe in them? Not every day. Not every one of them. Not yet. But often enough and enough of them to make me believe that we’re moving in the right direction.

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If Your Baby Cries, You’re Doing It Wrong

Disclaimer: This is not intended to be an indictment of the practice of Attachment Parenting or any other theory or method of caregiving. I believe there is a kernel of truth and value in most practices and I believe that every parent is doing the very best they can in each moment, whether they consciously assign a label to their “style” or not.

My travels around the Internet brought me into contact with the following graphic this past week and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since.

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The graphic was shared via an Attachment Parenting group and cites research that is often cited by the companies that sell so-called “babywearing” wraps and products. My dismay with this graphic has nothing to do with a parenting style, “babywearing” in general, the research study in question (which is quite interesting), or anything but the hot-button issue of happiness. I take exception to the notion that a crying baby is an “unhappy” baby. The study in question didn’t actually measure the “happiness” of the babies, as “happiness” is not something that can necessarily be scientifically measured, but instead looked specifically at crying and carrying.

Why do babies cry? Myriad reasons. Crying is how babies express a wide variety of thoughts and concerns, from, “I’m exhausted!” to, “I’m scared!” to, “I’d love something to eat!” to, “I can’t see you or hear you and I think I’m alone and I don’t like it,” to, “I wish to be left alone!” When you get to know an individual baby, it doesn’t take long to begin to recognize their different cries and cues. All babies cry. Babies who are carried cry. Babies who are worn on their parents’ person cry. Babies who are laid on the floor cry. Happy babies cry. Humans cry.

The graphic above offends me because it suggests that babies who cry less are necessarily “happier” than other babies. This is a huge stumbling block for many weary parents who are jumping through hoops to ensure their children’s “happiness”, as if it is within their control. Frankly, it’s a bit presumptuous to believe that the true, meaningful happiness of another person is within your control. It’s not. Not even when that person is your baby, your young child, your teenager, or your grown offspring.

Crying and happiness are two separate topics that are frequently worlds apart. From a scientific perspective, crying can be viewed as a biological function unique to humans and imperative to infants. Happiness, on the other hand, is a rather abstract, individualized, highly subjective hippy dippy notion.

I want to be clear:

  1. I’m a huge fan of happiness.
  2. I stand in defense of comfort.
  3. I don’t believe in distracting children from their distress.
  4. Sometimes crying makes me uncomfortable!

I have spent a lot of years with a lot of babies, toddlers, young children, and human beings both happy and unhappy by nature. Having studied development, I have come to understand that temperament is something every person on earth is born with. Some temperaments may result in individuals crying with greater frequency or intensity than some other temperaments. I have spent time with babies who would absolutely love to be held and carried all day and all night. I have spent time with other babies who would prefer not to be held much of the time. There is not one strategy, style, or technique that works with every baby every time. (And any individual, philosophy, or business that suggests otherwise has not, in fact, I am 100% certain, spent time with every single baby on earth. They probably don’t know your baby.)

Here’s what I really want to say: Your baby will cry. You will feel like you need to make this stop. Sometimes it will be appropriate and within your control to do so. Sometimes it won’t be. In either case, it doesn’t mean that your baby is unhappy. As deeply philosophical as your baby may be, it is safe to say that it will be a few more years before they spend a great deal of time reflecting on their own “happiness” or lack thereof. When the time comes that they do, it’s unlikely that their reflection will linger long on the percentage of time you spent carrying them. You could carry your baby all day every day and never learn to listen to them or to know them as the person they are quite apart from you. Don’t make that mistake.

Love them and tell them so. Hold them and let them go.

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Links of Last Week

Last week was a busy one and I have the links to show for it. Here’s the weekly round-up of some of the best of what got shared via Facebook, Pinterest, and Twitter.

First, listen while two little girls are interviewed by their dad after one cut the other’s hair. Hilarious. (And many of us have been there.)

An article from Harvard on children’s need for touch. I think this one goes hand in hand: Child Raising in Non-Violent Cultures.

Infant presence is not an intrusion into adult life, but rather an expected and welcome part of all adult activity.

Infant needs, as communicated for example by crying, are met immediately; a fearful stimulus is removed, the breast offered, or a discomfort alleviated. Older children automatically defer to the younger ones out of pleasure and confidence in their own nurturing abilities.

Slow Down

This video highlights some of the incredible good that Reach Out and Read is doing. It will inspire you to do some good too.

Empathy: The Most Important Back-to-School Supply.

Alison Gopnik on Why Preschool Shouldn’t Be Like School (or, one could argue, Why School Should Like More Like Preschool).

Direct instruction really can limit young children’s learning. Teaching is a very effective way to get children to learn something specific—this tube squeaks, say, or a squish then a press then a pull causes the music to play. But it also makes children less likely to discover unexpected information and to draw unexpected conclusions.

Why might children behave this way? Adults often assume that most learning is the result of teaching and that exploratory, spontaneous learning is unusual. But actually, spontaneous learning is more fundamental. It’s this kind of learning, in fact, that allows kids to learn from teachers in the first place.

This blog post on moments of love just about brought me to my knees.

Have a wonderful week ahead, Friends! I hope it is full of moments of love.

Reading For Meaning

I recently finished reading Nicholas Carr’s excellent book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains and while it provided me with much to think about in terms of technology and brain development, an unexpected bonus was that it also gave me much to think about in regards to reading. Carr spends a good amount of time looking at the historic evolution of technology, including the period of time before and after the printing press. He examines how the act of reading, and specifically “deep reading,” changed the shape of human brains and society. He goes on to examine how we’re losing our ability to deeply engage with the written, printed word in favor of attempting to absorb an endless stream of snippets via the Internet.

About a month ago I had read (in its entirety, even when I got scared of the graphs) this Slate article: How People Read Online: Why You Won’t Finish This Article and I’m still thinking about it today. Even as I type, I’m thinking about how you may not finish this post. I’m speculating as to how your eyes may track across your screen. Have I taken away enough potential distractions with a spartan blog design? Don’t blame yourself if you can’t reach the end. I don’t blame myself and I’m ultimately the one tasked with keeping you engaged. After digesting Carr’s findings, I understand that it may all be a little bit out of your hands by now, if you’ve spent enough time mixing with digital media and rewiring your brain to swallow snippets rather than paragraphs. I’ve already given you two links, suggesting to your brain that it opt out of what I’m about to share about reading. But if you, like me, really care about reading, you may wish to read on.

I learned to read before I was four. I don’t remember how it happened, but I do remember not being able to read and then being able to read. One of the first times my mom realized that I could read was when we had taken our cat to the vet and I was sounding out the words displayed high on the wall: cat, dog, fish, bird. This moment was somehow so important in my early life that I can picture the vet’s office in my mind and that was one of only two times in my life that I was there. When I ask my parents about my learning to read, they don’t talk about this instance, but they remember other times when I took them off guard by reading signs aloud. Once I started to read, I didn’t stop. I couldn’t. It was such a heady feeling — like I suddenly, independently had access to all sorts of material that hadn’t made sense this way before. I tried to read everything. I remember a few years later, at six or seven, I pulled Gone With the Wind from a shelf and leafed through. “I think I can read this,” I told my dad, “I know almost all of these words.” I read a few sentences aloud. “There is more to reading than knowing the words,” my dad explained, “Part of reading is being able to understand and think about what you read.” I nodded sagely and filed this information away because it seemed important, even if I didn’t understand it then.

I understand it now. In fact, now more than ever, having learned a thing or two over the years about the development of literacy and how our brains work (not to mention a thing or two about Gone With the Wind). Something to keep in mind, as we actively teach children to read at younger and younger ages, is that the act of reading doesn’t mean much. It’s the complementary tasks of reflecting, recalling, making connections, and finding meaning that really matter. It’s those things that make the human brain so unique and wonderful. It’s those doors that we need to keep open for children, because inside there is where all the magic happens. (We also need to trust that sometimes that magic needs to happen independently.) (Oops, there’s another link. I just lost a few more of you.)

A few quotes from Nicholas Carr on reading deeply:

“In the quiet spaces opened by the prolonged, undisturbed reading of a book, people made their own associations, drew their own inferences and analogies, fostered their own ideas. They thought deeply as they read deeply.”

“What was so remarkable about book reading was that the deep concentration was combined with the highly active and efficient deciphering of text and interpretation of meaning.”

“The development of a well-rounded mind requires both an ability to find and quickly parse a wide range of information and a capacity for open-ended reflection. There needs to be time for efficient data collection and time for inefficient contemplation, time to operate the machine and time to sit idly in the garden.”

I don’t always read deeply, and, like Nicholas Carr, I have a legitimate concern that I will read less and less deeply the more I engage in Internet reading, browsing, and mindless immersion. I have done the research and I know that my attention span and focus are being compromised by technology. I also know that we don’t need to read deeply each time we read in order to reap the intellectual benefits. We just need to unplug. We can dip our toes in the frothy and frivolous and we’re still building better brains than if we were pointing and clicking through Scientific America. What we need is the quiet and the opportunity to reflect.

A few tips for reading deeply:

  • Read something that challenges you. Not something that bores you.
  • Read something unexpected: poetry, if you don’t normally delve into poetry; try fiction if you’re a non-fiction kind of reader and vice versa.
  • Take notes.
  • Pause. Reflect. Resume.
  • Talk about what you’ve read! Not only with others who have read it, although that can be wonderful.
  • Make time and space for reading. It doesn’t have to be hours of time and it doesn’t have to be silent space, but it does have to be relatively uninterrupted by email and it does have to be relatively consistent (aim for daily).

I’m dismayed at regular intervals by reports of fewer people engaging in book reading than ever before. But I’m not sure this is true. I’m personally meeting more people who are readers, who are proud to be readers, and who introduce me to new books and new ideas all the time. This is encouraging, not only for me personally as a reader, but for society in general. Children need to see us reading (books! magazines! newspapers! cereal boxes!) and they need to think about us reading and them reading and what it means to be a reader. Children don’t become literate simply by learning to read. The literate know how to think about what they read and what they want to read and what they hope others will read.

“Literacy arouses hopes, not only in society as a whole but also in the individual who is striving for fulfillment, happiness and personal benefit by learning how to read and write. Literacy means far more than learning how to read and write. The aim is to transmit knowledge and promote social participation.” From UNESCO Institute for Education

What about you? Are you reading deeply or are you sticking to the shallows? (Hint: if you made it this far down a page, there’s hope for you.)

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In Defense of Comfort

We have built an entire industry around the topic of stress. We study stress, write about stress, read about stress, talk about stress, even consistently stress ourselves out over stress. We take classes, meditate, run, walk, eat and drink to reduce it. It seems that the topic of stress makes headlines at least once a week and it is safe to say that we’ve never been more aware of it and we’ve never been more awash in it. What about our children?

Stress, both good and bad in nature, has an impact on our brains and bodies. Our stress response is hardwired in our DNA as a survival instinct. When we experience what we perceive as stress or danger, our hypothalamus activates. Adrenaline is released into our blood stream, our heart rate increases, and blood pumps rapidly into our muscles and limbs. We’re preparing for “fight or flight,” as our senses intensify and our impulses quicken. Our bodies experience this when we have an argument with someone, when we face an emergency, and when we watch an action movie. Stress is part of life, from beginning to end.

Infants and young children experience stress as well. This can be hard to imagine, when one looks from the outside in at the life of a baby. “What do they have to be stressed about?!” we wonder. No deadlines. No bills. No boss. No responsibilities. “That’s the life,” we comment, as we watch babies on their backs, peacefully observing their world. But anyone who spends any time with babies or young children understands that their lives are full of stress. They’re completely dependent upon others for their very survival — it’s hard to fathom a situation in life that could be any more stressful than that. Babies don’t emerge from the womb trusting that they’ll be cared for. That trust must be established over time. Just as, over time, they learn that certain sights, sounds, feelings, and smells are nothing to be worried about (the garbage truck will come and then it will go) (you’ll feel hungry and then you’ll be fed) (Mom will leave, but then she’ll come back).

Infants and young children are also dependent upon the adults in their lives for regulating their responses to stress. Through us, they find and understand comfort. This comes through consistent loving, supportive responses to their distress. This comes through authentic, predictable relationships. The brains of infants and young children are working all the time to make sense of the world, so the least we can do as adults is to meet them halfway to scaffold that development.

Meeting them there and scaffolding them in this way is generally our instinct. When we hear a baby in distress, it’s our instinct to help. (It’s important to be aware that our deepest instinct is to make the crying stop and this is when the thinking part of our brain needs to override our instincts.) Our instinct to help must be balanced with our instinct to raise children who are resilient and competent and don’t fall to pieces at the smallest obstacle. We’re more than halfway through the year 2013, living firmly in the future, and we still worry about “spoiling” children by comforting them. Last week I heard a mom describe her ten-month-old as “a wuss.”

If an adult asks me for a hug, odds are I will give them a hug. If a child or an infant asks to be held, I’ll hold them. I think these are good rules to live by. It’s not up to me to decide whether your distress or sorrow warrants a sympathetic response. Where on earth does this notion come from: “Are they genuinely sad enough for me to want to help?” Feelings are feelings! There is no scientific method by which to judge, weigh, and measure them.

I have worked with many caregivers who have very strong feelings about comfort items and children. “Comfort items” are things like blankets, teddy bears, pacifiers, and thumbs. These items often provoke a surprisingly visceral response of disgust from adults. We judge the children using them and we judge (hard) the parents who give them to their child.

I would like to take this opportunity to come out in favor of comfort items. That’s right. My name is Jenn and I’ll give you a binky! Here’s why: they’re healthy, necessary, and appropriate. In addition, I don’t know a single adult who gets through the day without one. Comfort items look a little different (most of the time) in adulthood. Sometimes they’re a run, a smoothie, a cup of coffee, a cigarette, a certain song on repeat on the stereo, or a pair of lucky socks. (Have you recognized yourself yet?)

Look, let’s all agree on one thing: there is a time and a place for a comfort item. We don’t need them all the time and neither do children. There are downsides to prolonged, irresponsible use of pacifiers. In fact, that name alone is like nails on a chalkboard to me, along with the British term for the same (dummy) because that is where the trouble can start. They’re not to “pacify” a child. They’re not to quiet them for our convenience. They’re a tool that an infant or child may choose to use to lower their stress level, to relax. I believe there is a lot of value in empowering infants and young children to begin to manage their own stress. Little by little, with less and less intervention from loving adults, infants learn to calm themselves down when they’re upset. If a blanket or a toy or a binky is a part of the equation, the lasting impact is still positive. With continued love and support as they develop, that child will not need or want that particular tool forever.

The parents of a preschooler that I know were recently encouraging the little boy to break the habit of sucking his thumb. “He’s learning about bad habits,” they said. I cringed a little bit because while sucking his thumb is a habit, is it necessary to label it either good or bad? It’s just a habit that could be replaced with something else as he has developed new methods of coping with stress.

We are a society barely treading water in an ocean of stress. One step towards healthier living may be understanding that comfort items and coping skills and management of strong emotions starts before birth. A better world starts with how we are with our children.

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All In Good Time

Well, what did you think was going to happen?

How many times have I told you not to do that?

You should have listened to me the first time!

Human brains seek patterns. Young children are especially tuned in to this process, making them so positively responsive to predictable, consistent routines. Healthy, nurtured babies learn very early on that crying yields results. They get hungry, they express hunger, someone feeds them. They get tired, they express fatigue, and someone helps them to ease into sleep. This is normal, healthy brain development at its finest!

As babies mature, they make more discoveries and connections along the way. For example, if they smile, someone smiles back! This is a fun pattern for all involved. Sometimes they learn that if they drop something, someone will pick it up. This pattern becomes less fun for Mom and Dad as it establishes, but it’s still a sign of normal, healthy brain development.

Young children are so attuned to patterns that sometimes we make the mistake of giving them more credit than we should. We think they are capable of things like sophisticated planning, recall, and even reading the minds of adults.

The young toddlers in my program learn that they can use their growing legs to rock their chairs backwards, just a little bit. Then a little bit more. Then way too much more, as they fall back and bump their heads on the floor. As an adult, I have the cognitive ability to anticipate what might happen when they begin to rock their chairs, so I stop them. (“I’m going to stop you from rocking your chair back. I don’t want you to go back too far and bump your head.”) When I stop them, they understand being stopped. They understand my reference to head bumps too, because they are at a stage in life where they’re acutely sensitive to those injuries, and they usually respond by raising one hand to their skulls, rubbing or touching with a worried face. Then, they try to return to rocking their chair. So I repeat that I’m going to stop them, and again I do. Sometimes this continues off and on for weeks. Sometimes months. Do I get tired of reminding them not to rock their chairs backwards? Of course I do, are you kidding me?! But I maintain my composure because I know that they are testing the pattern they are starting to believe exists: “When I rock my chair, Jenn stops me. When I don’t stop, she makes me leave the chair.

Infants and toddlers are learning so much all the time, every minute, but they can’t do more than their brains are capable of and cognitive development takes time. A lifetime, actually. The steps that I can think through in my mind to determine that it’s not a good idea for them to rock their chairs back (they could fall, they could hit their heads, they could get seriously hurt) are not steps that the toddler mind can go through. That’s why they have adults to look after them. Even when they internalize certain patterns and messages, it could still be years before they are fully capable of understanding why certain things should be done and other things should not be done. Anticipating a likely outcome of an action or event is not something that young children can be expected to do.

This is pretty basic information, right? I mean, we all know that they’re toddlers and they’re just learning and that it’s our job to guide them and keep them safe. But our expectations and frustrations and general hurry-up-edness know no bounds. Sometimes in our rush to teach them to expect and anticipate and understand consequences, we assign them undeserved shame and blame. This can have a devastating impact on a young child.

Well, what did you think was going to happen? Likely, they didn’t think about what might happen. They just followed the impulse to try this thing. Their experiments are more likely to have a hypothesis that looks like, “Let’s do it!” than, “Let’s do it because _____________.” It’s not until age three that synaptic density in the prefrontal cortext reaches its peak (200% of adult level), improving and consolidating cognitive function and allowing for increasingly sophisticated understandings of cause and effect.

How many times have I told you not to do that? More times than they can likely count. And you’ll have to tell them again and again and again. In general, it’s not until after the age of three that children begin to be able to use the past to interpret the present. One study shows clearly that young children’s thoughts are so dominated by their current state that they cannot conceive of an alternate state. We know that children “live in the moment,” but we have forgotten, by the time our brain has been pruned into its adult form, what that really feels like and how it overrides everything else.

You should have listened to me the first time! They’re always listening and they’re always watching. More accurately, they’re not developmentally ready to store and recall what you said, applying it to every situation that seems reasonable or obvious to you.

Young children can make such stunning, remarkable connections. They surprise us all the time with their insights and intelligence. We can’t run the risk of shutting down their natural experimentation, risk-taking, limit-testing, and exuberance by assigning them shame and blame that they can’t understand. The cost is too high.

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Other People’s Children

One of the kindest things that has ever been said to me by one of the moms whose children I cared for was, “Happy Mother’s Day! I know you’re not technically a mom, but you are a mother to all of these babies and these mamas and dadas and everyone who needs you.”

I’ll be honest: I cried. Outwardly. I felt so recognized. Like she had shined a light on the best part of me.

One of the least kind things that has ever been said to me by one of the moms whose children I cared for was, “Yeah. Well. I know you don’t know, but things are different when you have kids. You realize what actually matters.” She spat those words at me when I expressed sympathy for her dog dying and said that I had just lost a pet as well.

I’ll be honest: I cried. Inwardly. I felt so marginalized. (And, later, when I told the story to my husband, I will admit that I cried hardest for her dog.)

One of the first things mothers ask of me when they come to enroll their babies in my program is whether or not I have children myself. Some just ask as a way of making conversation. Some out of genuine curiosity. Some because motherhood is a badge and a certification. It’s a club. You can trust a mom to care for your baby because once upon a time they cared for their baby too and they are in tune with those mystical motherly instincts.

Do you know what I would do for the children in my care? I would do anything. I would lift a bus. I would take a bullet. I would give a kidney.

Do you know what I’ve done for them? I’ve lost sleep worrying about them. I’ve celebrated milestones. I’ve seen first steps and heard first words and watched them read or write their names successfully for the first time. I’ve caught wiggly teeth flying from their mouths. I’ve given up nights and weekends making plans for them. I’ve spent too much money on them. I’ve watched them conquer fears and I’ve held their hands and hugged them close when fears conquer them.

I’ve gone hoarse reading favorite stories just one more time. I’ve gotten favorite songs permanently stuck in my head. I’ve memorized those stories, those songs, and also all of the data generated by those children, from their birthdates to their allergies to their medications to their phone numbers to their favorite colors and animals and foods and rituals.

I’ve bandaged wounds, staunched bleeding, wiped fevered brows, bathed bodies, survived every bodily fluid leak imaginable. I’ve held babies having seizures, I’ve braced broken bones. I’ve given bad news and shared sorrow. I’ve ridden in an ambulance with a scared toddler and held him in the emergency room while he wailed and nurses stuck him with needles.

I don’t take them home at the end of the day. But when their families don’t come on time to pick them up, I stay. I stay until it’s dark. I cancel my plans. I skip dinner. I read books and play games and give snacks and answer questions about where Mom and Dad are (“They are on their way. They’re in the car thinking about you!”). I stay until they go. Always.

Do you know the advantage (for you) that I have in caring for your child? They’re not mine. I don’t care for them like they’re mine. I care for them like they’re yours. Like you want them to be cared for. Like a precious, valuable treasure to be returned completely intact if not a little better polished at the end of the day. I love them for you and for them and for me, all at the same time. When it comes down to making a decision, I make the decision based on what you think is best, not based on my opinion. Because they are your child, not mine.

One day I will fill a book with the weird and wacky things that have been said to me about my profession. One thing that people like to say is that I must do this job to “practice” for having my own children one day. I’m not actually “practicing”. I’m working. Like I’m trained to do. (Try applying this type of statement to another profession.)

The fact is that my job and the way that I do my job is about more than my training and education and knowledge. It’s all about my heart. When you’re truly a caregiver, it’s not just what you do, it’s who you are. (You may be able to relate, if you’re a parent. Or a friend. Or an uncle. Or a human being who cares about other souls in the world.) Being a caregiver makes my job easier to do and I find it to be a more meaningful way to live. Whether I have my own children one day or not, I’ll have left a legacy.

I’m not a mom, but I understand being a mother.

Links of Last Week

It’s been a busy week for links, so I hope you’re prepared for some excellent reading material. As always, the best way to keep up with my discoveries is via the Facebook page. I post with less consistency to Twitter and Pinterest. I would love to hear your suggestions for items of interest as well, so don’t hesitate to send me an email at likewetcement at gmail.com. Have a wonderful week, Friends!

Do good.

Dr. T. Berry Brazelton on Preschool For All: Babies lacking high-quality care and learning opportunities fall behind quickly — even before pre-kindergarten. As a result, they must spend their preschool experience playing catch-up rather than forging ahead. High-quality care and supports can set babies and toddlers on the path to becoming confident learners, productive workers and well-adjusted adults. What better investment is there than that?

It’s time for us to prioritize babies and their families and make the necessary investments so that high quality supports and services are available to anyone who needs them. We must recognize that success in education, work and life begins in the earliest years.

A couple of articles on topics near and dear to my heart: technology and brain development.

  • iPedagogy: From Piaget to iPads “Just because we can” is a really low aspirational bar. Of course you can hand five-year-olds a piece of technology and they will point and click and figure out how to make things happen. So what? If it can’t be used by the learner to internalize and master higher level understanding, what’s the point?
  • Technology is Not a Substitute for Critical Thinking Put simply, technology needs the personal filter of our minds, and the questioning skeptical nature of human intellect if the full promise of its presence is to be realized for the benefit of the individual, the company, the organization.
  • Plugged In vs. Parenting “When a parent’s focus is on anything other than a child, that child makes an instant decision about how their parent views them,” Rice said. “If the focus is on something family-focused, such as cooking dinner or preparing for travel, the child can understand the role those activities play in the greater dynamic of a family and so accept the distraction. But if the focus is on something less ‘acceptable’ in a child’s mind, such as social media or work, the child believes the parent must view that activity as more important to the parent than the child. This can make children feel there must be something wrong with them that the parents don’t like them more than this other activity.”

Take a moment to watch this lovely tribute to his single mom by poet Marshall Davis Jones. It’s truly a feast for the eyes and ears.

In time for back-to-school, thoughts on color coded behavior systems in elementary school classes. And a call for disorderliness (and a plea for trusting children to deeply engage with and privately enjoy literature) from Susan Ohanian. Thirdly, on a related note, why teachers need to read more children’s books. And finally, questions to ask your kids after their day at school.

Review: The LA Nanny Book

I have been looking forward to reading Larissa Neilson’s book, The LA Nanny Book, since I came across her Twitter feed, drawn in by her RIE-influenced content. When I heard the book had been released, I immediately ordered a copy. I’m so glad that I did! Although I am not currently a nanny (I once was) and do not intend to become a nanny in the near future, I still found the book to be a pleasant, positive, informative read and a practical resource to add to my bookshelf. I would recommend it to both parents and caregivers as an eye-opening account of relationships and practices in this unique but widespread field. Larissa writes of her own experiences working within a specific nanny culture (that is, in Los Angeles), but her experience and advice will, I hope, be applicable far and wide.

The book is well-organized into three sections, which makes it both easy to read and easy to reference later on. The first part, beginning with a chapter entitled, “Choosing to Become a Nanny,” is most relevant to current and future nannies, but I found that many elements could be applied to any caregiving situation, including setting reasonable limits from the start, approaching each relationship within the job from a place of respect, and building up those relationships. I would like to share a few quotes from this second that resonated with me.

“Having the heart of a servant means exactly that. You’re passionate about serving others. This has a lot to do with leadership; true leaders serve.”

“We don’t live in a perfect world. That’s why I say my intention won’t ever be to fix, somehow change, or push parents to do or follow exactly what I’m doing. What matters is that the child is engaged with respect and therefore, you impact her life forever.”

“I knew I emptied myself into those children. I felt accomplished because I gave it all.”

The second part of the book introduces the Educaring® Approach and my favorite part is where Larissa describes “sensitive observation” of infants. This is applicable to anyone who is with children in any capacity, be it as a nanny, a teacher, a parent, or a grandparent. I hope that this section invites you, as it did me, to read slowly and thoughtfully, as Larissa shares the wisdom of experience in being with children in a truly beautiful way.

“Being present in mind means you come to the child with a sense of wonder and excitement to see what the child’s up to, what new thing she will do, what new body movements will happen today. Your mind is filled with the word and understanding of respect and you’re calm because you know what you’re doing.”

The third section of the book includes “Leaving a Legacy,” wherein Larissa talks about how and when to leave a family after your years or service. All nannies and caregivers will appreciate her guidance in this area because knowing when and how to say goodbye to a family is difficult and it is a sensitive, bittersweet time.

I should also mention that the book includes lists of resources and citations that will make it a simple matter to further pursue your education on the topics included, if you desire.

Larissa has given us a real gift in this book by sharing her years of experience in the field, her training in and understanding of the Educaring® Approach, and also her personal views on professionalism and work ethics, which I believe can be applied in myriad other situations. Thank you, Larissa!

(You can also follow her on Facebook.)

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