Thursday, September 29, 2011


This thing called “positive discipline” really does work. Most parents realize that a positive, respectful approach has great long-term benefits for their child because it builds self discipline and self esteem.

But putting positive discipline into practice in-the-moment isn’t easy. Many, many parents tell me they just forget what to say and do when they are tired, frustrated, or busy.  For most of us, it takes deliberate practice.  Having a sort of “script” to think about at first can help.

Certainly, you don’t want to use anyone else’s words all the time, because that won’t be YOU, and the most important thing you can give your children is yourself. But following positive examples is a good way to start.  Perhaps the following examples will give you some ideas and starting points:


“You can throw the ball outside.”

“Here.  I’ll share this toy with you.”

“I will not let you hurt other people.”

“Try asking your brother for a turn.”

“Want to read a book with me while you’re waiting for a turn?”

“I can tell that you are very upset right now.”

“Pets are animals that need a gentle touch.”

“I will be right here to help you play with your friends.”

“Would you like to brush your teeth before your bath, or after?”

“I’ll help put some toys away so there’s more room to play.”

“I can see that both of you love doing puzzles!”

“When you look at his face, can you tell what he’s feeling?”

“Would you like to draw a picture or build a sand sculpture about how sad you feel?”

“It looks like you might be feeling frustrated.”

“Let’s run to the playground!”

“I need some help with these heavy water bottles!”

“You can sit here with me for awhile if you want.”

“Mom and I are still eating but you’re finished. Would you like to be excused to play with your toys now?”

“Thank you for sharing your snack with me.”

“It looks like working with the clay helped you feel better.”

“I can tell that you are working hard to wait politely for a turn.”

“How could we make that work?”

“What do you think we can do about this?”

“We’ll go shopping another day when you’re not tired.”

Add your own examples (and success stories) as comments below!  I’d love to read them, and so would everyone else.  We all learn from each other.


Wednesday, September 14, 2011


Chatting with the terrific moms in my Transitions parenting class has made me think lately about the passage of time.  There’s nothing like seeing my former toddlers entering Kindergarten to remind me about the steady ticking of the clock. 

Hearing about the trials and tribulations of the first few weeks of The Big K from these new Kinder-moms is a great reminder about how foundational human development is.  Everything that we experience today is built on the foundation of all our yesterdays.  And today we’re already working on the foundation for tomorrow!

Working on a lecture for my college level child development course,  I found a research-based list of typical thinking patterns that have been proven to be common to teenagers who get into trouble.  When I look at that list, it seems obvious that the first ingredient for a happy and healthy teenager is a happy, healthy preschooler. 

Even though some of our recent preschool graduates are going through some adjustments right now as they get used to Kindergarten, I know that eventually they will be just fine.  The positive, affirming experiences of preschool provide a solid foundation for just the kinds of challenges those new Kindergarteners are facing today as they’re getting used to the demands of big-kid-school.  I hope their parents will have faith in that sturdy developmental infrastructure through the inevitable challenges their children will face in the next few years.   But it’s probably even more important to understand that in 8, 10, or 12 years, these children will still be building on all of that early learning.  

Here’s an item from that Aggressive Adolescents list:

-Aggressive adolescents tend to have a narrow view of ways to solve problems. 

According to this research, when teens don’t know how to solve problems, they resort to aggression. Even the smallest conflict can quickly escalate to violence, simply because the kids lack the skills needed to handle things peacefully.   

What is the first thing we start learning on Day One in Teacher Annie’s toddler classes?  Problem solving, of course.  “I see you both want the same truck.  What can you do about that? I can help you find another one, or ask your friend for a turn.”  “Oops, the water spilled. How can we clean it up?” Incidentally, today actually was Day One, and yes, that’s exactly what we talked about over and over and over.  And I LOVE it!  Sometime I should try to count exactly how many opportunities for problem-solving lessons naturally arise in the course of a typical morning in my two year old class. I’m sure that each child must encounter dozens of them in our two hours of living, working, and playing together. 

Problem solving is the cornerstone of early childhood curriculum, and any preschool teacher who’s worth their “big salary” understands that. Thankfully do not outgrow those lessons they way they outgrow shoes, and the most important lessons don’t get lost in the “inner space” of teenage brains.  They’re in there.  They have become  part of the hard-wiring, the structure of the brain.  Good parents and good teachers can work together to make sure that important lessons from early childhood are reinforced all along the way.

Another example from that rather alarming Aggressive Adolescents list:

Teens who engage in aggressive behaviors show little capacity for empathy, or seeing things from another person’s point of view.

Again, what better place to begin learning empathy than preschool?  Today in my 2’s class, I observed many, many examples of  our “Empathy 101” curriculum in action.  For example, I saw dozens of signs of real learning and growth in the few minutes I was helping my little newbies meet Freckles The School Bunny for the first time, “What did Freckles tell you when you poked him just now?  See how he moved away from you?  What do you think he wants you to know?”quickly led to “I see Freckles has moved close to you now. And I see that you’re petting him gently.  How do you think Freckles feels now?”  It’s one life lesson after another,  all day every day in preschool.  These lessons are always individualized so they can exactly meet the current developmental path of each child. This way, the learning sinks in deeply and permanently. It becomes a part of them.

Take a look at these other items from The List, and then think about what your child learns in preschool every day:

Aggressive and at-risk adolescents:

-have little or no attachment or sense of belonging

-are unable to think in advance about consequences of their behavior

-do not engage in critical thinking skills, often leading to aggression based on illogical or incomplete information

 It's not hard to see how appropriate preschool experiences can prevent a lifetime of problems.

So don’t waste too much time fretting about the future.  Try to enjoy every minute with your little ones.  Realize that the time, thought, and effort that you and your preschool teachers are investing now will serve your children well for the rest of their lives.

It’s true:  

A happy childhood can last a lifetime!

Wednesday, September 7, 2011


Meeting some of my new 2 year olds today at school today reminded me all over again about one of the reasons why I absolutely love toddlers and two's: their brains are growing at an incredible rate.  One aspect of brain development involves forming an intricate network of neural connections in response to experiences. This is the toddler's specialty!  All the action is triggered by sensory information.  Each one of a toddler's five senses is on high alert every minute. Each day is a heroic quest to accumulate sensory experiences which will lead to an ever-increasing understanding of the world. 

More neural connections are being formed in the brain when you are one and two years old than at any other time in your life.  Think about it:  a large part of your own brain architecture was created when you were so young that you probably don't even consciously remember your experiences.  I think this is why my two's take their work and their play so seriously:  they're in the process of designing a brain structure that will be allow for a lifetime of learning. And to think that all of this learning and growth is initiated through the five senses!  Fascinating! 

Some of the toddler sensory exploration I observed today at preschool:
(Note:  fake initials)

-L. was pushing the doll stroller around the room and creating challenges for himself along the way.  At one point he tried to push the stroller up over the threshold to go outside, and worked very hard to learn just how much he had to lift the wheels to get it over the bump. L. was combining information from his eyes, his hands, his feet, and his ears, and using that information to solve a self-chosen problem.  Fabulous expression of triumph on that little face when he succeeded!

-Z. is very familiar with the preschool environment. When he walked into the beloved  preschool play-yard he was apparently disconcerted to find that some water-pipe construction had torn up a part of the garden.  Upon seeing the pile of dirt and the caution tape, he evidently  compared that with the prior visual information about preschool that  he already had "on file" in his brain, and wasn't thrilled with the discrepancy.  His mom told me when he saw the mess, his comment was, "Ya gotta be kidding me!" Ha!  This cracks me up, because although I've known Z. for about a year, so far, I've never heard him say more than 2 or 3 words at a time!  The impact of this visual image prompted his brain to use very elaborate language to express himself.

-P. was fascinated with the pretend-kitchen, and in particular, the pretend-microwave.  He spent a lot of time putting toy food into the microwave, shutting the door, and pushing the pretend buttons. While engaging in this activity, he was extremely focused and calm.  When other children (probably equally enthralled with the prospect of microwaving stuff like mom and dad) came near, he became unhappy and a look of distress could be seen on his face. Clearly,  he was worried because he felt a very strong need to continue this activity until he felt "done" (meaning:  he had maximized his learning from the activity,)  and the approach of other children threatened his ability to complete his self-appointed learning task. Multiply this example times a thousand, and you can get an idea of what life is like every day in a toddler classroom! Most of the inevitable toddler conflicts (I call them social learning opportunities) arise from the urgent internal drive to complete a sensory learning task. 

-R. and her big brother went into the bathroom to wash their hands. I encouraged the brother to climb up on the step stool and wash his hands with her, because I knew that big brothers are intensely observed by little sisters, and are often the most important role models of all. R. observed, wide-eyed, as brother soaped, scrubbed and rinsed his hands, then followed his lead, exactly imitating the actions she had just watched him doing.  Big smile!  Then walking away, she made a great effort to mimic his big-boy swagger, as well! 

-Today the pretend-kitchen was, as always, a popular and busy part of our classroom. F. was busy with the dishes, and I suddenly saw an "I've got an idea!" look on his face. Then he started supplying sound-effects as he poured and sipped imaginary tea.  This was quite interesting to other children and several joined him in his noisy tea party.   Many senses combined to make this a fascinating moment for F. and a few friends. Lots of learning about friendship, pretend-play, cause/effect, and much more!

-B. said the white crayon was "broken, " because she couldn't see the marks it made as she scribbled on the white paper.  I gave her a piece of black paper to experiment with and she tested the white crayon on the black paper,  and then tried several other colors, comparing the results.  I observed an "Aha!" expression on her face as she figured out this interesting problem. Priceless!

All this and much, much more happened today at our Meet The Teacher Day classroom visits. You can almost hear the crackling and popping as the synapses formed! And this is just our first day.  Wait 'til these kiddos see what I have planned for their growing brains next week!  

Sunday, August 28, 2011


 “Be sure to secure your own oxygen mask before assisting others.”  You hear it every time you fly, right? And it makes sense:  if you didn’t put on your oxygen mask, you would be useless to help anyone around you in an airplane emergency. But even worse, you could be a burden, a hindrance.  Your unconscious, inert body could actually block the way and keep other people from getting out of the plane safely. So if those masks ever drop from the ceiling, it’s a no-brainer to most of us that we should put our own mask on first,  then help our kids or other people with theirs. But….. I’m sure I’m not the first person to see the obvious analogy.  I’m sure you have, too, right?  Let me explain. 

Right now I’m sitting in my mom’s hospital room, trying to provide help, care, and loving company to her while she struggles with several different ailments. And it occurs to me that this oxygen-mask advice makes sense emotionally, as well. I’m finally learning that when I don’t take care of myself, I can have a negative impact on those around me. In all kinds of relationships, it’s a good idea to “secure your own emotional oxygen”  in order to be available to nurture those who depend on you. When we always put other people’s needs first while consistently ignoring our own,  we are asking for trouble. No one can be ok all the time, but I’m beginning to understand that I do have a responsibility to try to increase my ok-ness whenever I can. 

It seems to me that parents of young kids are at great risk for doing this. Of course it's true that parenting involves sacrifice.  Lots of it.  It’s just the way it is, and people who aren’t willing to accept this often make lousy parents. When you have kids, especially when they’re very young, it’s a given that your needs and wants will go on the back burner, at least for a number of years. Kids are totally worth it, but there’s no denying that they take priority over everything else. However,  it’s important to figure out which of your own needs are so basic to you that they could be classified as “emotional oxygen,” and then work to make sure you take care of those needs.  Otherwise, both you and your kids will suffer.

 Looking back, I realize that I most certainly didn’t quite get this twenty years ago when I was in the middle of raising little kids. I can see now that some of my difficulties and bad parenting moments were the result of being deprived of the emotional oxygen that I needed in order to function at my best.

In my case, one of the most basic things that I needed when my kids were little was alone-time.  Having  a little time on a regular basis to zone out or actually complete a thought for a change would have made a big difference, but I didn’t get it very often. I had been raised by a very selfless, devoted mom who never put herself first. I'm so lucky to have such a loving mother who poured her heart into her kids.  However, having this role model made it almost impossible to see self-care as an option when my kids were really little. When Emily and Audra were toddlers, I often found myself melting down unexpectedly and being emotionally volatile, which I don’t tend to be by nature. In retrospect, I understand why. My head was spinning with kid-stuff all the time, with no time to think.  I still remember how it felt, and I can still conjure up the crazy feelings and headaches that were my almost-constant reality during that time. Being deprived of solitude may not be a problem for some people, but for me it was a nightmare.  Marlin was already working extremely hard to support us, as well as pitching in a lot when he was at home.  It seemed that he was already as maxed out as I was so I didn’t feel I had a right to complain or ask for even more help. We were on a fairly tight budget, having just moved to California from the much-more-affordable Midwest, and we couldn’t afford luxuries like babysitting very often.

It wasn’t until the kids were a little older that I realized how much it would have helped to have a bit of me-time to look forward to on a regular basis. There would have been fewer mommy-meltdowns and I could have made better parenting decisions. I still remember how awful I felt each time I raised my voice at my kids, and I still remember how they often asked me if I as happy, anxiously scanning my facial expression for signs of stress.  Poor little things:  they really did absorb my stress and exhaustion.  If I had realized that my unmet need for a little bit of down-time was impacting people other than just myself, I probably would have found ways to take care of myself a little better. For example,  I could have tried a little harder to work out reasonable kid-trading and babysitting arrangements with other moms on a regular basis. I did some of that but it was sporadic because I didn’t realize the importance of it, and it took effort to plan. With just a little more up-front effort, I could have built in a little more sanity-time, and prevented passing on my stress to my little girls. 

While struggling with my mom’s health problems lately I’ve had to remind myself frequently of these important lessons. Caring for an ill and aging parent isn’t all that different from parenting young children.  In both contexts, It’s hard not to give in to the strong urge to forget about myself while focusing on the immediate and urgent needs of others. So I am trying to deliberately remind myself to get out of this hospital room several times a day, get fresh air, take walks, immerse myself in a good book, and take other kinds of breaks when I can. Even writing this blog post has given me a refreshing breath of emotional oxygen during this difficult time. Thankfully,  starting our new year at preschool next week, with the opportunity to meet my new group of toddlers and their parents will definitely be therapeutic for me.

What is your emotional oxygen? The next time you ignore a strong basic need of your own in order meet some “wants” of your kids, think about it. Every day in the life of a family is full of little emergencies  as well as the occasional Major Disaster. But there are always opportunities for self-care if we really look for them.  It’s important to remember that no one will do this for you.  Even the most sensitive and loving partners or friends can’t see what you are feeling and fix it for you:  it’s your job to do that.

My advice:  secure your own emotional oxygen before assisting others.  Otherwise, you will be of no assistance to anyone.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Transition Support Group Starts Next Week!

Teacher Annie’s Transition Support Group
For parents of children in kindergarten and beyond. 

At Explorer, Room 11
15 sessions: August 30-December 6, 2011
$150 per family

Moving into the world of elementary school can be a bit daunting….. for parents. No doubt about it:  the children are always ready for big changes before we are!  

Your children don’t need a support group:  they’ll already be finding that on the playground and at their lunch table! But if you’re looking for help as you navigate these new waters, this group is for you. We’ll talk about issues related to being parents of school-agers, as well as discuss the development of children ages 5-8.

Preschool parents have already learned the value of parent-support, so there’s no reason this has to end now that preschool is just a fond memory! We all still need support, information,  and connection with other parents.

Tell your friends:  anyone is welcome. (Not limited to Explorer families.)

To register, contact Annie Deckert

Monday, August 15, 2011


 Marlin and I look forward to our relaxing camping getaway every summer.  We’re sitting under the tall trees reading and chatting, thinking about starting dinner, when new neighbors arrive.  A minivan pulls into the empty campsite next to us. (Let's call them Family A.) Mom and Dad start getting organized, while a four year old boy and a six year old girl check out their surroundings.

Here are some bits of conversation that I overheard:

DAD: Hey come help me set up the tent.  Here hold this for a minute, ok? Let’s pick a good spot for the tent. 

4-YEAR OLD:  Ummmhhh, over there!  (Points to an uneven spot with lots of bumpy tree roots.)

DAD: Well, that might be a little bit bumpy for the tent.  How about over here, where it’s smooth and flat.  What do ya think? 

4-YEAR OLD:  Ok!

DAD: You decide which way we should make the door face.  Like that?  Ok.  Good idea.  That way we can see the campfire from the tent doorway.

4-YEAR OLD:  Are we gonna build a fire right now?

DAD: Later we’ll work on it. Maybe when it’s getting dark. Ok, you take this corner and give the other corner to your sister. Right.  Now you can each take one tent pole and put it together like this. Good!  Yeah, it’s big but you can handle it. Remember how we did it last night at the other campground? Now- do you see where it goes through the loop?

6-YEAR-OLD:  I’ll hold this end and we can do it together, ok?

DAD:  Teamwork!  I love it!

4-YEAR OLD:  Mom!  Why aren’t you giving me milk?!? 

MOM: Are you thirsty?  Help yourself to some water if you like.   I’m making a quick dinner right now, and you can have milk in a few minutes if you still want it. I could use some help.  Would you like to set out the silverware, or put these carrots in a bowl?

DAD: Tent’s all set up! I’m glad I had helpers. Tents are hard to set up alone.

SIX-YEAR-OLD:  Mom, look!  I climbed!  I climbed as high as I could!!!

MOM:  Wow- that IS high. I remember when you were too little to do that, and now you can climb way higher than your head! 

4-YEAR OLD:  I need to go pee!!!!

MOM:  Remember where it is?  You can go by yourself if you want to. It’s so close I can watch you walk there while I’m cooking. 

SIX-YEAR-OLD:  I’ll go with him!

MOM:  Thanks!  Your brother will probably like the company.  Ask him!

FOUR-YEAR-OLD: Yeah, come with me, and let’s pretend we’re hikers lost in the woods!

MOM:  Dinner’s ready—I hope the “lost hikers” hurry up and get found so we can eat while it’s hot!  There will be plenty of time to run and climb between dinner and bedtime. How does that taste?  I’ll bet you’re hungry from all the fresh air and all the exercise! I know I am!

SIX-YEAR-OLD:  Let’s go on a hike after dinner!  We can find the perfect walking sticks first, then explore!

DAD:  Whew- I’m tired, but I think you’re right:  a short hike would be fun.  Just give me a few minutes to rest first, ok?

Oh dear……even though I’m on vacation, I’m in Teacher-Annie-Mode anyway, as usual.  I can’t help thinking about what an excellent example of Positive Discipline this family is demonstrating. Mom and Dad must be tired:  a camping trip with little kids?  Exhausting. I remember it well.  But they seem calm and happy, and so do the children. They are fully connected to their beautiful surroundings, and enjoying being together. 

What a contrast from the other family I eavesdropped on yesterday. Let's call them Family B.  Here are some tidbits:

MOM: Don’t go so far away—I’ve told you a million times. You’ll get lost in the woods and eaten by bears.

FIVE-YEAR-OLD-GIRL:  No I won’t!  It’s boring over here. You never let me do anything.

MOM: Don’t touch that:  it’s dirty.  Why can’t you just play and leave me alone so I can cook dinner?  I’m tired enough without you making everything harder.

FIVE-YEAR-OLD GIRL:  I’m Dora!  You be Diego! C’mon!

SEVEN-YEAR-OLD-BOY:  No, Diego doesn’t climb trees. And that stuff is just for babies like you, anyway!

FIVE-YEAR-OLD GIRL:  Mom!!!! He’s calling me names!

SEVEN-YEAR-OLD BOY: I just said she’s a baby because she’s acting like one.   And now she’s climbing again!

DAD:  Get down from there:  you’re not allowed to climb trees, and you know it. 

FIVE-YEAR-OLD GIRL:  I want a soda!

MOM:  Don’t bug Dad right now:  you know how he gets when he’s trying to set up the tent!

FIVE-YEAR-OLD GIRL:  I want a soda!!

MOM: No soda right now. Leave me alone:  I’m cooking dinner! We’ll never get to eat if you keep interrupting me.


DAD:  That does it!  No more soda for you for the rest of the day. You’ve had enough anyway. That’s why you’re acting like a brat.

MOM:  Lord help me….. Why did I think this trip was a good idea? They’re just as bad as they are at home, only worse because there’s nothing to keep them entertained.


SEVEN-YEAR-OLD-BOY:  Dad, she’s bugging me with all the screaming.

DAD:  Listen. Stop the whining. If you don’t stop messing around and bugging us you’re gonna have a time-out. Ok- let’s have a contest:  whoever can be quiet for the longest gets to have the first marshmallow later. 

MOM:  Here:  just sit down and watch this movie. 

DAD:  Shoulda thought of the movie earlier.  Good thing we brought the DVD player.

MOM:  Thank God for technology.

Big difference, isn’t it?  But why is Family A able to handle regular every-day kid-stuff in a positive way, while everything is so hard for Family B?

Here are some things that Family A did well, and Family B did poorly:
-Involving the children in the work of the family (even though setting up a tent with little “helpers” actually takes longer…..)
-Encouraging teamwork
-Responding to children’s needs and wants
-Setting limits when appropriate
-Encouraging independence and confidence
-Role-modeling cooperation and encouraging teamwork
-Teaching the children how to enjoy the outdoors, by setting an example
-Encouraging imaginative play and physical activity.
-Demonstrating respect for each other
-Giving up on perfectionism

Family B’s approach was almost directly opposite, and the end result is conflict, bad feelings, bickering, impatience, exhaustion, and a very miserable atmosphere. (Not to mention all the negative things the children are learning…..)

And, as you may have guessed, I’m quite unimpressed with the way Family B fell back on turning on a movie for the kids. They’re out in the woods! Chipmunks, trees, rocks, sky, bugs……  everything a kid could possibly need!   How can they think it’s a good idea to distract kids from nature by parking them in front of a movie they’ve seen a dozen times already???? Don’t get me started….. I can’t help but wonder if many of the negative behaviors on the part of the kids AND parents in Family B have their origins in too many hours spent in front of the tv at home. And these kids probably watched movies in the car all day on the way to the campground, so no wonder they’re crabby!  I’m doubtful that these parents have ever interrupted their important tv-viewing schedule with a parenting book, a parenting class, or a parenting blog. I had to wonder how the Family B parents would respond if they were ever exposed to positive discipline concepts. Would they embrace it and start learning the skills, or would they reject the ideas, saying it’s too much work?

I wonder if Family A is always functions this well.   I doubt it.  There’s no such thing as Super Parents, and real life brings plenty of problems and frustrations. But it was obvious that although thinking in positive ways takes effort, these parents were actually finding it a lot easier to camp with kids than the other family. Making the effort to learn and practice positive discipline skills makes family life easier and happier in the long run.

When my kids were young, I remember being in Family-B-Mode way too much, even though I was beginning to know better.  I wish I could have managed more Family-A-Moments, but oh well…..I was trying pretty hard, doing my best most of the time, and learning a lot.  A lot of parenting comes down to just doing the best you can.   But even the occasional good-parent-moment is worth the effort. Success builds on success, and every time we do well in our attempts to use positive discipline, we’re laying the groundwork for another successful moment down the road.

I wonder how Marlin and I will do someday, the first time we take our future grandkids camping. I hope I’ll manage to be a bit more like Family A than Family B.  It’s so much more fun to be positive.

But listen, Emily and Audra:  no hurry on that grandkid thing, ok?

Sunday, March 6, 2011


Click! Whew….. You finally got your squirming toddler and your newborn baby strapped into their car seats. So now what?  Is a ride just transportation, or is it something more?  Is taking your children places in the car just an annoying chore?  Or is it a rich opportunity to build your relationship with your children, and to enjoy watching them grow and develop? 

I remember driving my mom crazy in the car, but it was different then.  When I was little, it was still the dark ages before car seats.  My brother and I made car trips into an athletic activity: we joyfully climbed back and forth over the seats, did handstands, stretched out in the back window, hung out the window as far as we could until Mom made us stop,  rolled around on the floor and held wrestling tournaments on the way to Grandma's house. I actually think I remember experimenting with crawling up onto the dashboard and begging my mom to let me make the trip to the store stretched out up there. As I recall, this elicited one of Mom's signature Exasperated Sighs.  Needless to say, our kids today cannot engage in such active play in the car, so how can we help them deal with spending so much time sitting still? What is happening in the brains of our infants, toddlers, and preschoolers when they are driving around with us? 

If you took a minute to add up how many hours your child will spend in the car before his or her sixth birthday, you would be surprised.  We put a lot of miles on our kids in their early years, even when we’re just hauling them around the neighborhood. It makes me wonder: are family vehicles just a place for kids to vegetate until we get there?  Or is it more like a fascinating preschool classroom, well-equipped with everything needed to deliver a broad and deep curriculum, geared toward assisting growing brains?

Let’s think about some of the learning that happens in the car, whether on long road trips or on our everyday commute.

-LOOKING. When you’re a toddler or a young preschooler, everything in the world is fascinating, and your brain is primed and ready to use every piece of data it can absorb. All of the interesting things children see out the window as they ride in a car offer many learning opportunities. Observation skills are sharpened, and curiosity begins to grow. Visual stimulation enhances children’s ability to perceive colors, shapes, and familiar objects, at increasingly advanced levels as their visual perception naturally matures.

-PERCEPTION. Think about how our amazing brains manage to handle tricky phenomena such as depth perception, distance, and the ways objects look from varying points of view. All this high-level super-computing in our brain began while we were very young, and a large part of it may have been stimulated by riding in the car and seeing how things look as they come closer and go farther away.  When children have many opportunities to practice focusing their eyes on objects very close to them inside the car,  and then quickly changing their depth of field to focus on far-away objects outside of the car, they are strengthening their eyes for later reading and school tasks.

-PEOPLE AND PLACES. Observing homes and neighborhoods of various types gives children an early start in the Social Sciences.  One of the earliest Social Studies concepts taught in most classrooms is about Homes and Neighborhoods. On routine trips in the car, children see that some homes look like theirs, while others are different.  They also internalize the idea that all of us share a need for shelter. Everyone lives somewhere. This is one more way that children can slowly decentralize their thinking and gradually work toward understanding the world in a less ego-centric way.

-NAVIGATION. Places exist in geographic relation to each other. This isn’t as obvious as you might think:  children have to learn this through experience.  As families travel familiar routes in the car over and over, children internalize a sense of directionality and geographical orientation. Not everyone finds it easy to learn where North is, or which way is Left.  I know plenty of adults who can get lost right in their own neighborhoods, but at least learning that There is not Here is a good start! The geniuses who developed your favorite GPS software began their mapmaking careers as babies in strollers or back seats, gradually learning what’s-where in their own neighborhoods.

-SELF-CONTROL. Self regulation is the ability to cope with our emotions. We start working on self-regulation when we’re born, and gradually developing it is one of the central tasks of childhood. Travel offers children many opportunities to work on self-regulation, and many rewards when they manage to make progress. Learning to wait is just plain hard. But people who don’t have a chance to work on this in age-appropriate ways in early childhood may struggle with self-regulation as they get older. In the car, children can learn to cope with boredom by creating games for themselves, watching for interesting things out the window, talking to themselves or family members, creating imaginary worlds in their heads, or singing songs. Even when it’s very hard to sit still in the car seat, children find the rewards of self-regulation in the car to be very affirming and empowering.  Children develop a strong sense of self-sufficiency as they learn internal ways to avoid being overwhelmed by waiting.

-TALKING. A great deal of language and social skills can be developed in the car, as adults and children have conversations about what they see. Even infants are absorbing the sounds of language and beginning to connect them with the concrete objects that they represent.  Research shows that children whose parents talk with them a lot in their first five years have higher IQ’s, higher levels of healthy attachment and emotional development, and do better in school later on. Besides, it’s great practice for later, when your kids become teenagers.  Parents of teens will tell you that their kids are more likely to talk to them when “held prisoner” in the car, than at any other time.

-OLD AND NEW. Children’s brains crave both novelty and familiarity, for very specific reasons. Seeing brand new sights while traveling down an unfamiliar highway may give a growing brain the chance to create new neural pathways, while driving the same street to school each day allows existing neural pathways to become increasingly myelinated.  Myelination makes frequently used parts of the brain’s wiring efficient and permanent.

-TIME. The ability to perceive the passage of time, and to anticipate the future and remember the past is an important part of human functioning. In the car, children experience time passing, and gradually learn to measure it in internal and external ways.  This is true on a small scale, such as when children become familiar with how long it takes to drive to preschool, but it also happens on a much larger scale, as children observe this route throughout all seasons of the year. Seeing the trees change color and the weather change over time gives a growing brain a lot to reflect on.  Conversations between parents and children about “how long,” “how far” and “what’s next” help to deepen this learning.

All this is just a small fraction of the learning and growth that can happen during all those thousands of hours your kids will spend in the car. And amazingly, it doesn't really take a lot of work or participation on your part.  It's up to the child to figure it out, but of course when a video is flipped on the minute the car starts, kids don't learn any of those skills.  I’ll leave it up to you to compare the rich experiences described above to what kids learn when they are plugged into videos and gaming devices instead of looking out the window and entertaining themselves.  It’s tempting to use gadgets to make car trips more peaceful, because children certainly do become quiet little zombies when an electronic device is doing their thinking for them.  Brain growth can be noisy, complicated, and annoying at times. But it’s also exciting and rewarding, for both parents and children. Toddlers and preschoolers who are used to riding in the car “unplugged” are gradually growing into very smart people who will someday be great travel companions.

You can’t do anything about the price of gas or the tailgating habits of the driver behind you.  But you do have the power to make sure the hours your kids spend in the car are accomplishing something more worthwhile than the ability to recite every word of Toy Story 3. Yeah, just like at home, it can be easier to just flip on a video, but it’s not better.

Say NO to electronic entertainment in the car, and say YES to smarter and happier kids!

Tuesday, February 1, 2011


Children deserve parents who think. They don’t need parents who are perfect, or who have all the answers. (What a burden that would be!  Please don’t saddle your kids with perfect parents- what a nightmare.)  But I think families really thrive when parents put some thought into carefully considering at least some of their day-to-day parenting choices, rather than letting chance or whims dictate the family’s direction. And it seems even more important that parents are willing to challenge their own thinking from time to time, and look at things from an entirely new point of view.  In parenting, mental effort counts for a lot.

These were my thoughts a few minutes ago, while driving home from tonight’s fascinating talk at my preschool by Po Bronson, the author of the best-selling book,  Nurture Shock.

Wow- Po Bronson speaking at Explorer Preschool!  What an event this was for a little school like ours.  We have been waiting breathlessly for Po’s visit since last summer when our Parent Ed. Chair-mom, Katie, somehow used her magical powers to persuade  him to speak at our school. And let me tell you:  it was worth the wait.  Po was amazing. Even with our break-time cookies calling to us from the other room,  and babysitters turning into pumpkins, no one  wanted his talk to end.

Some comments I heard from parents, and from the mentor teachers and college instructors that were also in attendance:

-How can he know so much, remember so much, and recall all that information so easily?

-He’s able to explain complicated concepts in a way that’s easy to understand. This is not the case with most people who are as brilliant as he is!

-How can he know so much, remember so much, and have all that information on the tip of his tongue?

-I feel good about my parenting after hearing him, even though I now think I need to make a couple of  changes. Some experts just make me feel like a crappy parent, and I don’t need that- I feel bad enough already about all my mistakes.

-He’s one of us!  He’s just a dad, and he understands what it’s like to be a parent like me.

-I can’t wait to read some of his other books and articles!

-He was so much fun to listen to—I lost track of time.

-Everything he said made me love our preschool even more.

-It’s hard to change your mind about things that you’ve always thought were right, but when Po explains why another viewpoint is better, it makes a lot of sense to me.

-I’m going to ask my spouse to read this.  And I think I’ll buy a copy for my nanny too.

-This is giving me a lot to think about.

-I really hope he continues writing about child development topics.

-He really cares about this stuff, and it shows.

We can’t all have a Po-chip implanted in our brains, ready to call up and analyze the research data to make sure that our every decision is right. In fact, I’ll bet that even Po finds that chip a little hard to access at times. (Maybe we should discuss this with his wife….!)  But most of us can think about what he talked about tonight, read or re-read Nurture Shock, and maybe discuss it with friends at our Aprll Book Club evening.  That’s perfectly good enough. Just a little  thoughtful effort can help us all be better parents and teachers.

Sunday, January 30, 2011


Will kids be affected by things they don’t understand? Or will these things just go “over their heads” and float away harmlessly?

Is it ok to watch CNN or an R-rated movie when your toddler or preschooler is in the room?

What harm can it do for school-age kids to watch teen-oriented shows?  After all, they don’t understand all the sexual innuendo and sexually-charged messages anyway, right?

Infants don't even notice what’s happening around them, do they?  How could watching a violent movie or tv show while nursing your infant be a problem? 

If adults talk about “adult things” or use “adult words” while kids are present, it’s ok as long as the kids don’t know what they are talking about, right?

If they don’t understand it, it’s not a problem, right?


Children of all ages absorb much more than adults realize, and many things they are exposed to at young ages can create stress and anxiety for them.  From birth, babies and children begin a process called “social referencing.”  Every second, they are looking at and listening to the people around them, to gradually form the basis for their view of the world.

In the early months of life, this social referencing is mostly in the form of sensory input, feelings, and impressions, because babies’ receptive language takes time to develop. They don’t know what your words mean when they are newborns, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t receiving clear messages from your tone of voice, your actions, and the general atmosphere around them.  

At a few weeks of age, babies begin to zero in on the facial expressions of the people that are important to them, and very quickly they put those expressions together in their minds with other emotional clues to read your feelings by looking at your face.  And when a baby or young child sees negative emotions on the face of his or her caregivers, the baby has no choice but to think that the distress is somehow related to them.  This is because of the normal developmental ego-centrism of this age.  If you’re upset or angry, the baby is likely to think it’s about them, because in infancy, babies experience EVERYTHING as being about them.

As children grow, this social referencing becomes more sophisticated.   They watch us to learn how to respond to problems, to pain, to joy, to the feelings of other people, and to life in general. This process continues for a very long time, and perhaps it even continues into adulthood.  My adult daughters have shown me that they are still very sensitive to me and their dad, and are very much affected by our emotions, or their perceptions of them.  And I have to admit that I’m still very in-tune with my 80-year-old mom, and often still catch myself observing her to see how I should respond to something, just as I did when I was a kid.

So what does all this have to do with TV shows, movies, newscasts, video games, music,  and other aspects of media exposure? If you look at it from the children’s viewpoint it’s pretty simple. 

When a baby hears gunshots, explosions, and cries of anger and aggression coming from the soundtrack of your Friday night Netflix choice, and then they see your face registering no surprise or concern, it can give the baby the message that hurting people is of no consequence.  Or if they see that you are distressed by these sounds and images, they can become anxious about your feelings, and often feel responsible for your distress.

When a child watches a movie intended for much older people, with complex emotional themes and complicated relationships, they are confronted with emotions that they are not yet equipped to deal with, so they may shut down and ignore those feelings. But the feelings don’t completely go away, so the child can be left with under-the-surface questions and anxieties which are not appropriate for their stage of development.  And worse, they usually do not even have the language or experience they need to be able to express their need for help.

When kids of any age are allowed to watch or to play violent video games, no matter what our words may say about “we do not hurt people,” our actions of playing and condoning the hurtful actions on the screen speak much louder than those words.  We expose kids to violence in many, many ways, and then we wonder why they push or hit a playmate at school.  The connection is obvious when you think about it, but many adults do not see it. Or don't WANT to see it.

The problem is that we adults want what we want when we want it.  We want to be able to watch movies, listen to the news, play games, or engage in other activities, and we want to believe  it’s ok if our kids are “too young to get it.”   But the thing is:  kids are NEVER too young to “get it,” and as parents we have to put some of our own needs on hold at times to accommodate a child’s needs.  Wait until they’re in bed to watch your movie or play your game. 

Be sensitive to the social referencing that is such an intense part of growing up.  And let your kids take their time growing into their understanding of the world.

Nothing goes “over their heads,” so that’s why WE, the adults, have to use ours.