Tag Archive for healthy development

Join Your Family in Song

My daughter was just learning to walk when we started singing “Go Down Moses” while dancing around the living room. My other daughter stood up to sing “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” as we solemnly buried a bird that had committed kamikaze against our front window. The toddler we babysat looked at me with anticipation and followed the directions of our impromptu lyrics calling her to step onto a small step and “jump” before laughing and asking to do it again.

When our children seem upset and begin to cry, we sing them a song to help them calm. When they can’t sleep, we sing them a lullaby. When they need to clean up their rooms, we might follow Barney’s cue and sing “Clean up, clean up….” We teach our children the alphabet through song. The list goes on. Music works wonders for a parent…and it continues working right through the teen years.

Children start remembering melodies as early as 5-months-old. At 11-months-old they are more receptive to a person singing a familiar song, even if that person is a stranger. Infants and children feel soothed by music and even begin to use music to calm themselves at a very young age. Who hasn’t heard their very young child, upset about having to take a nap, lying in their crib singing a song rather than crying? Even teens calm themselves through song.

Music brings us together. Whether we sing like a songbird or croak out a tune, it communicates that we are paying attention to the one we sing to and the ones we sing with. It signals that we are all part of the same group, we belong. Music draws us together and bonds us. It allows us to share emotions and even synchronizes us physically.

Why not use music in your family? Sing a song together. Listen to music together. Enjoy music together. Your family will love it. You will experience greater joy and intimacy with your family. Give it a try: “Sing. Sing a song. Make it simple to last the whole night long….” 

This Is Your Brain On Kindness

What can we learn about kindness from 36  studies and 1,150 fMRIs gathered over a 10-year period from people making kind decisions? Psychologists at the University of Sussex can answer that question. They analyzed the research of those 36 studies and split the acts of kindness into two categories: strategic kindness (kindness in which the person giving kindness gained a personal benefit) and altruistic kindness (kindness in which the person giving kindness did not gain a personal benefit in return). The research revealed that reward areas of the brain became more active when a person engaged in strategic kindness, kindness with the opportunity for the recipient to “return the favor.”   But wait. The same areas became activated when the person engaged in acts of kindness with no hope of a “return favor.” There was no hope for personal benefit in the act of altruistic kindness, but the reward centers of the brain still became more active. So, whether one engaged in strategic kindness or altruistic kindness, the reward centers of the brain became more active. It appears that engaging in deeds of kindness may be its own reward.

But wait. There’s more. (No, it’s not a ‘Chop-o-Matic.’) Activating the brain’s reward center represents the similarity between the two types of kindness. The research revealed a difference as well. In altruistic kindness even more areas of the brain became active. In other words, altruistic kindness did more than activate the reward centers of the brain; altruistic kindness activated even broader regions of the brain. Want to get your children’s brains active? Give them opportunities to engage in acts of kindness.

I realize we can activate the reward centers and other areas of our brain by engaging in any number of activities; but, might I suggest we engage the brains of our children and families by presenting opportunities to engage in kindness as a family. Maybe if we engage the reward centers of our family members’ brains with kindness and relationship, they will be less likely to engage them in harmful ways (like drug use).  And, engaging in kindness sounds like so much more fun! So, engage your brains and the brains of your children. Activate your reward centers. Enjoy the stimulation of your brain’s reward system. Engage in acts of kindness.

(If you’re stuck for ideas, read The Mighty Power of Kindness for Families or A Family Fun Night to Share Kindness.)

Who Needs a Prescription for Play?

I read an article that began by stating “A new paper in the journal Pediatrics summarizes the evidence for letting kids let loose.”  I thought, “Interesting.” The authors of this article went on to encourage pediatricians to write a “prescription for play” for their youngest patients. Why would they write a “prescription for play”? Because play, intrinsically motivated and unstructured fun, is disappearing from the lives of our children…and with it the benefits of play are disappearing from their lives. What are the benefits of play? Here are five benefits discussed in the article.

  • Play promotes brain development. Specifically, play promotes the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which is important for learning and growing healthy connections between neurons in the brain. In other words, play primes the brain for learning.
  • Play reduces obesity and diseases associated with obesity. Running, jumping, and climbing helps children build confidence in their physical ability. It helps them learn the limits of their body as well. Knowing the limits helps them remain safe (Let Them Take a Risk). The physical activity of play helps them develop into physically active and healthy adults. In fact, children who got the most outdoor time were 42% less likely to be overweight.
  • Play contributes to improved behavior and reduced stress. Children resolve traumatic events through play, working through the troubling aspects of the trauma so they can learn to “put it behind them” rather than let it intrude into their present lives. Obviously, this will reduce stress in the child’s life. Moreover, a study in which teachers engaged children in one-on-one play led to improved behavior in the children who engaged in play compared to a control group. (Investing Time & Attention in Your Children)
  • Play helps families to bond. Play brings people together. It helps us learn to listen and it teaches us to compromise. Play helps us attune to our children emotionally, mentally, and physically. This attunement allows us to help our children learn to manage their emotions in an effective manner. (Make Your Child a Head Taller Than Himself)
  • Play contributes to academic success. Play encourages language development, the exploration of ideas, the ability to delay gratification, and spatial relationships. Each of these skills contribute to academic success. Blocks encourage increased knowledge in putting words, ideas, or architectural materials together. Playing store promotes social skills, math, and negotiation skills. Imaginative play promotes storytelling and self-regulation. Physics, social skills, language development, storytelling, arithmetic, geometry, emotional regulation…it can all be found in play. And children learn it faster and better while playing. (Learn more in Have Fun AND Reduce Childhood Aggression.)

We could expand on this list of the benefits of play, but you get the idea. Let the children play. I’m not a pediatrician, but I am a “doctor” of psychology. So, if you need a prescription, here it is: “Your child is to engage in imaginative, unstructured play for at least one hour per day.” 

Follow that prescription and your children will flourish…and you could find yourself rejoicing in their growth and maturity!

A Medicine to Cure What Ails You

I am not a medical doctor, so I can’t prescribe medication. Generally, I don’t even promote medications except as a last resort. However, I so like this medication that I will promote it whole-heartedly. It’s a strong medicine that can cure what ails you.  It can release us from so much stress…and that means it can improve our health. The Miami Herald (2014) reported that “according to the American Psychological Association, chronic stress is linked to the six leading causes of death: heart disease, cancer, lung ailments, accidents, cirrhosis of the liver and suicide. And more than 75% of all physician office visits are for stress-related ailments and complaints.” I fear we experience stress at an even higher rate today than when that article was written. But, the medicine I want to tell you about is strong enough to cure what ails you, especially when it comes to stress! It’s a medicine that we have used less and less in this era of texting, Instagram, Snapchat, and instant messaging; but is so powerful we need to start using it more again. What is this medicine? The human voice. Studies has shown just how powerful the human voice is for reducing stress and increasing positive emotions. In 2010, a group of researchers recruited mothers and daughters (7-12 years old) to take part in a study exploring how the voice reduces stress, decreases stress hormones, and increases oxytocin (the feel-good, bonding hormone). They found that being able to spend 15 minutes talking with their mother on the phone decreased cortisol (the stress hormone) and increased oxytocin as much as face-to-face physical contact with their mother. There is power in a mother’s comforting words. 

A second study in 2012 by the same researchers showed that a mother’s voice reduced cortisol and increased oxytocin while twice the amount of time instant messaging did not. A third study in 2017 with a different group of researchers explore the power of personal interaction, vocal interactions, and texting in reducing stress. No surprises. Interacting over the phone had a similar impact as face-to-face interaction. Both increased the stressed person’s sense of positive emotion. Texting did not. 

The human voice offering words of comfort and support can decrease stress and increase positive emotion leading to healthier lives. Texting, instant messaging, Instagram, and other social media cannot!

Like all medicine, the human voice does have negative side effects. (This is where you read in a softer, more inviting voice like the medication commercials do.) Using the human voice to yell can increase cortisol levels and so increase stress. It can create changes in the brain areas responsible for processing sounds and language, making them more vigilant, even hypervigilant and more likely to misinterpret the intent of people’s speech. Yelling can also increase symptoms of depression. With that said, (please return to your usual excited voice) the human voice is a medicine to cure what ails you. Here are some ways to use this medicine most effectively. First, stop texting, instant messaging, and posting opinions on face book. Instead:

  1. Use your human voice to offer encouragement. Cheer one another on to greater success.
  2. Use your human voice to offer words of comfort to those who are stressed. Talk to them and communicate understanding.
  3. Use your human voice to express love and affection. Compliment one another. Verbalize your love for one another.
  4. When you must discipline your children, refrain from yelling. State the limits and consequences in a neutral tone of voice. However, when your children do something you like, acknowledge it “with feelings” of love and adoration.
  5. If you find yourself yelling, stop using this medicine (the human voice) and seek professional help immediately (or just go calm down). If you start name-calling while using the human voice, stop immediately. As your mother said, “If you have nothing good to say, say nothing at all!”

The human voice, a medicine that can reduce stress and promote a longer, healthier lifestyle. That’s a medicine I can get behind! Ask your doctor about it today (Actually, forget asking your doctor. Just start using the human voice in a healthy way today!)

Fat Brain in Adolescents

The adolescent years represent a critical time in brain development. With that in mind, a recent study from Loma Linda University Adventist Health Sciences Center explored how a diet high in saturated fat impacts brain development in adolescents. To do so, they fed a diet high in saturated fats to a group of adolescent rats. They discovered that eating a diet high in saturated fat during adolescent years impacted areas of the brain associated with fear, anxiety, and stress clear into adulthood. Specifically, the rats consuming the high-saturated fat diet had more anxiety, an impaired startle response, and incorrectly assessed levels of threat. All of this made them more susceptible to higher levels of anxiety, stress, and even PTSD-related symptoms…even into adulthood! Of course, your children are not rats (no matter how frustrating they can be!). However, it is very likely that a diet high in saturated fat will have a very similar effect in the human brain (which is why we study it in rats).

This mean that the diet you feed your children and adolescents today will have a long reaching impact on their ability to manage anxiety and respond to stress in adulthood. If they eat a diet high in saturated fats, their ability to manage stress and anxiety effectively may be hindered. In the United States, the biggest sources of saturated fat in our diet are:

  • Pizza and cheese
  • Dairy desserts (like ice cream and whipped cream)
  • Red meat
  • Cookies and “other grain-based deserts” (like cakes)
  • Fast food

So, if you want your children to develop a stronger ability to manage stress, anxiety, and fear, avoid the adolescent fat brain by making a few changes to your family diet. Eat less pizza and more vegetables. Eat fewer cookies and more apples. Eat less ice cream and more carrots. Eat less red meat and more chicken, fish, and turkey. Eat less fast food and more home-cooked meals. (Here are other benefits of eating as a family at home.) Get started today!

Smartphones, Priorities, & Terrible Outcomes…Even for Parents?

You have likely read articles implicating the smartphone in various types of disasters, like car fatalities, bullying, marital problems, or physical accidents. You may have even watched videos of mishaps caused by smartphone usage, some funny and some disturbing. (That Was Awkward describes my own experience with cellphone distraction!) But did you ever think about how “smartphone distraction” impacts a parent’s ability to parent. An article entitled The Dangers of Distracted Parenting outlines some of the research showing how parental smartphone use impacts parent-child relationships and, as a result, child development. The author sites several studies. Some show outcomes as simple as child ER visits increasing as cellphone usage increased. Other studies suggested more disturbing outcomes for parental cellphone usage, like decreased verbal and non-verbal interactions with their children, increased negative behaviors as children make increasingly demanding bids for parental attention, and children’s decreased ability to learn language when a parent is on the phone. Over the long run, these outcomes translate into poorer academic achievement and poorer social skills if the parent develops a pattern of placing smartphone usage (sending/answering texts, playing games, checking news, etc.) over their relationship with their children.

I remember visiting a local amusement park and watching a father stand in line with his young son (maybe 5-years-old). The father was busy on his cellphone while his son tried desperately to get his father’s attention.(Read A Carnival of Parents for more.) At the time I thought the father was missing a wonderful opportunity to build a relationship with his son and communicate how much he valued his son. And, in fact, his son may have come to believe his father valued his cell phone, the person on the other end of the cell phone, or the game he played on the cell phone more than him. But, now I know that this father being distracted by his cellphone may have done even more damage. If this type of distraction became a consistent pattern, his son may have developed less effective social skills and exhibited poorer language skills.

This all  begs the question. What really is more important, your children or your phone? Of course, we all know our children are more important; but, do our actions coincide with that value? Or are we so addicted to our smartphones that they have become a wedge in our relationship with our children. I do know a way to put the question to rest once and for all, a way to discover if you cellphone has become so important in your life that it interferes with your relationship with your children. Put the phone away. I mean turn it off and put it in another room. Then, leave it in the other room while you enjoy dinner and an evening activity with your children, no smartphone even in sight. Then, make this practice a habit, a regular occurrence in the life of your family. Do it nightly or 3 times a week.  If doing this sounds hard, or even impossible, it’s very possible that your cellphone has become so important in your life that it’s interfering with your relationship with your children. Don’t let it happen. Take action now. (You have a superpower to use against this problem. Learn about it in A Sense of Belonging “Phubbed”)

Put Your Children to Work For Goodness’ Sake!!

Children thrive when they learn to manage their behaviors and emotions independently. They need to engage in at least two tasks to learn the skills of managing their behaviors and emotions. These two tasks make up the work of children. If they do not do this work, they will fall into our current cultural crisis of self-indulgence and self-gratification. On the other hand, doing work that allows them to learn the skills necessary to manage behaviors and emotions contributes to success, long-term joy, and contentment.  So, let’s put our children to work. Let’s get them on task, engaged in the work at hand. Here are the two basic work tasks in which our children need to engage so they develop the ability to manage their behaviors and emotions independently. Read on…because these work tasks might surprise you. 

  • Unsupervised, unstructured play remains the number one job for our children. When children play with other children they learn to cooperate with one another. They practice the art of compromise. They often need to set aside their own self-gratification for the good of the group and negotiate a solution everyone can live with if they want to continue the game. Each player learns to wait their turn, a discipline in delayed gratification and self-control. They also learn that they cannot “get their way” all the time. In the work of unsupervised, unstructured play our children learn to resolve disputes in a way that keeps everyone involved in the game. Unstructured play also allows children to take healthy risks, learning the limits of their bodies and abilities and when to stop to avoid injury. In other words, unsupervised, unstructured play is a job that teaches our children the skills necessary to manage their behaviors and emotions independently. ( Make Your Child “a Head Taller Than Himself” explains more about the benefit of play for the maturing child.)
  • Significant work in the home or community becomes the number two job to help our children learn to manage their behaviors and emotions independently. Notice, our children need “significant” work not “meaningless” tasks. Our children need work that makes a significant contribution to our home or community. Significant work allows them to feel like an important part of the home, like they are an important wheel in the overall functioning of the family. It informs them that they belong; they are needed. Children also become more confident when they have chores that play a meaningful part in their homes or communities. If, on the other hand, we prioritize our children’s activities to the extent that they no longer have any household contribution, we have set them up for struggles. They can easily slip into self-indulgence rather than community-orientation. They learn to be self-focused rather than community-focused. They miss out on opportunities to develop the discipline of prioritizing “what needs to be done” while making time for other activities as well. By engaging in significant household chores children learn of their self-worth, their contribution to “something bigger than themselves.” In other words, significant chores in the home and community give our children the opportunity to learn to manage their behaviors and emotions independently. (Read Chores: The Gift of Significance for more.)

So, put your children to work. Make time for them to engage in the work of unstructured, unsupervised play and assure they have significant chores that contribute to the home and family.

Fathers…Who Needs ‘Em?

If you watch TV very often you might find yourself asking, “Fathers, who needs ’em?” Fathers, according to the sitcoms, are the bumbling, awkward parents who need a woman to save them and their family relationships. Even in Disney movies fathers often fall short. They need their daughters to save them from their fearful, “dark age thinking” (think Little Mermaid or Moana). Fathers are consistently taken advantage of by the antagonist of the Disney movie (think of the Sultan in Aladdin or Jane’s father in Tarzan). Fathers also play the “bad guy” by restricting their children’s growth and exploration (like Chief Powhatan in Pocahontas or Mr. Banks in Mary Poppins).  Don’t get me wrong. I love Disney movies. But, if they give a true representation of fathers, who needs ’em (fathers, I mean)?

Wait, I know the answer to that question. Who needs fathers? WE ALL NEED FATHERS!!! In spite of the representation we see of fathers in film, we need fathers. In fact, these representations are far from accurate. They dramatically misrepresent fatherhood…and do not show the true value of fathers.

Case in point, consider the findings of meta-analysis consisting of 34 studies on fatherhood completed by William Jeynes’, professor at California State University. The studies in this meta-analysis involved a total of 37,300 participants and highlighted the unique role of fathers in childrearing. Contrary to the depiction that children had to bring their fathers out of their fearful, “dark-age” thinking, this meta-analysis revealed that fathers play a crucial role in the “preparatory aspect of child-rearing.”   In other words, fathers played an important role (over and above the role of mothers) in helping children successfully move into the world as independent adults. Fathers also tended to communicate higher expectations of their children than mothers, helping them become ready for the world outside of home. Rather than restrict their children’s growth and exploration, fathers encourage their children’s growth and exploration. While encouraging exploration, a father’s active involvement still led to lower rates of delinquency and substance abuse in their children. As these few results reveal, we all need loving fathers in our lives! (For more on the impact of fathers in the family read A Father’s Surprising Difference and Fathers: “Committed to a Precious Responsibility”)

So, if you’re a mother, encourage your children’s father to become actively involved in your children’s lives.

If you’re a father, get off the couch, turn off the TV, leave work at a decent hour, and get involved in your children’s lives.  Their success in life depends on it. And, you will never regret that you did it! (The Best Advice for Dads…Ever to learn the best thing I ever did as a father!)

Mealtime and the “Picky Eater”

Do you have a “picky eater”? Oops, I made my first mistake in helping that child learn to eat better. I might have greater success teaching my child to eat a healthy diet by calling him or her a “learning eater” rather than a “picky eater.” Just this small change in label opens greater possibilities for growth and change. “Picky” implies an unchanging global trait whereas “learning” implies room for growth. “Learning” implies the child can learn to like a broader array of foods and styles of cooking. “Learning” suggests there is something more out there to find out about as opposed to an enduring trait of “picky.” So, if you want your child to be less picky and more of a learner when it comes to food, start using the phrase “learning eater.” While we’re at it, here are five other tips to help your “learning eater” to eat better.

  1. Involve your child in food shopping, cooking, and even growing the food if possible. Let them experience the whole process of farm to table food. This will increase your child’s understanding, appreciation, and respect for food.
  2. Make meal time enjoyable. Keep demands and anger away from the dinner table. Do not nag your child about eating or doing chores while at the dinner table. Instead, make meal time enjoyable. Celebrate your relationships. Encourage your children. Tell them what you admire and adore about them. Inform them about what they do that makes them proud.
  3. Quit using dessert for a reward or a bribe.
  4. Include a couple of vegetables with each meal. Don’t push the veggies or nag them to eat the veggies. Just provide a couple of veggies and let them choose one to eat.
  5. Keep snacking to a minimum. Provide healthy snacks as well.

What other tips do you have for helping your children learn to eat a healthy diet?

What Do You Really Want for Your Children?

I hate to say it, but parents have a huge responsibility. A tremendous burden rests on our shoulders. The future of our world depends on the priorities and values we instill in our children. I mean, it’s true but I didn’t think about that kind of responsibility when my wife and I decided to have children. But we quickly came to realize the need to take that responsibility seriously. We had to ask ourselves what values we really want to instill in our children. We needed to assess what we really want our children to learn. We had to nurture and teach our children to enable them to “see the big picture.”  Here are some of the questions we ask of ourselves. What are your answers?

  • Do we want our children to learn that the most important aspect of life is to win at any cost or do we want them to play the game while encouraging and supporting even the competition?
  • Do we want our children to learn to “get over on the system” or to live with integrity and honesty while working to change the system?
  • Do we want our children to pursue their own interests to the neglect of others or to pursue their interests while remaining aware, respectful, and encouraging of other peoples’ interests as well?
  • Do we want our children to fight for “my rights” or to have a more expansive view that also considers the rights of others and balancing the rights of all through service and sacrifice?
  • Do we want our children to get rich or to share with those who have genuine need?
  • Do we want our children to work to the neglect of relationship or to work to gain the resources they can use to build relationships?
  • Do we want our children to worry about the future at the expense of enjoying the moment or to prepare for the future while enjoying the moment? In fact, to even believe that how we enjoy the moment shapes our future!
  • Do we want our children to learn that “my” job or interests is most important and prestigious or to learn that everyone’s jobs and interests carry importance, prestige, and an amazing set of knowledge not everyone shares?
  • Do we want our children to learn that “my” opinion is best or to develop a genuine interest and respect in other people’s ideas and opinions, even if you disagree?

You cannot NOT teach your children these values. In your everyday words and actions, you teach your children these values.  They learn them from what you say and what you do, how you treat them and how you treat one another. Consider the values you want them to learn. Then start living them out in your daily life today!

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