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{Focusing on 3 aspects of my stay-at-home mom routine have made all the difference in making daily life more engaging for me and my kids}

I still remember vividly that day my husband went back to work after the birth of our first son. It was my first day at home with my newborn son...all alone. I was nervous, sleep-deprived and still getting to know this little bundle whom I loved dearly.

BUT, he cried a lot. Would I be able to calm him without breaking down into tears myself? Would we be able to make it out to the grocery store on our own?

It seems silly to me now, but if you flash back to those moments, you may have felt similar. I knew I wanted to be a stay-at-home mom, but how do I do this new role?

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Like many stay-at-home moms, I was used to desks, not diapers. I had spent the past 10 years either working in the non-profit world or in grad school. My schedule was my own, I had meetings, I wrote papers, I did research. How do I now drop that part of my life and focus all my attention on this tiny bundle of need and crying? I loved him dearly, but I was a little lost.

Over time, of course, we found our way. It took much of the first year for both of us to figure out our new world--together. Babies change so frequently in that first year, that just as soon as I thought I had our routine figured out, he would change. With some reading and reflection, I soon began to focus on 3 primary areas in our daily life together and this helped immensely: activities, identity, and self-care.

ActivitiesIn those early months, there aren't many activities you can really do with a newborn. However, my son (and most babies) do find ways to make their preferences known.

My son loved bouncing! Bouncing in the infant bouncy seat and bouncing while strapped to my chest in an infant carrier. Walking also worked well, as long as he was attached to me; not in a stroller. It was pretty much the only thing that calmed him when he got into fussy periods.

Most babies love hearing your voice. It doesn't really matter what you talk about, just talking helps their brain come alive. It also helps you and your baby get "in sync." Synchronicity is one of the key emotional skills that are developing in the first few months. The more you are in sync with your baby, the easier it will be for you to respond to his needs.

Some parents may feel weird reading to a young baby since they can't really respond or even focus on the page. However, research shows that even babies benefit from hearing books read. Check out this post for baby books that boost brain development.

Figuring out your mom identity often takes time. Becoming a parent is life-altering in more ways than one. Being the research geek I am, before becoming a mom, I had read tons of books on child development, breastfeeding, etc. but nothing really prepares you for how you will feel. I thought I would figure out breastfeeding way sooner than I really did. I swore my baby would never sleep in bed with us. Well, real life has a way of not going according to your plans.

Related reading: The Child Development Bookshelf: Best Books for Parents and Kids

Breastfeeding did not come as easily as I had expected so my identity at those early nursing moms support groups didn't fit as well I had thought. I struggled with breastfeeding while those other moms seemed to do it so easily.

After trying out several different moms groups, I eventually found one that was a good fit for me. Having other moms to talk to with whom you share common beliefs, experiences or life views makes a world of difference. For many moms, this type of group helps solidify your mom identity. For other moms, it might be something else--a fitness group or a baby storytime group. 

Consider what interests you had before you had a baby. This usually helps you figure out a path to find other moms who share your interests. Just because you have a baby doesn't mean you have to give up your personal interests or identity.

Related reading: What Being a Stay-at-Home Mom Taught Me About Child Development (that a Ph.D. didn't!)

I also figured out that it was okay to "mourn" a bit the passing of my pre-baby identity. That's not to say that I lost it completely but it did have to change. I think many moms go through this stage.  Especially if you worked full time before staying at home with kids, the identity shift from the "working world" to the stay-at-home mom world is kind of abrupt. Even in today's world, being a stay-at-home mom is not exactly highly valued. Sometimes people still really wonder what you do all day. 

Developing your mom identity really benefits your baby too. The more you can connect with who you really are, what kind of mom you want to be, the more confident and fulfilled you will feel. The more confident you feel, the happier and more engaged you will be with your baby.

As moms, we have a tendency to give and give and forget to take care of ourselves, especially in early motherhood when the needs of our babies are so immediate. The physical and emotional demands of motherhood are real. Many times moms feel guilty for taking time to take care of themselves. The truth is, however, if we don't we will eventually succumb to the demands and our physical or mental health might suffer. We get run down and we get sick. We don't take a break once in awhile and our patience starts to wear thin (research backs this one up). A lack of self-care ultimately catches up to us.

Related reading: Research Reveals the Real Reason You Lost Your Temper with Your Toddler

After months of nursing every two hours and getting very limited sleep, I learned this lesson myself. My mental health started to suffer. Luckily, I have a very supportive husband who stepped in to give me enough of a break during nights that I could function again. 

Over the years, I've figured out that self-care is not just about pedicures and spa days. It's about figuring out what fills you up, what helps you keep your boundaries in place and your mind clear. Self-care looks different for everyone. Here are just a few ideas but it might look completely different for you:

- reading while the kids nap
- going for a run with the toddler in the stroller
- chatting with friends in real life (or sending a card instead of a text)
- listening to a podcast in the car instead of Wheels on the Bus
- sitting down to eat instead of scraping up the kids’ leftovers

The key is that self-care shouldn't be a source of guilt. It should make you feel stronger knowing that by taking care of yourself, you are inadvertently taking care of your children. Babies, perhaps even more than us, are very in tune with the emotions of their caregivers. Using the "still face" experiment, studies illustrate how upset babies get when their caregivers are unresponsive to their emotions. This speaks volumes to the need for self-care. If we are so fatigued or worn down, that we cannot respond well to our children, over time they will notice.

Whether you're a stay-at-home mom or a mom who reports to an office each day, the idea of focusing on activities, identity, and self-care will hopefully help guide your daily routine. The specifics of each person's daily routine might be different, but I think by focusing on these 3 areas, it helps you keep the big picture in mind. By finding ways to balance your child's needs and your own needs, you will no doubt find yourself feeling more confident in your parenting.

Related Resources:

The Gifts of Imperfection

Rhythms, Routines and Schedules

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In the past week, 2 major celebrities have passed away as a result of suicide. Yet, in our country, mental illness is still considered a taboo topic in many circles. It's important to be aware and educated about mental illness at all stages of life, starting with our kids.

While the frequency of conversation surrounding mental illness is trending upward, there is still work to be done. It’s vital to ensure that all individuals who are diagnosed with a mental disorder have open lines of communication and resources available. May is Mental Health Awareness month, and children and adolescents are largely impacted by mental health disorders. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 50 percent of all lifetime cases of mental health disorders begin by the age of 14. This startling statistic can lead us to ask, what do we do with this information?

The Unique Face of Mental Illness
First, we must acknowledge that each person diagnosed with a mental illness has their own unique situation. Each individual has their own personal set of circumstances that has lead to a diagnosis. There is not a, “one size fits all” solution when it comes to mental illness and how to help those affected by it. We must continue to facilitate dialogue in various aspects of mental health, and talk about the countless scenarios that our kids may be up against. Mental Health Month raises awareness around trauma, and the impact it can have on the wellbeing of children, families, and the overall community we live in. While mental health disorders can stem from a variety of different causes, we want to spotlight trauma, and how it can influence the state of mental well-being in children.

Related reading: The Hidden Way that Kids Learn Empathy (and how parents can help)

Trauma and Mental HealthOften times, many people don’t consider the state of children’s mental health. This is alarming as children as young as 18 months old can experience a traumatic event and go on to have later behavioral and psychological problems. From being exposed to crime, violence, abuse, or even the loss of a loved one, trauma can stem from a lot of different situations. We’re looking more closely into the impact that trauma can have on the mental state of children and teens.

If you are concerned that your child has been exposed to a traumatic event, specialists have identified specific behaviors to be on the lookout for. If a child you know has recently experienced a traumatic event:

  • Separation anxiety or clinginess toward teachers or caregivers
  • Changes in appetite
  • Decreased interest in and/or withdrawal from friends or family and normal activities
  • Over- or under-reaction to physical contact, sudden movements, and sounds
  • Angry outbursts and/or aggression
  • More frequent complaints of headaches, stomachaches, or fatigue
  • Repeatedly recreating the event through comments, drawings, or activity
  • Emotional “numbing,” or expressing no feelings at all about the event

Although trauma is a common underlying cause of mental health issues in children, it is not the only cause. Even infants have a full mental life and are constantly making sense of their interactions with caregivers. As this wonderful article by Lisa Sunbury describes, experiments with babies have shown that they are careful observers of their caregivers' emotions. Although they don't have the emotional skills to understand adult emotions, they often react when they see withdrawal or sadness in their caregivers.

This video illustrates the classic "still face" experiment done to examine how babies respond to a lack of response from a caregiver. If the relationship is "repaired" as in seen in the video, the bond remains, however, if babies experience repreated withdrawal, impacts on their mental health can be seen.

Still Face Experiment: Dr. Edward Tronick - YouTube

Get InformedIdentifying a problem and ultimately understanding a diagnosis can be overwhelming. This rings especially true when trying to grasp the diagnosis in a child. Where do you start? This is a frequent question that carries a lot of weight. It can be hard to collect your thoughts and know what to ask. Jumo Health is an online suite of resources to educate and empower those dealing with diagnoses. Available are free discussion guide downloads to help steer conversations with your doctor about diagnosis. Depression and Anxiety are just two examples of topics that have a guide available.

In addition, Jumo Connect offers a series of comics and podcasts that explain different diseases, disorders, and conditions. Some of the most relevant include the “Mental Health: Anxiety and Depression podcast.” This follows Gianna, a high school junior who has lived experience of depression and anxiety. It’s a great resource to help kids and teens connect to someone who may be experiencing the same struggles and difficulties in life.

Related reading: National Children's Mental Health Awareness Day

Resources for Children's Mental Health
Another great organization is ZERO TO THREE. They work to ensure that babies and toddlers benefit from early connections that are critical to their well being and development. Children can be resilient when it comes to trauma, but they typically process events different than adults. ZERO TO THREE has developed a great parenting resource on building resilience. It is designed to teach how you can help infants and toddlers to learn to cope with adversity.

Recognizing resilience at four different levels: the individual, the family, the school and caregiving systems, and the larger community. Parents can build their child’s resilience on a daily basis by teaching self-care, emphasizing the positive, building a strong parent-child bond, reading together, encouraging social skills, maintaining a daily routine, nurturing self-esteem, and practicing reflection.

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{Helping our youngsters grow in emotional intelligence with a few acts of kindness for kids. Research-backed but easy ideas to bring into the daily summer routine}

I had done what "good moms" do. I signed them up for camps. I enrolled them in summer baseball. I had registered them for vacation Bible school. We had done our reverse bucket list for summer.

I got to the end of May and thought I had a good plan for the summer. Then I realized--I had just set up a world that revolved solely around them. Is this how I want summer to be? Do I want to just be
the "cruise director" of their summer?

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Or is there space to think of others? Can we incorporate some simple acts of kindness into our routine? What can I do to help them grow in empathy and emotional intelligence this summer?

Related reading: The Reverse Bucket List Summer: Helping Kids Grow in Gratitude

The Science of KindnessSummer is the perfect time to capitalize on the extra time to build emotional intelligence. One clear finding we know from research is that it takes a lot of practice and modeling for emotional skills to take hold. From an early age, kids are wired for kindness. Babies as young as 9 months old gravitate toward the "kind" puppet in lab studies. However, for this mindset to continue, it has to be reinforced as kids grow.

Related reading: Kids' Emotional Intelligence: Why Low-Tech Skills are the Key to Success in a High-Tech World

Modeling kindness in our daily lives is one of the best ways to reinforce empathetic thinking. As eloquently pointed out in the book, The Yes Brain, the part of the brain that helps control empathetic thinking is one that can be developed and trained over time. By pointing out the feelings of others and practicing empathetic interactions, this part of the brain becomes stronger in kids. 

Even in our high-tech world, emotional interaction and kindness still matter. It makes for a better world, and research also tells us it helps make kids happier and more successful...even in those high-tech jobs. Although coding computers may one day be automated, skills like communication, empathy, and emotional intelligence will never be perfectly imitated by a robot. These skills are what make us human.

Related reading: Nature and Nurture: The Origins of Compassion

Purpose, not PressureI realized the other day that I have 9 summers left with my oldest and 13 left with my youngest until they (presumably) leave the house. Pointing this out, however, is not about feeling pressure to make things perfect all summer; it's about making good use of the free time we have.

So I put together a collection of easy, low-key summer acts of kindness for kids that we can incorporate into our daily routine.

Summer Acts of Kindness for Kids:
Want more ideas for acts of kindness? Sign up here to receive an expanded printable list FREE:

Kindness-related Resources:

The Yes Brain

Unselfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World

Little Loving Hands--fun crafts given to charity

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{The social-emotional benefits of summer camp are clear but what happens when smartphones intrude on the normal camp experience.}

I vividly remember my first experience at sleepaway summer camp as a child. I was in about 4th or 5th grade and it was my first time away from my parents overnight (except for sleepovers at grandparents' and friends' houses). I went with a close friend and even her older sister was there with us.

But...I was homesick. I cried every day of the week-long camp. Although my friends and family had boasted of the benefits of summer camp, they were lost on me. My mood improved somewhat through the week but overall I did not enjoy it much.

Summer Camp in the Age of Smart PhonesNowadays, kids experiencing feelings like mine at camp might have quick access to a cellphone to call or text their parents.

A new study from C.S. Mott Children's hospital considered how access to smartphones might change the camp experience. The researchers interviewed officials at 331 camps across the U.S. and Canada. The results were both enlightening and a little disturbing.

A Few Advantages of Technology at Camp:The camp officials pointed out that they did see some advantages to kids having access to technology at camp. Kids could take pictures and create slideshows of their favorite memories, for example. Other times technology was used for entertainment during "downtime" like video game tournaments or music for dance parties.

Related reading: Distracted by Your Device? This Parenting Research Will Change Your Perspective {plus a printable mantra to help}
The Downside to Technology at Camp:Many of the camp officials, however, reported the downside to kids having technology and internet access at camp. As you might expect, many kids became so immersed in texting and social media that they would not participate fully in camp events or bond with their fellow campers.
One respondent even wrote, campers are “more worried about their phone than the poison ivy bush they’re about to step in.”
One of the more concerning (and sad) consequences of technology at camp was the fact that counselors reported that kids did not want to participate in activities like talent shows or dance parties where videos of them might be taken and posted on social media. The fear of embarrassment was just too much.

Other times, it wasn't the campers but the counselors who found it hard to harness their technology. Some officials noted that counselors sometimes used phones or devices so much that it compromised their duties.

Related reading: Parenting Challenges--Resources to Help You Manage Technology, Foster Kindness and Simpify Life
Emotional Benefits of a Technology BreakThere was one encouraging note in the research too. Many officials reported that once teens recovered from the initial shock of having no phone for a few days, they were actually eager for the technology break. They said they felt more relaxed without the pressures of social media comparison.

New research backs this up as well. One study found that pre-teens who spent 5 days in an overnight camp without phones, TV or computer had better skills in reading emotions in facial expressions than a same-age control group who did not attend camp. Of course, it's hard to tease apart whether these emotional benefits resulted solely from lack of screen time, time in nature or a combination of both factors. Nevertheless, the benefits of summer camp without screens are clear.

Related reading: Kids' Emotional Intelligence: Why Low-Tech Skills are the Key to Success in a High-Tech World

Besides the obvious emotional benefits, summer camp can also build a sense of resilience in kids as well. Researchers who study resilience have shown that kids who experience tolerable risk gain skills in coping and identity-formation that stick with them for years. Summer camp offers just this type of tolerable risk as kids take on new physical challenges, make new friends, and cope with unpredictable circumstances.

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I can definitely relate to these benefits. Remember that horrible first camp experience?  A couple of years later I went back and had a blast. What would have that first experience been like if I had a cellphone to call or text my mom every day?

Here's an even more important question: what would that second camp experience have been like if I had the chance to call or text every day on the first trip?

You can probably guess my answer. If I had been tied to technology on that first trip, I probably would have never made that second trip. The experience of homesickness, as difficult as it was, was what made the second trip possible. 

As with many things in life, the challenges and struggles are often what make the subsequent happy experiences so wonderful. Put in child development terms, the coping skills and resilience I learned through that week of homesickness are what made me feel confident enough to handle going back to camp the next time.

The second camp trip I remember just like a scene out of The Parent Trap: cabins with lots of tween girls chatting, camp activities that forced us to get beyond our awkwardness like canoeing, archery and yes, even a camp dance. Those are the skills and memories that live on long after the week of summer camp.

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{Helping your kids develop emotional intelligence might be one of the most important things you can do to ensure their future success}

My older son (3rd grade) has a great social-emotional learning program at his school. Each morning, the class gathers and talks about how each student is feeling (e.g., the Zones of Regulation). Then they usually do a short lesson on some topic related to kids' emotional intelligence such as growth mindset, emotions, dealing with anger, getting along with friends, etc.

One day last week, he mentioned that had talked about empathy. I asked him what empathy was and he said, "it's trying to understand what another person is feeling."

I thought to myself, "great! he seems like he really understands this." While watching a movie later that night, he even said, "I feel so much empathy for that family" about a scene in which the family was in a dangerous predicament.

The next day, we had a new babysitter come over to meet our boys because she was planning to watch them the next day. While she was still present, that same son said, "she's boring."

I was so embarrassed! The girl was new at babysitting and you could tell she was a bit nervous. I couldn't believe my supposedly empathetic son had said that while she was still within earshot. 
I asked him later how he thought that phrase might have made her feel. He was a bit confused at first but then I reminded him that she was meeting all of us for the first time and she was new to babysitting. Then he realized how saying "she's boring" might have hurt her feelings. He said, of course, that he just hadn't thought about that at the time.

I explained that I understood that and we all do silly things like that from time to time. I just wanted him to be aware of it so he could see how he words might hurt other people's feelings. I think he got it.

This illustrates one key idea when it comes to the emotional development of kids--it's not a simple linear path. Like many aspects of development, kids' emotional intelligence comes in "fits and starts." They learn some new skill or perspective but then they are put in a new situation and have to re-learn lessons again. It's all part of the process. 

It's a bumpy developmental road, so why should we persist in helping our kids grow in emotional intelligence?

Why Emotional Intelligence Matters
In recent weeks, there have been a number of high-profile articles floating around social media urging us to look beyond STEM skills when considering how best to prepare our kids for the world they will face in the future. Google came out with a big study of their employees and found that the ones that were most successful were not the ones with the best tech skills, but those with “soft” skills like communicating (and listening), being empathetic to co-workers, understanding others’ perspectives and critical thinking.

A Forbes article claimed that “that useless liberal arts degree” is now in high demand in the tech world. Why? Because those with these degrees often understand better how to work with others, understand the needs of customers, and help folks transition in a tech world that is rapidly changing. In other words, for the next generation of work, our kids not only need to know how to code but how to communicate and empathize. Emotional intelligence is now more important than ever before.

It's not all about the workforce, however. We know from our own experience that being kind and empathetic towards others just makes life better and helps make us happier too. Research bears this out. People with higher emotional intelligence tend to be happier and have stronger relationships. Just listen to Dr. Michele Borba, author of the awesome book Unselfie discuss this research. 

If you would like to hear more fascinating talks like this, please join me at the FREE 2018 Positive Parenting Conference on May 1-10. Dr. Borba will be there along with TONS of other wonderful speakers. All free, all online! Sign up HERE    

Emotional Intelligence is a Learned Skill
Unlike walking or talking, which normally develops naturally in a child with little assistance, emotional intelligence must be fostered. The brain development necessary for kids to understand the emotions of others does appear quite naturally, but caring adults must model empathy for it to really flourish.
Related reading: Gift Guide for Raising Kind Kids

You may have noticed this mental shift in your own kids. Ask a 3-year-old how another person feels about something (e.g., their favorite color), the youngster will inevitably answer what their own favorite color is. This type of egocentrism isn’t a fault of your parenting. It’s simply that in a child this young, the part of the brain used to read other’s feelings has not fully developed.

But, ask that same child the same question only a year later and you will likely get a totally different, less egocentric answer. The mental shift is remarkable. Suddenly, your 4-year-old can understand that what you like is different from what she likes. Researchers call this skill Theory of Mind and the video below shows how they test for this development in the lab: 

The 'False Belief' Test Theory of Mind - YouTube

Pretty amazing, right?

How to Foster Emotional Intelligence
Now that your 4-year-old can actually consider the mind and feelings of others, true empathy and growth in emotional intelligence is possible. Now, our job as parents is just beginning! Like most “soft skills,” emotional intelligence takes modeling and practice. Here are just a few things we parents can do to help:
  • Talk the talk. Our conversations with our kids really matter! Studies show that kids whose parents who discuss how other people might be feeling have better perspective-taking ability than those who don’t. Perspective-taking just means being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes (the first step in empathy!). If your child sees another child being teased on the playground, ask how you think that makes that child feel. While watching a movie or reading a book, ask your child how the character might be feeling. Little discussions like this can really foster your kid's emotional intelligence.
  • Walk the walk. Conversations about emotions are helpful, but modeling empathy with your kids (and others) is the key to solidifying those brain connections that make empathy a life-long habit. It’s often challenging to show empathy to our kids when they’re behavior is…umm less-than-perfect, but it really does show them how empathy makes them feel. This, in turn, illustrates to them why empathy is important to show to others. In other words, modeling is key. Of course, you can also model EQ with others you interact with as well—spouse, family members, store clerks, etc. Young kids watch everything and absorb all these little interactions during the day.
  • Emotional guidance. In the wonderful book, The Yes Brain, the authors point out that one of the best ways we can foster emotional intelligence is by guiding kids through their own emotions. Our tendency as parents is to solve or fix an issue that causing our kids’ pain. For emotional issues, however, sometimes the best solution is to guide them through their pain or distress instead of immediately distracting them or trying to get them “back to happy” too quickly. If we allow our kids to feel sad or disappointed, over time, they learn to understand how others feel when they experience these emotions too. Sometimes, it is only through our own pain that we come to truly understand the pain of someone else. This is true for our kids as well.
Related reading: Top 3 Tips for Raising Kind Kids: Realistic Ideas for Parents

Ironically, as our economy shifts to a more high-tech, information-driven model, the need for emotional intelligence only grows. Simply put, computers can automate tech skills, but computers can’t automate emotional interaction
Even as algorithms dictate more of our daily life, its human interaction that still provides meaning to our lives. 
Fostering kids' emotional intelligence will not only give them an advantage over the computers, it will make for a kinder, more meaningful world.

Related Resources:

Wonder Crate. A subscription/activity box that promotes the development of emotional intelligence with categories like Confidence, Empathy and Mindfulness

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Remember when you read to your baby for the first time? Maybe she was so little she couldn't even hold her head up. You knew he wouldn't understand much of what you were reading but you knew reading to your baby was important. Plus, he loved the sound of your voice.

What book did you read? I honestly do not remember what I first read to my boys. We had a children's book-themed baby shower for my oldest son so we ended up with TONS of classic baby books like Goodnight Moon and Pat the Bunny. I loved all of them and I loved reading to him.

Once they were old enough to be more aware of what I was reading, I was naturally attracted to "labeling" books. You know those board books for babies that label all the animals, cars, and shapes. Like most parents, I wanted my kids to be able to learn words early and labeling books seemed the obvious choice to help them. My boys did seem to enjoy these books, especially once they were old enough to name the objects themselves.

New research, however, shows us that another type of book might be even better for babies' brain development. A recent study of 6-9 month-old infants considered how babies learning was influenced by being read books that had either category labels (e.g., dog, cat, rabbit) versus individual-level labels (e.g., Jack, Pat, Cindy).

Now this distinction between category and individual labels may seem unimportant to us adults but to babies that are just at the cusp of learning language and understanding how words work, these categories represent different types of learning.
Want more information on common child development myths? Download this free cheat sheet: 5 Common Child Development Myths...Debunked. It addresses frequent questions about attachment, "spoiling" your baby and more.

You may wonder how scientists study babies learning since they cannot yet talk or even identify objects. Well, thanks to modern technology, researchers can use fancy eye scanning cameras to track how the babies' eyes move. For researchers, eye movements indicate what the babies are attending to and interested in. Similarly, researchers also use those cool caps with sensors to measure the babies' brain activity. This was another part of this study.

Which Books Help Babies LearnIf you are a science nerd like me the results of this study are pretty fascinating, but they have real-life implications for all of us parents too. The study showed that babies who were read books with individual-level labels (e.g., Jack, Pat, Cindy) spent more time attending to the images. Secondly, looking at the brain activity showed that these babies were more likely to be able to differentiate between the images after being read the story.

In other words, babies learned more from the books with individual labels than category labels. They could tell the difference between the images better. Pretty amazing for 6-9 month-old babies!

Related post: More Evidence that "Difficult" Babies are Most Influenced by Parents

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What Talking and Reading Does for Babies' BrainsWe all know that reading to children, even babies, is important. This research further delineates what the reading actually does for the babies' brains. In general, it helps them learn to put together an image and a word. Furthermore, any reading (not just individual-level labeling) helps babies by exposing them to lots and lots of words.

Have you heard of the "word gap?" Studies have shown that one of the primary reasons for the disparity in academic achievement between low-income and higher-income students is due to the amount of time parents spend talking to their young children. In a 1995 study, researchers found that low-income children heard about 600 words per hour, compared to 2,100 words per hour in a higher-income family. It became clear to researchers that exposure to language was one of the key factors to help close the achievement gap they were seeing in these children years later.

It turns out that besides reading, one of the best things we can do for babies is just talk...a lot! Many parents do this naturally--we talk to our babies all day long about what we are doing, what we are seeing, etc. Some researchers have called this "dialogic living." In other words, we narrate our day to our child. 

This too, is why studies indicate that babies vocalize less when playing with electronic toys compared to books. With books, parents are prompted to read and discuss the pictures. With electronic toys, parents tend to let the toy do all the "work" and they don't talk as much. Now that's food for thought!

Imagine, however, if you are under a lot of stress, your mind is racing with how to get to your job or how to pay the bills. Do you think narrating your day (or your stresses) to your baby is on the top of your priority list? Maybe not. This is just one example of how the stress of poverty impacts children, even the littlest babies. Fortunately, many programs have begun across the country to help low-income families learn more about talking to their babies in this playful, narrative way. Hopefully, these, along with equitable access to preschool with help alleviate these economic disparities. 

Related post: The Power of Words
Brain-Boosting Baby BooksI've done (some) of the work for you by searching through lists of baby books for ones that use individual-level labels (rather than category-level). These are just a few examples, but also be aware that any reading with your baby is beneficial. These books might just help add to the variety of your growing library. Enjoy reading these classic baby books with your kids!

Pat the Bunny--the classic tale loved by many babies. It has all those cool "touchable" pages with different textures.

Is Your Mama a Llama?--Lloyd the llama is on a search to figure out if other animals have a llama for their mama. Nice rhyming and a lovely story.

Jesse Bear, What Will You Wear--like all little ones, Jesse Bear has some trouble figuring out what to wear (and how to put it on). Great for toddlers who want to do all the dressing themselves.

Corduroy--who doesn't love this book! A sweet story of a bear's search for his missing button and a home. (Plus it's super-cute to hear your toddler try to say "Corduroy!")

My Very First Mother Goose--these may seem "old-fashioned" but there is a reason they have stood the test of time. Babies love the rhythmic sounds and fun characters. Still a must-have in any children's library.

Gossie--kids can help Gossie the gosling find her bright red boots.

The Snowy Day--a simple, beautiful book about young Peter exploring the snow. Plus it's one of the first children's books featuring an African-American lead character in an urban environment.

Blueberries for Sal--another classic that maybe you read as a child. Kids love the "kerplunck" sound as the berries fall into the bucket.

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I got my first smartphone when my oldest was a newborn (summer 2009). I had told my husband for months that I didn't need one (he already had one) but my handy little flip phone died and I didn't have much choice.

Game changer

Honestly, I don't know how I would have survived those newborn days without that little hand-held link to the outside world. He was a very fussy baby who hated the car seat so we spent many hours at home...usually with him strapped to my chest and me bouncing on an exercise ball (the only thing that calmed him).

My phone was my life line during those months. I called my mom to cry about why he wouldn't sleep, I posted cute pictures of him on Facebook and I could Google every question I had about newborn habits.

Now fast forward a few years and we are all on our phones a lot. Being a stay-at-home, work-at-home mom, the smart phone has become an irreplaceable tool for me. They are so powerful now that I can craft a graphic for my blog on my phone while my kids play on the playground.

But what about the negative underbelly of all this phone time? I have found myself saying, "wait a minute I just need to do this one thing," to my kids a lot more now that they are older and their demands can usually wait longer.

But how does this make them feel? How do you feel when your spouse says, "wait a minute" while typing away on his/her phone when you are trying to talk?

Luckily, the innovative researchers at Illinois State University are beginning to help answer these questions with hard data. Their most recent study considered how the parent-child relationship is affected by parents who are distracted by their phones. Now that's a good research question!

The study:- 170 couples with young children

- parents were asked about their problematic mobile device usage (e.g., not being able to resist checking messages, thinking about messages a lot)

- parents were asked about "technoference" in their relationship with their child (e.g., how often devices interrupt conversations)

- parents were asked about their children's behavior (e.g., internalizing behavior like whining or sulking and externalizing behavior like hyperactivity or hot temper)

How Device-Distraction Affects Parenting: - parents who reported more problems managing their device usage were more likely to experience technoference in their relationship with their child. In other words, parents who were "hooked" on their phones were more likely to allow this to interfere with their relationship with their child.

- also, kids whose parents showed signs of technoference were more likely to exhibit behavioral issues. In other words, in situations where parent-child relationships were disrupted by technology, kids were more likely to exhibit negative behavior (both internalizing and externalizing).

** Okay, the usual caveats with social science research apply here. Although this is a well-conducted study, we cannot from one study prove causation. We do not know if the technoference experienced in these parent-child relationships is causing the children's negative behavior OR if the parents of kids who exhibit behavioral problems are more likely to be "hooked" on their phones (perhaps as a distraction from misbehaving kids).

However, what we can tell from this study is important, even groundbreaking--the interaction we have with our phones has the potential to impact our relationship with our kids (either through technoference or through escapism).

When you think about it, this is a daunting reality. A device that started out as a tool now has the power to influence our parenting. These devices are not going away; we all know that. So how do we manage our phone time and our relationships with our kids?

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I struggle with this as much as anyone but the one idea I keep coming back to is VALUE. I never want my kids to feel like I value technology over them. I don't want anyone important in my life to feel that way. I never want to value online relationships more than real-life ones. The same goes for my kids--I never want them to value technology more than in-person relationships.

To remind myself of these values, I've created a printable mantra I call "In Our Home." It simply outlines the values that we hold in our home regarding technology use and relationships.

I would love to share this printable with you! Just fill out the box below and it will be sent to your inbox for you to print and hang up as a reminder for you too.

Other useful resources for managing technology:

Time Tokens: The Fun and Simple Way to Limit Screen Time

Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive in Their Digital World

Circle by Disney: Parental Control for Connected Devices
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{Ideas for gifts that promote social-emotional learning and kindness in kids}

My four-year-old was at it again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

{**This post contains affiliate links. Purchasing through these links helps support this blog at no added cost to you}

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


storieChild Books
I have only recently heard about these beautiful books. We are all used to those generic books that you can have your own child's picture or name included. These are SO much better than that. You get to choose your child's pictures, but also their story. You can include details about their birth, their interests, their dreams. Each story is unique to your child with your text embedded in a beautiful storyline. This is such a great idea! What a better way to bond with your child than to sit down and read their story together.

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

FREE Resource: Download this e-book to understand the WHY behind your child's behavior: Understanding Your Child's Temperament

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

Here are a few of our favorites:

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

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

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

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

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

Related reading: The Hidden Way that Kids Learn Empathy (and how parents can help)
Books With Emotional Lessons
Books are the best way to share a variety of important lessons--friendship, traditions, being brave, etc. Books also have the wonderful ability to help kids learn how to put themselves in another's shoes and understand feelings. Plus, spending time together reading is a time of connection that you and your child will cherish forever. 

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

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

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

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

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

Not Fair: A Kid's Guide to Handling Envy and Jealousy. I'm embarrassed to admit that we need this book in our house...badly. My kids are notorious for saying, "it's not fair," any time any reward or treat is handed out. I was about to pull my hair out! I checked this book out from the library and I was so impressed with how well the authors approach this topic from a kid-friendly perspective. An added bonus is that it also helps them learn some cognitive skills to keep a positive attitude in a variety of situations.

Pretend Play
As I've written on many occasions, play is really the engine of learning for young kids. There is no better way to gain social skills than through pretend play. It..
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{How new research on executive function in kids made me feel better about being a soccer mom dropout}

My oldest son is 8 and is one of the few in his class that is not involved in soccer...and never has been. GASP!

It hasn't really been an intentional choice on our part. He has never really shown an interest (for more than 1 day). Plus, I'm not ready to commit our precious free time after school and especially on weekends to sitting in the hot or cold or rain to watch him practice.

Am I a horrible mother? The society-driven guilt part of me says, "yes" but the authentic me says, "heck no!"

Truth be told, I kind of like being a soccer mom rebel. I don't really like always doing the expected motherhood thing and my son isn't one to just "go with flow" on activities like that. He has done certain activities from time to time--summer baseball (we missed half the season traveling), "ninja" gymnastics (right up his alley), and chess club. Overall, however, I find that he does best just hanging out with his friends after school (the few that also have eschewed soccer).

What We Do InsteadThe other day I found him and two friends making an "arcade" out of a bunch of huge cardboard boxes and some Nerf guns. I couldn't have been more proud. They were using their best salesmen techniques to try to convince some younger boys at the park to play for a fee (ha!). They didn't make much money, but they had a blast and you could tell they felt empowered by their experiment with entrepreneurship. 

I'm not against all organized activities. They have their place. But seeing the pride on my son's face at his planning and accomplishing his arcade idea made me think that there really is something to allowing kids to do their own thing.

The other thing I've noticed is that when he has plenty of time to play with friends without an agenda, his behavior and mood is WAY better.

Here's why: during free play kids get the chance to release their emotions, pent up anger or stress. You know how you feel when you've been stressed and then you go for a long walk or a strenuous workout. You feel de-stressed and cleansed, right? 

This is what play does for kids. Without it, we parents often see our kids' emotions and stress spill out as misbehavior, whining, and overall crankiness.

Here's the perfect example: this past weekend we were pretty busy. We were invited to an amusement park with some friends, my son was selling popcorn for Cub Scouts and we had church and a party to attend. We are not usually that busy on weekends, but it just ended up that way. By Sunday night, I felt a little spent but I thought my 8-year-old was doing okay (surprisingly).

Guess what? Monday after school he lost it. Meltdown, fighting with his brother, etc. etc. He needed downtime and had not gotten enough over the weekend. Going to school all day had just been too much and he needed an emotional release. So we stayed at home, he whined and cried off and on and then we talked for quite awhile about what's been going on at school, on the playground, etc. 

After eating a big dinner and relaxing at home he was a totally different kid the next morning. If anything speaks to the need for downtime for kids, this does. The night before, you would have thought everything in his life was a disaster. The next morning, he was eager for school and ready to move on with the day. Amazing!

Related Post: The Surprising Way to Actually Enjoy Playtime with Your Kids

What Does the Research Say About Executive Function
Until recently, the one voice you haven’t heard on the topic of overscheduled kids was the one of science. Child development researchers are now trying to delve into this topic and understand the relationship between structured activities and children’s development.

In one of the first studies of this kind, researchers at The University of Colorado looked at the connection between how kids spend their time (structured vs. unstructured activities) and the development of executive function. As you may know, executive function is one of the key regulatory skills that develop during childhood and is crucial to children’s success and well-being later in life. 

Executive function includes things like 
* planning ahead, 
 * goal-oriented behavior, 
* suppression of unwanted thoughts or behaviors, and 
* delaying gratification. 

Do these sound familiar? They are typically all the skills that break down when kids are overtired or stressed (like my son was).

These skills have been shown to predict children’s academic and social outcomes years down the road. Based on this, you can see why researchers (and parents) are interested in understanding anything related to how executive function develops.

Want to learn more about child development? In this free cheat sheet, you can find out the research behind 5 Common Child Development Myths. Look past the myths behind spanking, spoiling, attachment and more!

The researchers then analyzed the relationship between children’s activities and their level of executive function. The results showed that were was, indeed, a correlation between these factors. 
The more time children spent in structured activities, the lower their scores on the assessment of executive function. In contrast, the more time children spent in less structured activities, the higher their assessment of executive function.

So what does this all mean? Well, we shouldn't all go and unenroll our kids from every activity turn to "unschooling" just yet. This study was small scale (70 children) and was only correlational, meaning we do not know if structured vs. unstructured activities cause a change in executive function or if there is something else going on here. 

What this study does show is that there is some relationship between these factors that deserves further study. What is it about unstructured time that might enforce executive function skills? Is there something about structured activities that limit executive function?

In our lives as parents, I think a study like this makes us reassess the cultural norms and expectations we might be adopting. Are we involved in activities because our kids like them or you see some benefit from them? Or are we just doing what "soccer moms" do? Activities can be great, but don't feel like you must enroll your kid to keep him busy because that's what our society dictates. 

Related Post: Want Your Kids to Learn Problem-Solving? Let Them Play!

Don't forget to download your FREE cheat sheet: 5 Common Child Development Myths...Debunked. Real research answers for common parenting topics like spanking, attachment and play time.

Other Resources:

**This post contains affiliate links. Purchasing through these links supports this blog (thanks!) at no added cost to you.

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Let's face it--there are many demands on our time and the time of our children. For us, it's work, chores and daily care of our kids. For our kids, it's school, playtime, sports, and screentime all vying for their attention.

With all these competing demands, it's difficult to manage sleep, movement and screen time guidelines for our kids. New guidelines from Canada just helped parents get a full picture of how all these guidelines fit together. As parents know, how kids spend their time sleeping, moving and using screens are all related. A tired kid is more likely to gravitate towards a screen than go outside to play. Similarly, an active child is more likely to sleep better.

* This post contains affiliate links. Purchasing through these links supports this blog at no added cost to you.

Finally, an organization has combined all the guidelines together into one comprehensive guide for parents. This guide offers recommendations for what a healthy 24-hours looks like for a child under the age of 4.

Circle by Disney--Parental Control for Connected Devices

Personally, I was excited to see such a comprehensive guide. Before this, all the guidelines were separate and not related to one another. Now, with one look, parents can see how all these recommendations relate.

This type of guide is not meant to make parents feel guilty, but rather to help us all understand the needs of our kids. Most of us instinctively know when our kids get too little sleep, just based on their grumpy behavior, but keeping these guidelines in mind can still help. There are always days when these plans go array, but understanding what type of routine help meets kids' needs best is always helpful. One of the authors described it this way,
"There's no need to fret over these exceptions, Tremblay says. But what we do need to do is think more fully and clearly about everything in our children's lives that make up a healthy day. That's what the new guidelines are there for."

I was so excited about this that I made a helpful PRINTABLE GUIDE that parents can post on their fridge to remind ourselves of these guidelines. It might even help our kids to see it too!

Grab your helpful guide by clicking below:

Send the FREE Guide

More resources for limiting screen time and keeping kids active:

Hands-On Activities for Toddlers

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