The editors at ParentMap are immensely lucky to be connected to an amazing universe of smart people who know an awful lot of cool things, and we grow incrementally better as parents through these associations. As 2013 gets underway, we asked some of our frequent contributors to share simple but powerful ideas to help parents create new healthy habits for the new year.
When we asked Seattle Mama Doc for her top health habit for 2013, we were surprised and delighted that her answer was nothing like traditional pediatric health advice. “I'd suggest you make it a habit (and I mean daily) to practice gratitude — exercise it, make note of it, talk about it,” she wrote.
She’s blogged about how her family, including two children ages 4 and 6, make gratitude a daily part of their life. “We call it BPOD. At dinner every night we share our Best.Part.Of.Day (BPOD). It's easy and takes little time, therefore the habit stuck. That ease is essential for lasting change. We love it and it's adding to our well being. Being mindful of what we have in our lives — people, experiences, opportunities — has remarkable power.”
Listen and learn for better sleep
When your child’s sleep is problematic, it’s tempting to rush to find a solution. But Malia Jacobson, a nationally published sleep journalist, author of two books on children’s sleep issues, and frequent ParentMap contributor, recommends a more a watchful approach. “A child experiencing sleep problems is trying to tell you something. Instead of asking ‘Why is he doing this to me?,’ flip the dialogue to focus on your child and his needs: What does he need sleep-wise that he is not getting, and how can you better support those needs?”
She recommends tracking your child’s sleep for a few days to learn just how much sleep he or she really needs. “Learning about your own child’s unique sleep requirements is at the heart of many of my recommendations for sleep-deprived parents. Mistaken beliefs about how much a child should be sleeping are a factor in well over half of the sleep questions I receive from parents — your unique child may need much more (or less) sleep than you think.”
Mediate your child’s media diet
In this era when media devices outnumber the people living in the house and toddlers routinely interact with multiple screens during the course of the day, many parents worry about how to judge and modulate the influence — good and bad — of media in their children’s lives. Sarah Roseberry, Ph.D., a researcher with the Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences (I-LABS) at the University of Washington, relates that while media overexposure isn’t always in and of itself detrimental, parents need to understand that in the context of learning and language acquisition in very young children (under 3 years of age) the research underscores a long-understood truth: Young children learn more effectively in live social interactions than independently via “educational” screen media.
Roseberry explains, “As humans, we are wired to learn from other humans. If you combine media and a live person, you have the greatest potential to create strong learning outcomes. Screen media can be a tremendous tool to give your child a window into things that you might not have access to in your world. But social interaction in the presence of media is the key.”
How can parents boost the learning potential of media experiences? “If you have a live social interaction that accompanies the technology, what you end up having is this model that looks like a really good book-reading exercise, which we know from years and years of research is very good for kids’ learning.”
Roseberry offers the following tips for enhancing social screen time:
- Ask children questions that invite reflection about the content.
- Help children make connections back to their unique life and experiences.
- Make sure to explain words they may not understand.
- Help them process and understand aspects of even very mild cartoon violence.
- Encourage children to become active participants in the process, by retelling the story or recounting their own similar experiences.
Also of importance, she says, is using media intentionally. This means such basic things as turning off the TV if no one is watching it, as opposed to leaving it on in the background. “Survey research shows that households have the TV on for an extraordinary amount of time each day; if the programming is adult-directed (CNN, talk shows), the impact on kids is direct and measurable.” Background media tends to limit children’s play episodes, which become shorter and not as engaged; families also tend not to talk as much, and face-to-face interaction is invaluable to best learning outcomes for kids. Roseberry invokes an I-LABS mantra: “Remember, as a parent, you are by far the best toy in the room.” We might also suggest that parents are the best teachers in the room.
Roseberry recommends several web-based support resources to parents who wish to judge whether certain media are appropriate for their children:
Common Sense Media — This website features a rating and reviews system for media that is searchable by product, age groups, and media themes. “They do a great job as independent raters to help parents make determinations about how educational digital media products are for their kids.”
TEC Center — The TEC Center at Erikson Institute provides blogs, articles, and webinars related to a thoughtful and appropriate use of technology and media in the classroom and other early childhood settings.
Ele, the Early Learning Environment at the Fred Rogers Center — This site is a rich trove of resources and support for the use of digital media in supporting early learning in children younger than 5. Parents and early learning educators and caregivers can discover activities, videos and other resources and ideas for engaging kids in learning in the context of media of all types (not just digital).
Next: Get outside more
Get outside more
A growing body of research demonstrates just how much kids benefit from regular, unstructured play outside — play helps “develop peace of mind, creativity, cognitive flexibility, improved problem solving and self-esteem” in kids, to name just a few of the benefits. But let’s face it — we don’t need a research study to tell us our kids need more time outside, and that we do, too. We just need to make it happen.
So, what are a few easy ways to get more outside time in the season of gloom and drizzle? Take up backyard bird watching. Just the act of observing what’s going on outside your window is motivation to get out more, and winter — when trees are bare and birds are seeking food — is a great time to start. Do one of these simple garden crafts with kids or one of these fun backyard explorations. Make it a mission to visit a new park every month, bad weather or not, and start with these hidden gems.
Next: Walk together
Walking is the humblest exercise, and arguably offers the greatest health benefits. It requires no special equipment. It’s eco-friendly, practical and community-oriented.
One easy way to get a daily walk in is to walk your kids to school, if you live close enough. Make it even more fun and community-driven by starting a walking school bus, which, as CoolMom points out, “can be as informal as two families taking turns walking their children to school to as structured as a route with meeting points, a timetable and a regularly rotated schedule of trained volunteers.” Get tips on how to do it on CoolMom
Another walking perk: Sightline Institute reports that walking 30 minutes a day, five days a week, adds 1.3 –1.5 years to your life, on average. “This means that for every minute you spend walking, you get three back.”
Start a five-minute home yoga practice
Introducing a new healthy habit requires two things that can be in short supply for parents: energy and time for a new commitment. Anne Phyfe Palmer, owner of 8 Limbs Yoga Centers and a mother of two, appreciates that when you’re a parent, especially a new parent, the demands of life can feel overwhelming. “It is all too easy to shortchange practices around self-care — there will always be a million reasons not to. What you have to do is make the reason for practice stronger and weaken the impulse to not practice.”
Don’t think you have time for yoga? Palmer says a daily home yoga practice can be five minutes and still make a tremendous difference in reducing anxiety and increasing a sense of well-being. Here are her tips on getting started:
- Do an “energy suck” inventory. Palmer recommends busy parents first identify the many things that are tapping their energy — and then make choices or tradeoffs that will help them reclaim the energy needed to power the new practice.
- Force of habit is your friend. Think metaphorically of yoga as you would brushing your teeth, Palmer says. “You don’t question caring for your teeth for five minutes every day — why would you question flossing your mind/your body?”
- Document your progress. Record your intentions in a practice notebook and reflect back on your success. “When people are acknowledged for a new habit — either through self-acknowledgement or outside acknowledgement — they are more likely to stick with the practice.”
- Focus on a pose or poses you enjoy. “The cat-cow pose comes to mind when someone is connecting to yoga for the first time.” Get on your hands and knees, arch your back to make a lot of space in your chest, then breathe in; round your back and breathe out.
- Breathe. Taking deep breaths is the fastest way to switch your nervous system from being on a potential stress response to being in a relaxation response — “Breathing works much faster than pouring a drink!” Palmer jokes.
Palmer offers these breathing 101 pointers for moments when you need to redirect an anxiety response:
- Sit down and breathe through your nose, slowly expanding your belly, your chest, and your torso. Imagine that you are filling a balloon inside you, inflating it in all directions slowly.
- Use the same measured and deliberate pace on the exhalation, releasing the fullness like the balloon is shrinking back to a smaller shape. Repeat two more times.
- Don’t give up, thinking you can’t get it “right.” While some yoga breathing techniques can be quite advanced, Palmer likes to take that pressure off of people: “Inhale, expand; exhale, release. The key thing is pacing throughout the breath, on inhalation and exhalation. Slow and steady.”
Next: Give back
Do you have a never-realized resolution of starting a giving-back tradition with your kids? Make this the year. We’ve rounded up 10 terrific ideas for how families can volunteer together: Kids as young as 6 can help organize food for the homeless; toddlers can help plant trees in their favorite parks; and families can even do much-needed tasks at home (or in the car), such as sort through and deliver donations or foster a neglected animal.
Why do it? Beyond the actual doing of good, you might be surprised at how much kids get out of service, from exposure to new people, places (and sometimes cool machines) to the satisfaction of doing shared, tangible work side by side with parents and siblings and with people outside of their family.
Roast or grill vegetables every Sunday
If you want to boost your vegetable intake, one easy way is to roast or grill your favorites once weekly and keep those flavorful veggies in the fridge to top salads, reheat as an easy side, blend into soups, etc. As winter weekends wind down, I lay parchment on a baking sheet and roast whatever seasonal produce I have on hand (sweet potatoes, parsnips, winter squash) with a light coat of olive oil, salt and pepper. We head to bed in a cozy, fragrant house, happy to have healthy lunch fixings on hand to start the week.
This healthy habit was contributed by local food writer Karen Gaudette (@nwfoodette).
Get back to positive parenting basics
Mistakes happen. We will screw up and so will our kids. As adults, it's not the mistakes that matter as much as the clean-up and repair you do after. Punishing our children or ourselves for mistakes only makes us feel worse. Try viewing mistakes as an opportunity to learn. Ask your children what they need to do to repair the situation and what they learned that will help them in the future. Not only will your kids feel more connected to you and your humanness, they are likely learning much more than punishment could ever teach them.
Teach children what they can do, instead of what they can’t. Help your children by modeling what you would like them to do in a given situation through your example. If you want them to know how to stay calm in the face of challenge, you must model that for them. Telling them what not to do doesn’t get them there. Showing them by managing your own stress, emotions and behavior will. This is harder work in the short term, but the lasting impact is enormous for the whole family.
How we relate to those close to us has a huge impact on our child’s development. Many parents appreciate the importance of using respectful communication and problem-solving skills with their children, but let those go with their partners. Children learn much more from our actions than from our words. Your children are learning what a healthy relationship looks like from the ways you interact with your partner every day. Modeling that every person deserves to be treated with respect helps them do the same and expect that from their partner when they grow up.
These healthy parenting habits were contributed by parent educator and coach Sarina Behar Natkin, LICSW, of Grow Parenting.
Next: Get to C-A-L-M
Get to C-A-L-M
As a clinical psychologist and clinical associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at University of Washington, Dr. Laura Kastner has become an expert navigator of the terra incognita that is the inner universe of a teen. She knows firsthand that negotiating “the inevitable family minefield of the tween and teen years” is easier for parents who develop a certain set of “wise-minded” skills. “Simply put, wise-minded parenting is what happens when you balance both sides of your mental equation — rational thought and emotion — to arrive at effective ways of handling upsetting and emotional situations,” she explains.
Mindful parenting is all well and good, but what should you do when you lose your cool and say something to your child that you deeply regret? Kastner advises, “The best you can do is damage control. Just stop talking and focus on calming down.” She offers the following strategy from her book Getting to Calm (Kastner and Wyatt, 2009) to help in such hot-button moments:
C - Cool down. Remove yourself from the situation to get your emotions in check and your heart rate down with a distraction or breathing exercise.
A - Assess your options. Consider possible approaches you might take to repair the damage. Consciously evaluating options automatically engages the prefrontal cortex of the brain, facilitating good judgment.
L - Listen with empathy. Once you reengage with your child, acknowledge his or her feelings first —without any qualifying ifs, ands or buts. “Remember this mantra: I may be right, but am I effective?” says Kastner. Empathy does not mean you approve or agree, but it does work to break up the communication log jam.
M - Make a plan. Feeling more calm and centered? Good. Use your now regulated emotions and wise mind to figure out realistic goals and how you can reach them.
Wise-Minded Parenting: Mastering the Seven Essentials of Successful Tweens and Teens, Dr. Kastner ’s follow-up book to Getting to Calm, will be published in May, 2013.