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5 No-Nonsense Ways to Make Your Kids (And Yourself) ‘Smarter’

Friday, March 7th, 2014

Want to build your brain? Want to nudge your child’s brain along? Brilliant New York Time Magazine science writer Dan Hurley says it can be done–at anytime and at any age. Did you see him on TV this week? He told Diane Sawyer about proven, no-gimmick ways to boost brainpower from his book Smarter. Today, he tells us:

“When I was in third grade, I still couldn’t read. My teacher told my mother, “Daniel is a slow learner.” But just three years later, in sixth grade, I earned straight As, and spent the summer afterward typing my first “novel.”

How did I do it?  My best friend, Dan Feigelson, became obsessed with Spider-Man and other Marvel comic books and started reading them and drawing their own. Refusing to be elbowed out, I began flipping those pages, putting the words together with the pictures. Soon I was drawing and writing my own comics, and Feigelson and I even made a movie (with help from his dad) starring our invented characters.

It would be simplistic to say that reading Spider-Man made me smarter, but one thing is certain: The old myth that intelligence is forever fixed—that IQ is like a number tattooed on the soul—is dead. Whether already gifted or struggling, diagnosed with a learning disability or just wanting to do a little bit better, children and adults alike can significantly enhance their brain power, according to dozens of randomized, peer-reviewed clinical trials published in peer-reviewed scientific journals. During three years researching my new book, Smarter: The New Science of Building Brain Power, I found strong scientific evidence detailing exactly what works for increasing cognitive capacity—and what doesn’t work.

If you’re waiting for a smart pill, forget about it. Although stimulant medication for ADHD can help some children (and adults) focus enough to learn, they do not raise IQ. Nor do any foods or dietary supplements in otherwise healthy people, as I carefully document in my book.  (Don’t shoot; I’m just the messenger.)

So what does work?  You don’t need me to tell you that reading to your kids and assuring that they get a solid night’s sleep are good for their minds. Beyond the obvious, though, here are five lessons drawn from my book on 5 No-Nonsense Ways to Make Your Kids (and Yourself) Smarter:

1. Computerized Training
You have probably seen advertisements for Lumosity on television, claiming to offer science-based games to improve mental function. While we have all learned to take such claims with a Costco-sized container of salt, in this case the evidence is there. It’s not as proved as, say, insulin for treating diabetes, but it’s certainly not a scam. A recent study, for instance, found that children who had survived cancer “significantly increased processing speed, cognitive flexibility, verbal and visual declarative memory scores as well as significantly increased pre-frontal cortex activation” after playing Lumosity games for eight weeks. Another study of breast-cancer survivors found that playing Lumosity improved women’s high-level cognitive performance, clearing the so-called chemo fog.

For children and adults with ADHD and other learning challenges, psychologists offer a program called Cogmed, which trains an essential cognitive skill called “working memory.” Many studies published in peer-reviewed journals have found benefits, but a few have questioned how meaningful those gains really are. But compared to the countless kooky psychological interventions that get hyped in the press without any scientific validity whatsoever, Cogmed is legitimate enough that I am enrolling my own child in it. Dozens of other studies of computerized working-memory games have found significant benefits. It’s no panacea, but I consider it well worth a try.

2. Music Lessons
Piano lessons aren’t just a way to make your children hate you; they might also make your children smarter. A study published in February, involving 60 children between the ages of 5 and 6, found those who were assigned to music lessons showed significant improvements in IQ after just 12 weeks, compared to those who didn’t receive the music lessons. Another recent study found that children who received music lessons for 18 months showed increases in their memory.

Of course, as parents know, some children enjoy music lessons, and others hate them. My older daughter begged for a guitar and never practiced, then begged for a ukulele and never practiced. Those stupid instruments are still gathering dust in the corner of our dining room. But there is hope: The younger one says she’s ready. Check back with me in a year.

3. Sports
Physical exercise is the best-proved way to improve cognitive performance in both children and adults. Aerobic exercise is now considered a cornerstone of cognitive therapy in older adults, and resistance training to increase muscle strength has also been shown to help.

In children, a study published in January found that children with lower cognitive abilities improved significantly after a brief cardiovascular workout, while those with higher abilities showed little change. Another study, analyzing the combined results of eight previous studies, also found evidence of benefit.

Now you know why professional hockey players are such geniuses, right?

4. Mindfulness Meditation
How can sitting quietly and doing nothing make you or your child smarter? The cognitive benefit of mindfulness meditation is that it builds the ability to pay attention, to maintain focus. Studies by Michael Posner of the University of Oregon have found that mindfulness meditation not only improves attention but also increases the formation of connections between brain cells, and can even help young people quit smoking. A study published last year by researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara, even found that mindfulness meditation can increase test scores on the Graduate Record Exam.

5. Chess
My book opens with the story of two immigrant children, Danny and Julie Vizcaino, who were left behind a grade in elementary school and considered themselves “dumb” until a teacher started a chess club. In a couple of years, both of them were nationally ranked chess players, and both went on to graduate from universities.

Only a few studies have looked at whether teaching chess to children can actually enhance their mental abilities, but it’s a much better bet than having them play Sudoku, Scrabble or other word games—none of which have ever been shown to increase cognitive abilities. What’s special about chess is that it demands focus (like mindfulness meditation); that it requires careful, deliberative thinking; and that the level of play gets progressively harder as skills improve.

Whichever activity you choose, the most important thing is that you and your child understand that intelligence is flexible and can be increased. As Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck has shown, simply explaining to kids that their intelligence is malleable and depends on how hard they work will improve their grades.

I know, it sounds like something out of a Disney movie, but hey, I’m the guy who got smarter thanks to Spider-Man, so what’d you expect?”


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Put Your Phone Down: Hands Free Mama Tells You How to Power Down for Your Kids

Wednesday, February 12th, 2014

Put your phone down! That’s the message of the popular book and blog called Hands Free Mama: Putting Down the Phone, Burning the To Do List, and Letting Go of Perfection to Grasp What Really Matters. Author Rachel Macy Stafford wants us to power down and pay attention, and her awesome new book tells us how to do it, step-by-step. She says: “Our children are learning how to navigate life in a digital world by watching us. Through mindful technology use, children can learn there is a time and place for our devices. On the flip side, if we constantly have a device in our hand or our face in a screen, they will learn that the device takes priority over human beings and real life experiences. Their tech use is likely to resemble our tech use–so what we do with our device at the dinner table, while driving, or while waiting at a restaurants is likely what they will do.

One of my most effective strategies for maintaining healthy boundaries between real life and technology is to envision what will make my children feel fulfilled in the future. And it comes down to this:

If I want my children to be awed by sunsets in the future, I must take time to be awed by sights in nature now.

If I want my children to appreciate the joy of a screen-free Saturday afternoon in the future, I must take time to show them the joys of screen-free Saturday now.

It is my ultimate hope that my children’s childhood memories include me participating in their lives with open hands and attentive eyes. This means doing what I can now to be a hands-free parent as they grow.

Go Hands Free for a Specific Time Period Each Day

Living Hands Free does not mean giving up technology altogether, and it does not mean ignoring your job responsibilities, volunteer obligations or home duties. Living Hands Free means making a conscious decision to temporarily push aside distractions and give your undivided attention to someone or something meaningful in your life.

  • I started my journey by designating time periods when I unplugged from my devices and connected to my loved ones. Because I was so dependent on technology, I had to start with short, 10-minute increments. Although that doesn’t seem like much, the results were profound. Here are some of the revelations I experienced during my initial Hands Free periods:
  •  A feeling of peace and contentment came over me when I was fully engaged with a loved one. I felt assured that I was exactly where I needed to be at that moment.
  • Within minutes of spending time in meaningful connection, online activities and household duties suddenly lost their urgency. Emails, phone calls, dirty laundry and scrolling newsfeeds would still be there after I finished nurturing my relationships. But time with my loved ones was fleeting.
  • Opportunities to connect to loved ones became more apparent. My Hands Free inner voice began to grab me and gently encourage me by saying, ‘Come on, put the phone down. Turn off the computer. You’re missing your life!” I realized that even in the midst of a busy day, there are countless opportunities to pause and connect with the people who matter most. I had just been to distracted to notice.
  • Being constantly available to people outside my family and trying to stay current on all of the latest online happenings was sabotaging my ability to live and love. The only person who could protect my time was me. And to do so, I had to create boundaries between technology and life.

As a result of these positive effects, I was motivated to increase the duration of my distraction-free time increments. With each experience of loving connection, my ties to daily distraction weakened.

This week, incorporate a designated Hands Free Time Period into your daily routine. Turn off your electronics—phone, tablet, laptop, or whatever—and then put them in a drawer or lock them in your car if you have to. Do whatever it takes to disconnect from devices and initiate meaningful connection with a loved one at least once a day. Here are a few examples of distraction-free timeframes:

First thing in the morning

Right before naptime or bedtime

When children arrive home from school


From dinner time until bedtime

As you make room for these Hands Free Time Periods, pay attention to the positive results. What emotions do you experience when you step away from your devices to spend time with a loved one? Do you notice anything special about your loved one that you failed to notice before? Does the importance of your online activities decrease when you are engaged in a moment of loving human connection? Are you beginning to notice more opportunities to connect to what matters to you?

By shutting down your devices periodically each day, you are able to protect your time, strengthen your relationships and nurture your own health and well-being. Giving yourself a chance to notice the details that make life worth living is time well spent.”

Can you do it? Do you have any hands free rules in your house–for yourself or your kids?


What is your parenting style? Take our quiz to find out!

Rosie Pope Gets Personal
Rosie Pope Gets Personal
Rosie Pope Gets Personal

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5 Ways to Be Happy Instantly from Expert Amy Spencer

Wednesday, February 5th, 2014

Being happy doesn’t have to be so hard insists the lovely and talented writer Amy Spencer (see her photo below). She told me that happiness can be as simple as doing the sweet little things you like more often. Try stuff like hugging a loved one or putting your feet in some warm water. Her advice is to find joy in everyday small things instead of just focusing on the biggies (new job, dream vacation, different house.)

Her new book, The Happy Life Checklist: 654 Ways to Find Your Bliss is chock full of ideas to brighten your life. It builds on her previous one (that I loved) called Bright Side Up: 100 Ways to Be Happier Right Now

Check out this book, and also the helpful and uplifting book trailer . Directly from Amy, here are 5 Ways to Be Happy Instantly below:

“Remember how summer seemed to go on forever when you were a kid? It felt like six months of playing outdoors, going to camp, swimming, riding bikes, hitting the beach or playing stickball in the street. And now? Sheesh, Labor Day has come and gone before we know it.

That’s because the way our brains work, the more emotionally charged a situation is, the more it’s stamped deep into our emotional brains. This is why you don’t forget your most gushing first love, your most embarrassing moment, your most heartbreaking breakup or your scariest accident. The bigger the emotion—be it happiness, guilt, fear, love, excitement—the bigger the effect. Because your kids are new to life, they’re getting a lot of emotionally charged input every day, so their days seem bigger and fuller than ours. It’s as if they’re watching their life movie in slow motion, taking in every frame while we are watching ours on fast-forward. We’ve already seen it all before, so we don’t even notice the good stuff anymore. But why should your kids have all the fun, right?

One of the biggest keys to happiness is to appreciate the small joyful moments in your life by consciously seeing your life through a child’s eyes again. I’ve come up with hundreds of ideas you can do this in my new book The Happy Life Checklist: 654 Simple Ways to Find Your Bliss. Because if you can appreciate the fun you’re having each day, your whole year can feel like a big, long summer. Happiness comes in the seconds and minutes of life, as well as in the years. So here are a few quick ways that you can savor the small moments—for free and in five minutes or less—right now!

1. Sing at the top of your lungs. Crank up the volume in the car and sing from your soul. This is why windows close and roll up, isn’t it? I like to put on the 80s station to find some GoGos hits, because I find when I’m belting out an upbeat song, I’m not focused on life’s small annoyances—like traffic, meetings, or emails. Plus, the act of singing releases the brain’s feel-good endorphins and lowers stress. Show your kids how healthy it is to let music amp up your mood.

2. Kiss your child on a spot you love about them and tell them why. A dimple you see when they naturally smile; an arm that embraces you in love. Showing gratitude has one of the greatest impacts on our happiness. So actively appreciate the ones you love today.

3. Live in your beautiful mess. That’s right, a day full of mess can be beautiful, too, because it’s your mess: dishes dirtied with a good meal, comforters crumpled from a long sleep, and sneakers in the hall after a day of family fun. Just once, don’t stress about cleaning up and see the mess as a passing snapshot of a life that will be so much different a decade from now. Take in this moment, right now. Love your as-is mess because it’s all yours.

4. Jump! Who said kids get to have all the fun? Add a little play into your life by getting your feet off the ground, even for just a second. Jump off a bench. A diving board. A sand dune. Or the sidewalk. Or hop, skip or jump hand-in-hand with your little one and feel the freedom of being young at heart.

5. Pull out your nice silverware for leftover night. Or light a candle you’ve been saving. What are you really waiting for? Research says savoring small moments boosts your mood. So when I recently ordered some pizzas for a night in, I pulled out my nice wine glasses for our waters and sodas and the night felt instantly elevated. Use what you’re saving and celebrate the special occasion of today.”

If you want more Amy right now, check out her website The Life Optimist. She even posts videos!


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Family Dinners: 4 Tips To Make Them Better
Family Dinners: 4 Tips To Make Them Better
Family Dinners: 4 Tips To Make Them Better

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6 Ways to For a Mom to Go Vegetarian Right Now

Monday, January 13th, 2014

Is it possible for a mom to go vegetarian without taking her chicken nugget- and bologna-eating kids along for the ride? Author Rachel Meltzer Warren, MS, RDN, believes this feat can be accomplished. She is a New York-based nutrition writer, educator, counselor and author of the brand new book The Smart Girl’s Guide to Going Vegetarian. The book is geared to teens, but Rachel has advice for all ages.

As a part-time vegetarian–I’d be full-time if the whole family just would get on board and pepperoni would stop existing–I find Rachel’s advice super helpful. Check out her advice below including her list 6 Ways to Go Vegetarian Right Now.

“Whether it’s for health reasons, environmentalism or changing tastebuds, you may be among the roughly 30 percent of adults say they’d like to eat less meat in the future. But if you’re a mom, you’re already juggling a long list of dietary wants, needs and quirks as you try to get dinner on the table—and it may feel like you have a choice between your food preferences and your sanity.

As a registered dietitian nutritionist who has worked with lots of families with differing tastes, a longtime vegetarian who totally gets the draw of going meatless and a busy mom who is resistant to anything that may make my life a little more complicated, I say: You can most definitely eat the way you want without losing your mind (or becoming a short order cook).

6 Ways to Go Vegetarian Right Now

1. Be a Share-er
Chances are, if you say, “Look, kids, Tofu Surprise!,” you will hear groans from your family. Instead, introduce your children to new vegetarian foods like black bean burgers or grilled tempeh by putting them on your plate (try this at a restaurant or a friend’s house to minimize your workload in the kitchen). Don’t be surprised when your curious kiddos want a sample—and actually like a food they otherwise may have rejected.

2. Do Meatless Monday
This public health campaign aims to get people to begin each week with a meat-free day is a favorite among celebrities. Chef Mario Batali has jumped on board, as have Jessica Simpson and Oprah. Many schools are now participating in the campaign as well. Visit for great recipes and information on the benefits of being a part-time vegetarian and have a discussion with your kids to help them get excited about joining in. Once you find meatless recipes your kids love, they won’t blink if you add them to the dinnertime rotation later in the week.

3. Go Gradually
Becoming a vegetarian doesn’t have to be an overnight decision. It takes many veg-hopefuls years to find the diet that best fits them. For moms, it may make sense to ease into vegetarianism by giving up just red meat at first. Kids (and spouses!) may feel rejected if mom says she’s no longer eating the same foods as them—doing it little by little helps maintain some sense of normalcy around the dinner table and gives everyone the opportunity to grow comfortable with your change.

4. Talk, Talk, Talk
Make sure your family knows the reasons for your decision, whatever they are—and that you becoming a vegetarian does not mean you expect them to do the same. Reassure your children that their food choices are theirs to make and give them the same respect that you hope for them to give you. The more they understand, they less they’ll feel threatened. And while we’re on the topic of communication—be sure your kids are aware that you are being careful to replace meat with other nutritious foods (like beans, for instance). Parents set the stage for children to have a healthy relationship with food, and it is crucial that your kids see and hear you taking this decision seriously.

5. Make Malleable Meals
I encourage the “blended families” I work with (you know, omnivores and vegetarians) to favor meals where they can “pop out the protein” and add in a new one to minimize the extra work for the chef. It’s hard to take the meat out of, say, meatloaf. Instead, make your family something like a tofu/chicken vegetable stir-fry with rice. While the veggies and rice are cooking, stir-fry some tofu for you. Set it aside, and then use the same pan to stir-fry chicken for everyone else. Top the veggies with each family member’s protein of choice, and everyone gets to share (virtually) the same meal.

6. Have Some Mom Go-Tos
There may be days when your family simply will not do without burgers or chicken cutlets. Stock your kitchen with ingredients for super simple yet delicious vegetarian meals like black bean burritos (shopping list: tortillas, black beans, cheese, salsa, avocado) that you can throw together in minutes. Because there are few things sadder than spending an hour cooking and eating cereal for dinner.”

Are you a vegetarian with a meat-eating family? How do you keep the peace?




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Congrats to Romance Writer Sarah MacLean on Her New Baby!

Friday, January 10th, 2014

Congratulations Sarah MacLean! This New York Times bestselling romance writer just had her first baby on December 17. Right before she went into labor–literally a few hours–she wrote this sweet blog post for me pondering the questions, ‘Do babies make romance better?’

What do you think about this steamy subject (see what others thought about keeping romance alive here)? Here’s what Sarah, author of several books and most recently No Good Duke Goes Unpunished: The Third Rule of Scoundrels has to say:

“As a romance novelist, I have a rather skewed view of babies. You see, they don’t typically fit into the classic structure of the romance novel—romance is about two people finding each other and falling in love against insurmountable odds. Babies…well…babies are complicated.

That’s not to say that babies don’t have their eventual place in most romances. In fact, they have a very clear and very prescribed place in most of them. They live in the epilogue. After all, what better proof of commitment and love than having a baby? Than creating a family? What better marker of forever than a third character being introduced to the play?

In seven books, I’ve written my fair share of baby epilogues. Pregnancies and births and even grandchildren have made an appearance in the final pages of my books.

And then, nine months ago, something happened.

I was epilogued.

Now, I’m 34. And while my husband and I have been together for more than a decade, it doesn’t feel like we’re at the end of our story. And while I’m happy for fictional babies to come at the back of the book…I’d much prefer for our baby to live in the middle of our love story. Even better if she arrive at its beginning of a new chapter. (more…)

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