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Thursday, November 10th, 2011
On November 5, I had the pleasure of attending a Sesame Street event for military families at the Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall in Arlington, Virginia. Although I have been on military bases before, this was the first time I had a chance to spend time around military kids. Based on that experience, I want to share the five things I appreciate about them.
- They have great manners. I’m not overly fussy around kids, and I don’t expect knee-jerk pleases and thank yous and excuse mes. That said, I was blown away by the sincere manners that the kids displayed. As I was covering this event for this blog, I was circulating around for three hours, which gave me plenty of opportunity to watch the kids interact with their parents, with each other, and with the cast and staff from Sesame Street. Abby Cadabby was of course a big draw as she was available to meet with the kids – who all lined up in a polite and orderly way and waited their turn in line. After talking to Abby, I heard lots of thank yous (unprompted) mixed with hugs.
- They are engaged. When it was time to let loose, the kids let loose! They were in front of the stage singing with Gordon from Sesame Street and with members of the Electric Company. And when it was time to try out new resources (such as new computer apps), they were there in a flash and every table was filled with focused kids.
- They are appreciative. This isn’t just about manners – it’s really clear that they appreciate that time and effort was spent on them. They don’t seem to expect that – they just appreciate it when it happens.
- They are resilient. The whole point of the Sesame Street initiative is to help kids and their families deal with enormous stresses. Their demeanor and positive spirit showed their resiliency. I’ve read about it, and in particular hear about it when I talk to military moms, but it’s great to see it in person.
- They have great parents. Although the kids deserve a whole lot of credit for their behavior, great behavior doesn’t happen without great parenting.
There are of course more positives I could share. But these are my big five. (Here’s a shot of Jessica from The Electric Company and choreographer Brian Thomas teaching kids the dance to the new “Let it Out” video © 2011 Sesame Workshop. Photo by: Evy Mages).
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Monday, September 26th, 2011
There is a buzz both online and in print about parental favoritism. Check out these observations from Katherine Bindley in a fascinating piece in the Huffington Post:
Dr. Ellen Libby, who wrote “The Favorite Child,”argued in a blog post on HuffPost that favoritism is alive and well in every family. Parenting.com even listed favoring a child as one of its “Top Ten Mom Confessions” last month, when 14 percent of respondents were willing to admit to it. And, Jeffrey Kluger, author of “The Sibling Effect,” told theWashington Post earlier this week that 99 percent of parents have favorites, and that the other 1 percent is lying.
Much of the interest in this topic stems from claims (NOT from me!) that it is natural – and even biologically hard-wired – for parents to like one child better than another, and that being either favored or not favored has lasting effects on development. So, for example, if you happen to be the favored child, you carry around a sense of entitlement for the rest of your life. And if you are not favored, you harbor anger and resentment and bring that into your dealings with the world, for the rest of your life.
What do I think? Well, I’ll offer some observations, and then pose a question for all you parents who have more than one child.
As a researcher who has studied sibling and families for about two decades, it is not that easy to find scientific evidence of favoritism. Why? Because, at least in observational studies, the majority of parents don’t really act all that different with their children. In most cases the differences are more subtle and what you would expect since siblings frequently have different personalities, can many times be different genders, and are different ages. In our longitudinal studies, we get to see families over periods of time – sometimes across decades. So we get to observe, for example, how a parent may be much more attentive to their 2-year-old as compared to their 5-year-old (because a 2-year-old requires more attention) – but that this does not necessarily remain steady when the kids are 5 and 8.
Sure, there are outliers, but these are typically situations in which there is a lot of conflict between a parent and one child. A parent might respond differently to an easy-going child than their more demanding sibling – but such a difference doesn’t imply favoritism. Let me give a concrete example. Once I was flying to a child development conference, and a guy sitting next to me noticed the child development book I was reading. For the next 45 minutes, we had an engaging conversation about his two daughters – his 6-year-old “angel” (his word) and his 4-year-old “devil” (his word). He told me how hard the “devil” could be to deal with – and how she ended up “running the family” (his words) to always get her way. So was the “angel” the favored child? Well, he certainly found the “angel” easier to deal with. But then again, all his attention was focused on the “devil” who always got what she wanted – and he spent about 44 of the 45 minutes talking about the “devil.” So favoritism may be a slippery concept.
The point here is differences do not necessarily imply favoritism. And if you ask children and adolescents (like we do in our research studies), they are all very capable of not only telling you about the differences, but also how they are not favored! Even identical twins – twins who share the same genetic make-up – describe differential treatment and getting the short end of the stick. Why? If you have more than one child, you know very well that you cannot attend equally to each child every second of the day. So in some sense, siblings are always reacting to the moments in which they are not getting attention or feeling left out. But in the majority of cases this is not an overwhelming influence on their daily lives – it’s just a reality of living in a family and actually prepares them for the real world.
Now for the question. I get that there are some parents who overtly favor one child over another. But I think these cases are pretty rare – they are the exception rather than the rule. So outside of the normative differences you experience raising more than one child – and acknowledging that one of your kids might be easier to deal with, or you might identify (for better or worse) with one child versus another, or a given age difference at certain periods of time might skew your attention toward one child (say when one sibling is a baby, or one sibling turns into a teen) – tell me, do you really have a favorite child?
Image by photostock courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net
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Thursday, July 21st, 2011
This week, my fellow blogger Heather Morgan Shott asked a really good question, partly in response to my recent post about severely obese youth: should we only feed our children healthy food? And I would add: if so, do we run the risk of promoting eating disorders? Stay with me here as I walk through the issues.
The obesity epidemic in this country (it’s estimated that 1 in 3 adults will have diabetes in the year 2050) clearly suggests that many children (and adults) are not eating properly. From a research and clinical perspective, there are of course many factors at play – genetics, lack of exercise, sleep deprivation, socioeconomic contributions — but without question unhealthy eating is rampant in our society (both in terms of what we eat, and how much we eat). So it should not be a controversial statement to say that, as a population, we need to eat healthier.
One way to achieve this is to just eat healthy foods. From a health and nutrition viewpoint, this would clearly be a good thing to do. But there are two issues to consider.
First, many of us seem to like less healthy foods as well (I do). And as babies turn into toddlers, and toddlers turn into children, they are going to be exposed to a variety of foods that we as parents can’t control. It could be at a birthday party, at a friend’s house, or as they turn into teens, out at the mall with their friends. One consistent finding from research is that overt restriction by parents often backfires — kids can crave what they can’t have and go nuts for it once they get it. Which leads to the second issue: the roots of eating disorders are often planted in childhood. Again, strategies like banning and restricting can, in some cases, create food issues which lead over time to the onset of maladaptive eating behaviors.
So it’s not easy to figure out how to get it right for kids. I don’t have specific answers, and I trust parents to wade through these issues themselves and come up with their own algorithms of what’s healthy, what’s tolerable, and what’s not acceptable for their own kids. But I think the key is for parents to be educated about kids’ food choices, so that they can give their kids tools to make good decisions and develop healthy habits. So, this means knowing how many calories are in a fast food meal, or how much sugar and fat is in a dessert, so that if you permit your child to indulge, they can regulate portion sizes and understand why these foods are to be consumed only occasionally. And if you don’t want your child to eat certain types of food, you can convey why that is and what they might turn to as healthier alternatives (rather than just banning them).
But all that said, there is no substitute for a core diet of delicious and healthy foods — which is why I enjoy following Heather Morgan Shott’s blog for recipes!
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Saturday, June 11th, 2011
We all certainly parent in the moment with immediate goals in mind. Lots of the information we take from science is used to help us do this. We can learn about different sleep methods and try them out. We can get tips on how to handle temper tantrums and see if they work. We can discover ways to promote reading skills and start to use them. But one of the most important things we can get out of research is how our parenting today impacts our child’s behavior in the future.
The reason for this is that many research projects use a longitudinal design. Simply put, they follow parents and kids over and over again. Sometimes these studies are relatively short (say covering a six-month period). Some last longer (say five years). And some go on for decades, and follow development from infancy to adulthood.
I will focus quite a bit on longitudinal studies in my future posts because they provide a “crystal ball” into children’s futures. Like any enterprise that focuses on prediction, it is “probabilistic” – research can only reveal trends and percentages and statistical weighings on the likelihood of outcomes. Research studies also summarize the patterns that are observed for groups of children, so it’s not the case that we can take the results of one study and apply it with precision to a given child. And let’s face it, chance plays a role in every one’s life.
All that said, however, well-designed longitudinal studies can at least give us a glimpse into what happens over time and predictors of positive (and negative) outcomes across development. If I am selecting a given sleep method, I’d like to have an educated guess about how it will work tonight — but I’d also like to know if it will have an impact on my child’s sleep behavior next month and next year. There are lots of ways of handling temper tantrums. If I decide to go with one school of thought over another, it would be helpful to find out how quickly a given approach will eliminate the tantrums — but also the likelihood of explosive behavior a year later, and even five years later. If I read about ways to promote reading skills in toddlerhood, I would definitely like to know if it really does lead to advances in reading ten years later. This type of information can come from good research, and it’s the type of take-home message I’d like to share with parents on a frequent basis.
Science isn’t all knowing. And it can’t tell us how to parent – we make that choice. But it can give us unique information about the links between how we parent today, and what our children are doing in the future.
Image courtesy of jscreationzs via FreeDigitalPhotos.net
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