05 January 2016

5 Tips for Raising Toddlers

A combination of professional advice and my personal experience.

And one more coming!

There are not many things as challenging or rewarding as raising a child. Soon my oldest girl will turn 5, my second girl will turn 2, and my son will be born, all in February. And while raising these cute little monsters, I've compiled my own list of parenting advice.

Before you roll your eyes and say that all children are different, I know. While there is a plethora of emotionally charged parenting advice that amounts to personal ranting, there is also a well studied and researched discipline on early childhood development. These recommendations are standard fare for the experts and have serious consequences on development.

1. Enough Sleep

As every parent knows, sleep is precious. Children sleeping not only allows you time to do the laundry without "help", but it is also the greatest tool to keep your child from having meltdowns. A tired four year old can crumble into a sobbing pile of tears when they can't find their favorite shoes, but with enough sleep they will be adorable little angels.

They're so peaceful when they sleep
A newborn baby will sleep for two thirds of the day! The trick comes later when they SHOULD be sleeping half of the day, including naps, up to the age of 6. But getting in that 12 hours requires the parents to really be on top of things, especially at nap time. This is one of the most frustrating things for parents to deal with, because you have to make your child want to sleep. And this at an age and time of day where they are irrational and emotional.

I recommend reading through lots of detailed advice on getting children to sleep, like this article from WebMD. This is an area where authors vary significantly. You'll get a lot of recommendations, and then you have to see what works with your particular child. Here are a few tips that have worked for myself and some friends.
  • Use a routine. Once you get into the habit of letting children put themselves to sleep, you'll have to reset that expectation when you change the routine. My almost five year old still takes naps for up to two hours during the day. I tell her she needs to lay in bed and rest for one hour, and if she gets up and runs around, then the timer starts over. Almost every time she falls asleep while laying there, but it took months of setting expectations and being consistent for it to work.
  • They need more sleep. If we get our kids to bed an hour earlier than normal, they go to sleep without noticing the difference and wake up at the same time. They just get more sleep. The problem is usually the parents, who are slow to get the bedtime process started, or who keep their kids out late at a party.
  • Make a dark, quiet room. We have always covered venetian blinds with an extra set of blackout curtains in the kids' rooms. When you pull the shades and the room goes dark it knocks them right out. The curtains also prevent them from waking up super early in the summer. Danger: you may find it hard to get them to sleep in other spaces, like visiting relatives.

2. Nutritious Food

I love beets!
Similar to sleep, children will turn into inattentive, whiny sloths if they go too long without food. But besides needing a continuous stream of snacks all day, the quality of the food really matters.

Identifying nutritious food is not controversial. The problem is that children eat what parents eat, and in America parents don't eat well, so children don't eat well. There's not much I can say about good nutrition that people don't already know. Good food leads to good physical and emotional health.

Just like adults, children should completely avoid (with occasional exceptions) sugary sodas, fruit juices, artificial food coloring, candy, cake, ice cream, and the like. Obviously it's tricky to get children to be excited about non-sugary foods, because sugar acts like a drug in the human brain.

Here are some good foods ideas that have worked for us: pistachios, almonds, cashews, apples, plain sparkling water, baked wholegrain goldfish crackers, creamy tomato soup, salad (yes, salad) with balsamic dressing, homemade pizza, and of course a variety of vegetables roasted in the oven: yams, asparagus, broccoli, or cauliflower. If you roast vegetables with olive oil and salt, they will eat them. Also, when kids are very hungry (but not too hungry!) they will eat anything you put in front of them. You can use this as a tool to get them used to certain things. The first bite is always the hardest.

3. Good Discipline

Discipline is probably the most complicated and controversial topic of parenting. It is absolutely necessary, but lands on a spectrum from overly permissive to authoritarian.

It's not easy to look this good
On the permissive side are parents who have trouble enforcing rules, are very nurturing, treat children as friends, and use bribes. In the extreme it creates unmotivated, selfish kids with poor social skills who find it hard to follow any authority. Children thrive in a well regulated environment with clear expectations and rules. Permissive parents are often inconsistent in the rules they apply and create a feeling of lawlessness, not the empowerment parents are hoping for.

On the authoritarian side are parents who demand adherence to strict rules, don't have a warm relationship, and use punishments with little or no explanations. In the extreme it creates aggressive, fearful kids with poor social skills who find it hard to think for themselves. Authoritarian parents provide clear boundaries, but lack the emotional nurturing needed to make independent and high functioning adults.

So what is good discipline? According to this article a good parent listens to their children, encourages independence, places limits and consequences on behavior, expresses warmth and nurturing, allows children to express opinions, encourages children to discuss options, and administers fair and consistent discipline.

When it comes to discipline and respect, the parenting style needs to be established before the child turns four. If a five year old is disrespecting their parent, they will likely continue that behavior all the way through their teen years. The time to establish discipline is between the ages of two and four. Earlier than two, rules and consequences have little meaning. Older than four, the patterns of behavior are already firmly established.

I have some tips from my experience with discipline.

  • Attention is reward, isolation is punishment. This is probably the easiest thing to screw up as a parent. When your child throws their bowl of food on the ground, your instinct is to look the child in the eyes, raise your voice, and emotionally tell the child not to do that again. What goes through your child's head is, "Wow, I'm getting eye contact and I love what's happening!" Next time the bowl of food is in front of the child, he knows exactly what will happen if he knocks it off the table again. What you should be doing is immediately place the child in some kind of timeout situation, wait several minutes, then talk to them about what happened. Make sure the timeout place has nothing exciting nearby, and make sure nobody talks to them or gives them attention. The punishment is the isolation. The reward is the attention. Whatever behavior you pay most attention to, that is the behavior you encourage. Of course, isolation only works to discourage bad behavior if you're NORMALLY paying attention to your children. If they're starved of attention, there's not much you can do.
  • Always be in control. This might sound authoritarian, but it's not. At least up to the age of four, your child should never get their way over the parents, even for little things. Of course, this only works when the parents are reserved in their demands and make reasonable and consistent rules, but nonetheless the parents should get their way if they want to press any issue. If the child doesn't want to sit in timeout, then double the time. If they refuse to stay in the spot, double the time again and hold them there by force. What I've seen over and over is that children learn very quickly when expectations are set, and they will definitely push their limits to see what they can get away with. When they know that they're in a house with rules that are consistently applied and fair, they will feel secure and happy. This control has to gradually relax and turn into independence by the time they're 15-18, but it should be absolute before age four. 
  • Note: don't confuse discipline with being mean. 

4. Limited High Quality Media

iPotty, the worst thing ever

The American Academy of Pediatrics, the people whose job it is to set science-based recommendations, say that children should never look at a screen until the age of two. But there's more. They recommend that children all the way up to 17 consume no more than 1-2 hours of entertainment media per day that is age appropriate, high quality content, and they should not have televisions, computers, or internet access in their rooms. 

Now you might think of this as wishful thinking, a nice ideal, but this is the same organization that comes up with vaccine recommendations. Are you a proud vaccinator of your children? Then why don't you follow their advice on media? The average parent isn't, because the average 8 year old watches 8 hours of entertainment media per day. The average teen owns their own phone, consumes up to 11 hours of screentime per day, and sends an average of 108 texts and seees 110 commercials, every day.

Dr Strasburger, the lead author of the new policy from the AAP, wrote that “many parents are clueless” about the impact media exposure can have on their children, and “I guarantee you that if you have a 14-year-old boy and he has an Internet connection in his bedroom, he is looking at pornography."

Some media can be good for kids, right? Yes, but there is strong evidence that before the age of 7, children are better off with no media exposure, with a few exceptions like academic programs. Until the age of 7 children can't tell the difference between advertisements and programming, and have a hard time discerning reality from media. Any learning that could be gleaned from a program is much better taught through real human interaction, and the lack of physical activity that goes with hours of watching a screen every day leaves children overweight.

One of my favorite sources on this topic is Dimitri Christakis, whose TEDx talk on Media and Children brought out some eye opening points on what overstimulating media does to small children. He shows that long exposure to rapid image changes during a critical period of brain development conditions the mind to a reality that doesn't actually exist, leading to an attention deficit later in life. He also argues that "content is key". High quality, educational content has little or no effect on attention problems, but entertainment content increases problems; violent content much more so.

"I grew up watching television, and I'm okay?" Maybe, but the average kid born in 1970 started watching television at 4 years, and the average kid now watches television starting at 4 months. More importantly, you probably grew up watching Mr Rogers and Sesame Street, and now pretty much all children's programming is dumbing trash, like Baby Einstein or A.N.T. Farm.

So go get rid of your TV. That's right. Your living room is probably oriented around a big TV like it's a shrine. It's doing harm to your family, so get rid of it. My almost five year old has never watched a Disney movie, never plays on an iPad, and can count on her fingers how many TV shows she's seen. She's brilliant, imaginative, and funny, and it's largely because her media consumption has been tightly controlled to avoid the violence and sassy, back talking kids that are in a lot of children's shows. She thinks it's a treat to watch the Nutcracker ballet.

5. Be a Toy Minimalist

The #1 toy of all time
I think most parents intuitively sense this, but children are much better off with fewer high quality toys, instead of many cheap ones. Much research points to the number seven as the ideal number of "things" for kids to focus on at a time. Having too many toys stifles their development by making clutter. 

There are numerous good articles on the subject of toy management, such as Why Fewer Toys Will Benefit Your Kids. They all describe similar arguments, that if you become the opposite of a hoarder, your kids will have better attention spans, appreciate what they have, become less materialistic, develop better social skills, and generally be more happy. 

In my experience, a gingerbread man pencil eraser, a pinecone, a cardboard box, a stick, a piece of shiny trash, an airplane barf bag; all these things can be as exciting and cherished as anything bought in the store or gifted. I often give my kids pieces of packaging or containers to play with, and they'll be super exciting for about a week. Keep in mind, the top rated toys are: a stick, cardboard box, string, cardboard tubes, and dirt. My wife's old purse was going to be thrown away when we decided to give it to my daughter, and it has been a mainstay for years, always full of treasures. It seems that the cheapest toys are the best for children.

On the other hand, a few well designed toys can accelerate development, especially Montessori themed ones. You'd be surprised how exciting pouring sand can be for a two year old, or cutting pieces of paper, or drawing with sidewalk chalk.

Here are three tips for managing toys:

  • Reduce the toy intake. Ask for no gifts at birthday parties, or specific gifts from relatives, and avoid the impulse to buy a cheap thing just because your kid sees it in the store and would be so happy with you if you spent two dollars.
  • Throw away junk. Similar to everything else in our lives, the toys need purging every once in awhile, and you'll have to resist your hoarder instincts and really throw away toys that are just wasting space, broken, or redundant. I find it helps to lay out a pile of toys and ask my girl to pick out, say, five things to keep. She will only pick the things she really loves, then I can toss the rest.
  • Cycle toys. I have 3/4 of all our toys stored away in bins. About once every two months I'll open all the bins, spread them all over the living room, and they'll have a great time for several hours playing with everything, because it's all new again. It's like going to a toy store. Then they pick out their favorite things, I throw a few things away, and the rest goes back to storage.

1 comment:

  1. This is so awesome. Thanks for sharing, Bryan! And this reaffirms my love for sticks. I still carry them in my car and collect them. They're just so cool! Until you open your car one day and theres big black ants that moved in with a stick you thought was cool.....