Got cabin fever?

27 January, 2019

Here we are again— smack in the middle of that uncomfortable lull between the holidays and springtime when the weather is frigid, it seems like it’s dark all of the time, and everyone is getting the sniffles. Your kids are getting antsy, and you can’t blame them. Spring feels like it’s centuries away and you can only watch Moana so many times before you begin to actually hallucinate lying on a Hawaiian beach with sand in your fingers and sun in your hair.

It’s hard to remember at this time of the year, but taking the time to connect with the natural world is an essential factor in physical and mental health and well-being. This is as true for your kids as it is for you! But it can be tough to motivate yourself (not to mention the tiny humans in your life) to bundle everyone up and get them out the door for a run-of-the-mill hike in freezing weather. So, here are a few ideas that will help you and your family to learn about the world right outside your window even when it doesn’t exactly seem to be beckoning to you— without spending hours traipsing around in the cold while listening to the whines of your offspring.

Feed the birds. This is a great activity for apartment-dwellers and homeowners alike. Got any stale bread lying around your house? How about some run-of-the-mill peanut butter? Buy a bit of birdseed at your local hardware store and you’re 100% prepared to teach your tots to become a steward of the Front Range ecosystem! You’ll coat each slice of bread with peanut butter and generously layer on the birdseed. Hang your tasty aviary treats from a tree you can see from your window, and make a game out of waiting to see who comes to snack on them. This is a wonderful opportunity for you and your child to learn about the native Rocky Mountain and prairie fowl that you may see around you every day! You’ll both benefit from an increased appreciation and awareness of our unique environmental region, and the birds will benefit from a few extra calories to help them through these bitter months!

Get artsy. Pick a day when there’s at least a bit of snow on the ground. Work with your child to put a bit of food coloring in a few different spray bottles (the kind you can pick up for a few dollars at the grocery store)— you can even experiment with mixing different hues for a broader chromatic range! Then, pick a space of snow to create your spray art. Your kids will learn about color, benefit from the creative outlet and get some fresh air. And when you’re finished, save your leftover “paint” for next time!

Burst your bubbles. Bubbles aren’t just for summertime block parties! This activity is even better on a day when the mercury has dropped well below freezing. Bundle up and get outside to blow bubbles and watch them freeze in the air. It’s simply cool to watch and fun to play with, but it’s also a chance to talk about science and chemistry with your family. Why do the bubbles do that? What is different about blowing bubbles today, compared to when we did it at the pool back in July? Why do you think that is? You can even employ the scientific method of making an educated hypothesis beforehand, and drawing conclusions afterwards! This pairing of activity and discussion can spark curiosity in your kids’ minds, and has the added benefit of requiring zero cleanup after the fact.

If you decide to give any of these ideas a try, take a picture and tag us on Instagram, Facebook or Twitter! Happy playing, from all of us at Grandrabbit’s!

Kids & story time

16 October, 2018

Some of my most cherished memories of my grandfather are simply of him pulling me onto his lap, smelling of wood smoke and spearmint chewing gum, and telling me stories about his youth in the Navy or how he met and fell in love with my grandmother. I’ll never forget the affectionate rumble in his voice when he chuckled about the silly things my aunts and uncles had said and done as children, or his solemn tone when recalling the death of his own mother. His tales weren’t dramatic or groundbreaking; they were much like any life experiences of an American man who had lived through the Great Depression, World War II and Vietnam. But hearing Grandpa’s unique recollections of his life and how these occurrences contributed to his identity was thrilling for me. These experiences made me feel special-- I felt honored to have the gifts of these memories bestowed upon me by someone so wise, and I was left with an indelible urge to begin making my own memories to pass down to my future grandchildren.

I think many of us can relate to these precious moments with loved ones, especially of older generations. Oral traditions have been the bedrock of human civilization for millenia, so we are hard-wired to gain emotional closeness and language skills through the telling of stories. Our brains have evolved to sharpen language skills this way, and the communication of narrative arcs is an integral part of how social relationships are both built and maintained.

The benefits of reading aloud to children have been thoroughly researched and touted as a way to get kids hooked on books from a young age. But it’s also worth noting that storytime has a multitude of benefits, not limited to increased literacy. Read on for a few other little-known but invaluable side effects of storytime.

Perspective. Humans are natural storytellers. The story arcs we write for ourselves create our own self-consciousness, from which stems our identity. And telling stories allows us to communicate these identities to others, which leads to a greater feeling of confidence that we’re being truly understood by our peers. And learning about narrative structure provides us a framework through which to perceive our own life experiences. How have we learned from the mistakes we have made? How has our past impacted our present and future selves, and how can we reclaim agency of our own stories going forward? Brief discussions after storytime that stimulate reflection in your child can be incredibly poignant, and make these moments all the more valuable.  

Language. Reading aloud to children is key to optimal language development, even beginning in a child’s infancy. Some experts even believe that reading to babies in utero has measurably positive impacts on brain development. Hearing different vowel sounds and voice inflections helps kids to learn to recognize emotion and meaning in verbal communication prior to even being able to speak themselves. And this is all the more useful if you or any of your family members are bilingual; storytime that incorporates a language that is different from a child’s native tongue activates different parts of the brain. Studies show that bilingual children perform better cognitively than their monolingual peers-- so bring on the Rosetta Stone!

Cultural awareness. Through my grandfather’s stories, I learned important history lessons from a young age in a way that will always be deeply memorable and meaningful to me. I have an awareness of where my family came from; I feel fortunate to know how we got to where we are today, and the hard work that went into building the family unit from which I now benefit. This is a feeling that is nearly ubiquitous across humanity-- many cultures around the globe value storytelling and rely upon it to pass down important information from generation to generation. For me, hearing Grandpa’s memories taught me how lucky I am to have grown up in a home where I never had to go hungry or fear for my life. And it gave me the feeling of being a part of a broader narrative-- that of my family, dating back centuries. In a world so inundated with technology and instant gratification, I think it can be easy to lose sight of this bigger picture.

Work/play balance

4 September, 2018

I’m forever grateful that my parents ingrained in me an exceptional work ethic. But one thing they didn’t teach me was how to balance work with leisure and “play” time. And as Americans, we tend to think of leisure time as a luxury-- relaxation is a type of mortal sin that we need to ultimately work to atone for. But in reality, we (and our kids) gain something invaluable from fiercely protecting our free time. We can learn to care for ourselves the way that we care for our kids, by listening to our bodies and our minds and giving ourselves what we need in that moment, regardless of what else needs to get done or who has certain expectations. This is essential for mental, physical and emotional wellbeing, and it’s impossible to achieve if you’re always stuck in a constant routine of going.

Engendering balance in life is an essential skill that few adults ever manage to master. But the earlier this skill is taught and honed, the better our chances are of making long-term habits that encourage self-care and increased productivity-- and eventually, that will lead to increased overall contentment.

Free time is even more necessary for children, because as we’ve discussed on this blog in the past, creative playtime is essential for optimum childhood development. Kids learn spacial awareness and social skills from play, and using their imagination on a regular basis promotes innovative thought and problem solving. When children aren’t rushed from one activity to the next, they have to learn to occupy themselves on their own, which is a monumental step on the path to independence.

This doesn’t just apply to schoolwork and academics. The risk of over-scheduling weekends and evenings with music and dance lessons or sports programs is something to consider. It’s a wonderful thing for a child to have the opportunity to try new art forms and hobbies while they’re still young, but if your 9 year old feels like she doesn’t have time to make for friends or family gatherings, that could be a sign of doing too much.

And although we at Grandrabbit’s feel strongly that a child must be valued for much more than his or her economic productivity, it’s worth noting that studies clearly show that productivity levels increase when professionals feel that they are encouraged to foster a healthy work-life balance. Kids that value a balanced lifestyle will grow up to become leaders who encourage balance in the lives of their own families and employees.

As the school year begins to ramp up, let’s all work together to remember to faithfully guard our playtime-- and respect the needs of others in our community to do so as well!

We're not going anywhere!

10 august, 2018

Lots of mainstream news outlets have been sounding the alarm on the extinction of brick and mortar retail that they say is so clearly headed straight for us. But we’re not going anywhere- in fact, the business of providing kids in the Front Range with safe, innovative playthings has never been more interactive or exciting! Here are just a few of the biggest reasons why Grandrabbit’s is here to stay.

  1. The Grandrabbit’s experience. Some of the most exciting days of my childhood were when my mother or father would take me to a toy store to purchase a birthday gift for a friend of mine. They’d give me a price limit and encourage me to practice my arithmetic skills adding up the costs of the various items I’d chosen. It was so exciting to have the independence to pick something out that I knew would make my friend smile- and it didn’t hurt that I got to enjoy exploring the store myself, too! Parents want to continue to provide their children with fun toy store memories like their own. You just don’t get the same feeling from shopping online with an eight year old.

  2. Millennials. This generation is on the rise- they’re the next parents to come of age. A survey conducted by TeenVogue found that 65 percent of teen shoppers planned to conduct the majority of their holiday shopping in physical stores for that year, as opposed to shopping online. And the behavioral marketing firm SmarterHQ found that 50 percent of millenials prefer shopping to perusing the internet for the items they’re looking for.  Millennials report being drawn to malls because they appreciate being able to see a product in the store, and enjoy the process of wandering the shops in person.

  3. Human connection. Small businesses have to be active community members in order to thrive, and how can we do our part to serve our local area if we don’t have a chance to get to know you?! We take a lot of pride in making your day a little brighter and simpler when you come in and see us, and we especially love seeing the same faces routinely! It takes a village to raise a child, and we are passionate about playing a key role in your family’s growth and wellbeing. Plus, at small, locally-owned toy stores in particular, you’ll benefit from the employees’  expertise. We’re thoroughly acquainted with the store’s inventory and layout, and we relish each opportunity that allows us to show you and your kids what we have to offer. We’re all children at heart!

We look forward to many more years of community engagement on the Front Range, and we’re so grateful to our dedicated customers for allowing us to continue to thrive! We’re all in this together.

Summer learning

3 April, 2018

Summer is finally just around the corner! These warmer months are a magical time for kids, with their ample space for family time and new adventures. And while the last thing most children will want to think about come May is more school work, the risk of students falling behind once they get back in the classroom after a long summer off is real. It’s important (and actually pretty easy) to continue to reinforce the lessons your child has been learning in school throughout the long vacation in order to mitigate “learning loss.” When I leave town on even just a week long vacation, I know it takes me another week or so to get back into the swing of things at work- so you can imagine how taking a 3 month break might impact kids’ abilities to optimize their time at school. Fortunately, there are plenty of fun, quick and easy ways to continue to help your child to use the skills they learned in the classroom every day over the summer. 

We all know the value of reading with our children on a regular basis, but over the summer in particular, it’s important to set a steady reading routine with your child. If you think she’s old enough, try reading a book with her and then discussing its themes and story arc together. Ask her questions that will provoke her to think critically about the book and its characters. This is valuable bonding time for the two of you as well as excellent fine-tuning of your child’s reading and analytical skills. You can also see how well she’s understanding what she’s reading, and expand her vocabulary along the way!

Arithmetic is one area in which kids seem to suffer the most when it comes to learning loss over the summer break. But this time provides an ideal opportunity for kids to learn the real-life applications of basic math. Bring a pen and paper while grocery shopping, and put your child to work estimating your total expenditure as you walk the aisles. At home afterwards, use your receipt to have your child calculate your change if you’d paid with certain amounts of cash. (As an aside, doing these tasks at home may be more beneficial than asking your child to calculate the change you should receive while standing at the cash register. She’ll be stressed and under pressure to get the answer right on her first try, and therefore is unlikely to be able to think clearly and come away from the experience feeling positively about her math abilities). The frequent practice will show your child how and why they’ll need to use math in the real world, and it will boost their confidence in their capacity to solve problems outside of school. 

There are plenty of great summer reading and math programs available at little or no cost that can take some of the burden off of the parent for motivating kids to get out their school supplies during the summer. Grandrabbit’s Toy Shoppe offers one with the incentive of $5 “Bunny Munny” dollars for the child to spend at one of the store’s locations upon completion of the reading list. Three different levels are available for kids at various stages of the process of learning to read, so there truly is a reading list for everyone. Just ask about the Summer Reading Program at any of Grandrabbit’s 3 stores, or call (303) 443-0780 to find out more information

Maintaining the knowledge and skills gained throughout the school year really is a completely attainable goal for all kids; it’s as simple as setting small daily goals and meeting them as often as possible. Consistency is key, and chances are good that once you build positive habits and a strong routine, your child will continue learning and growing her brain all summer long. 


Nurturing resilience

9 March, 2018

I met my first best friend Lucy when we were both only about 3 years old. Her dad, Josh, got a kick out of telling us the story of how we first met repeatedly over the course of our decades-long friendship, so I know it well: he and Lucy’s mother had brought their toddler to visit an in-home day care center in our corner of Connecticut. As soon as they walked through the door, I marched right up to them, boldly grabbed Lucy’s hand and dragged her off to show her around. Josh remembers immediately feeling like his little girl would fit in just fine.
I like this memory because it actually goes counter to how the rest of our friendship evolved. I think we got along because as youngsters, we were both outgoing and imaginative (and maybe a bit obnoxious, too), but it quickly became obvious to everyone that Lucy was significantly braver and more gregarious. She encouraged me to ride the fastest roller coasters, stand up to the meanest boys and go on the most ambitious adventures. Many people with daring personalities can be insensitive and even accidentally unkind, but Lucy still is one of the most generous, thoughtful people I know.
While I’ve always appreciated her for all that she is, it was only once I was a bit older that I recognized how truly remarkable Lucy’s enduring positivity and strength of character was in the face of all of the adversity she faced. While her parents loved her fiercely, their home lacked the stability that I’d always taken for granted in my own household. Her mother travelled internationally almost constantly throughout Lucy’s childhood, and her parents had a messy divorce. Lucy’s sister’s bipolar disorder and schizophrenia began to surface when she reached puberty, so Lucy was often left to care for her younger brother. The family relocated multiple times, each time requiring Lucy to start over and make all new friends. Then, after months of mysterious pain, a 4 pound tumor was found in located next to her spinal cord. She needed extensive and very dangerous surgery to have it removed, after which she endured multiple complications. She was in and out of Boston Children’s Hospital for 2 years. When I first visited, I barely recognized her for all the weight she’d lost.

And yet somehow, through all of this, she maintained her authentic passion for life, her intellectual curiosity and her unquenched creative spirit. And she persevered. The tumor was benign. Her sister got psychiatric help and is living independently and happily. Her parents can now interact amicably, and Lucy’s younger brother is about to graduate from high school. Lucy is now in her mid-twenties. She graduated from college with honors, fell in love, spent years volunteering her time and enthusiasm working for charities all over the world and is now attending graduate school. Lucy’s resilience enabled her to succeed despite her circumstances- and if you asked her today, she’d tell you that she’s thankful for the tough times because of what she learned from them.
Even the luckiest kids from the most stable, loving, supportive backgrounds will encounter adversity at some point. Truly, one of the few things in life we can guarantee is that our children will face challenges. No matter your station in life, obstacles will need to be overcome- more for some than for others- and one of the most valuable skills a person can hone is that of resilience. For all our fixation on academic and professional success, too often we forget to prepare our kids for the inevitability that they will face failure sometimes. In the pursuit of any kind of success, it’s necessary to be able to weather a severe storm. As much as we might lament our difficulties in the moment, without them we would become complacent and weak. In the immortal words of Nietzsche (and, subsequently, Kelly Clarkson): “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.”
Fortunately, extensive research is being conducted on how to raise and educate resilient kids. Just this year, NPR reported on the success of a non-profit in the Bronx that works to encourage poverty-stricken children to claim agency of the growth and development of their young minds. The research-based  methods they employ focus on imparting to kids that their minds are malleable- they possess infinite potential to improve and repair themselves. Children’s brains are highly sensitive to trauma, but they’re also more capable of healing and growing from it. By teaching kids that their brains are evolving organs that they can, in fact, be better. If children believe they can improve themselves with effort, they’ll be more likely to overcome adversity and keep trying despite failure.
But in order for growth to be possible, the science shows that a certain level of comfort and stability must be met. This is an area in which homelife surpasses the importance of what happens in the classroom. In researcher Paul Tough’s book titled How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character, the author expounds upon the value of “noncognitive skills” or character strengths, and how they can be cultivated. Such traits are more difficult to engender than academic success because, of course, they’re not emphasized in the public education system to the same extent as grades. But there are myriad ways children learn resilience from their parents and teachers- most often through mundane, everyday interactions.
For example, a concept explored by researchers at Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child is that of “serve and return” interactions between parents and their kids. This refers to an expression made by the child- through making a sound or a gesture- which is in turn responded to by his or her parents. The ways in which parents react to their kids’ “serves” has significant impact on the way the children’s brains learn to communicate and build relationships. If kids feel like their caregivers react to their emotional expressions with level-headedness and sensitivity (at least most of the time!), they’ll be much more likely to feel secure enough to express themselves again. If a child is brought up being ignored or degraded when she speaks, she’s likely to cope by fearfully withdrawing and will be less willing to put energy and effort into achieving her hopes and dreams. It’s only through reaching out, taking risks and being vulnerable that growth can occur, so providing an environment of warmth and stability for children is hugely beneficial to their mental wellbeing.
Like Lucy, some kids are born with grit. But through cultivation of a growth mindset and a consciousness of the tone of parent-child interactions, the research clearly indicates that resilience can indeed be learned over time.  


The art of disagreement

19 February, 2018

In today’s political climate, it’s almost as if everyone has forgotten the basic social rules they learned in kindergarten about treating one another with respect and dignity. Rather than discussing our different ideas openly, Americans have begun to shut down and tend to only talk about big issues with those that already agree with them. People in this country hail from a wide range of backgrounds, so it’s only to be expected that we’ll have different ideologies and perspectives on the world. And it’s also unsurprising that some of these will always clash with others. Thus, our only way forward is to learn to listen, compromise when possible and peacefully disagree when it’s all that’s left to do.

Since our kids are the next generation, it’s essential that they learn to disagree with their peers without degrading each other. Most sources agree that the most important first step here is to model this behavior yourself, as an adult. It’s far too easy to start dealing in hyperbole and purely emotional appeals when we feel our beliefs are being threatened. But this will lead nowhere and prevent meaningful debate, so we must fight to keep the discussion on rational, fact-based grounds. That’s a lot easier said than done; in my own experience, as soon as my politics come into question and I am challenged to really question why I hold a particular conviction, my first instinct is to grasp for any “feeling” or “belief” that underlies it, whether or not it’s grounded in reality. Now, when I get that urge to derail the discussion onto illogical grounds, I take a deep breath and give myself the time to really think critically about my perspective. It’s still tough, but practice makes perfect!

Another powerful tactic for encouraging respectful disagreement among children is simply to talk about it with them. Have a good chat with your kids about the importance of listening to hear the other person, not just to respond. This, again, is hard for me. I love to talk, especially pertaining to subjects I’m passionate about, and I constantly find myself just waiting for my next chance to blab. But unfortunately, this too is not conducive to civil discussion, because you’re not really communicating unless you listen, too.

When you notice your child is having an argument with a friend or sibling, resist the urge to intervene, but do remind them that they don’t need to agree on everything. Friendships can stay in-tact without the very comforting assurance that your buddy agrees with everything you think. Sure, you’ll be much more inclined to make friends with people with a similar world view and a compatible code of ethics, but shockingly, these don’t actually differ much from one end of the political spectrum to the other.

The choice to authentically disagreeing with a peer with respect and love is a true act of bravery. Challenging our own assumptions goes against human nature itself, but this is the only way to locate and share truth. As sociologist Brene Brown so astutely noted in 2017, “Addressing this crisis will require a tremendous amount of courage. For the moment most of us are either making the choice to protect ourselves from conflict, discomfort, and vulnerability by staying quiet, or picking sides and in the process adopting the behavior of the people with whom we passionately disagree. Either way, the choices we are making to protect our beliefs are leaving us disconnected, afraid and lonely.”

And when we do engage in these difficult conversations, accepting that we may very well be powerless to persuade anyone can be a bitter pill to swallow. But I know what I’ll do the next time a rogue relative pushes back on my political stances: I’ll do my best to keep my cool, hear what he’s saying before formulating my response, and not set my hopes on our ultimate agreement. And try not to grit my teeth too hard while I’m doing it.

Growing from difference

2 FEBRUARY, 2018

While I was visiting my parents over the holidays, my dad handed me a thick manilla envelope with my name and birthdate written on it. It was my special education file from my time in elementary, middle and high school. My former school district contacted my parents back in September to notify them that, as protocol dictates, at the ten year anniversary of my graduation from high school, they were preparing to discard the files from my academic career. Mom and dad thought I might have something to gain from looking over the notes from my teachers and counselors about my struggles and progress, so they requested that the district mail them the folder.

Personally, I was intrigued and hoped to unearth some wisdom and perspective on my childhood. Nearly all of my memories from school are unhappy ones; I clearly recollect resisting going to school at all costs because of how inadequate I felt there. I couldn’t understand what was wrong with me or what I was supposed to do to improve my situation- as far as I could tell, no matter how hard I tried, my teachers seemed to believe I wasn’t putting enough effort into my work. Looking back at the notes they were taking, I see the same comments repeated again and again: “Taylor struggles with math, despite being very bright.” By the time I reached sixth grade, the most commonly recorded statements had evolved to, “Taylor has increasing anxiety about math.”

These notes brought tears to my eyes. I’d been relegated to the Special Education room for math classes when my Connecticut Mastery Test scores did not meet the expected levels of proficiency in my third grade year. I’d ultimately received a diagnosis of ADHD, and was separated from the rest of the kids in my class to learn arithmetic. So of course I’d developed anxieties about doing math; not only was math difficult for me to understand, but I was also constantly faced with frustrated and disappointed teachers each time I entered the math classroom. I’d quickly realized that my efforts were going unrecognized, and even if I tried my very hardest, the best I could hope for was getting close to the level that the other kids seemed to be reaching with grace and ease.

All this, of course, was in a public school system in the 1990s, before anyone was talking about “growth mindset” in schools, which encourages kids to think about the fact that their brains can make new connections and grow new neurons through effort. Although I had very caring, present parents who consistently advocated on my behalf, I was still receiving messages from my teachers and my peers that I just wasn’t good at mathematics. It never dawned on me that I could get better through effort- I was just trying to grit my teeth and get through to twelfth grade when I’d never have to take another math class again.

I’ll always be deeply grateful to my parents for their advocacy on my behalf, but it wasn’t enough to protect me from the perception that no matter how hard I tried, I might never meet “proficiency.” And one of the greatest tragedies of suffering from a learning difference is that symptoms tend to look a lot like laziness or unintelligence. I don’t mean to advocate a total disregard for personal responsibility, because obviously the possibility that a child is simply unwilling to expel the required amount of effort to complete the task correctly always does exist. But much good can come from parents and teachers adopting an assumption of goodwill towards the child. If we start interacting with these kids from a place of trust, the chances that they’ll pick up on that trust and push themselves to live up to it are good. And if it turns out that they are in fact trying their hardest and are simply unable to understand ideas in the same ways as their peers, we will have deftly avoided the destruction of their self-esteem.

Today, I’m also armed with the knowledge that ADHD does tend to manifest differently in girls than the more common symptoms it’s associated with in boys. It’s hypothesized that more than 50% of cases of ADHD in girls are missed, largely because they don’t always exhibit the same behavioral issues as the boys. Girls even tend to adhere to a different symptomatic timeline, and problems may not become noticeable until well into teenage years. While boys with ADHD may be hyperactive and disobedient, girls are often rule-followers with daydreaming problems. They’re more likely to interrupt their parents’ and friends’ conversations regularly, and as they get older, they’re at a higher risk for depression and suicide.

As a kid, I was deeply insecure and anxious about my abilities and terribly frustrated that even the most well-meaning adults didn’t seem to understand the problems I was encountering. I didn’t have any role models who had suffered through similar adversity, so I didn’t know that the possibility existed for me to overcome my problems. But I so wish I could show some of today’s ample resources for dealing with learning differences to the 10 year old version of myself.
For example, Understood is a wonderful online community of parents, physicians and psychologists that focuses on enable kids to thrive with learning differences. The platform facilities conversation and connections between professionals and families navigating the challenges of learning differences, from the stage of diagnosis onward.They offer a tool called Through Your Child’s eyes that allows parents and loved ones to simulate the experience of going through life with a learning difference.

I also firmly believe that if I’d been taught to adopt a “growth mindset,” or a believe in my own capacity to grow and change and overcome any obstacles in my way, I might’ve had more academic drive as a child. Carole Dweck, author of “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success,” writes, “Too often nowadays, praise is given to students who are putting forth effort, but not learning, in order to make them feel good in the moment: ‘Great effort! You tried your best!’ It's good that the students tried, but it's not good that they're not learning.” I couldn’t agree more. Each time I was lauded for trying hard, my frustration only increased exponentially. How can I feel satisfied by simply trying if I still wasn’t able to understand the material?!

I’m so heartened by the myriad options available to educators and families of students with learning disabilities today. If you think your child might be experience some of these problems, there are abundant experts ready and willing to discuss his or her issues with you online or in person. But don’t be afraid to discuss learning concerns with your child. Be honest and open with him or her about your worries, but listen to their perspective with respect and reverence. Chances are good that they want to succeed- but they may need a bit of help finding out just how to their mind works in order to do so.

Media mitigation

12 January, 2018

New Year’s resolutions can be a controversial subject. Does anyone even actually plan to keep them? This year, I’d bet that you’re nearly as likely to hear about someone boasting their commitment to a low-tech diet in 2018 as you are to hear about someone’s new year weight loss goals. In particular, there’s a growing trend towards parenting that limits or even bans what’s referred to as “screen time” for kids. Screen time can mean anything from time spent using a smartphone to time spent on a tablet or laptop to time in front of the television.

Personally, I’m an advocate for media literacy over abstinence. I relish the continued existence of Facebook and Instagram because both platforms enable me to easily keep in touch with friends and relatives who live all over the world. And of course I love the internet’s utility as an encyclopedia that I can access from anywhere (with the obvious caveat of needing to check the source’s credibility). I also think it’s tremendously important to teach our kids to use technology responsibly and healthfully, as they’ll need to do once they reach adulthood.

But intentionally using the internet as a tool for a targeted purpose is vastly different than spending hours every day scrolling through social media feeds. I can certainly recognize the negative impacts of excessive screen time on my own life and relationships, which should be rather obvious to us all; of course we’ll feel bummed about our lives if we spend half our time comparing them to others’.  And that’s not even taking into account the fact that when we’re constantly absorbed by our devices, we’re missing out on the world around us. Getting outside just for a few minutes a day can vastly increase our mental health and sense of well-being, and stable interpersonal relationships are essential to an array of positive physiological markers. The bottom line is that screen-based entertainment doesn't cut it in terms of meeting the deeper needs of our bodies and brains, and we suffer from overexposure.

At this point, screen addiction isn’t just a problem on an individual level- it’s become a generational issue. In the years between 2010 and 2016, the number of American teenagers who reported experiencing at least 1 depressive episode increased by a whopping 60%. In November, NPR reported the recent rise in teen suicide and depression correlates to the ubiquity of smartphone use since 2010. And current research on today’s high schoolers shows that they’re not asserting their independence outside of the home as their preceding baby boomers and Gen Xers did- probably because they’re spending more time on their phones and less time with other people.

So now the question is: how do we bring up our children to be both technologically literate and free from the nasty side effects of screen addiction? Talking to your kids about responsible and appropriate internet use shows them that it’s important to think critically about the time you spend staring at a screen, but it's probably not enough to persuade them to practice healthy screen habits. The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests that children under the age of 6 not be permitted to use a cell phone, and placing limits on use thereafter. Setting hard rules about screen time is essential, and it helps to avoid using screen time as a reward for good behavior, too. We want our children to see media consumption as a means to an end, not an end in and of itself- so, teaching them that cleaning their room and doing their chores is simply a way to get more time in front of the television is counterproductive, even if it is wildly effective in the short term.

Of course, exposure to screens becomes increasingly difficult to control as kids get older, but it’s not impossible. As a parent, living by the rules you set also helps immensely. If your children aren’t allowed to check their phones during dinner, you shouldn’t either. If you don’t let your kids watch television on weeknights, that means you’ll need to lead by example and find another way to occupy yourself in the evenings as well. When your children see you exercising self-control when it comes to technology, they’ll internalize that it’s the right thing to do and limit themselves as adults.

It's also useful to view media use with caution and respect, much like alcohol consumption. Sure, it's fine in moderation and can help adults to wind down after a stressful day or week. But a necessary part of building healthful habits is being vigilant about mindfulness; why do you crave a glass of wine after work, and why do you immediately pick up your phone and scroll through Facebook upon waking up? Is there something you're avoiding? Does it provide a long-overdue break from reality? If the answer to this question is something along the lines of "Heck, yes," that's not necessarily a bad thing. Everyone needs to avoid the present from time to time. A glass of wine or a couple of minutes of social media consumption is alright, but the real danger is when time gets away from us and we consume without exploring the reasons behind our ravenous consumption.

Back in the 1990s, my own parents noticed that as a four year old, I became mildly obsessed with watching television. I asked for it as soon as I got home from day care and didn’t seem to hear anything being said to me while it was on. By 1996, they disconnected our cable and carefully policed our time in front of the TV altogether; all we had was a VCR, and we were never permitted to use it on school nights. While I did understand their reasoning, I resented my parents’ new rules with all the passion a 50 pound child could muster. But today, I couldn’t be more thankful for their concern. Their restrictions taught me early on that television was something to enjoy mindfully and in moderation, like ice cream or potato chips. It’s a life lesson that we all need to keep reminding ourselves to learn.

Big kid play time

21 November, 2017

Yesterday, I woke up at 6:00am, showered, headed to work, grocery shopped during my lunch break (before wolfing down my sandwich) and finished out the work day. Then I drove home, went to the gym, cooked and consumed dinner, watched 2 consecutive episodes of The Wire and read a novel for about 15 minutes before I started to drift off to sleep. And to be honest, today’s trajectory is looking nearly identical- except I’ve got a salad today instead of peanut butter and jelly.

Every segment of the average American adult’s day is purposeful. This is especially true for someone like me- my New Englander brain has been hard-wired to walk briskly, be pathologically punctual and maximize efficiently whenever possible. My life’s objectives are productive in a broader sense, too; I eat to nourish myself, I work to make a living and feel gratified, I exercise for my mental and physical health, and then I wind down by watching TV and reading. These are all important aspects of self-care and certainly not to be diminished- but research indicates that such an efficient, calculated schedule leaves out something equally as necessary to our health and happiness: playtime.

By now, the fact that playtime is integral to child development is well-documented and relatively widely known (while still undervalued). It enables kids to learn to interact with one another socially and to be self-sufficient while encouraging creativity and innovation. It’s also inarguably one of the best, most memorable parts of being a kid. Reflect on your closest childhood friendships. Were they forged over an amiable meet-cute at the elementary school water fountain? It’s likely that you learned about each other and built a connection by playing together. Without that social, mental and physical wiggle room in your schedule, who knows how your identity and sense of self-worth would’ve been shaped?  

Unfortunately, as we age, our attention is often demanded by immediate basic necessities like those I listed above. We need to feed ourselves, do work that fulfills us, move our bodies and leave time to turn off our brains. But studies on the value of play for adults consistently suggest that it helps us nurture social connections and bolster our sense of self. It encourages us to smile and laugh, which increases dopamine and serotonin levels in our brains and makes us happier and more relaxed. Play also mitigates stress and deters loneliness, which many scholars refer to as a public health hazard in contemporary Western society.  

Play is a bit like romance or true friendship; you can’t force it, but you can leave space for it. That’s the tricky part, isn’t it? Luckily, adult humans are neurologically well-equipped to make playtime out of a wide variety of activities. Dr. Stuart Brown, head of the National Institute for Play defines play as “something done for its own sake.” What’s fun and relaxing for you? Maybe you enjoy the process and activity of baking, or you like playing guitar. Allowing yourself to take time out of your day to do something you find enjoyable, simply for the sake of enjoyment itself, is what it means to play. And as much as I relish Dominic West’s mischievous grin, play isn’t the same as watching television or even reading. Activity is required to stimulate that mind-body connection, which is a big part of the power of play. So get an adult coloring book and carve out half an hour to focus on it. Pick out a board game and start a weekly family game night tradition. Or, just take the time to bake a batch of brownies from scratch sheerly for the pleasure of the process. Think about it: how would your attitude and your relationships be impacted if you prioritized play like you do nutrition and exercise?

Last weekend, my boyfriend and I had an exceptionally relaxing, enriching evening out together. At the end of the night, we realized we’d completely lost track of time- neither of us had even glanced at our phones in hours, and although we were sitting at a bar for the whole night, neither of us had spent more than $10 a piece. Can you guess why? We had been completely engrossed in an epic 3 hour Go Fish marathon. I doubt even gamblers in Vegas get half as enthusiastic about a card game as we did. But of course we were focused on more than just winning; we were laughing with each other, poking fun and egging one another on. The game had turned into a sort of couples meditation for us- a way to focus on something outside of ourselves while still stimulating our minds and making us smile. We were unwinding from the week and nourishing our relationship through play. What could be better than that?

Sticks & stones

25 september, 2017

The vocabulary and syntax we employ when chatting up our best friend is different from that which we use to discuss a salary raise with our boss, or to scold our children. We’re aware that words are powerful tools, but do we really appreciate the value of these choices and the impact they have on our relationships with our kids, friends and coworkers? Language isn’t just central to the way we communicate; it also determines the terms in which we think. For example, the psychological benefits of naming one’s emotions has been thoroughly reinforced by scientific evidence. As simple as it seems, just the process of recognizing our feelings for what they are can jump-start their cognitive processing.

Our words shape our understanding of how the world sees us and, therefore, our place in the world. The ways we talk to our children changes the way they view themselves and can build or deplete their self-esteem- so it’s obviously important that we’re choosing our words carefully in order to provide them with a sense that they are worthy of respect.

But it’s not easy to be conscious about your communication style; ideas are so often posed in direct opposition to one another that we’ve become deeply accustomed to thinking of them in these terms. In fact Center for Non-Violent Communication founder Dr. Marshall Rosenberg has even suggested that using the term “child” in reference to your son or daughter can be detrimental to your relationship with him or her. Instead, he advocates for thinking of kids as humans of equal value to adults. Rosenberg tells a story in which he arrives home after a rough day at work and asks his family for some peace and quiet. When his 9 year old son asks him, “Do you want to talk about it?” Rosenberg’s knee-jerk reaction is to dismiss the offer just because of his child’s age. He realized he was subconsciously disregarding part of his son’s value as a human, by believing that the boy was powerless to help his father.

Georgetown linguistics professor Deborah Tannen writes about what she refers to as “Argument Culture,” which assumes that the productivity of society rests on constant conflict. We teach school children that the best way to explore multiple perspectives on a subject is through debate; we tell them that in order to show that they are engaged, they must criticize. And we’ve also denigrated the word “compromise” to be synonymous with sacrifice rather than something to aspire to. Pugilism is rampant in everything from entertainment to politics. Implicit in references to “The War on Christmas,” “the War on Women” or even in seemingly benign reality TV shows like “Cupcake Wars,” is an underlying notion of hopeless opposition. The term “war” or “battle” does not conjure hope of compromise; instead, we are left with the expectation that one clear winner will prevail over the other.

Of course, direct communication does certainly have benefits. The willingness to listen to the concerns and critiques of others is essential to personal growth and the development of self-awareness. But contrary to popular belief, this does not need to involve disrespect, domination or opposition of any kind.

And when oppositional or violent communication prevails as the norm, research shows that girls tend to be excluded from the conversation. Girls are more likely to avoid conflict and vacate a discussion or situation when it takes an antagonistic turn. By and large, they get no gratification or enjoyment from fighting. And who can blame them? They’re consistently socialized to behave more passively than boys, so it’s no surprise that they back down from the prospect of a debate or confrontation.

Such simple changes as reframing statements to include claims about one’s own feelings can make the tone of an interaction seem less oppositional. Rosenberg teaches that viewing the parental objective as exercising total control over the child breeds nothing but frustration- and as most parents can attest, people of any age are rarely persuaded to do something just because someone else wants them to. The goal instead should be to cultivate a quality of mutual concern, so that the child will listen to her parent because she understands that both parent and child will benefit from it.

If we look to express respect and empathy in conjunction with every interaction we initiate with our kids, they come to understand that we’re all on the same team. Respectful communication is a key component of the momentum required to propel us into a more compassionate, peaceful world. And what more could we want for our kids’ future?