What to do if you Suspect Your Child is Gifted (Part I)

You suspect your child is gifted. Actually, you pretty much know your child is gifted. You know it from observing your child. And you know it from all those articles you’ve found with their bulleted lists of gifted children behaviors—you’ve mentally ticked off most of the items.

So okay, now that you know, what should you do?

Dr. Shannon W. Bellezza of Triangle Behavioral and Educational Solutions, suggests that parents find out how schools in their area test for giftedness. “Some schools do universal screening around 3rd grade to see which children may be gifted. Sometimes there are options for parents or teachers to nominate children for testing to qualify for acceleration in certain subjects. Parents should find out how their school screens for giftedness and follow through with the appropriate procedures.”

Testing For Giftedness

Can’t wait that long? You don’t have to, if you don’t mind paying out of pocket. “Many private psychologists offer IQ tests for children as young as 3-4 years-old, including the Stanford-Binet and the WPPSI tests,” says Alina Adams, a school consultant and author of Getting Into NYC Kindergarten.

Adams cautions that there are many variables to these tests, which means the results will vary, too. “An important thing to remember is that the tests are different, and it’s entirely possible for a child to test gifted on one, but not on another. Also very few IQ tests are reliable before the ages of 10-12, so it’s possible your child will test gifted one year, but not the next,” says Adams.

Before having children tested, parents should consider that “gifted” means different things to different people, says Parenting and Family Coach Dr. Richard Horowitz. “At times parents with reasonably bright kids latch on to the label ‘gifted’ without actually getting confirmation by a teacher or psychologist. There is no universally recognized standard for gifted. School districts will set criteria for admission into a gifted/talented program but again it is the school’s arbitrary standard rather than a definition based on research.”

Fostering The Gift

Some parents don’t bother with confirmation. Tobi Kosanke, for example. She and her husband just assumed their 13-year-old daughter girl was gifted and ran with it: did what they could to foster their child’s development. “We nourished her intellect as a baby and toddler with toys, music, and books.”

“Gifted,” by the way, is not the same as “genius.” Alina Adams points out that unlike the lack of universal school standards for giftedness, there are actual accepted distinctions that separate those in the category “genius” from the merely “gifted.” “Giftedness can be anything from the top 90th percentile, to the top 95th or 97th. Genius is the 99.99 the percentile. The needs of the two groups are different.”

“Those with IQs between 125 to 145 can basically handle anything they decide to do. Those with IQs of 145 plus often have a harder time making themselves understood, which can get in the way of achievement. There is also the concept of multi-potentiality. When people are good at most anything they try, it becomes harder to narrow down exactly what they want to do. So they end up doing nothing, like the metaphor of Buridan’s ass,” says Adams.

Gifted=Special Needs??

Laurie Endicott Thomas, author of Not Trivial: How Studying the Traditional Liberal Arts Can Set You Free, has a different way of looking at IQ. She thinks that children on either end of the IQ spectrum should be thought of and treated as special needs children. “Keep in mind that a gifted child’s IQ is at least 30 points above the average. You would not dream of putting a child with an average IQ (100) in a classroom for mentally retarded children (IQ of 70). Yet gifted children are expected to thrive in a classroom that is geared to children whose IQ is 30 points below theirs. Not only will the gifted children be miserable from boredom, they will be wasting their time and developing bad study habits. (There’s no need to take notes if you know that the teacher is going to repeat the same boring thing 10 times!)”

Here Adams disagrees. “It really depends on the child. Some children who have tested gifted are so used to being the smartest kid in the room, the one that everyone fusses over and praises, that being put in a situation where everyone else is as smart—or even smarter—than they are, is a horrible experience. Some kids shut down completely, and become depressed. If their entire self-image is based on being the best, learning that there are others like them can be devastating.

“Another problem with gifted programs,” says Adams, “is that most public school-based ones operate on the assumption that all gifted children are gifted at the same things in the same way on the same schedule. The whole point of being gifted is that you are uniquely talented in a particular area. I’ve worked with families where their extremely verbal child struggled in advanced math, while other children with incredible math skills floundered in advanced English classes where their very literal-minded approach made parsing the nuances of texts nearly impossible.

Adams gives the personal example of her gifted son, who, when faced with Hemingway’s iconic six-word short story, For sale: baby shoes, never worn, insisted that there simply weren’t enough facts available to draw a definitive conclusion. “Sure, you could assume the baby died. But you could also assume it was an ad from a baby shoe factory that was closing down.”

Educational Needs

Horowitz has a more general view of gifted programs versus mainstreaming gifted children. “The best advice for a parent is to make sure that their child’s individual educational needs are being met and the parents should arrange a conference with the teacher or teachers early in the school year to make sure this is occurring. If the teacher can meet the child’s needs in the regular classroom than there is no need for an additional program,” says Horowitz, adding this caveat: “If, however, the school has identified a child as eligible for a gifted program, I believe the parents should take advantage of the offering.”

Whether or not to mainstream your gifted child is likely to be determined, says Bellezza, by school policy and availability of resources. Bellezza details the various types of school instruction that might be available to a gifted student depending on the school. “Pull-out enrichment (when the child is removed from the classroom for specialized instruction), push-in enrichment (when the child remains in the regular classroom and is given specialized instruction via differentiation by the classroom teacher or from another teacher who comes to the classroom), or some combination are usually offered by schools.”

William Schlitz of Keller, Texas, and his wife, Dr. Myiesha Taylor, decided to bypass the school system altogether. “My wife and I have homeschooled our 3 children here in Texas. We did not make the decision for religious or conservative political reasons. The decision was made to specifically address the gifted status of our two oldest children and tailor their education to create an academic environment that allowed them to thrive. Part of that was our desire to create a secure environment where our kids felt safe, free from bias, and could focus on their education. Like many who start this process we were concerned if our decision would hurt our children’s future (college?). But in reality it served as a launching point for all of them to thrive.

Education Disinterest

Schlitz’s and Taylor’s eldest daughter, Haley Taylor Schlitz, is today a 15-year-old senior at Texas Woman’s University. “Haley made the jump to homeschool when we became concerned about her academic progress at a local middle school. It was Haley’s growing disinterest with her education that led us to have her formally tested for giftedness. Her tests demonstrated a very highly gifted person.”

Haley went on to become a Davidson Young Scholar, and a member of both MENSA and Intertel, graduating homeschool high school at age 13. The young woman has been on the Dean’s List of TWU for the past two years with a GPA of 3.7. Haley will have her BS degree in May 2019, when she will be 16 years-old, and plans on attending law school starting the following Fall semester. Another son is about to follow in Haley’s footsteps. Ian, at 12, has just passed the entrance exam at a local community college.

Having taken the journey of homeschooling her children, Myiesha Taylor has developed insight into gifted education processes around the United States, and has served as a resource for families traveling a similar path. To this end, Taylor created a Facebook group, Brilliant In Color, that helps families of color discuss how to navigate giftedness for their children.

Testing, confirmation of giftedness, and education aside, some parents wonder what being gifted will mean for their child’s emotional makeup. Will being gifted mark a child as different? Do gifted children have difficulty finding and making friends, and cultivating relationships? Will a gifted child, of necessity, always be lonely? How will being gifted affect the child’s world view?

Social Skills

“Gifted children are prone to problems with loneliness and depression. Often, the gifted children themselves are blamed for having ‘poor social skills.’ Yet the real problem is that children generally develop real friendships only with other children whose IQ is within 15 points of theirs.

“If your child’s IQ is 100, then 68% of the population falls within his or her ‘friendship zone.’ As a result, your child is likely to have lots and lots of (rather dim-witted) friends. But if your child’s IQ is 140, less than 2% of the population falls within his or her ‘friendship zone.’ You may need to get involved in some organization for the gifted in order for your child to find children whom they can befriend,” says Endicott Thomas, who suggests parents of gifted children visit the SENG (Supporting Emotional Needs of the Gifted) website.

Endicott Thomas describes the emotional downside of being gifted. “Because of their abilities to use abstract reasoning, gifted people are often keenly aware that the universe is indifferent to human suffering, that many social institutions are stupid and cruel, and that many adults are hypocrites. For this reason, gifted people need to find some way to make a positive difference in the world. Otherwise, they can suffer greatly from a problem called existential depression.”

On Being Different

Alina Adams disagrees, suggesting that the real problem with being gifted (and knowing it) is watching out for inflated egos. “Professionally, I can tell you that gifted kids love feeling different, and knowing things other kids don’t. Personally, I can tell you my husband and I tell our kids, ‘You’re not that great. Even if you’re one in a million, there are 6000 people out there just like you. And many more who are better.’

“Some parents like gifted schools and programs so that their children can be with like-minded peers. We like them because they prove to our kids just how not special they are,” says Adams.

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Hot Car Deaths Survey: It Can Happen

Hot car deaths, according to a June 2018 Kars4Kids survey, are thought to be something that happens to other parents and other children. That’s despite a large body of proof that shows hot car deaths can happen to any parent’s child. The widespread refusal of parents to believe hot car deaths can affect them is so pervasive that only 16 percent of parents surveyed expressed concern over the issue.

The survey showed, moreover, that parents continue to believe hot car deaths are related to poor parenting. Of those surveyed, 78 percent expressed negative thoughts about parents whose children die due to being left behind in a hot car. Worse yet, 11 percent of those we surveyed, continue to believe that it’s fine to leave a baby in a hot car for a few minutes. (It most emphatically is NOT!)

It’s frightening to learn that 83 percent of parents surveyed don’t think it could happen to them: they don’t think their children could die of heatstroke due to being left behind in a hot car. The reason this is frightening is that we know this statistic represents the percent of parents who refuse to take simple precautions to keep their children safe from hot car deaths. In other words, most parents aren’t going to do anything at all to ensure their children don’t experience a tragic and preventable hot car death.

That is why we performed our survey in the first place. We accompanied the survey with our It Can Happen campaign. We did these things because we don’t want to see even one more child die in a hot car because a parent doesn’t think it can happen. The theme of this new campaign is to actively illustrate the type of parent who forgets his or her child in a car. That type of parent, to be specific, would be any parent.

While hot car deaths can happen any time of the year, we see the number of infant heat stroke deaths rise especially high in summer. That is why each summer, we step up our efforts to educate parents on the dangers of leaving children, even for a few minutes, in a hot car. Our survey and the It Can Happen campaign are designed with the hope that more parents than ever before will take precautions against the worst tragedy that can happen to a family. If you’re already taking those precautions, we thank you with a whole heart. Keep up your fabulous and life-saving work.

We appreciate your efforts because hot car deaths have been a hot button topic for us at Kars4Kids for the past four years. That was the year we first began our campaign to raise awareness of these tragic and preventable deaths. It was also the year we created our free Kars4Kids Safety app that uses a car’s Bluetooth function to help alert parents to the presence of a child left behind in the backseat of a car. And finally, it was the year we first encountered the phenomenon of readers and parents who insisted that they could never ever leave a baby or young child behind in their cars.

We could understand them, being parents ourselves. What we couldn’t understand was the refusal of some parents to take the simplest of precautions on the off chance that it could indeed happen to them and to their children (Heaven forbid). And so we have tried ever since to prove to them that it can happen to anyone, hoping they’ll put their phones or wallets in the backseats of their cars just to humor us—and perhaps save a young life.

To that end, we created our Hot Car Challenge, offering $100 to anyone who could stand to sit in a hot car for ten minutes without wussing out.

Then we invented our Hot Cars Cookie Challenge to show that the interiors of cars get so hot you can totally bake chocolate chip cookies on your dashboard. (If it’s hot enough to bake a cookie, you so don’t want your child in there.)

We also worked to create partnerships with the media and with popular bloggers and websites, to further spread the word about the dangers of leaving a baby behind in a car for even a short period of time. We gathered statistics on hot car deaths, updating you from time to time. And we kept you apprised of the science of hot car deaths as our understanding evolved.

In order to better understand why hot car deaths occur, we reached out to psychologist David Diamond and meteorologist Jan Null, arguably the two most important names connected to the phenomenon of hot car deaths. David Diamond outlined for us the psychological process that causes parents to “forget” their babies. Diamond has testified as an expert in several hot car death-related homicide trials. Jan Null tracks patterns related to hot car deaths at his website noheatstroke.org and has amply demonstrated that not all of these deaths are due to memory failure.

It is our intention, at Kars4Kids, to keep on raising awareness and educating the public on the dangers of hot car deaths in any way we can. Don’t take our word for the fact that it can happen to anyone. Just humor us please, and take precautions. Even if you don’t believe you’re that kind of parent.

It can’t hurt anything but your pride to take the extra step to ward off danger.

And it may just save your child’s life.

Homemade Playdough Recipe (Old-School, Anti-Tech!)

Homemade playdough may be just the ticket to get your kids away from their screens. It’s easy to make and gives kids hours of fun. You probably already have the ingredients on hand in your pantry.

When freshly made, the playdough is warm and feel so good on the hands. This particular recipe, while not tasty, is edible, and is certainly non-toxic. It’s just as good as the store-bought brand, but you can tailor-make your color palette. With this in mind, make several batches so kids have lots of different colors to work with. They will love you for the extra effort!

Get kids’ imaginations going by putting out various kitchen utensils for them to use with the homemade playdough. Give them dull butter knives, rolling pins, a garlic press, a melon baller, or anything else you can think of that isn’t sharp and can be used to make amazing shapes and textures in the dough. When children’s attention flags, you can assign them themes or contests to awaken their interest.

child rolls out homemade playdough with miniature plastic rolling pin

Homemade Playdough Activities

Making tiny replicas of birds’ nests containing tiny eggs is so much fun! So is layering rolled-out pieces of dough, rolling them into cylinders, and pulling out the “petals” to make roses. If you play along with your children, or there are other children or siblings around, create a homemade playdough contest using these examples to get you started:

  • Most creative homemade playdough item
  • Prettiest rose
  • Scariest homemade playdough monster
  • Longest “snake”

Don’t be surprised if “older” children can’t help themselves and must get in on the sensory fun. Even adults like to play with this colorful stuff, though it may embarrass them to admit this fact (hint: think of adult coloring books and give yourself permission to play).

A penguin and a fantasy creature
(artwork by Asher Epstein, photo credit: Varda Epstein)

Homemade Playdough: Vacation Solution

Homemade playdough is a good solution for the long summer vacation or for snow days. It’s an any-weather solution. And it’s the complete opposite of tech. The sight of homemade playdough will have your kids running away from their computer screens to stick their hands in the colorful dough: there’s just something about the stuff.

Best of all, you can give yourself a pat on the back when you make homemade playdough. It’s not rocket-science. It’s so easy to whip up a batch. And it makes you the greatest parent in the world to your child at the moment you show them what you’ve made for them.

Not to mention, did we say it takes kids away from their screens? Old-school homemade playdough. It’s the anti-tech!

Viking ship
(artwork by Asher Epstein, photo credit: Varda Epstein)

Colorful Homemade Playdough

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup flour
  • ¼ cup salt
  • 2 tablespoons cream of tartar
  • 2 teaspoons food coloring
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 1 cup water

Method:

  1. Combine flour, salt, and cream of tartar in medium saucepan
  2. Add water, food coloring, and oil
  3. Stir over medium heat with wooden spoon for 3-5 minutes until dough leaves the sides of the pan and forms a ball
  4. Remove from heat, allow dough to cool in pan
  5. Turn dough out onto counter and knead until smooth
  6. Store in refrigerator in airtight container or Ziploc freezer bag

Note: This modeling clay lasts 6 months thanks to the addition of cream of tartar.

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Teens: Saying No When Other Parents Say Yes

How do you say no to teens when their friends’ parents say yes? If you think the activity is dangerous, you’re right to say no. But if all the other parents say yes—that their children can participate in an activity—you end up looking like the bad guy. You look like you’re saying no just to be arbitrary or mean.  It makes you seem like a control freak. Or just too strict.

Take the example of Lynn, age 51. Lynn’s 16-year-old daughter Randi begged to attend a weekend at a friend’s house. The weekend was to conclude with an all-night party. But there was a catch: the friend’s parents were out of town.

The friend’s parents had all given their permission for the weekend and party. The other invited guests, another eight children, had all received permission from their parents to attend. Lynn and her husband Jordan were the only hold outs.

Saying No For Protection

Lynn knew that her fun-loving daughter might be persuaded to take part in activities that could hurt her. There might be alcohol or drugs at the party. There could be, for example, a game of Truth or Dare involving risqué behavior.

Randi is a great kid, but she likes to have fun. She’s game to try anything once. Her parents imagined her at the party, surrounded by friends urging her not to be a prude. In this environment, would Randi have the strength of will to say no to drinking, taking drugs, or engaging in sex-tinged activities?

Lynn and Jordan weren’t judging the other parents for agreeing to allow their children to have a fun weekend. But they knew their daughter and didn’t think it a good idea to put her in a situation where she could end up getting hurt. They knew that the right thing to do was to say no: to forbid Randi from spending the weekend at her friend’s house.

They tried to be gentle and diplomatic as they said no, while being firm and absolute. The results were predictable. Randi pitched a fit. The girl screamed and cried. She accused her parents of being unfair. She dragged in the fact that all the other parents had said yes. That she alone had monstrous parents who were control freaks. She said it wasn’t fair. Randi also reminded them that her friend’s parents trusted the friend to keep things clean and safe.

Saying No: The Right Thing to Do

Randi begged, yelled, cried, and slammed doors. But Lynn and Jordan were determined to stick to their guns. They decided they didn’t care about anything but keeping their daughter safe. They knew that saying no was the right thing to do.

Lynn and Jordan made a wise decision. The teenage brain is undergoing changes, pruning away gray matter on the way to becoming fully mature. These changes mean that teens have stronger emotional reactions and may feel a sense of urgency about situations, a need to act. A teen’s impulse control is weak, compared to that of an adult. That tendency for poor impulse control is the things that worried Randi’s parents most.

Lynn and Jordan knew that when teens drink, they drink too much. Teens don’t know how to stop once they get started. The same with taking drugs or making out. Teens also have poor planning skills which is why so many teenagers get into dangerous scrapes.

But saying no to a teenager is different than saying no to a toddler having a tantrum. A teen has the endless ability to twist facts and lay guilt trips. It’s hard for a parent to stand firm in the face of a teenager’s crazed reaction to a parent’s dictate.

Saying No Can Be a Conversation

Dr. Ari Yares, a licensed psychologist, parent coach, and nationally certified school psychologist, believes that how you say no, and how you involve your child in the way the decision plays out, makes a difference. “When having the conversation, share with your child your reasoning and be as transparent as possible within the circumstances. Allow them an opportunity to voice their objections and, when possible, engage in some problem solving that might lead to a modified answer.

Family therapist Elisabeth Goldberg, LMFT, says the trick is to keep going over in your head the reasons why you said no. This can give parents something to do as the teenager screams and yells and help the parent remain firm in his or her resolve. After all, if you have a good reason for saying no, there is no reason to change your mind. The issue is wanting to avoid feeling bad as a teenager yells at you.

“It must be very hard to own your parenting style. With constant comparisons of wealth, health and happiness, it’s no wonder why so many parents give into their kids and go against their better judgement. Technology has made our culture obsessed with popularity like never before, and parents are not immune to that competition in the least,” says Goldberg.

Yares suggests parents minimize the embarrassment of being forbidden an activity by speaking to the child in private. “It can be tough when you are the parent saying no when everyone else says yes and your child may be mad at you for the decision that you are making. It’s important to make sure that when saying no in a situation like this that you minimize the public embarrassment of saying no. Pull your child aside for a more private conversation by saying, ‘We need to discuss this.’”

Saying No: Poor Distress Tolerance

Dr. Goldberg, meanwhile, feels that the most important part of saying no is to resist all the pleading and crying, to learn to let it roll off a parent’s back like water off a duck. “What makes parents say yes when they should say no is poor distress tolerance. The child asks and the parent is initially annoyed, then it progresses and goes deep, cutting into their core of self-worth as a human. When parents can’t say no to their kids, it’s because they can’t tolerate other discomfort; their threshold has already been crossed,” says Goldberg.

Any parent whose teenager pleads and cries for a long enough time is going to question whether they are doing the right thing in saying no. This is normal. But it’s important to remember that if you give in, your child will only make a stronger fuss the next time you say no. She already knows you’ll give way if she screams long enough and loud enough.

And of course, if you show weakness, you teach your child weakness. Standing firm, on the other hand, is a good example for your teenager. “Parents who stand firm and present themselves as authority figures through positive messages of respect and experience raise more secure children than those who fall apart at small signs of aggravation. Distress tolerance is a very undervalued skill for parents. Parents who cannot tolerate distress will teach this to their kids, who will grow up believing that hardship past a certain point is unacceptable. They won’t be very adaptable, and tend to make poor partners,” says Goldberg.

But how should a parent steel himself against all that begging and crying? “Saying no comes down to training yourself to tolerate various levels of distress by reflecting on the thoughts and feelings that come up when you try to say no and don’t,” says Goldberg.

Colorful animation of parents standing firm against annoyed teenage boy
The hard part is standing firm

In the case of Lynn and Jordan and their daughter Randi, though the girl reasoned and cried, her parents stuck to their original position on the subject of the weekend house party. No remained no and Randi stayed home. The girl moped and complained but once the party was past tense, she and her parents got past their relationship hump. It was only a few days before things were back to normal.

The moral of the story is: stay strong and remember why you’re saying no. If you wuss out and give in, you’re only setting yourself up for failure at a later date. And your child will have had a really bad example of weak character to follow.

Found what you just read useful? Why not consider sending a donation to our Kars4Kids youth and educational programs. Or help us just by sharing!

Good Fats Needed: Your Child’s Brain and Health

Could government guidelines for a diet low in healthy fats be making our children sick? The numbers and new research suggest this may just be the case. From 2003 to 2011, for instance, ADD/ADHD rates increased by 43%, and continue to rise. The number of kids on antidepressants jumped 50% from 2005 to 2012, with over 7 million children now taking psychoactive drugs.

In 2015, 6 million children in the U.S. were diagnosed with ADD/ADHD and treated with Ritalin, Adderall, and related drugs. While this means that only two out of three kids with diagnosed ADHD are treated, some experts feel that not enough children are being medicated. This is backwards reasoning that fails to look at the cause of ADHD. Over 2.1 million kids in the U.S., meanwhile, are taking anti-depressants, according to 2017 statistics.

There is no sign that trends in these ailments are reversing, but the good news is that there are practical steps you can take to prevent or alleviate these disorders. Adding vitamins and healthier food to your child’s diet will provide essential nutrients that are missing in the Standard American Diet.

SAD daily food plan
Standard American Diet (SAD) daily food plan

New research is discovering nutritional solutions to mental health issues, pointing to vitamin supplementation and better diet as the most effective solution for mental health issues. Studies show that certain fats make excellent antidepressants. Even severe depression and schizophrenia have been successfully treated with vitamins and diet.

The good news is that you can keep kids happy and healthy by changing their diet. Your children can benefit from proven research which is not yet widely known or accepted. The bad news is that you have to be willing to buck traditional nutritional and medical advice.

There are many plusses to treating mental health issues with diet instead of drugs. Let’s compare diet to Ritalin, the most common psychoactive drug given to kids:

Dietary Approach to ADHD:Ritalin:
No side effects.Long list of side effects including nervousness, tics, insomnia, weight loss, psychosis, etc.

 

Lower cost.The cheapest discounted Ritalin will cost about $400 per year for 30-40 mg per day. Full price and higher dosage could easily triple that amount to $1,200.
Long-lasting improvement: Mental health benefits from dietary supplements can last for at least one year after stopping supplements.Ritalin works only for as long as it is taken.

 

 

Before we discuss diet, let’s take a look at how started down this path of declining mental and physical health.

Replacing Fat with Sugar

In the 1970s, the nutrition advice of the U.S. government underwent a radical change in an effort to stem rising heart attack rates in men. Wanting a quick solution, politicians seized on the results of the earliest studies, ignoring researchers who cautioned them to wait until all the data was in. Worse yet, the new nutrition guidelines targeted adult men, ignoring children’s differing needs. The assumption that the new guidelines were safe for all has since been proven incorrect. The diet, moreover, did not prevent male heart attacks.

The new policy recommended eating a carbohydrate-loaded diet and restricting fats, especially saturated fats. People stopped eating animal fats, and ate more sugar, a simple carbohydrate. Manufacturers “improved” tasteless, boring, fat-free snack foods by adding sugar. The resulting products were sold as health food, while butter and fatty meats were said to be dangerous. Sugary foods were even marketed as low-fat and heart-healthy, despite being mostly devoid of nutrients.

Snackwell Devil's Food cookies were low in fats, high in sugar
The Snackwell Effect: high-carb, low-fat cookies touted as a health food

The new food items were a win for food companies because they were cheap to produce and had shelf lives stretching far into the future. Some breakfast cereals were over 50% sugar, while claiming to be good for children. Now that we have adult-onset diabetes in kids under ten, we’re beginning to see that sugar was never just a source of empty “fat-free” calories.

Inexpensive high-fructose corn syrup (HCFS) was first marketed in the late 1960s, and plugged as healthier than sugar, because fructose doesn’t raise blood sugar. But HFCS is 45% glucose, 55% fructose, while table sugar is 50% glucose, 50% fructose. There’s no great difference between the two. And while fructose doesn’t raise blood sugar, it does go straight to the liver, just like alcohol. Children who drink large quantities of sugary soda, use lots of sugar-laden ketchup, and eat sweet treats, may just end up developing non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD).

Hidden Sugar

Today the CDC recommends limiting sugars, but other than recommending that kids under two avoid added sugar, fails to specify how much sugar is too much.  We’re used to a sweet edge on food, so manufacturers add sugar to commercial foods to make them taste better. As parents and consumers, we do however, have the right to check packaged foods for hidden sugar and to choose sugarless items.

Avoiding sugar except for rare treats makes sense. According to pediatric researchers, NAFLD is now common among children, affecting 3-12% of children, in general, and occurring in 70-80% of obese children. After 2020, NAFLD will become the most common reason for liver transplants. For kids, and especially teens, obesity creates its own world of mental anguish, as obese kids often face rejection and bullying.

Sugar may create behavior issues, too. Many parents note that children are more manageable on a low-sugar diet. Kids seem to have better focus and concentration without sugar. Sugar may be harming our children’s mental health. Mental health statistics suggest that lowering dietary fats and replacing them with sugar has only made things worse.

The Wrong Fats

Until 1990, McDonald’s used beef fat to make its crispy fries taste hearty. But a consumer advocate group believing the early, flawed research results, waged war on saturated fats. McDonald’s switched to a “heart-healthy” fat for its fries.

The food industry already had an inexpensive answer to the fat conundrum. Crisco and margarine had been around since the early 1900s. These hydrogenated trans fats made from vegetable sources replaced “unhealthful” animal fats. Trans fats were vegan and miraculous for food texture—until 2001, when we found out just how bad they are. Heart inflammation and brain issues such as memory loss are just two side effects of these solid fats.

The food industry switched to liquid vegetable oils. But when repeatedly heated to high temperatures these oils produce dangerous, cancer-causing acrylamides. Eating foods deep fried in these seed oils during pregnancy deters fetal brain development. That means that families eating lots of deep-fried foods are at risk for brain issues.

Because we traded bad fats for worse fats.

Most commercial vegetable oils, for instance canola oil, are unstable seed oils, and are best avoided. Such oils are high in unhealthy Omega 6 fats and low or without beneficial Omega 3 fats. As a rule, if an oil can’t be produced outside of a factory, it is inflammatory. Inflammation is responsible for many harmful disease processes throughout the body.

complicated canola oil production versus simple olive oil extraction puts olive oil in the family of good fats
Canola oil is extracted with multiple chemical processes; olives are simply pressed to release their oil.

Better Fats, Better Brains

If canola oil is bad for your child’s general health and brain health, what fats are good? For non-meat, non-dairy options, coconut oil, cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil, or avocado oil are all good choices. Coconut oil contains medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) which are great for brain health and mental clarity. Avocadoes are a food source containing healthy fats.

We need healthy fats because the nervous system needs fat for proper function and because the human brain is 60% fat. Brain growth and development reach their full potential when we eat a traditional pre-industrial diet of home-cooked foods. In spite of what we now know, current CDC recommendations still advise a low-fat diet for children.

Cleveland dentist, Weston A. Price, demonstrated a number of the benefits of animal fats in the 1930s. Adding good grass-fed butter to the diet resolved nutrition and health issues in malnourished inner-city children, including tooth decay. These days, the CDC-recommended low-fat diet has left even affluent children malnourished.

Important: Fat-Soluble Vitamins D, A, and K

Parents once gave kids butter and cod liver oil rich in Vitamins D, A, and K, to keep them healthy. We ate fatty foods and foods fried in animal fats. The high-carb, low-fat trends of today’s Standard American Diet have left us literally SAD and reeling from depression. By putting nutritional fats back into the diet we can turn that frown upside down.

Vitamin D

Most people including children are, today, deficient in Vitamin D, a major cause of depression. The two sources of Vitamin D are sunshine and food. When kids play mostly indoors, they lose out on sun exposure. This means kids make less Vitamin D in their skin. Instead, they get their Vitamin D from milk with added Vitamin D2, which is inferior to the D3 we make in response to sunlight or consume from animal sources.

Animal sources are the most bio-available form of D. Bio-availability means that a nutrient source is eaten in the same form that our body uses directly. Non-bio-availability means that a chemical conversion is required, and this usually means a shortfall in that nutrient.

Why do we need Vitamin D3? Vitamin D3 acts as a hormone in the body. It helps us fight viral infections; absorb calcium for growth and maintenance; and regulate blood pressure. The mental wellness effects of D3 were well-known to traditional peoples who prized fatty fish.

Dr. Jay Wortman, a Canadian M.D. and researcher, interviewed an older First Nations man about his traditional diet, which includes oil from the oolichan fish. High in D3 and other fat-soluble nutrients, oolichan oil was described by his grandfather as “your sun in the winter”. In the far north, the mood-boosting effects of the oil are important in the long, dark winter. Another key component of that northern diet is salmon, also a fatty fish. Traditional peoples did not avoid fats; they prized them as health-giving components of a proper diet.

Native American smelting process for oolichan or eulachon fish, a source of healthy fats
Oolichan or eulachon fish were a prized source of healthy fats for the indigenous population. Here they are rendered to extract the fat.

A diet deficient in D3 can mean poor mental and physical health. Correcting D3 deficiency may help fight autism. D3 acts to combat depression. Diagnosing and correcting a deficiency in Vitamin D3 levels should be the first line of treatment for depression. If your child suffers from depression, you will need to tackle the problem with sunshine and outdoor exercise, fatty fish, or D3 drops. You can check recommended sun exposure times for season and location here.

Vitamin A

Vitamin A is another important vitamin that fights infections, and long-term deficiency causes night blindness. A lack of Vitamin A leaves one prone to infectious diseases like pneumonia and measles. Enough Vitamin A means the ability to fight off serious infections. For school kids, that’s a big edge, especially in flu season.

Some think that a low-fat carrot muffin made with vegetable oil has enough beta carotene to provide Vitamin A. But the beta-carotene in carrots and yellow vegetables doesn’t readily convert to enough usable Vitamin A. That does not mean you shouldn’t eat yellow vegetables. It means you need to add a meat source, for instance liver, once a week, to get enough bio-available Vitamin A in your diet.

Start serving liver when children are young, and you won’t have to introduce it later. The secret is not to overcook liver, and to serve it with a smile. If kids won’t eat liver, try flavored cod liver oil for a balanced dose of A, D3 and other essential nutrients.

While Vitamin A is essential, you can get too much, so:

  • Always check dosage information for your child’s age and body weight.
  • Keep your pediatrician in the loop whenever you use supplements.
  • Remember it is always best to get nutrients from food.

Vitamin K2

Vitamin K2 is another key nutrient we are coming to appreciate for its many health benefits. Vitamin K2 has many important and distinct functions.

K2 Functions:

  • Supports brain function
  • Supports growth and development
  • Keeps skin healthy
  • Reduced inflammation
  • Prevents heart disease
  • Maintains bone strength
  • Prevents cancer

Eating foods with Vitamins K2, D3, and A will keep your child in good mental and physical health. We’re still learning about the best K2 food sources.

K2 Food Sources:

  • Fermented foods like natto and sauerkraut
  • Meats, including beef, chicken, and cured meats such as salami
  • Chicken liver
  • Butter and fatty cheeses
  • Egg yolks

Health and dietary trends show that the outmoded low-fat, high-carbohydrate diet recommendations aren’t working. Replacing fats with sugar, damages the health. Yet we stick with poor government advice. Mental health issues, childhood obesity, and diabetes are epidemic. Yet these urgent issues have not made a dent in the anti-fat CDC guidelines. Happily, parents have the power to make food choices for their children.

Real Food and Fats for Better Mental and Overall Health

Simple diet choices can have major impact. Serve kids real foods like eggs scrambled in grass-fed butter instead of breakfast cereal. Use full-fat cheese and olives on a lunch salad, and nourishing meats and fish for dinner. You don’t have to labor for hours, just plan ahead when shopping. Fish and hamburgers each take 20 minutes, tops. Frozen veggies like cauliflower, broccoli and spinach can be cooked with butter and full-fat cream or coconut cream. Blend veggies and cream with an immersion blender and a few seasonings for a hearty, filling soup. Add eggs instead and bake a casserole that can also be packed as tomorrow’s lunch along with a handful of nuts.

Cooking real food doesn’t have to be hard, and kids will find the fats so satisfying and filling that they won’t be looking for overpriced between-meal snacks.

This writer strongly believes that the evidence is sufficient and urgent enough for parents to make bold dietary decisions for their families. Our children’s mental and physical health are at stake. Our national institutions show little interest in revoking long-held and long-discredited nutritional advice. But there’s no time to wait. It’s up to us to protect our children.

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Free Online Games Review

“Free online games!” shout the websites and blogs, vying for your attention. But over time we’ve become skeptics. We know that the free online games may not actually be free and may be full of screen-freezing technical glitches, besides. The games, moreover, may not hold a child’s attention or prove to be educational.

That’s why we decided to look for free online games that could keep kids busy when parents are at work or otherwise occupied, an option all parents need from time to time. We looked at various websites and the games they offered, actually playing the games to see how they stack up.

The results were surprising. Many of the games we found were terrible. Games billed as “educational” were often nothing of the sort. And way too many of the websites offering “free” games wanted money. Worst of all, a lot of the games simply didn’t work, freezing our computers, or refusing to respond to our clicks and commands.

Strange to say, the worst offenders turned out to be the websites with the strongest brand names. We would have expected Sesame Street, or Dr. Seuss, for instance, to be dependable brands. To the contrary, the bigger names got our lowest marks for their offerings.

The following review is not scientific or even comprehensive. It reflects only our personal experience. We tested games offered in articles we found on Google that claim to offer the best of free online games for children.

It may be that your computers and devices are better than our and that games that refused to cooperate for us, work well for you. If so, we hope you’ll tell us so in the comments. We’d also love it if you could let us know about free online games you’ve discovered that are both educational and enjoyable for children.

Free Online Games: Pre-Reading Skills

To keep this review manageable, we narrowed our field by focusing on free online games for preschool literacy skills. We looked at online storybooks that children can follow, and phonics, alphabet, and rhyme games for the pre-k crowd.

Ease of Operation

We looked for games that were easy to operate and glitch-free. We feel that nothing is more frustrating than setting a kid in front of the computer only to have the child find that the game doesn’t work. When this happens several times in a row, you end up with one seriously cranky child, so this is an important consideration.

Really Free

We also looked for games that were really free, and not just suckering you in, making your child really, REALLY, want to play, only to then demand your credit card information. Working moms don’t want to have to spend their salaries amusing their children. Otherwise they might as well stay home! When parents are at work and kids are at home, parents need inexpensive solutions. This is why we looked for websites that weren’t gaming us with false claims of free offerings.

Here are our findings:

Sesame Street   ★★ (2 stars)

Sesame Street website screenshot
(screenshot)

We were sure that Sesame Street, based on its strong brand, was going to give us wonderful games full of educational value. Sesame Street’s reputation is the reason we began there in our search for free online games. Alas, the offerings on the Sesame Street website were poor.

The first game we tried, Rhyme Time, refused to work. We tried going in and out of the game several times, but it just refused to respond to our clicks and commands. Weirdly, we saw exactly the same game offered at the PBS website, and there it worked just fine. It turned out to be a decent game, in terms of its educational value. A child might actually learn some rhymes. But the speed of the game, though adjustable, and set on high, was so slow we couldn’t imagine a child would have the patience to play for long.

Next we looked at Grover’s Story Circle. While this game worked just fine, it didn’t seem to offer much value. Children have to “color” the page in order to have it read to them. But coloring isn’t really coloring. It’s only about moving the mouse over the page until it fills in with color. What we call “stupid work.”

There’s no pointer to help children follow the words in the story. Nor are the words highlighted as they are read. That means that children have no way to connect individual words to the sounds they hear. We would think that Sesame Street could do better. But children do have a choice of three stories, there are English or Spanish language options, and the game can be configured to single or multiple players. A child can also choose the character that will read and narrate the stories and game.

A third game, Super Elmo’s ABC Jump was only okay. Kids get to “jump” from cloud to cloud by choosing the correct letter out of a choice of two letters. It wasn’t very exciting. Just the same thing over and over again. Choosing the letter, jumping on clouds. *yawn*

PBS ★★★ (3 stars)

PBS Kids logo
(screenshot)

Next we tried PBS, figuring hey, their stuff has got to be educational. But when we went to the PBS Kids page, we found a lot of time-wasting games sorted according to age and popularity. Further down the page, the games were sorted by topic but not by age, which surprised us, considering the PBS brand. We would have thought more care would be taken in what was offered and how it was presented.

We looked at PBS reading games, and to our dismay, found that many of the games were not even current. We clicked on Problem with Chickens and got a “page not found” error. We next went to PBS Princess Presto’s Spectacular Spelling, which looked good. But the sound disappeared on the second page. We reloaded the story and this time, no sound on the first page.

The PBS storybook section was a mixed bag. Planning an Elephant’s Party had great illustrations and the words were highlighted as they are read aloud. But when we tried The Election Problem, there was a sound problem. Two pages would work fine, then no sound on the third.

Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood looked like fun, but the words weren’t highlighted as they were read and this time the sound cut out in the middle of the page. We checked out the Arthur Comic Book So Funny I forgot to Laugh and found it slow-loading. We liked the way the speech balloons appeared near the characters as they spoke their lines. This was similar to highlighting words or using a pointer, and is meant to help children to connect sounds to symbols. But the voices of the various characters all sounded alike to us, and we still thought it would have been more effective to highlight the words within the speech balloons.

Starfall ★★★★★ (5 stars)

Starfall website screenshot
(screenshot)

Our next stop was Starfall. Here, everything was properly grouped according to age and topic and there was a large selection of pre-k literacy games. While the topic page interface was blah, the games themselves were wonderful.

At a glance, all games appeared to be free of charge. When we went deeper, however, we saw there were items we could not access. An about page informed us that “All essential activities for learning to read are free. Complete access for all activities, including expanded math and reading content for K-2nd grade and additional songs and rhymes are available with an inexpensive Starfall membership; only $35 for an entire year.”

While this was disappointing the free stuff on offer at Starfall was both good and educational, and there was a nice selection to boot.

From the free section, we tried an excellent Make a Word game incorporating the short “a” sound in “an”. The Learn to Read game Zac the Rat was a good follow up, using both highlighting, pointing, and interactive graphics to illustrate the short “a” sound. These games are great at helping children connect sounds to symbols, the most important aspect of learning to read.

Next we clicked on an interactive video, The Robot and Mr. Mole, designed to illustrated the long “o” sound. This too, was of excellent quality. We then played a matching long vowels memory game. The last seemed more about testing memory than teaching long vowels, but if your child is already playing games designed to teach long vowel sounds, this game deserves inclusion and offers educational value, too.

We found Starfall to be a treasure trove of valuable, educational games, the majority of them free of charge, as advertised. The Starfall website restored our faith in the concept of free online games for children, proving that such games could be all we wish them to be. This is one to bookmark.

Learning Games for Kids ★★★★★ (5 stars)

Learning Games for Kids website screenshot
(screenshot)

Learning Games for Kids may not have had as many amazing games as Starfall, but what it did have was fine and free, and all of it worked well. We played a nice Rhyme Game, and watched the Short Vowel Lesson which was a catchy animated song video, then checked out the selection of three preschool storybooks. We chose Buggy Bugs from the three books on offer. We were pleased to see a pointer that allowed children to follow the words as they were read. Learning Games for Kids is exactly as advertised: educational free online games for kids, and we offer our heartfelt stamp of approval.

Education.com ★★★★ (4 stars)

Education.com website screenshot
(screenshot)

Our next stop was the selection of kindergarten games at Education.com. There was a filter to sort the games according to topic and the games were all fine. Our main drawback here was that we found we had to click twice to get to the games, and then click another two times to play the games: a total of four clicks to arrive at the starting point of a game. This is annoying. Why make kids or their parents jump through hoops to play the games?

While we deemed the games decent, even good, we thought some of the games seemed too old for a preschooler, for instance, the School Bus Spelling Game, the first game we tried. The next game we tried was Long O Words Spelling. When we clicked the icon for this game we were required to register or sign in with a social media account. We signed in with Facebook, and were then asked to fill out a form. Happily, we saw were able to skip past the form. The game was good, but very similar in design and level to the School Bus Spelling Game.

We tried a rhyming game next, the Rhyming Words Match Up, and found it very good. We moved on to the Long and Short Vowel Sort, followed by Long Vowel Word Hop. And that’s when we hit the paywall. We’d hit our free limit of five games per month.

The good news is the user’s free limit refreshes each month. But it’s going to cramp your style if your kid is having a really great time and suddenly hits that paywall. You may not wish to return to the website, knowing how disappointing it is to kids to hit a limit on their gaming.

Education.com is, in short, a mixed bag. Decent games, but you have to jump through hoops to play them. The games may be too difficult for little ones, and kids are bound to hit the paywall just as they’re beginning to have a good time.

Teach Your Monster to Read ★★★★ (4 stars)

Teach your monster to read website screenshot
(screenshot)

Our next stop was Teach Your Monster to Read. An excellent effort, we thought this game was really well done and compelling. The graphics and narration are a cut above the competition. And it really is free!

We did have to register and sign in. But this allows the website to track the user’s progress, so the game starts where you left off the last time you played. We see this as a positive. The minute we registered, by the way, we had a nice explanatory email from “Alex” who directed us to the website’s FAQs and said he welcomed user feedback.

We did have two issues at Teach Your Monster to Read. The first sound in the game is the “s” sound. It was a little difficult for us to understand the sound. It wasn’t a human voice, but something more mechanical, and the enunciation of the sound fell short, in our opinion. We also had trouble maneuvering ducks into the proper pond. The ducks were somewhat disobedient and it was tricky to get them where they needed to be—perhaps too tricky for a preschooler.

Seussville ★★ (2 stars)

Seussville website screenshot
(screenshot)

Our final stop was the game section of the Dr. Seuss website, Seussville. Here we must state that the weird contemporary music that plays during loading time is a serious migraine trigger—but maybe that’s just us. We also didn’t see any way to sort the games according to topic. We tried a combination storybook and game, Fox in Socks. There was no pointer or highlighting of the text as it is read, but we liked the game, finding it creative and well executed, and definitely educational.

Next we tried Fishing for ABCs, which refused to load. We just got that annoying, headache-producing loading music at length until we gave up. The consensus? Your child might like these games, when they load, but keep out of the room if you’re prone to migraines!

So there you have it, the good, the bad, and the indifferent of free online games for children. We hope we saved you some time, and offered some educational fun, as well. Use the comments section to tell us about your own free online game finds. We’d love to learn from your experience!

Found what you just read useful? Why not consider sending a donation to our Kars4Kids youth and educational programs. Or help us just by sharing!

Serve and Return Parenting

Serve and return is a term coined by Harvard researchers for the back and forth interactions between a parent and a child. To understand the concept of serve and return, imagine a game of ping pong or tennis. Someone hits the ball, sending it over or serving it to the second player. The second player hits the ball in turn, returning it to the first player. Now substitute a conversation, a smile, or a gesture for the ball, and you’ve got an idea of serve and return.

As parents, we know that when a newborn looks deep into our eyes, he is asking us for some kind of attention. Depending upon the look in his eyes, it could be the baby just wants a smile. Or maybe he wants us to talk to him or play with him. We may not even know exactly what he wants, but we know he wants something. Most of us, as parents, will try hard to figure it out and give him what he wants, even if it takes some trial and error.

That look the baby gives the parent is a “serve.” To respond to it is the “return.”

Serve and Return Builds Brain Architecture

Serve and return interactions like this one have been studied by researchers. Studies show such parent child interactions are critical to brain architecture, or the shaping of the infant’s developing brain. Serve and return parenting is so important that a baby who does not experience this sort of back and forth with caregivers is likely to have stunted development.  According to Harvard:

Because responsive relationships are both expected and essential, their absence is a serious threat to a child’s development and well-being. Healthy brain architecture depends on a sturdy foundation built by appropriate input from a child’s senses and stable, responsive relationships with caring adults. If an adult’s responses to a child are unreliable, inappropriate, or simply absent, the developing architecture of the brain may be disrupted, and subsequent physical, mental, and emotional health may be impaired. The persistent absence of serve and return interaction acts as a “double whammy” for healthy development: not only does the brain not receive the positive stimulation it needs, but the body’s stress response is activated, flooding the developing brain with potentially harmful stress hormones.

Erika Christakis, writing in The Atlantic, speaks about the high-pitched, grammar-simplified, over-enthusiastic baby talk a parent might use in response to a baby’s cooing. This sort of “conversational duet” is a type of serve and return parenting. According to Christakis, one study found that “Infants exposed to this interactive, emotionally responsive speech style at 11 months and 14 months knew twice as many words at age 2 as ones who weren’t exposed to it.”

In other words, if a child lacks serve and return parenting, the child may end up with developmental delays and worse. This would be a tragic outcome. The kind of outcome that happens to kids who are abandoned and end up in the foster care system. Not the kind of outcome we’d expect for our own children.

The only problem with this idea—that it can’t happen to our kids, we’re not those kinds of parents—is that increasingly, that’s not true. The thing that makes this a lie is our smartphones and screens. Our devices have turned us into distracted parents. The kind of parents who all too often miss a baby’s glance in favor of a Facebook PM or Whatsapp message.

Serve and return interaction between mother and baby girl
If your phone were to ping, what would happen to this moment?

Imagine your baby offers you that serve and return glance but at the same time, you hear a “ping” from your phone. How likely is that to happen? And how will that ping affect your serve and return interaction with your baby?

Let’s say you choose to ignore the ping and wait until the serve and return with your infant is complete before checking your phone. As you interact with your baby, the ping of your phone is still on your mind. It’s there in your head in reserve, reminding you it’s waiting for you to pay attention to it instead of to your baby. That’s got to affect the quality of your serve and return interaction with baby.

But what if you attend to the ping first, so you can then give your full attention to the baby? What happens to the serve and return interaction as a result of this delay? Is baby affected by being made to wait a bit longer?

The simple answer is that timing is everything. There’s a rhythm to serve and return interactions. As in tennis or ping pong, miss the moment, miss the serve, and the game could be lost. The baby’s glance or coo, unreturned, may mean baby gives up, acknowledges that a parent’s return just isn’t happening. The baby may look away, or space out, a kind of retreat from the perceived rejection of the parent.

Serve and Return Requires Full Attention

A father and baby serve and return interaction
This father is fully “present” for this serve and return interaction with his child.

There’s another possibility. You multitask! You ignore neither ping nor baby’s serve, dividing your attention between the two. No one gets your full attention. No one wins. Psychologist Kathy Hirsh-Pasek comments that, “Toddlers cannot learn when we break the flow of conversations by picking up our cellphones or looking at the text that whizzes by our screens.”

Baby feels the difference, feels you are distracted, as you switch back and forth between the screen of your smartphone and your baby. Perhaps baby doubles down, tries harder, becoming even more attractive to you by doing something extra cute. Or perhaps the serve and return remains a lackluster failure so that it just sort of peters out. FAIL.

What about children beyond babyhood? Do they still require your full attention? Christakis mentions two studies that illustrate what happens when parents are too distracted by technology to engage in serve and return parenting with their children. In one of these studies, 225 moms and their 6-year-olds were videotaped as the kids were given new foods to try. A quarter of the moms used their phones, which resulted in fewer interactions with their children.

Phone Use and Learning

A second study tested the impact of a parent’s phone use on a child’s ability to learn new words. Moms were told they had to teach their 2-year-olds two new words: blicking, which was supposed to mean “bouncing,” and frepping, which was supposed to mean “shaking.” The researchers rang some of the moms from another room.

When the learning sessions were interrupted by a researcher’s phone call, the children didn’t learn the two new words. When left undisturbed, however, the new words took root. As it turns out, seven mothers were excluded from the analysis of the data, because they didn’t answer the researchers’ phone calls. In other words, they failed to follow the protocol! Christakis says, “Good for them!”

Indeed.

More Time for Children

It’s interesting to note that parents have never been so free to spend so much time with their children. Technology has made chores like cleaning clothes and keeping food fresh so much easier. We can walk into a supermarket to buy food, and clothing is ready-made. No one needs to milk a cow or churn butter. There are no longer accidents of the sort that were commonplace when moms were too busy to give baby much attention.

Those moms had no choice but to leave their babies alone much of the time. But our smartphones make us distracted moms by choice, limiting serve and return interactions with our children, and affecting their brain development. And make no mistake, it is a choice. Because it would be the easiest thing in the world to turn our phones off.

Minimizing Phone Distractions

With this in mind, parents would be well advised to do exactly that: shut off those phones when spending time with children. It’s the only way to be there for those serve and return moments. Here are 3 tips on how to minimize phone distractions:

  1. Put your phone on silent and out of sight in your bag or pocket when spending time with your child
  2. Experiment with shutting your phone off for a fixed time, say two hours in the afternoon, and try to be really present with your child during this time
  3. Stay off your phone while nursing or bottle-feeding your baby and during mealtimes for older children since this is an important time for socialization

That doesn’t mean you have to turn your phone off for your child’s entire waking hours. Nor must parents martyr out and feel deprived. It’s okay to check your voice mail and notifications from time to time. And it’s certainly okay to take time for yourself. It makes you a better parent.

Christakis says it best: “Parents should give themselves permission to back off from the suffocating pressure to be all things to all people. Put your kid in a playpen, already! Ditch that soccer-game appearance if you feel like it. Your kid will be fine. But when you are with your child, put down your damned phone.”

Because the stuff on your phone? It’s just virtual smoke and mirrors. While in the real world, nothing could be more important than those serve and return moments with your child.

Study: Moms as Gatekeepers, Dads Need Positive Reinforcement

Praising Daddy’s early attempts at parenting a baby can be a boon to the quality of his parenting later on. So says a study on maternal gatekeeping conducted by researchers at Ohio State University. Fathers who felt criticized for their early parenting efforts six months earlier, got lower marks parenting their 9-month-old babies. In other words, the way a new mom reacts to dad’s interactions with a newborn, affects his later parenting skills. Or dumbed down even more: Moms are still the gatekeepers of parenting.

Now this study didn’t involve just any old parents, but two-income first time parents who were both highly educated and relatively well off. The kind of people you’d expect to be enlightened enough to be sharing equal responsibility for parenting and housework. The point of the study was to show how a mother’s attitude and behavior can either support or limit a father’s involvement in the rearing of his own child. Lead author of the study, Lauren Altenburger, who did this work as a doctoral student in human sciences at OSU says that, “Mothers may not even be aware of how their criticisms of the father may end up negatively influencing how dads parent.”

The study was published May 9, 2018, in the online Journal of Child and Family Studies.

Moms As Gatekeepers

Co-author Sarah Schoppe-Sullivan, professor of human sciences at Ohio State says the study results show us that moms are still the gatekeepers, still queen when it comes to deciding who has the most power and influence in raising a couple’s children. “Many fathers may be more vulnerable to criticism than mothers are because there is still less support in our society for fathers as active, involved parents,” says Schoppe-Sullivan.

The data used for this study was culled from the New Parents Project, a long-term research project led in part by Schoppe-Sullivan. The New Parents Project aims to find out how dual-income couples cope with first-time parenting. It’s a smallish study with just 182 couples, most of them married. The participants in this project are assessed twice: when the baby is 3 months old and when the baby is 9 months old.

Dads And Maternal Gatekeeping

During the two assessment periods, dads answered questions designed to show just how far moms “opened” or “closed” the gate to their involvement in baby’s care. A father, for instance, had to note how often a mom took over a baby-related task because he wasn’t doing it right, or how often mom cast an irritated look at dad in relation to his parenting. Taking over or using negative facial expressions or body language were deemed examples of mom “closing the gate” to a father’s parenting involvement. Examples of opening the gate might include mom encouraging dad to help her bathe the baby, or words of appreciation for a father’s help in parenting the child.

Maternal gatekeepers brush off a dad's help
Dads may want to parent, but can get the brush off from maternal gatekeepers

In addition to the questionnaires, the researchers watched fathers interact with baby for 3-minute intervals at 3 months and 9 months. Dads were given marks according to how they responded to the baby’s facial expressions and gestures; how engaged they were with the baby; and how often they smiled at or spoke with warmth to baby.

The study findings show that the more gate-closing by a partner when the baby was 3 months old, the worse the marks fathers received on parenting when baby turned 9 months. “If fathers feel their partners don’t have confidence in their parenting, they may withdraw, and become less positive and sensitive with their child,” says Altenburger.

Maternal Gatekeeping Over Time

One theory this study looks at is whether moms close the gate on dads because of a father’s poor parenting. According to the researchers, if this had been the case, moms would still be closing that maternal gate, that is to say turning away a dad’s help, at 9 months, which was not the case. But to this writer’s mind, this argument is flawed. There are many reasons why a mom would be more accepting of a dad’s parenting help with an older baby.

For one thing, new moms are nervous in general, whereas by 9 months, a mom is no longer “new.” She feels more confident and has a routine going. For this reason alone, a mother is more likely to “close the gate” to a father’s involvement with a three-month-old and more inclined to accept his help with an older baby.

Then again, a newborn is not a nine-month-old. Parents, even those who are not new to parenting, are more nervous about newborns. With a newborn, you worry about supporting their heads, not dropping them, keeping them warm enough, and trying to understand their unspoken needs. A three-month-old seems fragile compared to a nine-month-old. A mother may not trust anyone else’s parenting with a new baby, believing that only she can provide for her infant.

Maternal gatekeepers may ignore a new dad's desire for involvement
Maternal gatekeepers may ignore a new dad’s desire for involvement

With a nine-month-old, on the other hand, there’s more room for letting dad give parenting a whirl. A nine-month-old is not as fragile as a three-month-old infant. There’s not the same fear involved in, for instance, bathing a nine-month-old, as there is with bathing a three-month-old.

For these reasons, it seems easy understand why a mom would be more accepting of a partner’s parenting help as a baby grows older. There are, in fact, few reasons to suggest a mom would regard a father’s help in the same light at these two very different stages of a child’s development. Asked to comment on this point, Altenburger declined to respond.

Low-Income Gatekeeping

Schoppe-Sullivan, meanwhile, notes that dual-earner couples may differ from other families in regard to co-parenting. “We might see more evidence of protective gatekeeping by mothers in more distressed families,” she said.

Schoppe-Sullivan and Altenburger say that both parents need to be supportive of each other during a first child’s first few months. It’s a time when parents, no matter whether they are moms or dads, are feeling vulnerable. They’re both trying to work out who they are as parents.

But fathers, in particular, are vulnerable to criticism, says Schoppe-Sullivan. “There still is an assumption in our society that mothers are the primary caregivers and that they have the power to determine the involvement of others in child care. Fathers may feel they should withdraw if they don’t have their partner’s support.”

Maternal gatekeepers have a power effect on a father
Mom gatekeepers who fail to encourage dads won’t get such quality help from them when baby is older.

If parents are to learn anything from this study, it is that moms should stop and think before criticizing a dad’s parenting choices, especially when it comes to little things like what the baby should wear on a trip to the supermarket, says Altenburger. “It is about giving fathers the space to parent, too. Both parents need to keep communication open and not be so quick to criticize.”

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Ohio State University. (2018, June 11). Fathers’ early parenting quality affected by mothers: Study shows importance of maternal ‘gatekeeping’. ScienceDaily. Retrieved June 24, 2018 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/06/180611133434.htm

5 Tips for Keeping Your Child Safe Around Dogs

Dogs can be wonderful companions for children. They are loyal, fun and provide unconditional love, so it’s not surprising many parents want their children to grow up with a family dog. Despite these attractions to the idea of a canine/child relationship, not every parent knows how to keep a child safe around dogs.

Children and dogs speak very different languages. The way a child shows affection may feel confrontational to a dog, which could cause the animal anxiety or stress. Children also find it hard to understand that a dog isn’t a cuddly toy and sometimes needs to be left alone.

Despite these issues with communication, most dogs tolerate human behavior. Bites are rare and almost never happen without warning. There are also plenty of things parents can do to reduce the chance of a bite, so here are five tips to keep your child safe around dogs.

Tip One: Teach Children How to Greet a Dog

There’s an expectation from some parents that all dogs should be friendly. This is transmitted to the child, who may not understand that strange dogs shouldn’t be approached. Keeping a child safe around dogs means teaching the child to approach the dog with caution.

As a dog owner, I’ve often had children run up to my pet at the park—sometimes screaming with delight—and pat him on the forehead. Their parents usually don’t ask permission or stop the child from approaching my dog, which is to them, an unknown dog. This is most definitely not the way to keep a child safe around dogs.

Despite the child’s good intentions, this sudden approach by a stranger can be a scary situation for a dog. Dogs don’t know what a strange child wants when the child approaches without warning. The dog often has no way to escape this unwanted attention. A dog’s attempts at communicating discomfort are usually missed or ignored.

little boy plays with dog in autumn park

Many dogs, including my own, are able to tolerate this sort of behavior. But some dogs may become defensive or even bite if they feel trapped, scared, or startled. For this reason, it’s important for all children to know how to politely greet a dog. This reduces the chance of a bite and teaches respect for dogs.

Here’s a simple four-step process you can use to teach your child how to greet a dog:

  1. Ask Permission: The first thing to teach a child is that he or she should never approach a strange dog without a parent’s permission. Similarly, the parent should always check with the owner before allowing a child near a dog. Never stroke (or allow a child to stroke) a dog if you can’t speak with the owner first—even if the dog is tied up in a public space.
  2. Proper Approach: Once the owner has given permission, show your child how to walk towards the dog with an outstretched arm and a closed fist. This protects the fingers and gives the dog a chance to communicate his feelings.
  3. The Dog’s Decision: The dog will sniff the child’s hand and either turn away or continue looking. If he turns away, he doesn’t want to continue with the interaction and you should leave him alone. This can be difficult for a child to understand, but it’s important to teach a child to respect a dog’s wishes. If the dog continues looking at the child or licks the child’s hand, the dog is giving his permission to be greeted.
  4. Stroking the Dog: Once the dog has signaled that he’s happy to continue making friends, the child can stroke him on the chest, shoulder or back. The child should avoid reaching over the dog’s head.
little girl offers dog food from her hand
Keep your child safe around dogs by teaching your child to seek permission to greet the dog.

Even if the dog has shown positive signals of accepting your child’s friendship, you and your child should watch for signs of discomfort. Signs of a dog’s discomfort might include moving away, yawning or licking lips. If you see any such signs, have your child move away. Doing so teaches your child how to read the dog’s body language, which is critical to keeping your child safe around dogs.

Tip Two: Dogs Don’t Like Hugs

With their fluffy coats and big round eyes, dogs can seem like the perfect cuddling companions. The sad truth, however, is that most dogs don’t like hugs. Hugging feels restrictive to canines and they often don’t see a hug as a sign of affection. This can be difficult for young children to understand, but it’s important children learn that a dog is not a teddy bear.

There are some exceptions to the hugging rule. I’ve known several dogs that actively seek hugs from their owners and even strangers. Dogs, like people, have individual likes and dislikes. The average dog, however, tends to shows signs of anxiety when hugged. The dog may make “Whale Eyes” or lick his lips. The child should look for these signs when hugging a dog and be honest with himself as to whether the dog is really enjoying the hug, or would rather have a back scratch. If the dog is not enjoying the hug, the child should stop hugging the dog, of course.

While most dogs don’t enjoy hugs, that doesn’t mean a dog will automatically become aggressive or bite when hugged. Family dogs, in fact, often tolerate hugs from children and adults. Even so, it’s not fair or kind to hug dogs  when it’s not in a dog’s nature to enjoy hugging. To hug a dog is to put him in a situation that makes him feel stressed and anxious.

Tip Three: Understand A Dog’s Discomfort Body Language

As a parent, the most important skill you can develop to keep your child safe around dogs is understanding the dog’s basic body language. This isn’t as hard as it sounds. Canine body language is surprisingly complex, but the signals for anxiety, stress or unhappiness are often easy to spot. The following signs tell you when a child’s play is becoming too rough and/or the dog should be left alone:

  • Repetitive yawning despite being well rested
  • Licking of lips when there’s no food in the area
  • Heavy panting
  • Turning the head away from the child
  • Giving “Whale Eye” by tilting the head away and showing the whites of the eyes
  • Moving or crawling away

These signals are the dog’s way of communicating he’s uncomfortable. If your child is the one causing the discomfort, it’s time to have your child give the dog some space. This is the smart way to keep your child safe around dogs.

There are, of course, other body language signals that dogs use to communicate feelings. In some situations, a dog will display the more obvious emotions of fear or aggression. Most people know that growling, teeth baring, and raised hackles are signs a dog shouldn’t be approached—especially by a child. In contrast, the classic “play bow” is a signal that a dog wants to play.

Such emotions are generally obvious even to humans who don’t understand canine body language. It’s the subtler signals of canine emotion that are often missed.

Tip Four: Supervise Children and Dogs at All Times

Dogs can make brilliant family pets. Many are patient, tolerant and loving around children, which is why the child/canine bond can quickly become so strong. Even so, parents should always supervise time spent between young children and dogs. Most dog bites happen when the parent or caregiver is nearby—and there are always warning signs that might have prevented the bite, if only someone had been paying attention. Except for the case in which there is a physical barrier between dog and child, for instance a sturdy fence, parents should actively supervise a child’s interaction with a dog.

“Active” supervision refers to parents watching the dog for signs of discomfort. The parent should be watching the dog without any outside distractions. No checking your phone screen, or watching television. You’re on watch. If the dog shows signs of anxiety or defensiveness—or if the play is becoming too boisterous—the parent should calmly step in and lead the child away.

Supervision isn’t only important when the child and dog are at play. Parents should always be on the watch for dangerous encounters between child and dog, such as, for instance, a child walking towards a sleeping dog. This can be hard work—always watching your child’s interactions with a dog—but active supervision is the best way to prevent a bite.

little girl huddles with dog on white rug

Tip Five: Show Your Child How to React to a Strange Dog

Just as I’ve seen children run up to dogs without first asking permission, I often see off-leash dogs approaching people with their owners nowhere in sight. This is often just a dog being playful, and wanting to meet new people. A boisterous dog can, however, be scary to a child. The child’s reaction can also sometimes make the dog mistakenly believe the child want to play.

To avoid misunderstandings, it’s important for frightened children to know how to react to a strange dog. The worst way for a frightened child to react to a dog is to run away screaming. Instead, the child should stand still with hands together and avoid making eye contact with the dog. The phrase “Be a Tree” is often used to describe this technique. A boisterous or playful dog usually becomes bored when someone behaves in this way. Once the dog loses interest, the child should calmly walk to an adult.

Admittedly, this is a lot to ask of a young child who is scared. But Be a Tree is a useful technique to teach children once they are able to understand how to behave around dogs. The Be a Tree technique also works well in the rare case in which a dog behaves aggressively towards a child.

Most dogs are brilliant companions and unlikely to bite. They should, however, always be treated with care, gentleness, and respect. For this reason, it’s important for children to know how to greet and interact with a dog. This helps keep the child safe while building a stronger bond between child and dog. Parents should also be able to identify common canine distress signals, so they can end an interaction before it becomes dangerous.

Do you have any questions about how to keep your child safe around dogs? Do you find it difficult to teach your child to behave politely around dogs? Please let me know in the comments and I’ll answer as soon as I can.

Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain: Mental Illness, Suicide, and Stigma

The suicide of two celebrities in a single week. Two people who had it all, Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain. No one spoke of their pain beforehand. None of us knew.

What does this mean for us as parents?

It means that after all this time, there remains a stigma associated with mental health that prevents people from talking about their health concerns. Which begs the question: if there had been no stigma regarding mental health issues, would these two celebrities and countless others now be dead by their own hands? If they hadn’t been afraid to reach out for help, or perhaps ashamed to do so, might they have received the help they needed to stop them from ending it all?

The stigma that makes it so difficult to speak of these things makes it even more imperative to speak about mental health year round and not just in May, a month arbitrarily chosen as National Mental Health Awareness Month. We must put a spotlight on the impact of dialogue. Especially when it comes to kids and teens.

Girl feels isolated, a risk factor for suicide

Mental health problems are not limited by age, and are in fact common among children and adolescents. Most children understand the meaning of the word “suicide” by the third grade, which should shock and dismay us as parents. As for teens, according to the Centers For Disease Control (CDC), suicide is the leading cause of death in young people aged 15-19, with the leading cause of teen suicide being mental illness.

So where do we go from here? How do we remove the stigma? Facilitating dialogue is the obvious first step. And beginning the discussion of mental health at a young age will naturally translate into a better-educated adulthood. One where a Kate Spade or an Anthony Bourdain could speak of their issues publicly and receive the help and support they need. To make positive change, in other words, we must start having tough conversations about mental health with our kids.

Understanding Diagnosis

Underscoring the fact that mental health should be an ongoing discussion, the National Alliance on Mental Illness  has found that, “more than 90% of children who die by suicide have a mental health condition.” Understanding mental health and its role in our overall health is essential. The more knowledge you obtain, the easier it is to understand the importance of diagnosis and treatment.

Take depression, for instance. Thirteen percent of 12 to 17-year-olds experience some type of depression. As parents we need to know that depression is diagnosed when five of the following symptoms are present:

  • Feeling sad, or irritable and angry, nearly all the time
  • No interest in day-to-day activities
  • Loss or increase of appetite, noticeable weight loss or gain
  • Can’t sleep or sleeps too much
  • Nervous and jazzed up or listless
  • Tired all the time, has no energy
  • Feeling worthless or guilty without cause
  • Can’t concentrate or make decisions
  • Thinks about or talks about death and dying and suicide; May have a suicide plan

Boy feels hopeless, a risk factor for suicide

If your child has been diagnosed with a mental health disorder, you may not know where to begin, or what questions to ask. You might take to Google and research your child’s mental health problem. But it’s difficult to know which resources are trustworthy. One good place to begin is Jumo Health. Among its many free health materials are several mental health resources geared to the layman.

There are Jumo discussion guides, for most of the common mental health issues affecting youth, for instance Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), anxiety, and depression. Each guide contains a set of questions that are illness-specific to help guide conversation between patient (or parent of a patient) and doctor. The doctor is a key resource in any mental health quest, the address for questions and a place to receive answers, too.

In addition to education, it’s important to establish the utter normalcy of a struggle with mental illness, to create an authentic voice for those who suffer. Jumo offers podcasts that follow the stories of real teens living with illness, including a series specific to mental health and suicide prevention. A teen can listen to the story of Gianna, for instance, a teenager who suffers from depression and anxiety.

Sympathetic mental health professional listens to teenage boy

In her podcast, Gianna shares her experiences with mental illness and a suicide attempt in order to connect other teens to her journey in a relatable manner. Hearing a real person like Gianna talk about a diagnosis of mental illness can allow other sufferers to feel a sense of camaraderie. Listening to Gianna speak, teens can come to feel that they are not alone.

Knowing the Risk Factors

Mental illness, for example depression, is the leading cause of teen suicide. But while depression and other mental health conditions are risk factors for suicide, a diagnosis of mental illness is only one signpost. Other behaviors and risk factors for suicide that should alert parents of teens to the possibility of suicide include:

  • Chronic physical illness
  • Family history of suicide
  • Substance abuse
  • Feeling hopeless
  • Lack of impulse control
  • Acts out, is aggressive
  • Loss of income/financial problems
  • Social issues
  • Loss of or lack of social network, isolation
  • Loss of a relationship
  • Easy access to suicide means and methods
  • Knows someone who committed suicide
  • Past suicide attempt(s)
  • Mental health issues including depression, anxiety, and schizophrenia

Crying teenage girl on sofa hugs pillow as she speaks to older mental health professional about suicide

To be clear, having risk factors for suicide does not mean that your child will try to commit suicide. However, teens showing signs of these risk factors means there is a higher risk for attempting suicide than for those teens who do not have these behaviors and risk factors. To limit a teen’s risk for suicide parents should:

  • Offer easy access to treatment for physical and mental health disorders and for substance abuse
  • Limit access to methods and items that could be used to commit suicide
  • Provide unconditional support from a variety of sources, for instance, family, friends, and community
  • Work to build good relationships with and provide easy access to physical and mental health care professionals and personnel
  • Practice social skills at home, for instance problem-solving and nonviolent conflict-resolution
  • Hold and express strong household or personal religious and/or cultural beliefs that discourage suicide

Know whom to call if you need help. If you or someone you know is suffering from the threat of suicide, The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides instant contact with a mental health care professional. Anyone who is depressed, thinking about committing suicide, or simply needs to talk can use this service. The lifeline provides free, confidential support to those in distress 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. If you are in need, you can reach the lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). There may be other local prevention and crisis resources for you and your loved ones.

Here is what you need to know: you can be the difference. The solution to improving the discussion on mental health is through awareness, education and support. You can break the stigma by beginning conversations about mental health. And that’s important, because those who are struggling should not feel ashamed or be afraid to speak out about mental health. To the contrary, asking for help and receiving treatment is something to be encouraged, a matter of pride.

Our teens see the deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain and they wonder: is suicide an option for me? We must let them know that the only option is to say, “I’m suffering. Help me, please.”

And then we must follow through with kindness and compassion. We must let them know we stand behind them no matter what and no matter how long it takes to get better. Because love is love: it knows no boundaries or shame.

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