14 DIY Projects to Get Your Kids Outside

A generation ago, it was common for American kids to play outside for hours at a time, coming in only when the streetlights came on or when it was time for dinner. Unfortunately, playing outside is no longer the norm. Today, children between the ages of 8 and 18 instead consume an average of 7 hours of indoor screen media daily. It can be a real struggle for parents to get them to put down their devices and go outside, but it’s not impossible. We’ve found some creative DIY projects that will have your youngsters running out the backdoor – and you running with them – to go have fun and play.

6 Benefits of Playing Outside

Being out of doors offers many benefits for children, both physical and emotional. Spending time playing outside:

  1. Improves physical health: Though it may seem to parents like their children never stop moving, kids today are much more sedentary than in past generations. Excessive screen time has been linked to obesity, anxiety, and depression. Playing outside in the fresh air and sun increases vitamin D levels in children, strengthening their bones and helping to prevent heart disease.
  2. Improves vision: Increasing the amount of time kids spend out of doors has been shown to reduce the risk for nearsightedness. Convincing children to be out and about is an easy way to keep them from needing glasses.
  3. Fosters independence: By and large, playing outside  typically comes with fewer rules than indoor play. Parents aren’t always within earshot, so kids sometimes have to settle disputes among themselves. They also have more freedom to run, climb, throw, explore, and be active in ways that might have landed them in trouble indoors. Free play encourages creativity and offers children a chance to make up their own minds about what they want to be doing.Boy runs with kite outside
  4. Lengthens attention span: Studies suggest that “green time” spent in natural environments may reduce Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) symptoms in children. Sunlight, trees, plants, and the sounds of birds and insects can have a grounding and calming effect on children.
  5. Improves social skills: Taking part in unstructured play with other children teaches your child a lot about social skills and how to relate to others. For example, not everyone can have a turn on the swing at the same time. Outdoor play teaches kids how important it is to share in order to have fun with others.
  6. Reduces stress levels: Most people can agree that spending time out of doors, away from constructed environments, is relaxing. People often take vacations to national parks, beaches, wilderness resorts, and other natural environments to relax and relieve stress. Some people even take “forest baths,” which were found to lower blood pressure and levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

Kids Playing Soccer Outside in the backyard

14 DIY Backyard Projects

Kids who enjoy video games or electronic toys might be surprised to find that there are do-it-yourself outdoor projects that offer high-level challenges and rewards. Some of the activities below are competitive and require strategy. Others will appeal to kids who like adventure games or making music. Also: how cool is it that instead of growing virtual plants in a game, kids can do it in real life in their own backyard. Here are 14 fun DIY backyard games and projects that kids of all ages can enjoy with family and friends:

  1. Make a music wall: Hang musical instruments (think pots and pans, spoons, and old pieces of metal) for your kids to play with on one of the walls of your house or on a fence bordering your backyard. The children can choose what they want to play and – depending on how close the neighbors are – volume might not be as much of an issue out of doors. If the neighbors are close, consider inviting them over to join the symphony orchestra!
  2. Build a fire pit – Gathering around a campfire is a great way to encourage conversation and family bonding. To build a fire pit, just pick a spot a safe distance from the house, dig a hole, and line it with rocks or bricks. Working together will help make it a special place for telling stories and roasting marshmallows, but be sure to supervise children at all times.
  3. Plant a garden: Planting a vegetable garden is a great way to get messy with your kids outside, as well as teaching children patience. Digging into the dirt represents sensory play which is so important for brain development. Kids get to watch the fruits of their own labor grow, and after the harvest, they get to enjoy eating what they’ve grown. Kids are also more likely to try vegetables they’ve grown themselves.
  4. Create a Ninja Warrior-inspired obstacle course: A backyard ninja obstacle course is a great way to get your kids outside and keep them active. No longer will they have to sit and watch people on television dominating obstacle courses – they get to compete themselves! There are dozens of different obstacles you can create and include, from ramps and rock-climbing walls to teeter-totters, cargo nets, balance beams, and monkey bars. To help you get started, here are DIY backyard obstacle course instructions.Children playing with all sorts of things in the backyard
  5. Make an old-fashioned tire swing: All kids love a good tire swing. If you have any old tires lying around, or access to one, a tire swing is a DIY project that will engage kids for a long time.
  6. Make a reading nook: Providing a fun place for your kids to read outside not only gets them out into the fresh air, but also encourages them to open the pages of a book rather than stare at a screen. The possibilities for your reading nook are endless. Each one can be designed to fit your child’s personality and interests. Here’s a cute one with toadstools.
  7. Create a sand and water table: Using some simple materials, you can create a sand and water table that will occupy kids for hours and can be used to teach impromptu science lessons. With PVC piping, funnels, and water, you and your children can create an intricate pipe design that is fun to play with. When you’re not using the table for water play, fill it with sand for a raised sandbox – perfect for making sand castles, digging, and other fun activities.
  8. DIY passing practice wall: Do your kids love sports? Are you looking for ways to strengthen your kids’ gross and fine motor skills? If so, build your own passing practice wall with targets of various shapes and sizes for kids to practice their aim.  Here is an easy model to follow.
  9. Giant Connect Four: A friendly game of Connect Four becomes even more fun when you play it outside on a massive board with giant pieces. It is the perfect way to load up on some Vitamin D and learn strategy, too. Check out these instructions for making your own.
  10. DIY cornhole: Both little kids and big kids enjoy the game of cornhole – an outdoor version of bean bag toss made with large wooden boards. If your kids are older, this is a fun DIY project as they can design and paint the cornhole boards to match their interests. Here are instructions from the DIY Network.
  11. Outdoor movie theater – You can give an old sheet or painter’s tarp new life and recreate the magic of drive-in movie theaters with this awesome outdoor movie screen project. Just add popcorn and comfortable seating, and don’t forget to invite the neighbors!
  12. Pallet daybed – You can make your backyard even cozier with a DIY pallet daybed. Kids and adults alike will love to read, lounge, nap, and hang out in your new favorite spot. Add wheels to make the daybed mobile, or you can turn it into a swing.
  13. Outdoor chess: For chess-loving families, consider turning part of your backyard into a DIY chessboard. For example, by laying pavers strategically, you can turn a section of your yard into a game board. See DIY Network’s chessboard patio instructions.
  14. DIY outdoor Yahtzee: The game of Yahtzee involves only dice, a score pad, and a pencil. Using large wooden blocks and a permanent marker, you can easily make your own set of dice for backyard Yahtzee. Here are simple DIY instructions.

Unstructured Play

It’s hard to overstate how important it is for children to spend time playing outside. When they look back on their childhood later in life, your kids probably won’t remember passing a particular level of a video game. But they will reflect fondly on adventures, discoveries, and unstructured time spent playing in the backyard.

Little Girl does handstand in backyard

Depending on how adventurous and physically active your children are, they might get some bumps and bruises while climbing trees, swinging, or navigating obstacle courses. It’s always a good idea to establish safety rules and to have a basic first aid kit on hand for minor emergencies. But actually, the benefits of playing out of doors can’t help but make kids more physically fit, more independent, and provide an outlet for stress. Whether you use the ideas here or brainstorm your own, backyard projects are sure to provide you and your children with hours of creativity, togetherness, and fun.

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Getting Silly With Kids has Proven Benefits

A recent study suggests that parents just getting silly with their kids can prevent problem behaviors like ADHD and aggression. Children, as it turns out, love it when their parents get silly with them. That could mean anything from using funny voices for characters in a storybook, or tapping the child’s nose when reading the word “nose.” And it seems that the benefits of getting silly with kids aren’t exclusive to story time. Any time you are playful with your children, you’re helping to shape their social and emotional development and behavior in a most positive way.

The study, Reading Aloud, Play and Social-Emotional Development (Pediatrics, February 2018), offered a special invention called the Video Interaction Project (VIP) to 225 families with children aged newborn to five years. In the VIP intervention, a program dating back to 1998, a parenting coach spends time with parents discussing their developmental goals for their children during a regular visit to the pediatrician. Parents are given age-appropriate educational toys and books to take home for their children. Then parents are directed to read to and play with their children and the session is captured on videotape. The parenting coach then has the parents watch the videotape, pointing out how children respond to the different thing parents do as they spend time with their children.

“They get to see themselves on videotape and it can be very eye-opening how their child reacts to them when they do different things,” said Adriana Weisleder, a co-author of the study, speaking to the New York Times. “We try to highlight the positive things in that interaction—maybe they feel a little silly, and then we show them on the tape how much their kid loves it when they do these things, how fun it is—it can be very motivating,” concludes Weisleider, who serves as an assistant professor in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders at Northwestern University.

Mother reads to two laughing girls
Getting silly during story time is a good thing.

As it turns out, the Video Interaction Project had already proven its worth before this most study took place. An earlier study funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development found that 3-year-olds who had received the intervention had better behavior than those in the control group. They were far less likely to be hyperactive or aggressive than the children who received no intervention at all.

What the new study did was look at those same children a year and a half later, as the children neared the age of school entry. Were those early improvements in behavior still there? Did it really make that much of a difference in a child’s behavior when the playfulness of a parent/child interaction was pointed out to parents? The answer turns out to be yes, absolutely. The children whose families took part in those early interventions had better behavior. They didn’t have attention difficulties, weren’t hyperactive, showed less aggression. And these are the behaviors that can get in the way of a schoolchild’s learning.

The new study also had older children (3-5 years) receive a second intervention. The positive benefits of intervention were all the stronger for the extra “dose” the children received. After all, the intervention pushes positive parenting and the more of that, the better. Fact.

Little Girl touches smiling mothers nose as mom reads storybook
Getting silly during story time is as easy as letting your child “honk” the horn during story time. Your nose, of course, is the horn.

This is important because the children who take part in the VIP intervention are from low-income families. These children are at greater risk for ADHD and other behavior problems. Children who come to school with behavior issues are less likely to do well in school and get ahead.

What parents should learn from all this is that even if you have no money to spend on clothes for your children or fancy private schools, you can read to, play with, and get silly with your child and it will have a huge positive impact on your child’s emotional and social development, and his or her academic success, too. Dr. Weisleder explains that when parents read to and play with their children, they confront challenges that are outside their everyday experiences. Adults can help children think about how they can deal with these situations.

It could be simpler than that, of course. Getting silly with your kids means bonding with them, having a good time together. “Maybe engaging in more reading and play both directly reduces kids’ behavior problems because they’re happier and also makes parents enjoy their child more and view that relationship more positively,” says Weisleder.

Mother Reads to Daughter in tent with both holding flashlights and smiling
Getting silly can be all about location, location, location. Plus flashlights.

10 Suggestions for Getting Silly

We absolutely agree. And maybe we don’t need to analyze this so closely, but make sure instead to spend lots of time both reading to our children and getting silly with them. To that end, we offer 10 suggestions for getting silly with your kids (feel free to add to our list!):

  1. Hand-washing Fun. Sing “Happy Birthday” twice every time your child washes her hands (you too!). This is the amount of time needed to rinse off those germs with hot sudsy water. But a song makes washing fun and there’s just something ridiculous about singing happy birthday out of context.
  2. Dance Out Your Emotions. Put on some music and dance it out together with your child! Or call out emotions like “Happy” or “Sad” to your child and have her dance the different feelings as you name them.
  3. Tell A Silly Story Together. Take turns telling a story, breaking off at random with one of you taking up the narrative where the other leaves off (and so forth).
  4. Have a water balloon fight! Fill a bucket with tiny water balloons (water bombs). Then go to the nearest sports field and have at it. See who can throw the farthest. Getting wet is all part of the fun.
  5. Turn Getting Dressed Into a Game. For a toddler who hates getting dressed, turn it into a game. “Here comes the Zipper Monster” you can say as you pull up that zipper and make your child squeal with happy surprise. Or tease, “Where’s your head? Where are your arms?? Oh my, I can’t find them at all!” as you pull your child’s sweater over her head and arms.
  6. Use Funny Voices During Story Time. Use different voices for the characters (including animal characters!) in your child’s bedtime story to make the story come alive for her.
  7. Make a Silly Shadow Show. After you turn out the overhead lights leaving only the night light, make an awesome animal shadow show with your child on her bedroom wall. Make those shadows talk to each other, bump into each other, and fake yell at each other.
  1. Compose a Silly Family Symphony. At the dinner table, nod at each member of the family to add a phrase of made-up music or percussion. As each person joins in, you’ll have a crazy music round that sounds like a broken symphony! Keep it going until you all crack up laughing, then begin again, with new sounds and melodies.
  2. Speak Pig Latin. Teach your child Pig Latin and then have an entire conversation in that language!
  3. Make Silly Orange Wedge Smiles. Cut an orange into wedges. Eat the fruit, leaving the rind intact. Put the peels in your mouths over your closed teeth. Orange you glad you smiled? For a variation on this theme, top fingers with raspberry “caps” for instant “manicures.”Man getting silly with orange wedge smile

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Taking Your Child to the ER

Taking your child to the ER can be a nerve-wracking experience. It’s hard to be rational and calm when your child is injured or experiencing frightening symptoms. The first thing to think about is which emergency room to choose. If you live in a city with a choice of emergency rooms, pick an ER you know to be child-friendly. Or call the doctor’s office for advice on the best ER for your child.

The ideal time to study up on the right ER for your child is actually before there is an emergency. Ask friends about their children’s ER experiences to get recommendations. At your child’s regular check-up ask your child’s pediatrician for advice on the most child-friendly, area ER.

Another way to prepare in advance for emergencies is for parents to keep and maintain a notebook with all the child’s health information. In the notebook, you can list all past and present illnesses, vaccinations, allergies, current medications, and the time of your child’s most recent dose of medicine. These are things the ER staff will want to know. Keep the notebook in your bag so you never lose it and will always have it close at hand, even (and especially) when you’re running out the door to the emergency room.

By the same token, always keep your child’s health-insurance card or information in the same space in your wallet. That way you’ll never have to waste precious time searching for the card during an emergency. It will be one less thing to think about.

Not sure whether your child should go to the ER at all? It could be a call to the doctor can help you decide. For more on this topic, read When to Take a Child to the ER.

Expect a Long Wait

Two kids and a dad (from waist down) in ER waiting room

Once you decide to go to the ER, be aware that a visit to the emergency room may mean a wait of many hours. Make sure you bring change with you, as cell phones are sometimes banned in hospitals. Change is also handy when you want something from the vending machine. Bring toys or activities, and something to eat and drink (check with hospital staff before offering a child food and drink).

Unless your child is three months old or younger, you can feel free to treat a child’s fever before you leave for the ER. It helps the child feel better and can make the wait easier. Bring some more fever-reducing medication along with you to the hospital, in case the wait is many hours long. Your child may need another dose before he is seen.

Try not to bring brothers and sisters to the ER. If you can find a sitter or someone to watch your child’s siblings, it’s best not to bring them along to the ER. Your child needs your full attention. Also, why expose children unnecessarily to diseases that are floating around the hospital?

Review the Facts

As you make your way to the ER, mentally review the facts of your child’s illness or injury, and write them down in your child’s health notebook if your hands are free. That way you’ll be ready to tell the nurse or doctor what has happened and how you’ve treated your child until now. Think back to when your child became ill or injured and make a note of the day and time. If your child has swallowed poison, bring the bottle with you to the ER.

Think over the progression of your child’s illness or injury: how has it changed over time? Has your child had a fever or a rash? Has your child gone to the bathroom? How many times a day? What medications, if any, has your child taken? Does your child have any allergies? These are all things the ER staff will want to know.

Prepare your child on the way to the ER. Tell the child that a doctor (not the pediatrician he knows) will be examining him. At each step of the ER experience, explain the truth about what will happen next. A clear, honest explanation makes your child less anxious. Anxiety over the unknown worsens pain and fear. Knowing what will happen next, even if it’s going to hurt, relieves that anxiety, and helps your child feel better.

Eating and Drinking

On arriving at the ER, ask if your child is allowed to eat and drink. Sometimes you’ll be asked not to give your child food and drink. Some procedures, for instance some CT scans and blood tests, have to be done while fasting. It can be difficult to ignore a child’s pleas to drink and eat, but remember it’s in her own best interests. Reassure her as much as possible.

Remember that a long wait is a good sign. It means your child’s condition isn’t so serious that it cannot wait a bit for treatment. Try to be patient and calm. If your child seems to be getting worse, ask that he be reassessed.

ER waiting room animation

Never lie to a child. Don’t say, “It won’t hurt,” if you know it will. If you know something will hurt, say so, but add something to give the child hope. You might say, “It will hurt, but only for as long as it takes to blink your eye.”

Your Child’s Advocate

If your child needs stitches, a shot, or a blood test, ask if numbing cream can be applied to the area, first. The cream takes about 20 minutes to kick in. If your child’s pain medication is wearing off, let the staff know. Remember that you are your child’s advocate, if you don’t speak up, no one else will.

Do what you can to comfort your child and ease her fears. Hold her, talk to her. Try to keep her from seeing anything scary, such as a tray of instruments or a bloody patient. Read to your child or play a game like “I Spy” to take her mind off of her pain and fear.

Stay by your child’s side as much as possible. Ask if you can stay with your child for procedures like blood tests and x-rays. But if you feel like you’re going to pass out from seeing blood, for instance, make sure you inform the staff.

Your ER Questions

Doctors and nurses seem so busy parents may be afraid to disturb them with their questions. But it’s a parent’s right to ask questions and receive answers. If you want to know why this or that test has been ordered, go ahead and ask. Just be polite.

Make sure you understand the discharge instructions. Are you sure you know when the bandage can be taken off? How to clean your child’s wound? Do you know what to do if your child’s symptoms don’t get better or he feels worse? Do you know how to give your child his medication?

The hospital often recommends a follow-up visit with the child’s pediatrician. Bring your child’s discharge papers with you to the visit. Even if your child needs no follow up visit, drop off a copy of the child’s discharge papers at the doctor’s office. That way, a record of the visit will be included in your child’s medical history.

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When to Take a Child to the ER

Should you take your child to the ER, call the doctor, or wait and see? When you’re just not sure, call the doctor. Even if the pediatrician can’t speak with you, someone in the office should be able to advise you. And if you do need to take your child to the ER, the doctor’s office can call ahead and let them know you’re on the way. That’s a plus.

But let’s back up a bit to the original question: ER or pediatrician? It’s a dilemma just about every parent wrestles with at one point or another. And it’s so hard to think straight when your child is injured or ill.

To the ER or Not? Three Deep Breaths

Even when you’re frightened and anxious, sometimes you can figure things out on your own. That is if you can calm down enough to do a proper assessment of your child’s condition. To help calm down, take three deep breaths. Then remember that being calm and in control of your emotions means you’ll be better able to take care of your child.

Sometimes making decision of what to do next is easy. If your child is just lying there completely out of it, or has severe injuries, don’t wait. Call 911. Ditto if your child’s lips are turning blue. That’s not only the ER, but a ride in an ambulance, most likely. So pick up the phone and dial 911.

Just do it.

Going to the ER Means a Long Wait

But let’s say none of this applies to your child’s condition and it’s the middle of the night. And you know that going to the ER is unpleasant, with a long wait and procedures that might make your child cry. Your child is uncomfortable enough. Do you really need to add to her discomfort? How do you know whether to wait until morning when you can have the doctor decide for you, or whether you need to get moving to the ER now?

Let’s take a look at some common events that may mean a trip to the ER:

Dehydration

Lots of viruses cause diarrhea and vomiting in children. When your child gets a bug with these symptoms, you have to worry about dehydration. Dehydration is definitely a reason to visit the ER, even in the middle of the night. But it usually takes about 24 hours of vomiting and diarrhea to cause dehydration. So the first thing you want to consider is how long your child has been vomiting and experiencing diarrhea. If it’s under 24 hours, you can probably wait.

If your child has been sick for over a day with symptoms of vomiting and diarrhea, you need to watch for signs of dehydration such as:

  • Cracked lips
  • Cold skin
  • Dry mouth
  • Decreased urination
  • Low energy

If your child’s tummy trouble persists, and she can’t keep down even small amounts of liquid, call the doctor. You should try to get the child to take two teaspoons of fluid every 30 minutes. If your child has almost no saliva, can’t make tears when crying, and isn’t peeing at least twice a day, it’s time to go to the ER.

Fever

In small infants (newborn to three months), a rectal temperature of over 38C or 100.4F means: go to the ER now. In this case, don’t give your baby medicine to reduce the fever. The ER doctor will want to see the baby as is, without the effects of medication.

Babies and children three months and older can be given a dose of acetaminophen or ibuprofen for fever according to the dosage instructions on the bottle. Then wait 30 minutes. If your child looks a lot better, is responding to you, and is drinking fluids, you can continue to treat the child at home.

If the child’s symptoms continue, the fever continues past 72 hours, or there’s wheezing, a strange rash, or extreme lethargy, call the doctor.

Breathing Issues

When a child is wheezing or grunting, or her breathing is noisy, fast, or high-pitched, it means your child is having trouble getting air. This can happen when there is a respiratory infection or during an asthma attack. But panting or fast breathing can also occur when kids get fevers. So if your child has a fever, give fever-reducing medication like acetaminophen or ibuprofen and wait 15 minutes. If the fever goes down, and her breathing settles, you can stay home.

If your child has a cough so severe that she cannot sleep or eat, or she has a barking cough, call the doctor.

If the child has so much trouble breathing that she cannot speak, go to the ER.

If the child’s lips are turning blue, call 911.

Odd Rash/Stiff Neck

Does your child have a rash? Press on it. The rash should go back to normal skin color for a second or so. If it does, this means your child has a simple virus and will get better in a couple of days. You can stay home.

If the rash doesn’t pale when you press on it and your child has a fever, this may mean a more serious illness, for instance meningitis. Call the doctor. If your child has neck pain, finds it hard to move his neck, and also has a fever, go to the ER now.

Bad Cuts

Clean the cut well with soap and water. Put pressure on the cut with a clean towel for 10 minutes and then reassess. If the bleeding is under control, but the cut is deep, call the doctor.

Go to the ER if:

  • The child can’t move the injured part
  • There’s lots of bleeding
  • There’s numbness
  • There’s severe swelling

Bump On the Head

A bump on the head isn’t always an emergency. If your child has no dizziness, headaches, or vomiting, you can stay home and the child can return to normal activities. But if your child passes out within a couple hours of bumping his head, call the doctor. Check the child’s head with your hands. If there is a part that seems squishy, go to the ER. If the child can’t stop crying, vomits more than once, or you see blood or fluid coming from the ears or nose, or bruising around the eyes or ears, go to the ER.

Remember that your child takes her cue from you. If you remain calm as you assess your child, your child will feel less anxious and find it easier to cope with the fear and pain of illness. Cuddle your child, and do what you can to distract her from her worries and discomfort.

Mother feels little girl's head for fever, keeps her calm

Next week: Taking Your Child to the ER

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

You always thought your child might be gifted, so you’ve gone ahead with testing. You’ve also gone beyond testing to provide, to the best of your ability, for your gifted child’s educational needs. But you still have questions. Lots of questions. You wonder, for instance, how to provide for your gifted child’s emotional needs.

In Part I of this two-part series on giftedness, experts described the general tendency of the gifted for loneliness and depression. Some spoke of keeping a gifted child’s ego in check. Others alluded to the keenness with which gifted children sense cruelty and world indifference.  Shandy Cole, executive director of Fountainhead Montessori School in Dublin, CA, in the San Francisco Bay Area, has seen this painful hyperawareness both professionally and as the mother of a gifted child. “Parents need to understand that their gifted child has unique needs. They are socially children, but have worries, concerns, and interests far beyond their years. It can be very overwhelming, and anxiety is typically high in such children, as they bear adult concerns and a child’s psyche (i.e., they take in real world concerns, but have no filter or adult understanding to process them.)

“My 6-year-old, for example, cried about the possibility of World War III, and what if all the polar bears went extinct? She took the average human life span and figured out roughly when I would die. This caused many nights of crying and fears that really have no answer,” says Cole.

Gifted Child Concerns

Cole suggests that we reassure children that it’s okay to worry, while providing them with the tools to understand their feelings. “Just telling them everything will be okay discounts their concerns and heightens those same anxieties. The main thing is to not discount the fears of a 4 year-old who is worried about global wars, a 12 year-old worried about cancer, and etc. They understand things far beyond their years, and you have to really explain things and not gloss over events or frightening concepts. Tell them it is okay to be afraid, but this is what is being done to reconcile these risks, for instance.”

Shannon W. Bellezza, Ph.D., of Triangle Behavioral and Educational Solutions, is more concerned about boredom. “Many students who are gifted have difficulty in the classroom with regular instruction because they are bored and under stimulated. Reports of a child demonstrating mildly disruptive behaviors that might indicate boredom could be a sign that a child is gifted. Counterintuitively, bad grades could indicate giftedness as well, particularly if parents know that their child is smart and that the grades their child is receiving do not reflect their intelligence.

“This happens as a result of boredom – the child, being under stimulated, puts forth little effort on their graded work because it’s boring and seems remedial or repetitive and unnecessary; they see no benefit in putting forth effort,” says Bellezza.

On Feeling Different: Quality, Not Quantity

“Regarding a child feeling different once identified as gifted:  Parents want to make sure that the enrichment their child is being provided is in quality and depth, not quantity. Many teachers mistake enrichment and differentiation for ‘more;’ rather than addressing gifted instruction with the depth of content, they address it simply by providing more work,” says Bellezza, who concludes, “This can make a child stand out from his peers and have a negative effect on his love of learning.”

Laurie Endicott Thomas, MA, ELS, feels that placing gifted children among their gifted peers addresses a multitude of problems. For Thomas, it’s not just about the potential for boredom and lack of stimulation in the regular classroom, but about learning humility. In regular classrooms, gifted children are often all too aware that they are the smartest people in the room. But move them into a classroom for the gifted and all of a sudden they’re not: a humbling experience.

Thomas feels the move to a gifted classroom or school is best tackled in elementary school. “It is far better for the child to clear that hurdle in K-12 than to slam into a wall when he or she gets to college. When I went to Penn, I saw a lot of kids who had been big fishes in their small hometown pond were stunned to find that they suddenly were small fishes in a big pond. They lacked the emotional resilience or the moral and intellectual discipline to compete with other gifted people, or even with people who were merely bright but studious,” says Thomas, who adds, “To learn how to treat other people as equals, they need to know what it feels like to be around people who are even smarter than they are.”

Tell Them They’re Gifted?

Learning how to coexist with others is important for all children, part of a child’s social emotional development. That’s true across the board, whether or not a gifted child’s peers are equally blessed. Should a parent refrain then, from telling the child that he or she is gifted? Does doing so help the gifted child make sense of his differences or underscore them even more?

Bellezza says it depends. “Whether parents tell their child or not, the child will eventually notice that the instruction she is receiving is different from a large portion of her peers. No matter what parents decide to tell their child, it is important to emphasize a growth mindset; that intelligence and ability are not fixed but are affected by effort.”

Alina Adams, on the other hand, is adamant that parents not tell their children they are gifted. Adams cites Dr. Carol Dweck on the subject. “Bright children who are told they’re bright have a tendency to decide that being smart means never putting in any effort. So when they encounter something truly challenging, they shirk away from attempting it, for fear of appearing less smart than everyone believes them to be (not to mention as smart as they believe themselves to be).”

Emphasize Strengths

Janet Heller, President of the Michigan College English Association, comments that, at any rate, very few children are gifted in all areas, which means that to stress giftedness as a distinction is perhaps not so important. “Some children, for example, may be excellent at music and mathematics but not in literature and writing—or vice versa. Parents may tell children which areas they are strong in; however, adults need to emphasize that everyone needs to work very hard to develop potential talent. Talent does not grow by itself without effort.

“Thomas Alva Edison said, ‘Genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.’ I think that this is true. Good athletes, musicians, writers, artists, dancers, scientists, etc. must practice skills and develop new abilities every day in order to succeed,” says Heller.

Cole, meanwhile, says that rather than point out a child’s giftedness, it’s more important to stress that—to paraphrase Monty Python’s Life of Brian—we’re all individuals.

“I think you gain nothing by telling the child. But it is a personal choice. Along with challenging them, I think it is also important that parents help these children understand that not everyone performs at the same level, and that everyone has different abilities with regard to the same tasks, thinking about the same concepts, and so forth,” says Cole.

“This knowledge helps ease their frustrations and develop empathy. It can teach them to be more patient with others, including with adults. It can also help develop their social skills, which may be out of sync with their peers.

“These children are assessing the world from a limited field of experience, and can feel disconnected from others without knowing why. They need the reassurance that they are not ‘odd balls.’ And parents need this reassurance too. A good resource would be A Parent’s Guide to Gifted Children, since it provides practical guidance from an expert perspective,” adds Cole.

For some parents, the question of whether to tell a child that he or she is gifted, is moot. Tobi Kosanke, mother of a gifted 13-year-old girl never bothered to tell the girl she’s gifted. She didn’t have to: “The fact that she was enrolled at a school for gifted children was a dead giveaway,” says Kosanke.

“Normal” Sibling Issues

Gifted children not only struggle socially and emotionally in the classroom, but in the case of those with “normal” siblings, in the home, as well. What should parents do to minimize issues between gifted and non-gifted siblings? Cole says parents should treat them exactly the same. She points out, however, that the “normal” child may end up being the one who feels different. In this case, says Cole, “I would emphasize that everyone does their best—that you are your own person and etc.—but not make excuses for the ‘normal’ child to not do his or her best. This helps every child find their own unique interests and motivations.”

Heller says that instead of thinking about sibling rivalry issues, we should instead think of the benefits of nearness to the gifted and even perhaps, gifted education. “Normal siblings can often benefit from the extra enrichment experiences provided to gifted students. My fourth-grade teacher recommended that I be placed in a ‘special abilities’ class. This class got the best teachers and most stimulating curriculum in my elementary school.

“I loved it!” says Heller. “Some of the students in this class were not really gifted: they got into the special abilities class because their mothers were very active in the P.T.A., for example. However, these students’ exposure to the enriched curriculum and instruction resulted in their having unusual careers, such as becoming judges and detectives.”

These are career choices these “normal” children might not otherwise have considered.

Different Strengths

Adams says parents should look for opportunities to demonstrate that “normal” siblings have strengths their more gifted siblings might lack. “At one point, my middle child was doing his older brother’s math homework, and my youngest daughter was doing her middle-brother’s English assignments, each three grade levels above their own. It was actually an excellent example of how different people have different strengths and weaknesses, and no one excels at everything.

“I recommend seeking out as many examples as you can of how the other sibling can do something their gifted one can’t, be it sports, music, social skills, and etc.,” says Adams.

Not Gifted? What Now?

Let’s say you have your child tested and it turns out he’s normal, and not gifted, as you had anticipated. Where do parents go from here? Cole is prosaic, “Be thankful you have a wonderful child. I say we should challenge all children to the best of their abilities: every child needs to be challenged in order to help develop the skills that power successful lives.”

But Bellezza wouldn’t let things rest here. “Get a second opinion. If the child’s results on the school’s testing did not meet the threshold for giftedness, parents can seek out private testing through a psychologist. Depending on the school’s giftedness screening policies, parents might be able to try again the following year as well.”

Alina Adams stresses that the various tests for giftedness aren’t particularly valid until the child reaches the age of 10 or 12. Even then, “Different tests will produce different results depends on the day your child took the test and what mood they were in then.

“The fact is; no test result will change the behavior that prompted you to get your child tested in the first place. If they are passionate about a subject or activity, keep encouraging them, no matter what some number on a piece of paper says.”

Effort Over IQ

Adams takes the opportunity to once again emphasize a mindset of effort over IQ. “If, to paraphrase Forrest Gump, ‘stupid is as stupid does,’ then so is ‘gifted,’” adding that many in the gifted community disagree. To illustrate her personal philosophy, Adams relates this anecdote about her own three children. “Each one took the tests at age 4 that NYC requires for school placement. One was deemed not gifted, another gifted, and a third profoundly gifted.

“Which of my children is my worst student? The gifted one.

“Which of my children was my latest reader? The profoundly gifted one.

“Which one is starting Princeton this September? The non-gifted one.”

It’s a lesson we can all understand and learn from.

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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.

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!

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.

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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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.

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!