Empowering You to Parent with the Brain in Mind
Parents are the first and most influential teachers in a child's life... 85% of the human brain develops in the first three years of life so we want to help you with tips and tools to make every day count and help you maximize your child’s potential.
Our goal is to help you raise smart, capable, and compassionate children.
We hope these Simple Ideas With Profound Impact will make the difference in your child's life.
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People will often ask our kids what their favorite television show is and get a blank stare back because they don’t really know any. They are certainly big fans of the various Disney characters, but that is because they know them from reading the stories. Screen time can be one of those polarizing parenting topics these days but it doesn’t have to be. As we have always said, we believe that each parent needs to make their own decisions as to what is best for their kids and what works for their family. We continue to stand by that. We also want folks to know that even though the use of screens is quite common with young children these days, that doesn’t have to be what you choose for your kids. Just because most people are doing it doesn’t mean you have to. We always encourage folks to make these types of decisions from a place of understanding with regards to effects on the brain, health, emotional wellbeing, etc. As with most parenting decisions, it can be an evolving process and what you think is going to work out in a certain way may not and you may decide to adjust. For those of you with babies or very young toddlers, perhaps today’s post will give you some ideas as you think about how you want to navigate this particular area with your children.
So what does this look like in practice for us?
When we first became parents we had talked about how we planned to avoid screens in the first two years because we knew that screentime isn’t great for a very young and developing brain. Beyond that, I don’t think we really thought more specifically about what our approach would be. There was even a Saturday morning shortly after our little dude was born that Jack sat down on the couch and decided to see what “Saturday morning cartoons” were on these days. He quickly realized that “Saturday morning cartoons” isn’t really a thing anymore. We can all have access to watch whatever we want whenever we want to and we can watch it wherever! That’s when we realized that keeping a child screen free would be a completely different scenario for us as parents than it was for our own parents when we were kids. When we were children you could only watch something at the time it aired and on the TV that was in your living room. If you missed it, you missed it. Now screens follow us (and our kids) everywhere. So once you open up that can of worms it’s a battle you have to be prepared to fight anywhere and at any time.
We never really set out to have a 5-year old who doesn’t watch TV. We did decide that we wouldn’t use an iPad with our kids because we didn’t want them to get used to the idea that one could have access to a video anywhere. What we were comfortable with was allowing them to watch a few short learning videos in our house while they learned about whatever topic interested them on a given weekend morning. Yes, only on weekends. It became a fun tradition and even now our son will come up with ideas throughout the week of something he wants to learn about. On a Monday he might say, “Hey Dad! Can we watch a video about how marbles are made next weekend?!” – in fact, he asked this very thing on Monday. This tradition started when he was about 2.5 years old.
At 3 we allowed him to watch movies with us every now and then. Movie nights became a special treat with homemade popcorn, sometimes a bit of candy, his favorite blanket and some quality one on one time (staying up later than his baby sister!) with Mom and Dad. We’ve also made an exception for a certain college football team and other special sporting events like the Olympics / World Cup / Superbowl. Because this is about #parentingwithapurposenotperfectparenting. 😉 So the game will be on when the kids are around. And they will usually watch some of it and then get bored and start playing their own version of football or building a football stadium with Duplos, etc. Outside of that, they really don’t watch videos. Our TV is used to play music FAR more than it is to screen any other content.
A lot of people say they limit screen time to travel. This is also something we have resisted. You can check out our #TuesdayTravelTips on Instagram and Facebook for lots of ideas on how to keep kids entertained while traveling without resorting to a screen. We travel A LOT with the kids. We have done international flights and LONG road trips and the kids have never asked to watch something on an iPad or phone. Why? Because it never even occurs to them to ask. For a bit, we felt like we were trying to hold off because we didn’t want to start it and then have it be something we’d have to regulate. One more fight to avoid. But now it’s just a non-issue. This isn’t to say that we haven’t had travel troubles. Of course, we have! They are inevitable. But because they’ve never known a screen as an option for distraction they don’t ask for it and instead have other ways of keeping themselves busy.
We do a lot of story-telling, we listen to podcasts, we sing songs, they color, we play Uno, they play together and come up with random games. Does this mean that they have never ever seen a TV show? Of course not. If we are visiting with friends and all the kids decide to watch a show for a bit, that’s fine. If we’re at a restaurant and there are TVs everywhere they will get hypnotized like any other kid if we let them. But it’s just not something that we turn to at home or on the road. And I truly don’t think it’s something they miss or that they’re missing out on. They have great imaginations and are really able to entertain themselves for good amounts of time. And we have yet to have an argument over screen time! Something for which I am very grateful.
Screens are everywhere! If you have a baby and are trying to decide what your approach to this topic will be I strongly encourage you to hold out and work to keep your little ones screen free for as long as possible. It may seem like a challenge at first because it’s just so prevalent now. When you find yourself tired and impatient and about to reach for that remote or grab that tablet to distract your young toddler, take a pause. Think of what your mom or dad might have done instead when you were little. Try one or two other things to get you through that moment. Over time you’ll start to realize that your kids will have other go-to’s for distraction and it will be easier and easier as you (and they) won’t think of a screen as the necessary distraction piece.
Last week we posted an interview with Christine de Marcellus Vollmer about teaching universal values to young children. It was a particularly timely post because it came on the heels of a breaking news story about wealthy parents engaging in all kinds of illegal and immoral activities to pave the way for their children’s acceptance into elite colleges and universities here in the United States.
Today, I want to talk about another aspect of the story that is also quite topical, the phenomenon known as lawnmower or snowplow parenting. I prefer the image of the snowplow moving massive amounts of snow to clear a path so I’ll go with that one. These are parents who believe they must pave the way for their child’s success in life by removing all obstacles to failure. The parents involved in the college admissions scandal are snowplow parents par excellence!
Before leaving the workforce to devote herself to raising her children, Juliana Gaither (my daughter and a big part of BrainFit Kids) was the Associate Director for Study Abroad at one of America’s elite universities. In her role she sometimes dealt with these kinds of parents. In preparing to write this post I asked Juliana to tell me about her experience.
“We often had parents call and ask what their son or daughter needed to do to be accepted into a program instead of the student calling us or coming in to speak with us themselves. We even had the occasional parent wanting to meet with us in place of their child to find out more about the programs and the procedures for acceptance because their children were ‘too busy’ to do it themselves. ”
Remember, these students are 18 to 21-year-old young men and women! Unfortunately, many folks working at all levels of education have run into these types of parents. The problem is that in the long run, this kind of parenting has the opposite effect. Rather than helping children succeed, it sets them up for failure.
It is important for me to deal with this because some people believe that the things we teach at BrainFit Kids will lead parents to become “helicopter” parents or “snowplow” parents. If parents understand what we teach and apply it correctly nothing could be further from the truth.
Here’s a direct quote about the goal of BrainFit Kids from Day 1 of our free email course, “Make the First Three Years Count.”
“Who are BrainFit Kids? BrainFit Kids are children who are smart, capable, and compassionate. They are children who function at a high level physically, intellectually, socially, and emotionally. They are children who are curious and have a love of learning. They are children with self-confidence who enthusiastically tackle new challenges. BrainFit Kids are kids who have many options from which to choose. By the way, other than the fact that they are children who are raised with the brain in mind, they’re just like other kids. In other words, every well-child has the potential to be a BrainFit Kid. We’d like nothing better than to see a zillion of them!”
It is not possible for us to achieve that goal if our parents become either helicopter or snowplow parents.
So, how can you help your child to succeed in life?
First, ensure that that wonderful gift of the human brain is well developed and functioning optimally. Remember, all ability is the direct result of the development and organization of the brain. There’s plenty of information about that in our free email course and on our blog.
Second, take a cue from Dr. Carol Dweck, a world-renowned Stanford University psychologist, about how to interact with your child as they confront the many challenges of life.
Dr. Carol Dweck, has spent decades researching the factors that lead to achievement and success. Her research eventually led her to pinpoint two beliefs that people have about themselves that affect how they approach challenges. She labeled those beliefs the “fixed mindset”, the belief that intelligence and ability are predetermined and unchangeable, and the “growth mindset”, the belief that intelligence and ability can be developed and improved through effort and determination.
Children begin to develop a mindset about themselves by around 3 or 4 years of age. Parents and teachers play a significant role in which mindset children develop because they are constantly giving feedback to them. Dr. Dweck discovered that the nature of that feedback is critical. Simply put, children who are praised for being smart tend to be children who shun challenges and opt for the easy way out, whereas children who are praised for their effort tend to be children who enthusiastically embrace challenges.
Sounds counterintuitive, right? But think about it. If Billy believes that his success is based on his intelligence, he is unlikely to do anything that might alter that perception of him. Billy doesn’t want to fail because that will prove that he’s not smart! On the other hand, if Susie believes that her success is based on her effort and perseverance, she is more likely to give challenges a shot. Susie sees failure as a part of the process of learning. Check out this video of children attempting to do puzzles for a clear demonstration of this concept.
Of course, as with many things in parenting, there are nuances in how one gives praise even when it is “effort” focused. In an article in “The Atlantic”, Dr. Dweck explains,
“If parents react to their child’s failures as though there is something negative, if they rush in, are anxious, reassure the child, ‘Oh not everyone can be good at math, don’t worry, you’re good at other things,’ the child gets it that no, this is important, and it’s fixed.”
“But if the parent reacts to a child’s failure as though it’s something that enhances learning, asking, “Okay, what is this teaching us? Where should we go next? Should we talk to the teacher about how we can learn this better?” that child comes to understand that abilities can be developed.”
“So, with praise, focus on “process praise” – focus on the learning process and show how hard work, good strategies, and good use of resources lead to better learning.”
Dr. Dweck’s research has implications for all of us in our role as parents and in our own lives as we face the challenges of life at work, in our communities, and at home.
So now you have two pieces of the puzzle. There’s one more left.
Third, get out of the way and trust your child!
Let’s face it, nobody learns to walk without falling down and getting a few scrapes and bruises. The road to true success is a bumpy one. We take a few steps, lose our balance, and down we go. But then we dust ourselves off, regain our bearings, and try again. Try, fail, adjust, try again. With effort and perseverance, we eventually succeed. Failure is a part of life. It’s impossible for any child to develop successfully without it.
One final thought. We teach three basic laws of brain development. The third law says that “where there is a need, there is a facility”. Basically, it means that in order for any ability to develop there must first be a need for that ability. It’s an incredibly important law to understand. If you haven’t done so already, I encourage you to read our post on this law here. I promise you, if you understand it well you will never turn into a helicopter or snowplow parent.
It is my great joy to feature a guest post today by one of our dearest friends in the whole world, Christine de Marcellus Vollmer. I first met Christine and her husband, Alberto, forty-some years ago when they brought their profoundly brain-injured son, Leopoldo, to the clinic where I worked. I became responsible for Leopoldo’s development and over the next ten years he went from cortical blindness to vision, and from deafness to hearing and understanding. He developed good tactile sensation where he had none. He went from paralysis to tummy crawling and then creeping. He eventually communicated his feelings and needs with sounds. He enjoyed good health and dramatically reduced seizures. Leopoldo became a bunch of miracles in one little body. Christine and her family made that happen.
Christine and Alberto became strong advocates and supporters of our work. With their help, we began seeing children in Venezuela in 1983. In 1988 Leopoldo died, having lived thirteen years longer than all of his doctors had predicted. Shortly thereafter we began a pilot project to bring our work to the poorest of the poor in Venezuela. That project was a huge success and became known as “Programa Leopoldo”. Eventually, through Programa Leopoldo, we trained more than two hundred professionals (doctors, therapists, teachers) in our methods and opened thirty-four centers all over Venezuela where poor families could get help for their children free of charge.
Christine is the mother of seven children and grandmother of 26 grandchildren.
She is the president of Asociacion PROVIVE in Venezuela and the Latin American Alliance for the Family. Christine is also a former member of the Pontifical Council for the Family, and a founding member of the Pontifical Academy for Life. As if all of that is not enough, Christine is one of the authors of and the principal engine behind ALIVE TO THE WORLD (Aprendiendo a Querer in Spanish) a comprehensive program of education in universal human values designed for the classroom from K to 12. ALIVE TO THE WORLD has reached over 1 million students in selected schools since 1990. Christine can be reached at email@example.com.
Today’s guest post is about teaching universal values to young children. Every day we are bombarded with news reports about corruption, crime, and all sorts of other misbehavior. The very recent scandal of rich, privileged parents scamming the college admissions system is a case in point. It is being portrayed in the media as a problem of the wealthy. It is much, much more than that. It is a problem of values, ethics, and morality. I can’t think of a more timely post.
We decided to try out a different format for this post since Christine is so good at answering questions on the fly about her work. So, we collected questions from some young parents and a few teachers of young children and then posed them to Christine in an interview. For clarity, BFK is BrainFit Kids and CdMV is Christine de Marcellus Vollmer.
Part of the vision of BrainFit Kids is a world in which every child grows up to be compassionate. We know that in order for anyone to be compassionate the parts of the brain responsible for compassion and empathy must be properly developed. We attempt to do this with the information we share in our blogs. What or how do you recommend parents teach and model to best develop empathy and compassion in their children?
Of course, teaching through example is very important. The gestures of compassion that parents can make to those whom they come across who are in difficulties are of prime importance. Certainly, too, the explanation that parents can give as they make these gestures will help greatly. However, I believe (as did Aristotle) that stories and books are the world’s best resource. One difficulty today is that many schools now only recommend the books written that year, and the wonderful classics, such as The Little Princess, or The Secret Garden and so many others, which lead the children to live the acts of care for others, are totally forgotten. I am shocked to see that many excellent young teachers have never heard of these books and stories. We must get back to the classic books whose very existence was to teach values. Our school curriculum, Alive to the World, uses a story to help children and adolescents to interiorize and make their own, the virtues of compassion, solidarity, and integrity. Stories are very effective.
What are the values that are shared universally across a wide range of cultures?
Courage, loyalty, veracity, generosity, perseverance, compassion, patience and grit are shared by all humanity and at all stages. Even when cultures were quite cruel, compassion was admired and included in fables of heroes. I believe that these values are written on the subconscious in some way because we have seen how they are even admired by the members of gangs of delinquents. Their opposite vices of cowardice, betrayal, lying, meanness, etc, are universally despised.
How can sound values best be integrated into the child’s worldview and way-of-life without imposing on them where they might rebel and do the opposite?
Certainly through stories. Adolescents, particularly, are very averse to being told what is right and wrong. They want to discover it by observation. This can take too long in real life. That is why reading (and to a lesser degree, films) are the ideal way for them to ‘learn by observing’ the characters in the books.
At what age do kids start to understand these more abstract ideas such as justice, loyalty, etc.?
Justice is one of the earliest. Just try giving two candies to two three-year-old children and only one candy to a third child. A sense of justice will immediately make itself known. Loyalty is more subtle but very present in small children. Responsibility comes later, of course. Dr. David Isaacs has written about the ‘windows of opportunity’ for the learning of virtues. But in general, these are natural feelings, as expressed in the second question and the important thing is to consistently point out virtues, praise the child for practicing kindness, generosity, sharing, and being considerate. It is also important to avoid saying “you are so kind, generous, etc.” But, rather, to exclaim over the action, “That was so kind!”, in order for the child to understand the action is good, and not feel that he or she has now attained goodness.
What are age-appropriate ways to start introducing these themes?
I feel that pointing them out from the beginning, say 18 months. At first, very simply, insisting on “Thank you” and then on “Please”. This is truly the beginning of virtue as it is the start of knowing that all is not “due”, but we must be grateful. Gratitude contains many virtues, principally humility. As the child grows in understanding of what is going on around him or her, good actions should be pointed out. And selfish actions as well.
Besides setting a good example, how do you teach things like empathy?
Explaining situations empathetically is most effective. Children tend to be very judgmental and look down on all that is done differently in other homes. To explain that others don’t do things the same way for ethnic, religious, or cultural reasons is helpful. “Joey is having a difficult time because he has no daddy. We can help him by having him over to our house” type of thing.
Do you have a list of favorite books, by age, that highlight these values?
Theresa Fagan, a mother of eight, issues one every year called “A Mother’s List of Books”. It is wonderful! Parents can order a copy by writing to Theresa directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
What are the most important values to teach a young child/toddler and older child?
Gratitude, compassion, and grit are the winners at all ages. Gratitude is absolutely essential, from the beginning. Grit needs to be eased in slowly, but early. This is done by praising bravery over those first falls and scratches. Our series, Alive to the World, works them into each book, from K to 12, putting emphasis on the most age appropriate. All of the virtues are needed, and they are quite intertwined and interdependent.
If talking about values isn’t really something that’s in your comfort zone as a parent what resources are available to help the parent navigate these waters and to help children learn values?
The Alive to the World Series*, now available as digital books, will do the trick if the parents read them as well so as to keep up. Apart from that, “The Book of Virtues”, an anthology of stories that embody the principle virtues, by William Bennett is very helpful, as well as “Books That Build Character: A Guide to Teaching Your Child Moral Values Through Stories” by William Kilpatrick. And again, the books on Teresa Fagan’s list.
Thanks again to Christine for her time and insight.
Information on ALIVE TO THE WORLD can be found at http://alivetotheworld.org/en/. Excerpts from the books in the series can be viewed at www.blinklearning.com/editoriales/alafa. The books can be purchased at https://shopusa.blinklearning.com/en/194_alafa-editores.