Category Archives: child development

Is “Unschooling” About the Parent or the Child?

I never felt part of the mommy wars. If anything, I was jealous of my stay-home mom friends. But alas, I married a teacher—need I say more?

So my children began child care early and, today they are both in elementary school. (They do get a bonus that most kids don’t—they get daddy 24/7 all summer long.)

I firmly believe that there are benefits and negatives to both full-time child care and staying at home full-time. That said, most of us make our decisions based on what is best for our child given the circumstances in which we live.

Which leads me to what I want to talk about. I stumbled on a blog by Joanne Rendell about “unschooling.” The website explains it like this:

Have you ever described ‘red’ to a person who is color blind? Sometimes, trying to define unschooling is like trying to define red. Ask 30 unschoolers to define the word and you’ll get thirty shades of red. They’ll all be red, but they’ll all be different. Generally, unschoolers are concerned with learning or becoming educated, not with ‘doing school.’ The focus is upon the choices made by each individual learner, and those choices can vary according to learning style and personality type. There is no one way to unschool.

Although they do offer multiple definitions.

Frankly, what I really struggled with was Rendell’s closing. She writes:

But un-kindergarten for us means Benny can sleep late so I can write. It means we don’t have to worry about bedtimes and can go out on the town with friends any night of the week. We can go to Europe and visit my family when the flights are cheap. Un-kindergarten also means we can pick and choose how we spend our days and who we spend them with. Benny can go to free classes at the Metropolitan Museum in the week when it’s less crowded. He can read a book on sharks when he feels like it. He can experiment with bungee cords while eating his breakfast at noon.

The decision seems to be about what’s most convenient for the parents, rather than what may be best for the child. John J. Edwards III addresses the issue in his blog on the Wall Street Journal. He says, “Maybe I’m hopelessly square, but I think early-childhood education—like education in general—provides structure and discipline while not necessarily stifling creativity.”

What do you think?


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Stealing from Barney

Is Barney still on television today? Thankfully, the purple dinosaur was not popular in our house when my kids were younger. Yet, while the show annoyed some parents on oh so many levels, many of us still felt free to steal from it.

You know who you are. When you couldn’t get your kids to start cleaning up, you broke into song, “Clean up. Clean up. Everybody, everywhere. Clean up. Clean up. Everybody do you share.” And like magic nine times out of ten, the kids actually started cleaning up.

If I’d been really smart (and significantly less sleep deprived), I would have noticed the dramatic affect that music could have on behavior. I might have made up some song to get my toddler into his car seat without a major tantrum and meltdown. Or written some lyrics to make teeth brushing not a game of hide-and-seek.

I had the opportunity to talk to a music therapist last week who readily confirmed that music does in fact make transitions and routines easier for children. You can listen to the conversation and hear what she had to say.

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First Words

It is with great embarrassment that I confess that my daughter’s first word was “mall.” This was shortly followed by “shoes.” I don’t even want to think about what this must say about me. Ironically, it says little about her.

Anyone who knows my daughter knows that fashion is of no concern to her. Her only rule is comfort—although this has a daily changing definition and frequently does not fit into the norm of what you and I might define as comfort. For example, she takes after my husband and is quite thin. Pants cannot be loose under any circumstances. And when she was in kindergarten it was our morning ritual for her to throw a temper tantrum about her socks. Of course in hindsight I wonder why I just didn’t let her go without them—it only gets so cold in North Carolina in the winter.

But I digress. Yes her first words were shopping centric, but the point is she spoke them pretty early. And she continued to develop language skills at a fairly rapid rate. I’m sure there were many factors that influenced her language development. What I learned recently from researchers here at FPG is that I also was lucky that she was in a quality child care program.

I have always been under the misguided notion that parents could make up for anything academic that might be lacking in a child care environment. Perhaps this was how I made myself feel better since I had to go back to work when she was three months old.

Well I was wrong. This study showed that in every language development measurement used, children in higher quality child care programs significantly outperformed those in lower quality care. The kids in the study all came from two-parent families who had some level of higher education and were of middle income.

So how do you find a quality program? There are lots of resources out there to help guide you. One that I used when looking at childcare programs was an interview sheet I downloaded from BabyCenter. They have an updated version available online. The National Association for the Education of Young Children also is a good resource.

If you want more info about the study, you can read the summary online.

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Your husband does that?!

I was recently at an evening work event where a woman said to me, “Your husband agreed to put the kids to bed?”

I’d like to say that I was shocked that anyone would ask such a question, but I’m not. The vast majority of couples I know with children are living an updated version of the 50’s lifestyle. Many mothers are working outside the home while still being almost solely responsible for changing dirty diapers, cooking dinners, giving baths, and putting kids to bed.

Mothers that stay home with their children often have it even worse. Their job doesn’t end at 5 PM. Anyone who spends all day with children knows that as much fun as it can be, it’s also incredibly hard work. Having done both, I can honestly say that I was more exhausted after a day at home than a day at the office.

So what’s going on? Are some moms somehow encouraging this notion that mom must do everything? Are some dads not being expected to share the child-rearing load?

I don’t know the answer, but I do know that kids need more. For example, last year, one of FPG’s studies found that in families with two working parents, fathers had greater impact than mothers on their children’s language development between ages 2 and 3. Researchers videotaped pairs of parents and their 2-year-old children in their homes during playtime. The children whose fathers used more diverse vocabularies had greater language development when they were tested one year later. However, the mothers’ vocabulary did not significantly affect a child’s language skills.

It may seem strange to be writing about the role of fathers the day after Mother’s Day. But perhaps it’s as good as time as any to be reminded that parenting is a full-time job for both moms and dads.

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Parental One-Upmanship

They’re innocent enough questions—When did she walk? When did he say his first word? But what we parents really are asking is how does my child measure up? And when our kids seem to do something earlier than other children, we internally gloat that this is a sure sign of future brilliance. Nobody will own up to this. In fact parents with kids who have achieved milestones at an earlier stage will attempt to reassure their “less accomplished” peers that such markers are meaningless.

Well whatever parental one-upmanship these questions may inspire, they do indicate something positive—an awareness of child development. A recent study published in The Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology found that mothers who knew about child development spoke more frequently and complexly to their children. This is important because just as exposing children to books helps develop their interest in reading; talking to children helps develop their language abilities. From a very young age, children are influenced by the manner in which their mothers talk to them.

Talk is so powerful in fact that it can overcome the higher risk for language development delays children from families living in poverty face. The researcher who led the study told me that teaching mothers about child development may be an important way to improve children’s language development and ultimately increase the likelihood of their academic success.

Now I’m wondering does it matter what we talk about. Let’s face it even though they may gurgle back, talking to an infant is a fairly one-sided conversation. When my daughter was a baby, the Bosnian conflict was in full force. I remember my husband and I saying ridiculous things to her in that high baby-friendly voice like “So what do you think about the situation in Kosovo?”

What’s the strangest “conversation” you had with your baby?


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Are we all crazy?

My kids do not have genetics on their side. Depression and anxiety run on both sides of the family. Turns out that they might not be alone. More than a quarter of all Americans have a mental disorder at some point in their lives, according to a 2004 study by the World Health Organization.

Hopefully they’ll dodge the bullet (and I’ll stop seeing every temper tantrum as a future psychosis). Of course, it didn’t help to learn that mental health problems aren’t just for adults. Turns out many young children—even preschoolers—suffer. Research suggests that 11-15 percent of children under the age of 18 have a diagnosable mental disorder.

So, how do you know? A new study by a researcher here at FPG tested a simple and inexpensive mental health screening process designed to flag potential signs of more serious problem. It was found to be a valid and reliable instrument for use in preschool screening of children who are at risk of problems of attention behavior, language and emotions that might interfere with their adjustment at school.

The good news is that there are now tools that can identify potential problems at a young age. Knowing these things can be hereditary can be helpful too. We know the signs and when outside attention might be needed. And people are much more willing to talk about mental health problems today than a generation ago.

The research summary is online. The National Scientific Council on the Developing Child also has interesting new data on children’s anxious and fearful behavior.

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Hello world!

I admit it. After what What to Expect in the First Year, the only other parenting book I’ve picked up has been From Diapers to Dating (which I highly recommend). My kids are now 9 and 6, and I guess I’ve been winging it. Who has time to wade through it all? Besides, whenever I pick up a parenting book now, I just feel guilty about all of the ways I’ve probably already screwed them up.

So it’s pretty ironic that I now spend my days reading child development research. As public relations director for FPG Child Development Institute, I translate research into something that I hope others will find interesting. Hence the blog–it’s my attempt to take what I’m reading and hearing from researchers and share the highlights. It’s a blend of my experiences raising two children, stories I hear from my friends, and what research might have to do with it all.

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