Becoming and being a good parent isn’t automatic, particularly in the modern world. New parents in previous generations benefited from extended families of grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins who were generally a part of the child-rearing process. But today, many families are miles away from relatives and parents have to go it alone, learning “on the job” and hoping their decisions will teach their child skills to have a happy and successful life.
Child psychologists believe that the first three years of life are most critical to a child’s brain development. A three-year-old toddler’s brain is twice as active as an adult’s brain and has more than 1,000 trillion connections between brain cells, many more than will ever be needed. These brain cells and the connections between them are what form the basis for emotional, intellectual, and physical development. During the early years, many of these connections will be strengthened and further developed while others, due to lack of use, will die. It’s up to parents to help children nurture and retain these connections so that they may be better prepared for the intellectual, social, and physical rigors they’ll face in school and throughout life.
Tips for Every Parent
1. Give Your Child Unconditional Love
Showing children you love them for who they are and not what they do is acutely important to their self-esteem. It requires that you separate the child from his or her behavior. For example, toddlers frequently scream, cry, pout, strike out, and sulk when they are tired, uncomfortable, frustrated, hungry, or bored. At those moments, they are not very easy to be around, but this is the best time to show them you love them. If they are old enough to understand, explain that their behavior makes you unhappy or angry, but that no matter how badly they act, you still love them.
Psychologists agree that it is impossible to spoil or over indulge a baby, so take every opportunity to hold and caress them. Physical touch is important.
2. Spend Quality Time Every Day With Your Child
Managing your time in a busy world can be a challenge, and there are countless reasons to postpone or miss unstructured one-on-one sessions with your child. As a consequence, just talking and looking into your baby’s eyes becomes an activity that needs to be prioritized and sometimes even scheduled. This focus communicates your child’s importance to you more than any words can.
When spending time together with your infant or toddler, there are a couple things you may want to keep in mind:
- Use Baby Talk. Don’t be afraid to use baby talk with its exaggerated sing-song intonation and high pitch. Research indicates that babies prefer to listen to baby talk than adult talk. Plus, the high-pitched tones convey emotion to children, so it is highly communicative and helps babies figure out how language works. Some parents feel baby talk stunts growth. On the contrary, there is evidence that baby talk heightens infants’ attention to language and its properties.
- Play. As your baby’s imagination develops, he or she will play. Don’t hesitate to play along. There will be time enough for the real world as your child grows older. By three, he or she will begin to speak in three- to four-word sentences, providing you an opportunity to begin teaching respect for others. The way to do this is by example. When your child talks to you, stop, look, and listen. This focus shows that you love and respect your child and it will teach them to respect others.
3. Provide a Healthy Diet
What your child eats is particularly important before age three. In fact, research proves that there is a direct correlation between later intelligence and early diet. Processed foods high in fat and sugar reduce a toddler’s later IQ, while “healthy” diets with items such as rice, pasta, fish, and fruit raise IQ.
Nutritionists recommend that babies and toddlers primarily eat homemade baby food that is freshly prepared, unsalted, and unsweetened to train their taste buds to select healthy foods later in life. While all babies are born with a preferences for sweets (breast milk is very sweet), the rest of their taste preferences are learned as they begin to eat pureed and solid foods. What they are fed initially becomes the standard to which all later foods are compared. As a consequence, children who are weaned on canned and artificial food prefer unhealthy diets the rest of their lives.
Unfortunately, parents are working at a disadvantage here. “Child-friendly” foods are generally high in sugar, fat, and salt, such as sweetened yogurt, apple juice, Goldfish crackers, and macaroni and cheese. Try to use these foods only as occasional treats; they shouldn’t be staples of your child’s diet. Healthier foods and snacks include low-fat yogurt, scrambled eggs, baked sweet potato chips, hummus, raisins, fruits (not high-sugar fruit juices), peanut butter with banana, whole grain cereals, and nuts.
4. Read to Your Child
When you read to your children, you teach that reading books is fun, that the marks on the page represent letters and words, and that each letter or combination of letters has a different sound. Reading to children increases their vocabulary enormously. In fact, research shows the average child in a non-reading home hears 600 words an hour, while children with parents who read to them hear more than three times that number of words. Regular reading adds up to 48 million words by age four for kids in the latter group versus 13 million, or 73% fewer words, for the former.
Experts have made a number of suggestions:
- Establish a Daily Reading Time. Do this when kids are wound down, rather than hopped up – right after waking, after a bath, or just before bedtime.
- Be Flexible in the Time You Spend Reading. Toddlers have short attention spans, so short books and shorter reading sessions may be necessary from time to time. Be prepared to end story time any time your child’s attention begins to wander.
- Don’t Limit Yourself to the Exact Words in the Book. Avoid long sentences, use words your child can understand, and add commentary or sound effects whenever you like. And definitely show your child any pictures that accompany the story.
- Make the Session Interactive. “Touch and feel” and “scratch and sniff” books are particularly popular with young children, as are pop-up picture books.
5. Share the Beauty of Music
While exposing premature babies to Mozart to improve intelligence has now been disproven, there is some evidence that the practice can lead to metabolic changes that facilitate healthy weight gain and better medical outcomes later in life. Singing lullabies and nursery rhymes, singing and dancing while holding your child in your arms or by the hand, and making up tunes together with horns, drums, or harmonicas is fun as well as educational. Plus, there is evidence that this introductory interactive music training leads to a toddler who smiles more, communicates better, is easier to soothe, and more easily adapts to change.
Science has also shown that babies as young as nine months can categorize music as happy or sad by the melody, an example of how they make sense of the world long before they can talk.
6. Do Physical Activities Together
Physical exercise benefits humans of all ages, including toddlers and young children. Babies of only six months begin to lift and support their body with their feet and hands, and then rapidly progress to coordinate the movement of limbs to crawl, and develop balance to stand and walk.
Activities like climbing up and down stairs (with parental help), kicking and throwing balls, running, and riding a tricycle should be encouraged to benefit children physically, but also to teach them the relationship between failure and success. While it is important not to push children beyond their limits, the lesson of falling and getting up to try a second and third time is integral to healthy development and to overcoming obstacles they will meet in later life.
7. Turn off the Television
Television watching has become the dominant activity in many American households. While most parents know it’s not a particularly healthy activity for anyone, it is particularly bad for children under the age of two. The latest research suggests that toddlers who watch television share numerous traits:
- They are less active than other children their age
- They are more likely to avoid social contact
- The tend to fall behind in language development
- They are less likely to develop a full range of eye development
- They are more likely to have problems staying focused
8. Give Your Child Discipline
Children should learn to take responsibility for their actions by owning up to mistakes, correcting those mistakes, and accepting the consequences for their actions. However, as a parent, you need to recognize that children less than two years old don’t yet have the cognitive abilities to remember or reflect on prior instructions before acting. Repetition is not only required, but essential to teaching the rules and expected behavior.
- Be Consistent. Consistency and clarity are two key elements to discipline. The word “sometime, ” for example, means “yes” to a toddler. It is reasonable to expect young kids to have tasks around house, such as picking up and putting away toys when they are through playing. Be consistent with such tasks and clear about what is expected. That said, it is likely that you will need to participate in the task, particularly when you begin. While it may be easier to simply do the work yourself, it’s a can’t-miss opportunity to teach responsibility and learn boundaries.
- Be Fair, Firm, and Loving. When a child misbehaves or doesn’t follow your directions, be fair and firm with your discipline, but always act out of love. Connect the discipline with the behavior even though it may be difficult for a toddler to understand initially. By remembering it is the behavior that is being corrected, your child will know that you love him or her even as you are correcting actions. If you are consistent in your reactions, your child will eventually follow the rules because they, most of all, want to please you.
- Avoid Physical Discipline. Parents are often conflicted over whether physical punishment – spanking or paddling – is appropriate. Numerous studies have shown that spankings can result in short-term compliance, but physical punishment is associated with increases in physical abuse, long-term antisocial behavior, and decreases in conscience and empathy for others. As a result, corporal punishment by anyone is illegal in 29 countries around the world, while 113 countries prohibit it in schools. There are much better, more effective ways to discipline children, including “time outs” and the removal of favorite toys.