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    Chaos at home and infants’ play: Your baby may be more adaptable than you think

    Chaos in the home is bad for child development. Homes are chaotic if they are disorganized, unpredictable, and unstable. This could mean they are noisy, are crowded, have many people coming and going, or lack routines. The adverse effects of chaos at home on early cognitive and social-emotional development are well documented. Long-term exposure to chaos interferes with the development of important skills like self-regulation and cognition. But how can we interpret this research in a global pandemic? For many people, home life has become more chaotic since March. Daily routines have been disrupted and replaced. Busy parents are juggling work from home. And many parents are wondering: Should we be worried for our kids?
    How do young children respond to chaos in the home? Before the pandemic, we visited parents with infants (1-2 years old) while they played at home. With parents’ permission, we video recorded all the rooms in their house, getting an unprecedented look into their natural home settings. From the videos, we coded physical features of the homes that might reflect chaos, including the number of toys on the floor, items on the counters, unwashed dishes, piles of laundry, and scattered papers. We also analyzed infants’ play behaviors (e.g., the length of play and the objects selected for play) because play is an important way babies learn about their worlds. And the quality of infants’ play predicts cognitive and language skills. Based on research on chaos, we predicted that infants in highly cluttered, physically chaotic homes might experience disrupted play.
    Our preliminary findings surprised us: We found no evidence that any of the physical manifestations of chaos at home mattered for babies’ play. In fact, infants didn’t discriminate — they played with whatever objects were available to them, whether the objects were in bins or on the floor, and regardless of whether they were designed for play. They banged on pots and pans like a drum set, made a tower out of Tupperware, and played hide and seek in a pile of laundry. In other words, infants happily played and explored their environments, regardless of the state of their home.
    Any scientist or statistician will tell you that the absence of evidence is not the same as evidence in support of the counterhypothesis. In other words, we can’t conclude for sure that chaos at home doesn’t matter for infants’ play. Also, our study represents only physical manifestations of chaos. Children certainly need routines and structures to thrive. But when it comes to the state of your house? You can probably relax. And if your budget is tight lately, you can rest, knowing your baby is likely just as happy playing with Tupperware as with expensive gadgets. In coming studies, we plan to ask a different question. Rather than asking how chaos at home affects infants’ play, we want to know how infants learn to adapt to chaotic environments and play using whatever materials are available to them.
    The bottom line for parents is this: You’re probably doing a better job than you think. Your baby doesn’t care how organized your home is during the pandemic. Prolonged exposure to chaos is still not good for your child, but infants may be more resilient to mess than we previously thought. And their ability to adapt and even thrive amidst the chaos may actually surprise you.
    Header photo: Nenad Stojkovic. Creative Commons. More

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    The evolved nest approach fosters children’s well-being

    New parents today often are given conflicting information about how to raise their children. This was not always the case. Millions of years ago, our species established childraising practices that shaped children to be cooperative and intelligent. These practices were passed from one generation to another through children’s observation and practice before they became parents. With civilization, industrialization, and other historical trends, these practices have diminished and sometimes have been replaced by practices that have outcomes opposite to the original ones.

    “Millions of years ago, our species established childraising practices that shaped children to be cooperative and intelligent. It is time to remember them.”

    We call these practices the evolved nest. What are those long-established practices?
    1. Soothing perinatal experiences where mothers are highly supported during pregnancy and follow natural biological rhythms during childbirth, and where neither mother nor child are traumatized during childbirth or separated afterward
    2. Several years of on-request breastfeeding and frequent suckling that shape not only the jaw and skull, but also the brain and body, with the thousands of ingredients in breast milk, including ingredients that protect babies from infectious agents
    Babies who aren’t breastfed have less brain myelination at three months (myelination is associated with intelligence) and biological consequences related to obesity, asthma, and allergies.
    3. Nearly constant affectionate touch in the first years and no negative touch to shape multiple systems like the stress response, the vagus nerve (which interrelates with all major body organs), and the oxytocin hormone system
    4. Responsive, companionable care from mother and others that reassures the baby, keeping him or her optimally aroused during rapid neuronal growth, and keeping the child feeling supported and connected throughout life
    5. A social climate that welcomes children at every stage, keeping them in the middle of community activities
    6. Self-directed free play with playmates of different ages that builds executive functions (e.g., redirecting actions and plans, empathy, and control of aggression) and leadership skills
    7. Immersion in nature and ecological attachment so children feel like members of the earth community with responsibilities to non-human members
    We know that each evolved nest practice shapes the neurobiological structures of children’s brains and bodies to work optimally, affecting everything about the child, including personality, sociality, and morality. In my lab, we study these components and their relation to well-being, self-control, sociality, and morality.
    Babies are so immature at birth, looking like fetuses of other animals, that to grow well they need nearly constant touch. In a recent article, parents who endorsed providing greater affectionate touch and less corporal punishment, than parents with the opposite pattern, reported that their preschool-aged children had less psychopathology and greater sociomoral capacities, like empathy and cooperation. In another study, of mothers from at-risk situations, children who received more positive touch and less negative touch over the first years of life had better self-regulation and cooperation than children who received less positive touch and more negative touch.
    In a recent study, colleagues and I asked parents in the China, Switzerland, and the United States to report on their preschool children’s evolved nest experience, specifically, experiences of affection, corporal punishment, indoor and outdoor self-directed free play, and family togetherness inside and outside the home. In every country, children whose parents practiced more evolved nesting in the prior week were more likely to be thriving socially and mentally.
    In a survey study of 383 mothers of three-year-olds in China, we collected information on children’s behavior and attitude as they related to components of the evolved nest. Mothers also completed standardized measures of their children’s behavior regulation, empathy, and conscience. We found significant effects for most caregiving practices and attitudes on children’s outcomes after controlling for maternal income and education, and most effects remained significant after controlling for responsive, companionable care.
    In another study (Narvaez, Wang & Cheng, 2016), adults reported on their childhood experiences, as well as their mental and social health. Childhood experience more consistent with the evolved nest predicted ethical orientations of social engagement via a pathway through secure attachment, mental health, and perspective taking. In addition, experiences that lacked components of the evolved nest through low levels of secure attachment and less optimal mental health predicted social opposition through low perspective taking and social withdrawal through personal distress.
    The evolved nest provides concrete ways for parents to be responsive to the needs of their children to foster optimal neurobiology, as well as psychological and social development.
    Header photo: Proggie. Creative Commons.  More

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    A solid foundation: Building children’s self-esteem during the COVID-19 pandemic

    The COVID-19 pandemic has shaken the pillars of children’s lives. Faced with quarantine, school closures, and social distancing, many children are deprived of the everyday experiences that normally build their self-esteem — their sense of worth as a person. Self-esteem is a critical ingredient of children’s mental health. Children with higher self-esteem tend to have happier lives, better relationships, and fewer symptoms of anxiety and depression.
    Many parents see the process of raising self-esteem as building a structure: The first step is to lay a solid foundation. How, then, can parents help lay a solid foundation for children’s self-esteem during the COVID-19 pandemic?
    According to theories in psychology, children’s self-esteem is built on two pillars: acceptance and competence. Children feel good about themselves when they feel loved and supported by significant others (acceptance) and when they master new skills to achieve their goals (competence).

    “Parents can continue building warmer, more supportive relationships with their children. In warm, supportive relationships, parents share joy with their children, show fondness for them, and express interest in their activities.”

    Here, we present evidence-based strategies that parents can implement to cultivate acceptance and competence in children. These strategies do not require much time or resources on behalf of parents. Indeed, our aim is to ease — rather than increase — the burden placed on parents during these remarkable times. Parents may be under extreme stress: the stress of going to work while risking exposure to the virus, of homeschooling their children while struggling to meet their own job demands, and of caring for elderly parents while being concerned about their own health. It is important for parents to be compassionate to themselves and to embrace the imperfections of their new routines.
     What can parents do to make children feel more loved and supported? For one, parents can continue building warmer, more supportive relationships with their children. In warm, supportive relationships, parents share joy with their children, show fondness for them, and express interest in their activities. Parents can do so, for example, by spending time with their children and letting them know they are enjoying their presence, by asking children with curiosity about their interests and daily activities, and by talking to children about their worries and fears in age-appropriate ways regarding the current pandemic.
    Photo: Unsplash.

    Such experiences of warmth are most likely to cultivate self-esteem when they are provided unconditionally, in good times and in bad. This isn’t about being a super-parent: “You just have to show up, allowing your kids to feel that you get them and that you’ll be there for them, no matter what.”
    Of course, as children age, they develop more friendships outside the family. Such friendships are an important source of self-esteem. Unfortunately, quarantine, school closures, and social distancing have made it incredibly difficult for children to maintain their friendships. When playdates are unsafe or simply impossible, children might need their parents’ guidance in connecting with their friends. For example, parents can help children meet up with friends online through games or video chat apps, encourage children to watch a show with their friends remotely, or assist children in making a playlist of their favorite songs and sharing it with their friends.
    Although seemingly trivial, these strategies may create upward spirals of self-esteem over time. Indeed, when children build deeper relationships with others, they develop higher self-esteem. And when they develop higher self-esteem, they become more inclined to approach others, show warmth to others, and forge even deeper bonds with them. This, in turn, further buttresses their self-esteem.

    “Parents can encourage children to find a topic that fascinates them and provide them with the resources they need to learn more about it.”

    Children are born curious and spontaneously practice new skills. They often seek novel and challenging experiences that help them build their competence. As they feel increasingly competent, their self-esteem rises.
    Amidst school closures, children may attend online classes, get homeschooled, or not receive any education at all. In these cases, a large burden is placed on children’s intrinsic motivation. How can parents nurture children’s interest and joy in learning? Parents can encourage children to find a topic that fascinates them and provide them with the resources they need to learn more about it. They can use free educational resources (such as National Geographic Kids’ YouTube channel); create art projects; and help children build structures with Legos, blocks, or even household items.
    In these activities, it is critical for children to experience a sense of learning and growth. Even small steps on the road toward self-improvement should be celebrated. When children know they are improving themselves, they feel proud and eagerly seek out more activities to hone their skills.
     The foundation of children’s self-esteem is laid early in life. We’ve shown that parents can help build this foundation by making children feel loved and nurturing their interest and joy in learning. Given the worries and fears that surround a global pandemic, a solid foundation can help children build toward a better future.
    Header photo: The Lowry. Creative Commons.  More

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    Social media rescues young people’s sanity

    Young people have been making big sacrifices around the pandemic. Adolescents’ brains are wired to learn through social interaction, and their bodies are designed to respond to it. They have a heightened sensitivity to reward from their friends, with whom life seems so much better. Yet for reasons of safety – predominantly that of others […] More

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    Emotionally supportive parenting can help disadvantaged children stay on the rails

    Why do some children who are raised amid poverty, risk and danger emerge as more resilient than others in similar circumstances ? Why do some grow up relatively unscathed compared with their peers, whose later lives may be scarred by criminality, poor mental health, and repeated disadvantage? Having a calm, supportive parent when something goes […] More

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    The importance of singing to babies: a source of comfort

        Child Development Research, Insights and Science Briefs to Your Inbox                     This experiment, conducted in Canada, confirmed the importance of singing to babies and the positive effects that familiar songs have on them. Singing familiar songs to a distressed baby brings comfort—more so than […] More

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    Positive coparenting between mother and father is linked to strong father involvement in caring

        Child Development Research, Insights and Science Briefs to Your Inbox                     Positive coparenting leads to more father involvement and more father involvement leads to positive coparenting. It is chicken-and-egg. We know from both research and real–life experience that there is a link between the father-mother relationship and how involved the father is in caring for […] More