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It’s a familiar scene—one that I’ve been in a thousand times, as a child and now as a parent.


We’re finishing a lovely dinner and evening with family or friends. Our cheeks are all a bit flushed from wine and laughter, our bellies are full, our hearts are happy. And then someone leans over to one of my children and says, “Give me a big hug goodbye before I go!”

He takes a few unsteady steps backwards and says, shyly but surely, “I don’t want to.”

And then all eyes are on me. The relative longing for an affectionate moment with this little person they love so much, looking to me to say, “Go ahead, honey. Give her a hug!” And my little person, with tentative eyes looking up at me for guidance and protection.

Without fail, I take sides—the same one each time. “It’s okay baby, you don’t have to give her a hug.”

It gets a little awkward. And that’s completely okay.

This simple act which could be viewed as a rude annoyance to the affection-seeking relative, is actually a major stand in my parenting—one that I am proud of and one that I encourage every parent to consider.

My responsibility is to my children, first and beyond everything else. It is my job to help them stand up for themselves, and to stand up for them when they can’t.

They trust me more than anyone in the world. I am not going to defy that trust by insisting that they do something that makes them uncomfortable.

I actually feel immensely proud of them when they decline a hug. It takes a lot of guts to stand up for yourself—in general, and especially to slightly intoxicated Aunt Sally. I want to show them through my actions that they are allowed and encouraged to speak their mind and protect themselves for things that make them nervous.

They are supposed to test limits with me. They practice talking back to me. They practice lying and breaking rules with me. And when they practice saying no with me, I need to do everything in my power to applaud and encourage them.

“I’m the boss of my body”

I must say this 243 times a day. Usually it's because my 3-year-old is insisting that he sit on my 2-year-old's head, or because my daughter is insisting that she demonstrate on my face that jelly really makes a really pretty eyeshadow.

“But mooooo-oooom, it’s strawberry!”

“Who’s the boss of my body, honey?”

“Ugh you are.” Huff, sigh, storm off.

But the reason behind this statement’s omnipresence in my house is so that it becomes a deep inner-knowing that no one tells them what they have to do with their body—ever.

We hear over and over again how important consistency is for children—it applies here too. It’s way too confusing to teach them, ‘You can’t hug your friends at school if they don’t want to be hugged, but you do have to hug Aunt Sally when she tells you to.’

Because no means no. Period.

It means no when I say, “No you can’t touch the stove.” It means no when your sister says, “No you can’t keep tickling me.” It means no when your first girlfriend says, “No, actually, I’m not ready yet.” And it means no when you tell your relative that you don’t want a hug.

This is the message. There is no room for grey area here.

It makes me nauseous to consider, but the truth is this:

Statistics are such that it it likely that one of my children will find themselves somehow in an uncomfortable situation involving their bodies. I won’t be with them when it happens.

But I’m with them now, and I am going to make it count. And maybe, somewhere in the depths of their subconscious they’ll hear my voice, find the strength to say, “I’m the boss of my body,” and have the ability to walk away.

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Unstructured play is play without predetermined rules of the game. There are no organized teams, uniforms, coaches or trainers. It is spontaneous, often made-up on the spot, and changeable as the day goes on. It is the kind of play you see when puppies chase each other around a yard in endless circles or a group of kids play for hours in a fort they created out of old packing boxes.

Unstructured play is fun—no question about it—but research also tells us that it is critically important for the development of children's bodies and brains.

One of the best ways to encourage unstructured play in young children is by providing open-ended toys, or toys that can be used multiple ways. People Toy Company knows all about that. Since 1977, they've created toys and products designed to naturally encourage developmental milestones—but to kids, it all just feels like play.

Here are five reasons why unstructured play is crucial for your children—

1. It changes brain structure in important ways

In a recent interview on NPR's Morning Edition, Sergio Pellis, Ph.D., an expert on the neuroscience of play noted that play actually changes the structure of the developing brain in important ways, strengthening the connections of the neurons (nerve cells) in the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain considered to be the executive control center responsible for solving problems, making plans and regulating emotions.

Because unstructured play involves trying out different strategies without particular goals or serious consequences, children and other animals get to practice different activities during play and see what happens. When Dr. Pellis compared rats who played as pups with rats that did not, he found that although the play-deprived rats could perform the same actions, the play-experienced rats were able to react to their circumstances in a more flexible, fluid and swift fashion.

Their brains seemed more "plastic" and better able to rewire as they encountered new experiences.

Hod Lipson, a computer scientist at Cornell sums it up by saying the gift of play is that it teaches us how to deal with the unexpected—a critically important skill in today's uncertain world.

2. Play activates the entire neocortex

We now know that gene expression (whether a gene is active or not) is affected by many different things in our lives, including our environment and the activities we participate in. Jaak Panksepp, Ph.D., a Professor at the University of Washington studied play in rats earning him the nickname of the "rat tickler."

He found that even a half hour of play affected the activity of many different genes and activated the outer part of the rats' brains known as the neocortex, the area of the brain used in higher functions such as thinking, language and spatial reasoning. We don't know for sure that this happens in humans, but some researchers believe that it probably does.

3. It teaches children to have positive interaction with others

It used to be thought that animal play was simply practice so that they could become more effective hunters. However, Dr. Panksepp's study of play in rats led him to the conclusion that play served an entirely different function: teaching young animals how to interact with others in positive ways. He believed that play helps build pro-social brains.

4. Children who play are often better students

The social skills acquired through play may help children become better students. Research has found that the best predictor of academic performance in the eighth grade was a child's social skills in the third grade. Dr. Pellis notes that "countries where they actually have more recess tend to have higher academic performance than countries where recess is less."

5. Unstructured play gets kids moving

We all worry that our kids are getting too little physical activity as they spend large chunks of their time glued to their electronic devices with only their thumbs getting any exercise. Unstructured play, whether running around in the yard, climbing trees or playing on commercial play structures in schools or public parks, means moving the whole body around.

Physical activity helps children maintain a healthy weight and combats the development of Type 2 diabetes—a condition all too common in American children—by increasing the body's sensitivity to the hormone insulin.

It is tempting in today's busy world for parents and kids to fill every minute of their day with structured activities—ranging from Spanish classes before school to soccer and basketball practice after and a full range of special classes and camps on the weekends and summer vacation. We don't remember to carve out time for unstructured play, time for kids to get together with absolutely nothing planned and no particular goals in mind except having fun.

The growing body of research on the benefits of unstructured play suggests that perhaps we should rethink our priorities.

Not sure where to get started? Here are four People Toy Company products that encourage hours of unstructured play.

1. People Blocks Zoo Animals

These colorful, magnetic building blocks are perfect for encouraging unstructured play in children one year and beyond. The small pieces fit easily in the hands of smaller children, and older children will love creating their own shapes and designs with the magnetic pieces.

People Blocks Zoo Animals 17 Piece Set, People Toy Company, $34.99

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This article was sponsored by People Toy Company. Thank you for supporting the brands that support Motherly and mamas.

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Plenty of modern motherhood paraphernalia was made to be seen—think breastfeeding pillows that seamlessly blend into living room decor or diaper bags that look like stylish purses. The breast pump though, usually isn't on that list.

It's traditionally been used in the privacy of our homes and hotel rooms in the best case scenarios, and in storage closets and restrooms in the worst circumstances. For a product that is very often used by mothers because they need to be in public spaces (like work and school), the breast pump lives a very private life.

Thankfully, some high profile moms are changing that by posting their pump pics on Instagram. These influential mamas aren't gonna hide while they pump, and may change the way the world (and product designers) see this necessary accessory.

1. Gail Simmons 

Top Chef's Gail Simmons looked amazing on the red carpet at the 2018 Emmys, but a few days after the award show the cookbook author, television host and new mama gave the world a sneak peek into her backstage experience. It wasn't all glam for Gail, who brought her pump and hands-free bra along on the big night.

We're thankful to these women for showing that breast pumps belong in public and in our Instagram feeds.

[Update, September 21, 2018: This post was originally published on May 31, 2018, but has been updated to include a recent Instagram post by Gail Simmons.]

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In the moments after we give birth, we desperately want to hear our baby cry. In the middle of the night a few months later it's no longer exactly music to our ears, but those cries aren't just telling us that baby needs a night feeding: They're also giving us a hint at what our children may sound like as kindergarteners, and adults.

New research published in the journal Biology Letters suggests the pitch of a 4-month-old's cry predicts the pitch they'll use to ask for more cookies at age five and maybe even later on as adults.

The study saw 2 to 5-month olds recorded while crying. Five years later, the researchers hit record again and chatted with the now speaking children. Their findings, combined with previous work on the subject, suggest it's possible to figure out what a baby's voice will sound like later in life, and that the pitch of our adult voices may be traceable back to the time we spend in utero. Further studies are needed, but scientists are very interested in how factors before birth can impact decades later.

"In utero, you have a lot of different things that can alter and impact your life — not only as a baby, but also at an adult stage," one of the authors of the study, Nicolas Mathevon, told the New York Times.

The New York Times also spoke with Carolyn Hodges, an assistant professor of anthropology at Boston University who was not involved in the study. According to Hodges, while voice pitch may not seem like a big deal, it impacts how we perceive people in very real ways.

Voice pitch is a factor in how attractive we think people are, how trustworthy. But why we find certain pitches more or less appealing isn't known. "There aren't many studies that address these questions, so that makes this research especially intriguing," Hodges said, adding that it "suggests that individual differences in voice pitch may have their origins very, very early in development."

So the pitch of that midnight cry may have been determined months ago, and it may determine part of your child's future, too. There are still so many things we don't know, but as parents we do know one thing: Our babies cries (as much as we don't want to hear them all the time) really are something special.

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I was feeling off the other day. Something wasn't right, and I couldn't seem to put my finger on it or kick it for that matter. As the day progressed, it didn't get much better. It was a typical day for us, with the usual 2-year-old meltdowns and chaos that happens when you have two babies close in age.

Nothing was out of the norm, but I just wasn't feeling completely like myself. And right after getting my daughters to bed, when I was alone with my thoughts, the feelings intensified. Through the silence, I heard a soft and familiar voice criticizing my mothering, telling me "You don't do anything right." "You are failing your kids."

My anxiety was attacking me, knowing I am weakest on my own. But I knew what I needed to do. So I took out my phone and dialed, listening to the ringing on the other end.

Waiting for the person who always comforts me.

Who always makes everything better.

Who has the magic words when it comes to calming my soul.

"Hi." She answered the phone.

"Hi Mom," I said, as my voice cracked. I can mask my pain for everyone—but her.

"Everything is going to be okay," she reassured me from over the phone as I broke down to her. I hung up feeling so much better. Because—truly—there is nothing in this entire world like a mother's reassurance. I know that not everyone has this kind of relationship with her mother. That, I am indeed one of the lucky ones—but we can all hope to become this for our own children.

And you, mama, contract that magic right when you give birth.

This magic doesn't make you perfect and all-knowing. No, you don't have all the answers. No one has that. You just need to be you—your sweet baby's mama. That title comes with that last push or lift out of the womb. It could also come if your baby is handed over through adoption or surrogacy.

It doesn't matter the means, the magic comes the second your baby is placed into your arms. It comes with a force so strong it leaves a mark on your heart. It transforms you into a mother. You are enough just by being that person who opens her arms and accepts this baby as yours forever.

Your soft-skinned newborn is placed on your chest, shrieking, tears dripping down her cheeks and onto her pout. The little muscles in her chin trembling with such force, her face is on the verge of turning bright red. Then you cuddle her close and feed her. "Everything is going to be okay." She finds peace in the warmth of your body, her skin on your skin.

There is nothing like a mother's reassurance.

When your baby becomes a toddler, and he falls and gets his first scrape, screaming, because it's a new kind of painful sensation—an open wound. "Everything is going to be okay," you say to slow his tears and scoop him up into your arms. You clean that scratch out and apply Neosporin.

You put a Band-Aid on, sealed with a kiss, and wipe away his tears. You will always be there to pick him up when he falls—literally, now...and figuratively, in the future when he is grown.

There is nothing like a mother's reassurance.

When she goes to her first day of preschool, and you have to separate from each other. She cries as you hold your tears back, as you assure her, "Everything is going to be okay. Mommy always comes back." And of course, you do, and you hold onto those words yourself—repeating them to stay strong.

Because when you are together, everything is right again. You let her go because it's the right thing to do.

There is nothing like a mother's reassurance.

When he gets his heart broken for the first time, he will feel like the only person that truly knew him has abandoned him. He'll feel as if he will never find that again. He may not have the proper coping mechanisms yet to deal with that level of pain.

He comes to you in tears over losing the love of his life. You comfort him and assure him "Everything is going to be okay." Because you know this as fact because he is the love of your life. And, one day, if he has a child—he will feel the same way.

There is nothing like a mother's reassurance.

When life kicks her in the rear-end. When she is struggling to find her place in this wild world, feeling so alone. When she needs support. She doesn't ask you directly, but your mom intuition whispers to you, pulling on that mark on your heart, and so—you make the call.

"Everything is going to be okay," you say into the phone. The sky won't fall and Chicken Little will not witness the world ending because she can't figure it all out right this second. Finding her place in this world will take time, but it will happen. Right now, and for always, you are her safe place, her landing pad.

One day our babies may have babies of their own. When they are sad they will say, "Everything is going to be okay."

They will know that sometimes all our children need is reassurance from us—their safe place. Their soul-soother. Their heart.

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There's something that every child needs to believe with every cell in their bodies. When they do, they will thrive. There is a powerful way that we, as the adults in their lives, can nurture this belief and set them up to learn, grow and flourish.

They need to know that their brains can grow stronger—measurably stronger—with time and effort. It sounds simple, but the effects of believing this are profound. Some children will have been born believing this, but others will be certain that they are as they are and that nothing will change that.

There is no doubt that encouragement and praise are vital for kids of all ages, helping to lift them to great heights, but not all praise is good praise. The research around this is robust, leaving little doubt that different types of praise, though given with the most loving intent, can potentially be harmful to our kids and teens.

Children generally tend towards one of two types of mindsets: a fixed mindset or a growth mindset. Praise that focusses on intelligence promotes a fixed mindset, which is the belief that intelligence cannot be changed in any meaningful way. Children with a fixed mindset believe they are born with certain character traits and a fixed amount of intelligence and creativity, and that nothing they do will change that in any meaningful way.

In contrast, praise that focuses on effort ('You've worked really hard on that!) promotes a growth mindset, which is the belief that intelligence can grow and be strengthened with effort. Children with a growth mindset believe that they are capable of achieving what they want if they put in the time and effort to get there.

Fixed mindset vs. growth mindset

The effects of mindset are remarkable. Here are some of the big differences between a fixed mindset and a growth mindset.

Giving Up (Fixed) vs. Persistence (Growth)

  • A growth mindset fosters motivation, resilience and persistence. A fixed mindset kills it. Children who believe that intelligence lies with the genetically blessed are quicker to give up, believing that if they can't do something, it's because they aren't smart enough, creative enough, good enough, whatever enough. Children who have a growth mindset on the other hand, are more likely to keep working hard towards a goal, believing that all that stands between them and success is the right amount of effort.

Lack of Confidence (Fixed) vs. Confidence (Growth)

  • Children with a fixed mindset are more likely to interpret difficulty as confirmation that they don't have what it takes. If success means they are clever ('You did it! You're so clever!'), then a lack of success means they aren't. Once children believe this, their lack of confidence spills into other tasks, eventually wearing down their motivation and their love of learning.Praising children for effort will lift them above the times they don't do as well as they would like—which, let's be honest, happens to all of us. They will interpret a lack of success as a sign that they need to work a little harder or differently, rather than as evidence of a personal deficiency.

Avoid Challenge (Fixed) vs. Embrace Challenge (Growth)

  • When given the choice between a challenging task or an easy task, children with a fixed mindset will be more likely to choose the easy task. If children believe their intelligence is fixed and impossible to change, it is understandable that they will choose easy tasks to prove themselves. This leaves very limited scope for the vulnerability needed to learn and grow. Learning is all about starting at the edge of our capabilities and pushing beyond them. That will mean sometimes failing, sometimes falling, and sometimes admitting that, for the moment, we haven't got a clue. Children with a growth mindset will embrace challenge, seeing it as an opportunity to learn and grow.

Failure: Personal Deficiency (Fixed) vs. Opportunity to Learn (Growth)

  • Children with a fixed mindset will be more likely to interpret failure as evidence of their lack of intelligence or capability.Failure isn't so bleak for kids with a growth mindset. They have a healthy attitude to failure, seeing it as an opportunity to learn. Even when they are disappointed, they are able to keep their confidence intact and bounce back from the stumbles, believing they have it in them to succeed if they keep working at it.

Hiding the Struggle (Fixed) vs. Seeking Help (Growth)

  • Children who believe their performance will be attributed to intelligence, or to something about themselves that can't be changed, will be more likely to hide their struggles and lie about their mistakes. In Dweck's research, almost 40% of children who had been praised for intelligence, compared to 10% of children who had been praised for effort lied when they were asked to anonymously disclose the number of mistakes they made. When children believe that intelligence is fixed they will identify themselves as 'smart' or 'not smart'. Rather than seeing mistakes as a sign that they may need to work a little harder, they will see mistakes as evidence of a lack of inherent capability and will work harder to stop the world from seeing them as 'stupid' or incapable.On the other hand, children with a growth mindset will be more likely to seek help when something gets in their way, believing the capability is in them, but they just need a hand to find it.

Nurturing a growth mindset

A growth mindset will supercharge their capacity to learn and grow. We know that for certain. Parents, teachers and any important adult in the life of a child or adolescent has enormous power to steer them towards the happy headspace of a growth mindset. Here's how:

1. Tell them, over and over and over that 'brains can get stronger'

As if being a brain wasn't impressive enough, they've proven to be all the more remarkable by showing how much they can change. 'Brains can get stronger.' Say this over and over to the kids in your life until they're reciting you or telling you to stop—and then keep going. The more they can believe this, the more empowered they'll be to keep doing what they need to do to strengthen that powerhouse in their heads. Here is one way to explain it to them.

'Imagine that in your brain are billions of tiny lightbulbs. There is a lightbulb for everything you could ever do. There's a dancing lightbulb, a maths lightbulb, a soccer lightbulb, an imagination lightbulb, a science lightbulb, a cooking lightbulb, a flying a plane lightbulb... You get the idea. The thing is, they only turn on when you do what they are there for, so not all of your light bulbs will glow all the time. Some of them will never glow at all. That's exactly as it should be. Nobody is great at absolutely everything!

The really cool thing about these lightbulbs is that the more you turn them on (by practicing whatever it is they're there for), the brighter they glow, and the brighter they glow, the stronger your brain. The first time you try something, its lightbulb will only glow a little bit but the more you practice and learn that thing, the brighter that lightbulb will glow. Remember, not all of these lightbulbs are glowing all the time—only the ones that have been turned on.

If you never ride a bike, for example, the riding-a-bike lightbulb won't glow at all. The first time you ride a bike, that lightbulb will glow just a little bit. The more you ride your bike, the brighter the riding-a-bike lightbulb will glow. It might take a lot of practice before your riding-a-bike lightbulb is as bright as your teeth-brushing lightbulb but when it is as bright, you'll be just as good at riding a bike as you are at brushing your teeth.

Of course, your teeth-brushing lightbulb is very bright because you brush your teeth every morning and every night! When it comes to riding bikes though, you might fall off a few times but that doesn't mean that you can't be great at riding bikes. It just means that you're not good at riding them yet. You're still charging up that lightbulb.

Every time you learn something or practice something, you're turning on a lightbulb and strengthening your brain. In the same way exercise makes your body strong by strengthening your muscles, learning and practicing makes your brain strong. You're very capable of learning things and strengthening your brain, but no brain is going to build itself. All brains can all be strong, smart and capable of amazing things, but they need you to work and make the lightbulbs glow... and you can do that brilliantly.

2. Pay attention to effort over results

A grade that has been earned with hard work, whatever that grade is, should always be rewarded before something that was achieved without effort.

You studied hard for that exam and your marks show that.

It was a hard assignment but you didn't give up. You kept going and working hard and you did it! I loved the way you kept trying different things under you found something that worked.

3. Catch them being persistent

​Any time you see them putting in effort, working hard towards a goal or being persistent, acknowledge it. It doesn't mean you have to gush with praise every time they apply themselves, but it will mean a lot to them that you notice. 'You're working hard at that aren't you.'

4. Be specific with praise

Attach your praise to something specific. Rather than 'You're really smart,' try 'It was really clever the way you experimented with a few different ways to solve that problem. Nice work!'

5. Encourage a healthy attitude to failure and challenge

Speak of failure and challenge in terms of them being an opportunity to learn and grow.

6. Use the word 'yet', and use it often

When they say 'I don't know how to do it,' encourage them to replace this with, 'I don't know how to do it yet.' Keep doing this and soon they will learn to do this for themselves. Self-talk is a powerful thing.

7. Show them they don't always have to be successful to be okay

Kids don't learn what they're told, they learn what they see. Let them see when you hit a snag (when it's appropriate of course) and let them see you being okay with that. Talk about the things you learn when something doesn't quite go as planned.

If you take a wrong turn, for example, point out the interesting things you notice now that you're on a different road. Failure is part of learning and has absolutely nothing at all to do with how clever or capable they are. It's an opportunity to learn, in disguise.

8. Encourage them to keep the big picture in mind

It's where they end up that matters. The stumbles on the way are just part of the learning and the way there. Learning takes time and the path won't be straight – it will be crooked and interesting and full of great opportunities, exactly as it was meant to be.

9. When they do well without effort

For a student who does really well without putting in any effort, it's still important to hold back from making it all about how clever or capable they are. Instead, Dweck suggests trying, 'Ok. That was too easy for you. Let's see if there's something more challenging that you can learn from.'

10. And when they put in the effort, but don't do so well...

If they've worked hard but haven't achieved what they wanted, notice the effort. This will nurture their confidence, resilience and motivation to keep learning and working hard. 'I loved seeing the effort you put into that assignment. Let's see what you can learn from for next time.'

11. Give permission to fail

Take the anxiety out of learning and put back the love. Giving kids permission to get it wrong sometimes will broaden their willingness to take risks and experiment with better ways of doing things. This will expand their creativity, problem solving and readiness to embrace challenge.

And finally...

Intelligence is not fixed and can be flourished with time and effort. Nurturing this belief in children is one of the greatest things we, as the adults in their lives, can do to help lift them so they can reach their full potential. The effort will come from them, but it's important that we do what we can to have them believe that the effort will be worth it.

Originally posted on Hey Sigmund.

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