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Erika Christakis is an early childhood educator at the Yale Child Study Center and has focused her career on the well-being of children and families. She is a teacher, preschool director, and mother of three. We had a chance to catch up with Erika about her new book, The Importance of Being Little: What Preschoolers Really Need from Grownups. Her insights into raising little ones are eye-opening even for the most involved mamas. Actually, especially for them.



Your

new book asks an excellent question. “What is it like to be a young child?” In your

opinion, what is the best way for a mother to go deep into the mind of her

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child to truly understand his needs for happy + healthy development throughout

childhood?

The

first step may sound deceptively simple but it can be hard to do in practice: observe your child, without judgment or

anxiety. The best way to be a good observer is to find times when both you and

your child are well-rested. When we take the time to see our children for who

they are, with “no memory, no desire,” as a famous psychiatrist once described

it, we can better appreciate our child’s strengths and vulnerabilities: the

little boy who struggles to get out of the house each morning is the same one able

to organize his stuffed animals with intense precision; the girl who seems so

bossy and ‘maternal’ with her peers at preschool might be deeply jealous of her

baby sibling.

Beyond observation, it’s also helpful to think openly: use open, not closed, statements when you talk to your child.

“Tell me about your drawing” invites the child into the conversation much more easily than praising with “Good job!”

Offer open-ended toys, such as blocks, that invite more than one use. Open up your child’s schedule to the unexpected by encouraging unstructured playtime.

Finally, while it’s true that no one needs a license to raise a child, and many parenting lessons come from trial and error, you can understand the mindset of a little child much more easily if you can read basic developmental cues such as separation anxiety or concrete thinking. It helps to know what the majority of three-year-olds are doing in a given scenario so you can focus your attention on what’s unique about your child.

Do

you have any tips for parents who are trying to follow the advice set forth in

your book? Are there any clues that you have seen in young children to suggest

that their parents are indeed giving them what they really need to thrive?

Young

children are surprisingly good at telling us what they need, but we sometimes require

a ‘decoder ring’ to figure it out! That’s why it is so helpful to observe young

children as naturally and uncritically as possible. Because children are always

in a state of flux (inherent in the word “development” is the concept of change)

it’s easy to overlook what they are experiencing at a given moment, which is why

we need to slow down—both for their sake and our own. Time is in short supply

in a preschooler’s day and one of my most heartfelt suggestions is to buck the

trend for more and more activity and have faith that young children actually

thrive on less: less scheduling, less stuff, fewer transitions, and more

downtime to explore and question and, above all, to connect with other human

beings. 

More downtime to be a child. This approach can be challenging because our world moves so quickly and we have a great deal of anxiety about allowing our children to fall behind. But the science is clear: sometimes the best strategy is to get out of the way.

How

do you think social media is influencing parents’ tendencies to “adultify”

their children? Do you think the fact that children are often seen as

extensions of their parents on social media, to be well-spoken, well-dressed,

and well-behaved, impacts parents’ expectations of their children? 

Parenting

is hard enough without the expectation that you have to present a perfect

Facebook façade. I also wonder sometimes when I see Youtube videos of a

stranger’s child doing something funny: What was the parent’s intent in that

moment, and how might the technology be getting in the way of face-to-face

interaction? On the other hand, technology can bring families together, too, as

when a child connects with a grandparent via Skype. Moderation is probably a

good thing in most parenting ventures. 

I see an enormous pressure on parents, particularly mothers, to keep up with new trends, new enrichments, and new materials to keep their child thriving. It’s exhausting and also a recipe for failure.

We are

living in a time of unprecedented criticism of parents; much of what they do is

held up to potential public scorn and second-guessing. I was shocked by the

thousands of angry online commenters last summer after an antsy toddler was

yelled at by a restaurant owner in Maine; there are many cultures where such

intolerance would have been inconceivable, whatever the apparent flaws of the

parent who failed to control her child’s behavior. Despite the obvious

challenges of 21st century life, in a number of key ways—such as

mortality rates—children have probably never been better cared for, and I think

it’s worth remembering that when we worry too much about perfection.

You

mention that opportunities for inventive play and deep connections with

caregivers are too often being replaced with “adult gadgets and expectations.” Many researchers have spoken out on the dangers of excessive exposure to screen

time in early childhood. How do you think adult gadgets, including smartphones

and tablets, are affecting our children’s innate tendencies to crave social

interaction and free play? Do you think there is a time and place for these

gadgets in childhood?

I

think there is a limited place for

gadgetry in childhood. A recent study showed that children

and parents engage in less conversation when playing with electronic toys than

with blocks. We need to pay careful attention to these findings because

they are capturing something real about human interaction. I’m not saying “never,”

but the science just isn’t there to substitute electronics for face-to-face,

active learning.

There

are two ways to look at the role of technology in children’s lives: does it

harm young children and does it keep them from doing other things, like playing

outside, or laughing in the arms of a loving caregiver?

On the first question,

the quality of screen time matters, of course; watching Mr. Rogers is very

different, in terms of pacing and fostering “prosocial” behavior, than watching an overstimulating TV show devoid of any educational

value.

But we also have to be more honest about what children give up in order

to play on an iPad.

At the end of the day, young children aren’t awake that

many hours.

So we have to get more serious about what they are doing when they could

be outdoors or playing with a friend or a puppy or holding a new sibling.

That

said, I think parental sanity is important, too, and every generation has its

version of a play-pen! But there’s an addictive quality to iPad and iPhone use

that can seriously impede the natural engine for learning: loving, playful interaction.

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As a former beauty editor, I pride myself in housing the best skincare products in my bathroom. Walk in and you're sure to be greeted with purifying masks, micellar water, retinol ceramide capsules and Vitamin C serums. What can I say? Old habits die hard. But when I had my son, I was hesitant to use products on him. I wanted to keep his baby-soft skin for as long as possible, without tainting it with harsh chemicals.

Eventually, I acquiesced and began using leading brands on his sensitive skin. I immediately regretted it. His skin became dry and itchy and regardless of what I used on him, it never seemed to get better. I found myself asking, "Why don't beauty brands care about baby skin as much as they care about adult skin?"

When I had my daughter in May, I knew I had to take a different approach for her skin. Instead of using popular brands that are loaded with petroleum and parabens, I opted for cleaner products. These days I'm all about skincare that contains super-fruits (like pomegranate sterols, which are brimming with antioxidants) and sulfate-free cleansers that contain glycolipids that won't over-dry her skin. And, so far, Pipette gets it right.

What's in it

At first glance, the collection of shampoo, wipes, balm, oil and lotion looks like your typical baby line—I swear cute colors and a clean look gets me everytime—but there's one major difference: All products are environmentally friendly and cruelty-free, with ingredients derived from plants or nontoxic synthetic sources. Also, at the core of Pipette's formula is squalane, which is basically a powerhouse moisturizing ingredient that babies make in utero that helps protect their skin for the first few hours after birth. And, thanks to research, we know that squalane isn't an irritant, and is best for those with sensitive skin. Finally, a brand really considered my baby's dry skin.

Off the bat, I was most interested in the baby balm because let's be honest, can you ever have too much protection down there? After applying, I noticed it quickly absorbed into her delicate skin. No rash. No irritation. No annoyed baby. Mama was happy. It's also worth noting there wasn't any white residue left on her bottom that usually requires several wipes to remove.


Why it's different

I love that Pipette doesn't smell like an artificial baby—you, know that powdery, musky note that never actually smells like a newborn. It's fragrance free, which means I can continue to smell my daughter's natural scent that's seriously out of this world. I also enjoy that the products are lightweight, making her skin (and my fingers) feel super smooth and soft even hours after application.

The bottom line

Caring for a baby's sensitive skin isn't easy. There's so much to think about, but Pipette makes it easier for mamas who don't want to compromise on safety or sustainability. I'm obsessed, and I plan to start using the entire collection on my toddler as well. What can I say, old habits indeed die hard.

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

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Military families give up so much for their country, particularly when they have small children at home. Those of us who have never witnessed this kind of sacrifice first-hand could use a reminder of it once in a while, which is just one of the reasons we're so happy to see the beautiful photoshoot Mary Chevalier arranged for her husband's return home from Afghanistan.

The photoshoot was extra special because while James Chevalier was serving a nine-month deployment, Mary gave birth to their second son, Caspian.

Getting ready to meet Dad

"During the laboring and birthing process of Caspian, I was surrounded by family, but that did not fill the void of not having my husband by my side," Mary told InsideEdition.com. "He was able to video chat during the labor and birth, but for both of us, it was not enough."

While James had yet to meet Caspian, their 3-year-old son, Gage, missed his dad a whole lot, so this homecoming was going to be a big deal for him too. That's why Mary arranged for her wedding photographer, Brittany Watson, to be with them for their reunion in Atlanta.

Gage was so happy to see his Dad 

"[He] had no idea he was going to be getting to see his daddy that day," Watson wrote on Facebook. "The family met at the Southeastern Railway Museum for Gage to go on a special train ride... little did he know, he'd be doing it with daddy!"

Watson did a beautiful job capturing the high emotions of every single family member, from Gage's surprise, to the delight on baby Caspian's face. It's no wonder her Facebook post went viral last week.

"Caspian is natural, a very happy baby, but both James and I felt like Caspian knew who his father was almost immediately," Mary told Inside Edition. "He was easily comforted by me husband right off the bat and seemed to have an instant connection. It was very emotional."

The moment this dad had been waiting for 

If we're sobbing just looking at the photos, we can't even imagine what it was like in real life.

"We are all so blessed and take so much for granted," Watson wrote. "I cannot contain the joy I feel in my heart when I look at these images, and I hope you feel it too!"


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During both of my pregnancies, I was under the care of an amazing midwife. Every time I went to her office for check-ups, I was mesmerized by the wall of photos participating in what may be the most painfully magical moment of a woman's life: giving birth. But there was a painting that always drew my attention: a woman dressed in orange, holding her newborn baby with a face that could be described as clueless. The line above the canvas read, "Now what?"

I felt like the woman in the painting as I kissed my mother goodbye when my daughter was born. She came from my native Colombia to stay with us for three months. When she left, I realized that my husband had been working as usual during those first 90 days of our new life. My baby was born on a Friday and on Monday he was back at the office. (No parental leave policy for him.)

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Now what? I thought. The quote "It takes a village to raise a child" suddenly started to hit home, literally.

After a few years in Miami, I had some friends, but it truly didn't feel like I had a village. Some were not mothers yet, most of them worked full-time and others didn't live close by. My nomad life left my best friends spread out in different places in the world. I found myself signing up for "mommy and me" classes in search of new mothers, immigrants like me, alone like me.

It seemed like a utopian dream to think about when my grandmothers became mothers. Both of them had 6 and 10 children and they were able to stay sane (or maybe not? I don't know). But at least they had family around—people cooking, offering help. There was a sense of community.

My mother and father grew up in "the village." Big families with so many children that the older siblings ended up taking care of the little ones; aunts were like second mothers and neighbors became family.

When I was about to give birth to my second baby, my sister had just had her baby girl back in Colombia. Once, she called me crying because her maternity leave was almost over. My parents live close to her, so that was a bonus. Hiring a nanny back there is more affordable. But even seeing the positive aspects of it, I wished I could have been there for her, to be each other's village.

The younger me didn't realize that when I took a plane to leave my country in search of new experiences 19 years ago, I was giving up the chance to have my loved ones close by when I became a mother. And when I say close by, I mean as in no planes involved.

It hasn't been easy, but after two kids and plenty of mommy and me classes and random conversations that became true connections, I can say I have a mini-village, a small collection of solitudes coming together to lean on each other. But for some reason, it doesn't truly feel like one of those described in the old books where women gathered to knit while breastfeeding and all the children become like siblings.

Life gets in the way, and everyone gets sucked into their own worlds. In the absence of a true village, we feel the pressure to be and do everything that once was done by a group of people. We often lose perspective of priorities because we are taking care of everything at the same time. Starting to feel sick causes anxiety and even fear because it means so many things need to happen in order for mom—especially if single—to lay down and recover while the children are taken care of. And when the children get sick, that could mean losing money for a working mother or father, because the truth is that most corporations are not designed to nurture families.

In the absence of that model of a village I long for, we tend to rely on social media to have a sense of community and feel supported. We may feel that since we are capable of doing so much—working and stay at home moms equally—perhaps we don't need help. Or quite the opposite: mom guilt kicks in and feelings of not being enough torment our night sleep. Depression and anxiety can enter the picture and just thinking about the amount of energy and time that takes to create true connections, we may often curl up in our little cocoon with our children and partners—if they are present—when they come home.

Now what? was my thought this week while driving back and forth to the pediatrician with my sick son. I can't get the virus, I have to be strong, my daughter can't get ill, my husband needs to be healthy for his work trip next week, we all need to be well for my son's fifth birthday. And so, it goes on. I texted one of my mom friends just to rant. She rants back because her son is also sick. She sent me a heart and an "I'm here if you need to talk."

I am grateful to have talked to her at that random postpartum circle when I first became a mother. She's a Latina immigrant like me and feels exactly like me. I will do it more, get out of my comfort zone and have—sometimes—awkward conversations so I can keep growing my own little village.

It may not look like the one I'd imagined, but still may allow me to be vulnerable even through a text message.

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Halloween is around the corner, but if you are like me you are still trying to figure out what to dress your family (especially the little ones), so here are some cute ideas inspired by famous characters. There's something for everyone—from cartoon lovers to ideas for the entire family!

Here are some adorable character costumes for your family:

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