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Q&A with Erika Christakis: The importance of being little—in the age of iPads

The verdict is in, mamas. It’s time to step back and let our little ones be, well, little.

Q&A
with Erika Christakis: The importance of being little—in the age of iPads

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

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.

As much as I love fall, it always feels like the season when my family's routine gets kicked into overdrive. With our oldest in (homeschool) kindergarten, my youngest on the brink of entering her twos, work, housework and *all the things* filling my day, it's hard not to feel a little overwhelmed sometimes. Did I mention we're still in a pandemic? (Yeah, it's a lot.) And while I try to take a positive view as much as I can, now more than ever I definitely jump at the chance to take anything off my busy plate.

One thing first in line at the chopping block? Cooking. To be fair, I like cooking. I cooked most of our meals long before I had ever even heard of social distancing. But there's something about the pandemic that suddenly made cooking every single meal feel exponentially more draining.

Enter Daily Harvest. They deliver nourishing, delicious food right to your door. Daily Harvest's mix of smoothies, bowls, flatbreads, snacks and more provide a balanced, whole food options that are as satisfying as they are nutritious. But my favorite part? When we're ready to eat, I simply pull the food from the freezer and it's ready in minutes—without any chopping, measuring or searching for a recipe. Even better, they're incredibly tasty, meaning I'm not struggling to get my girls to dig in. Not cooking has never felt so good.

Here are my 8 favorite products that are helping to lighten my load right now:

Mulberry + Dragonfruit Oat Bowl

Mulberry + Dragonfruit Oat Bowl

One thing that actually helps break up the monotony of quarantine? Trying and introducing new ingredients to my family. I love this overnight oat bowl (add milk the night before and let it set in your fridge overnight—easy-peasy!) because not only does it not compromise on nutrition, but it also helps me bring new whole fruits, vegetables and superfoods to the table with ease.

Mint + Cacao Smoothie

Mint + Cacao Smoothie

I kid you not, these taste exactly like a mint chocolate chip milkshake. (Just ask my 4-year-old, who is constantly stealing sips from my glass.) What she doesn't know? She's actually getting organic banana, spinach and chlorella with every sip. #momwin

Kabocha + Sage Flatbread

Kabocha + Sage Flatbread

Our family's eating habits have been leaning more plant-forward this year, which often means a lot of veggie washing, peeling and chopping every time I cook. That's why these flatbreads are my new best friend come lunchtime. This Kabocha + Sage Flatbread is made with a gluten-free cauliflower crust topped with kabocha squash, fennel and sage for a taste of fall in every bite. (Missing the cheese? You can add it before baking for more of a pizza feel.)

Kale + Sweet Potato Flatbread

Kale + Sweet Potato Flatbread

There's something about the combination of sweet potato crust topped with red cabbage, organic greens and an herby-cilantro sauce that is so delicious… like surprisingly delicious. I polished off this bad boy in seconds! And unlike other "veggie" crusts I've tried, these are actually clean (AKA no fillers, preservations, partially-hydrogenated oil or artificial anything). Plus, it couldn't be easier to throw in the oven between conference calls and homeschool lessons.

Cacao + Avocado Smoothie

Cacao + Avocado Smoothie

Any time I get to serve a breakfast that tastes like chocolate, it's a good day. (That goes double when it's *my* breakfast.) This rich, chocolatey smoothie is packed with organic zucchini, avocado, pumpkin seeds and pea protein for a nourishing mix of healthy fats and muscle-building protein so I can carry that baby all day long. And did I mention the chocolate?

Vanilla Bean + Apple Chia Bowl

Vanilla Bean + Apple Chia Bowl

Maybe it's just me, but after a long week of cooking, the last thing I want to do on Saturday morning is...wake up and cook. That's why these one-step breakfasts are saving my weekend. I simply add our favorite milk the night before and store the bowl in the fridge overnight. Come morning, I have a nutritious chia bowl that powers me through even the busiest day of errands. It's also Instagram-ready, which makes me feel like I'm out brunching (even if I can't remember the last time I was in a restaurant).

Cacao Nib + Vanilla Bites

Cacao Nib + Vanilla Bites

My kids have turned into snack monsters during quarantine, and I'm often struggling to find a wholesome option (that doesn't require a lot of extra cooking or else I resort to something ultra-refined and shelf-stable). These bites are the hero I never knew I needed. For one, they taste like cookie dough, but they're actually packed with chickpeas, pumpkin, dates and flax seed (among other whole ingredients). But unlike actual cookie dough, I don't have to go anywhere near my mixer to whip them up—all I have to do is pull the container out of the freezer, let them defrost a bit and we can all enjoy a treat.

Cauliflower Rice + Pesto Harvest Bowl

Cauliflower Rice + Pesto Harvest Bowl

Sometimes I have a little more time to cook, but I still want a quick, stress-free solution. (Especially because it always feels like I just cleaned up from the last meal.) I love these Harvest Bowls because they warm up in under five minutes on the stove top (or microwave!) but pack tons of flavor. The Cauliflower Rice + Pesto bowl is one of my favorites, with basil, olive oil and nutritional yeast for a hearty dish reminiscent of a mouth-watering Italian meal. When I'm feeling extra fancy, I add leftover grilled chicken or a fried egg.

Strawberry + Rich, Rippled Berry Compote Scoops

Strawberry + Rich, Rippled Berry Compote Scoops

Who doesn't want to end the day with a little something sweet? This creamy and decadent frozen treat from Daily Harvest is swirled with sweet berries and tropical dragonfruit for an antioxidant burst you'll feel good about—but that your kiddos will just think is ice cream. Go ahead, take credit for being the best mom ever.

Want to try it yourself? You can get $25 off your first box of Daily Harvest with code MOTHERLY.

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

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Motherly editors’ 7 favorite hacks for organizing their diaper bags

Make frantically fishing around for a diaper a thing of the past!

As any parent knows, the term "diaper bag" only scratches the surface. In reality, this catchall holds so much more: a change of clothes, bottles, snacks, wipes and probably about a dozen more essential items.

Which makes finding the exact item you need, when you need it (read: A diaper when you're in public with a blowout on your hands) kind of tricky.

That's why organization is the name of the game when it comes to outings with your littles. We pooled the Motherly team of editors to learn some favorite hacks for organizing diaper bags. Here are our top tips.

1. Divide and conquer with small bags

Here's a tip we heard more than a few times: Use smaller storage bags to organize your stuff. Not only is this helpful for keeping related items together, but it can also help keep things from floating around in the expanse of the larger diaper bag. These bags don't have to be anything particularly fancy: an unused toiletry bag, pencil case or even plastic baggies will work.

2. Have an emergency changing kit

When you're dealing with a diaper blowout situation, it's not the time to go searching for a pack of wipes. Instead, assemble an emergency changing kit ahead of time by bundling a change of baby clothes, a fresh diaper, plenty of wipes and hand sanitizer in a bag you can quickly grab. We're partial to pop-top wipes that don't dry out or get dirty inside the diaper bag.

3. Simplify bottle prep

Organization isn't just being able to find what you need, but also having what you need. For formula-feeding on the go, keep an extra bottle with the formula you need measured out along with water to mix it up. You never know when your outing will take longer than expected—especially with a baby in the mix!

4. Get resealable snacks

When getting out with toddlers and older kids, snacks are the key to success. Still, it isn't fun to constantly dig crumbs out of the bottom of your diaper bag. Our editors love pouches with resealable caps and snacks that come in their own sealable containers. Travel-sized snacks like freeze-dried fruit crisps or meal-ready pouches can get an unfair reputation for being more expensive, but that isn't the case with the budget-friendly Comforts line.

5. Keep a carabiner on your keychain

You'll think a lot about what your child needs for an outing, but you can't forget this must-have: your keys. Add a carabiner to your keychain so you can hook them onto a loop inside your diaper bag. Trust us when we say it's a much better option than dumping out the bag's contents on your front step to find your house key!

6. Bundle your essentials

If your diaper bag doubles as your purse (and we bet it does) you're going to want easy access to your essentials, too. Dedicate a smaller storage bag of your diaper bag to items like your phone, wallet and lip balm. Then, when you're ready to transfer your items to a real purse, you don't have to look for them individually.

7. Keep wipes in an outer compartment

Baby wipes aren't just for diaper changes: They're also great for cleaning up messy faces, wiping off smudges, touching up your makeup and more. Since you'll be reaching for them time and time again, keep a container of sensitive baby wipes in an easily accessible outer compartment of your bag.

Another great tip? Shop the Comforts line on www.comfortsforbaby.com to find premium baby products for a fraction of competitors' prices. Or, follow @comfortsforbaby for more information!

This article was sponsored by The Kroger Co. Thank you for supporting the brands that supporting Motherly and mamas.

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A few years ago, while my wife's baby bump got bigger and my daddy reading list grew longer, I felt cautiously optimistic that this parenthood thing would, somehow, suddenly click one day. The baby would come, instincts would kick in, and the transition from established couple to a new family would be tiring but not baffling.

Boy was I wrong.

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