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How Baby Signing Can Save Your Sanity and Strengthen Your Bond

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You may not realize it yet, but your baby is a brilliant behaviorist. In fact, infants have been skillfully employing B.F. Skinner’s Operant Conditioning methods on their lab-rat parents with remarkable success since their very first breaths.


“How?” You ask.

Crying.

It’s a well-known fact that crying is how babies communicate their needs. But the truth is that not only is crying a form of communication, it is also a stimulus to provoke a response. In Operant Conditioning, this is called “negative reinforcement” – obtaining a desired action (i.e. feeding) through removing an unpleasant stimulus (i.e. crying) once the desired action is performed. By rewarding our compliance with ceasing to cry, they condition us to immediately respond to their insistent requests.

My son Isaiah is one of the most genius behaviorists ever. At eight months old, he switched up his crying-stimulus with screech-screaming to convey his displeasure and condition us to respond.

Let’s just say we nearly lost our minds like the old, abused lab-rats we were.

But instead of resigning ourselves to such a fate, we made a battle-plan to turn the tables on him using positive reinforcement – the introduction of a rewarding stimulus (i.e. feeding) upon obtaining a desired behavior. In this instance, the behavior we hoped to obtain was communication through baby signing.

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Baby signing is communicating with your baby through the use of American Sign Language (ASL) or symbolic hand motions. Once our screeching-son learned that he could convey his desires through signing, the stress level in our house dramatically diminished.

As did the decibel level.

Our success wasn’t instantaneous though. When we first began teaching Isaiah, he was not at all interested in what-the-heck-we-were-doing-with-our-hands. Instead, he was intensely focused on the object in our hands (usually food). What we learned from him was that babies need frequent, consistent repetition in order to connect meaning to gestures.

Think about it, we teach infants to sign from an early age: high fives, fist bumps, clapping, waving, and making motions to songs like “The Itsy Bitsy Spider.” Babies acquire these gestures naturally because we perform them frequently under the same set of conditions. If babies can learn these motions from a young age, they can learn how to sign. But as with all reinforcement, consistent repetition is the key.

Here are the four signs our family has found most helpful:

1 | “More”

How to teach it: Clustering your fingertips all together as if you had an imaginary puppet on each hand, touch the fingertips of both hands together. This is an easy one for kids to do and for you to recognize. The best way to teach it is to give a little bit of food to your baby and reserve the rest out of their reach. Every time they finish what’s in front of them, sign and say “more,” and then give them a little more. After a couple days, wait for them to give the sign back to you before giving them the food. It works best to keep this word just for asking for more food or drink.

Why teach it:  Before my son learned “more,” he would scream whenever he finished the food in front of him. The actual process of teaching him made him even more furious, but after practicing for several days at every meal, he caught on and quit screaming when he was all out of food. I really wish we had started teaching him sooner.

2 | “Please”

How to teach it:  Rub your chest with a flat palm. Use this when you know your child wants something. Hold what they want in your hand, show them the sign while saying, “please,” and give them the object of their desire. Just like with “more,” use it consistently for a few days and then wait to see if they will sign for you before giving them what they want. To avoid confusion with “more” in the early stages of signing, use this with anything except food and drink.

Why teach it:  I am a sucker for holding my son anytime he wants to be held. But at the age of one, I didn’t want him screeching at me, demanding for me to hold him. Now he knows that all he needs to do is say “please” and I will scoop him up in an instant.

3 | “Help”

How to teach it:  Technically, the ASL sign for “help” is to make a fist with your right hand and set it on the open palm of your left hand and then draw both hands upward together in this position. My kids found it a little hard to differentiate between the motion for “help” and the motion for “more” because both require that your hands touch each other. So we decided to make our family’s sign for “help” a fist in the air, like Superman flying (fitting, right?). When your baby is whining out of frustration, offer the “help” sign and then assist them.

Why teach it: This sign was so helpful for both of my kids. It empowered them to know that help was on the way and they didn’t need to get frustrated.

4 | “Wait”

How to teach it: To sign “wait,” hold your first three fingers out so that they form a “w.” Use this when your child asks for something and you can’t get it for them immediately. I have introduced this when my children have signed “more” or “please.” I give the sign, say “wait” reassuringly, and delay giving them what they want for 10 seconds or so.

Why teach it: There are times when your kids want something that you just can’t give them, maybe because you are trying to make the food or you have your hands full. Signing “wait” for them confirms that you know what they want and will give it to them momentarily.

If you are serious about implementing signing with your baby, I’d suggest going on YouTube to find videos of different signs you can use. When you introduce the first sign, wait until your child has mastered it before adding a new one. Once signing has been established as a means of communication between you and your baby, you can start introducing signs for objects too. In our family, we use signs for “dog,” “cat,” “Cheerios,” “milk,” “Mom,” and “Dad.”

Communicating through baby signing may have freed us from being the subjects of our son’s negative reinforcement trials. But implementing sign language hasn’t just reduced crying in our household. More importantly, it has given our son confidence that his parents understand him, which fosters a more secure attachment. Don’t get me wrong – we’re incredibly grateful to have regained our sanity, but the most rewarding effect of signing has been the strengthened bond between us and our son.

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As mamas, we naturally become the magic-makers for our families. We sing the songs that make the waits seem shorter, dispense the kisses that help boo-boos hurt less, carry the seemingly bottomless bags of treasures, and find ways to turn even the most hum-drum days into something memorable.

Sometimes it's on a family vacation or when exploring a new locale, but often it's in our own backyards or living rooms. Here are 12 ways to create magical moments with kids no matter where your adventures take you.


1. Keep it simple

Mary Poppins may be practically perfect in every way, but―trust us―your most magical memories don't require perfection. Spend the morning building blanket forts or break out the cookie cutters to serve their sandwich in a fun shape and you'll quickly learn that, for kids, the most magical moments are often the simplest.

2. Get on their level

Sometimes creating a memorable moment can be as easy as getting down on the floor and playing with your children. So don't be afraid to get on your hands and knees, to swing from the monkey bars, or turn watching your favorite movie into an ultimate snuggle sesh.

3. Reimagine the ordinary

As Mary says, "the cover is not the book." Teach your child to see the world beyond initial impressions by encouraging them to imagine a whole new world as you play―a world where the laundry basket can be a pirate ship or a pile of blankets can be a castle.

4. Get a little messy

Stomp in muddy puddles. Break out the finger paint. Bake a cake and don't worry about frosting drips on the counter. The messes will wait, mama. For now, let your children―and yourself―live in these moments that will all too soon become favorite memories.

5. Throw out the plan

The best-laid plans...are rarely the most exciting. And often the most magical moments happen by accident. So let go of the plan, embrace the unexpected, and remember that your child doesn't care if the day goes according to the schedule.

6. Take it outside

There's never a wrong time of year to make magic outside. Take a stroll through a spring rainstorm, catch the first winter snowflakes on your tongue, or camp out under a meteor shower this summer. Mother Nature is a natural at creating experiences you'll both remember forever.

7. Share your childhood memories

Chances are if you found it magical as a child, then your kids will too. Introduce your favorite books and movies (pro tip: Plan a double feature with an original like Mary Poppins followed with the sequel, Mary Poppins Returns!) or book a trip to your favorite family vacation spot from the past. You could even try to recreate photos from your old childhood with your kids so you can hang on to the memory forever.

8. Just add music

Even when you're doing something as humdrum as prepping dinner or tidying up the living room, a little music has a way of upping the fun factor. Tell Alexa to cue up your favorite station for a spontaneous family dance party or use your child's favorite movie soundtrack for a quick game of "Clean and Freeze" to pick up toys at the end of the day.

9. Say "yes"

Sometimes it can feel like you're constantly telling your child "no." While it's not possible to grant every request (sorry, kiddo, still can't let you drive the car!), plan a "yes" day for a little extra magic. That means every (reasonable) request gets an affirmative response for 24 hours. Trust us―they'll never forget it.

10. Let them take the lead

A day planned by your kid―can you imagine that? Instead of trying to plan what you think will lead to the best memories, put your kid in the driver's seat by letting them make the itinerary. If you have more than one child, break up the planning so one gets to pick the activity while the other chooses your lunch menu. You just might end up with a day you never expected.

11. Ask more questions

Odds are, your child might not remember every activity you plan―but they will remember the moments you made them feel special. By focusing the conversation on your little one―their likes, dislikes, goals, or even just craziest dreams―you teach them that their perspective matters and that you are their biggest fan.

12. Turn a bad day around

Not every magical moment will start from something good. But the days where things don't go to plan can often turn out to be the greatest memories, especially when you find a way to turn even a negative experience into a positive memory. So don't get discouraged if you wake up to rain clouds on your beach day or drop the eggs on the floor before breakfast―take a cue from Mary Poppins and find a way to turn the whole day a little "turtle."

Mary Poppins Returns available now on Digital & out on Blue-ray March 19! Let the magic begin in your house with a night where everything is possible—even the impossible ✨

Spring is officially here and if you're looking for a way to celebrate the change in the season, why not treat the kids to some ice cream, mama?

DQ locations across the country (but not the ones in malls) are giving away free small vanilla cones today, March 20! So pack up the kids and get to a DQ near you.

And if you can't make it today, from March 21 through March 31, DQ's got a deal where small cones will be just 50 cents (but you have to download the DQ mobile app to claim that one).

Another chain, Pennsylvania-based Rita's Italian Ice is also dishing up freebies today, so if DQ's not your thing you can grab a free cup of Italian ice instead.

We're so excited that ice cream season is here and snowsuit season is behind us. Just a few short weeks and the kids will be jumping through the sprinklers.

Welcome back, spring. We've missed you!

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The woman who basically single-handedly taught the world to embrace vulnerability and imperfection is coming to Netflix and we cannot wait to binge whatever Brené Brown's special will serve up because we'll probably be better people after watching it.

It drops on April 19 and is called Brené Brown: The Call to Courage. If it has even a fraction of the impact of her books or the viral Ted talk that made her a household name, it's going to be life and culture changing.

Announcing the special on Instagram Brown says she "cannot believe" she's about to be "breaking some boundaries over at Netflix" with the 77-minute special.

Netflix describes the special as a discussion of "what it takes to choose courage over comfort in a culture defined by scarcity, fear and uncertainty" and it sounds exactly like what we need right now.

April 19 is still pretty far away though, so if you need some of Brown's wisdom now, check out her books on Amazon or watch (or rewatch) the 2010 Ted Talk that put her—and our culture's relationship with vulnerability and shame—in the national spotlight.

The power of vulnerability | Brené Brown

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If Marie Kondo's Netflix show got people tidying up, Brown's Netflix special is sure to be the catalyst for some courageous choices this spring.

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My husband and I recently had a date night that included being away from our son overnight for the first time since he was born three years ago (but don't let your heads run away with a fantasy—we literally slept because we were exhausted #thisiswhatwecallfunnow). It was a combination of a late night work event, a feeling that we had to do something just for the two of us, and simple convenience. It would have taken hours to get home from the end of a very long day when we could just check into a hotel overnight and get home early the next day.

But before that night, I fretted about what to do. How would childcare work? No one besides me or my husband has put our son to bed, and we have never not been there when he wakes up in the morning.

Enter: Grandma.

I knew if there was any chance of this being successful, the only person that could pull it off is one of my son's favorite people—his grandmother. Grammy cakes. Gramma. We rely so much on these extended support systems to give us comfort and confidence as parents and put our kids at ease. Technically, we could parent without their support, but I'm so glad we don't have to.

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So as we walked out the door, leaving Grandma with my son for one night, I realized how lucky we are that she gets it...

She gets it because she always comes bearing delicious snacks. And usually a small toy or crayons in her bag for just the right moment when it's needed.

She gets it because she comes with all of the warmth and love of his parents but none of the baggage. None of the first time parent jitters and all of the understanding that most kids just have simple needs: to eat, play and sleep.

She gets it because she understands what I need too. The reassurance that my baby will be safe. And cared for.

She gets it because she's been in my shoes before. Decades ago, she was a nervous new mama too and felt the same worries. She's been exactly where we are.

She gets it because she shoos us away as we nervously say goodbye, calling out cheerfully, "Have fun, I've got this." And I know that she does.

She gets it because she will get down on the floor with him to play Legos—even though sometimes it's a little difficult to get back up.

She gets it because she will fumble around with our AppleTV—so different from her remote at home—to find him just the right video on Youtube that he's looking for.

She gets it because she diligently takes notes when we go through the multi-step bedtime routine that we've elaborately concocted, passing no judgment, and promising that she'll follow along as best as she can.

She gets it because she'll break the routine and lay next to him in bed when my son gets upset, singing softly in his ear until she sees his eyelids droop heavy and finally fall asleep.

She gets it because she'll text us to let us know when he's fallen asleep because she knows we'll be wondering.

She gets it because just like our son trusts us as his mom and dad, Grandma is his safe space. My son feels at ease with her—and that relaxes me, too.

She gets it because when we come home from our "big night out" the house will be clean. Our toddler's play table that always has some sort of sticky jelly residue on it will be spotless. The dishwasher empty. (Side note: She is my hero.)

She gets it because she shows up whenever we ask. Even when it means having to rearrange her schedule. Even when it means she has to sleep in our home instead of her own.

She gets it because even though she has her own life, she makes sure to be as involved in ours as she can. But that doesn't mean she gives unsolicited advice. It means that she's there. She comes to us or lets us come to her. Whenever we need her.

She gets it because she takes care of us, too. She's there to chat with at the end of a long day. To commiserate on how hard motherhood and working and life can be, but to also gently remind me, "These are the best days."

After every time Grandma comes over, she always leaves a family that feels so content. Fulfilled by her presence. The caretaking and nourishment (mental and food-wise) and warmth that accompanies her.

We know this is a privilege. We know we're beyond lucky that she is present and wants to be involved and gets it. We know that sometimes life doesn't work out like this and sometimes Grandma lives far away or is no longer here, or just doesn't get it. So we hold on. And appreciate every moment.

As Grandma leaves, I hug her tight and tell her, "I can't thank you enough. We couldn't have done this without you." Because we can't. And we wouldn't want to.

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Spring is one of the most fun times of the year to explore nature with your child. There are just so many fun changes, from baby animals, different birds migrating through, and all of the beautiful rainbows that come from spring showers.

Here are a few fun Montessori-inspired spring activities to try with your little one this year:

Learn about weather

In many parts of the country, spring brings rain clouds in addition to warmer weather. Embrace the rainy days as well as the sunshine by exploring the weather.

1. Cloud gazing

Find some pictures of different types of clouds (or use a book) and then enjoy searching for them in the sky. Take it a step further and use cotton balls to create representations of the different kinds of clouds if your child is interested.

2. Rainbows

Spring is a wonderful time to talk about rainbows. Spend time searching for rainbows after rainstorms, and consider getting a prism to let your child explore rainbows even on sunny days. Have fun noticing the order of the colors and provide the correct colors of paint or crayons for your child to create a picture of what he sees.

3. Daily weather report

Use these fun letter board ornaments to allow your child to create her own daily weather report. You could also simply create a booklet with some drawing paper and encourage your little one to draw or paint the weather each day and see how it changes over time.

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Observe animals

From baby animals to butterflies, spring is a wonderful time for children to learn about animals.

4. Bird watching

Spring migration makes it an exceptional time for bird watching. Try talking to your child about the different types of birds he might see this time of year. Have a bird watching adventure in your backyard or nearby park and see how many types you can spot together. Child-sized binoculars can make this even more fun.

5. Filling bird feeders

Filling bird feeders is something even young toddlers enjoy helping with. For older children, try providing several types of seeds and letting them mix or layer them together in the feeder.

6. Study butterflies

Children are understandably captivated by butterflies and spring is a great time to study them. You can simply read a book, or take it a step further and order a live butterfly kit to let your child see firsthand the transformation from caterpillar to a butterfly.

Explore nature

7. Create a nature table

Define a space such as a small table or even a tray or basket, and allow your child collect interesting things she finds in nature. Include a magnifying glass if you like.

8. Plant a garden

Young toddlers can help water a garden, slightly older children enjoy planting seeds and weeding, and older children can help design a garden and select the plants. Gardening provides an up-close look at how plants grow and is also great for independence and a sense of responsibility.

9. Collect flowers

Encourage your child to find and collect some of the little wildflowers growing everywhere this time of year. It can be especially fun to use a flower press to preserve his finds.

10. Celebrate Earth Day

Plant a tree, clean up a park, or join a community Earth Day event. These all provide a great opportunity to talk to children about their important role in taking care of our planet.

Practical life

Montessori teachers refer to the practice of real-life activities, like cooking and cleaning, as "practical life." These skills are practiced all year long, but there are some fun and different ways to focus on them in spring.

11. Peel hard-boiled eggs

Spring is a great time to talk about how some animals hatch from eggs. Letting your child peel hard-boiled eggs can be a fun extension of this, and is also a great way to build concentration, as it can take quite a long time and significant effort for a young child to remove all of the little pieces of eggshell.

Show your child how to crack the eggshell and provide a small bowl for her to put the shell in. Bonus: Ground up eggshells are great for the soil in your garden.

12. Hull strawberries

Spring produce provides a great opportunity for little ones to help clean and prepare different fruits and vegetables, including hulling strawberries.

Show your child how to rinse the strawberries and use a strawberry huller. He can also use a chopper to slice them.

13. Scrub outdoor toys

If you're anything like me, your child's water toys got a bit dusty in the long winter months. Get your child involved in cleaning them up for the warmer weather to come. All she'll need is a scrub brush, a bucket of water, and some soap if you wish. She'll have fun making the toys beautiful again, and you can check something off the to-do list—it's a win-win.

14. Scrub rain boots

In many areas, rain boots get a lot of use this time of year. At school, we sometimes put out a boot scrubbing activity for children to clean their muddy boots and this is something you can easily replicate at home. Set up a little cleaning station, perhaps on the back porch, with everything your child needs to clean his boots.

15. Flower arranging

Flower arranging is an activity enjoyed by children in Montessori classrooms all year long, but it is especially fun in the spring when your little one can help pick flowers in the backyard or visit a local market and see all of spring's beautiful flowers displayed.

Set up the activity so that your child can do it herself. In addition to fresh flowers, she'll need scissors to trim the stems, a few little vases to choose from, a small pitcher for water, and a funnel to pour water into each little vase. Your home will look beautiful, and your child will feel so proud knowing that she contributed.

Perhaps the best way to enjoy spring with your child is to simply get outside, splash in the puddles, and soak up the sunshine, but hopefully, these activities will give you a new way to spend time together and enjoy the season.

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