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When Brazil faced Germany for soccer’s World Cup finals, it was the pinnacle of Brazilian pride in our household. Myself and two adopted sons from Brazil comprised the audience.

Unfortunately, Germany’s victory was quite the spectacle as Brazil’s crushing defeat clashed loudly against its proud, fabled history as a soccer giant. Amidst the backdrop of the controversy regarding debt and corruption soiling the country’s social consciousness, Brazil needed this win.

Well, it’s only a game. Or, is it?

Not to soccer-crazed Brazil, which truly epitomizes what it means to live and breathe a sport. Not to conscientious parents who live and breathe raising their children. The parenting game, metaphorically speaking, often rivals the emotionally charged kicking back-and-forth of a soccer ball.

Parenting any child is not for the faint of heart, although especially so for parenting the older adopted child. It’s different with older adopted children – different from raising children from the start, where they learn the game plan for life as it could be, or should be.

In parenting the older adopted child, the game plan seems forever to be shifting to accommodate even the slightest rumblings of insecurity and/or anxiety from past affronts that influence their defensive instincts. Yet just when I think I maneuvered a craftily executed offensive move, not unlike soccer, it only seems to work the one time.

To stay ahead of the game, I forever have to adapt and enact new strategies to keep the ball hurtling toward the goal. It could be as simple as coordinating whose turn it is to sit in the front seat of the car, or as involved as getting two children to share the space of one suitcase to save from paying for two pieces of check-in luggage.

I adopted my two sons seven years ago from Brazil at the cusp of nine and 12 years old. Eventually, they began to trust that the ground beneath their feet wouldn’t necessarily quiver, crack, or open up and swallow them whole.

Yet even with a more secure worldview, when I exercise my authority as their team captain, it invariably seems to them to be without justifiable merit, without logic or sensibility – or that it’s just “not fair!” I often find myself struggling to rally my sons past sullen, disagreeable, or uncooperative spirits in favor of the right decisions for the better of the home team.

Even when the pain of past oversights, missteps, and misguided self-interests remain fresh in our memory banks, I always get another turn at this so-called parenting game. It’s always about the next kick of the ball, whether to defend against another opposing behavioral insult or to set up a play that better positions one of them to make the better choice rather than dig in their heels.

This game can be exhausting, with foul moves often leaving me feeling dejected, demoralized, and unappreciated – perhaps not much different than how David Luiz, Brazil’s acting team captain for the World Cup game was feeling about his performance as he tearfully and humbly expressed how he “just wanted to give some happiness to my people.”

Although I sought to avoid harboring unrealistic ideals in preparing to step out on the field with my two recruits, assuming leadership on their behalf was a tenuous prospect. Like Luiz, who assumed leadership over Brazil’s team only after Thiago Silva was sidelined for his second yellow penalty card, I, too, was the second go around for my team of three.

And the last thing I ever wanted to do was to disappoint them.

Even when they don’t intend to, my sons often remind me that the parenting game is not necessarily about winning or losing. It’s about the effort that goes into playing the game. Even more important: I am determined to stay in it for the “win.” I am in the parenting game for keeps. Their fearless captain is here to stay.

It sometimes can become difficult for me to see the bigger picture after experiencing a parenting setback. I know they understand when I see how they cooperate with me, work together with each other as dutiful teammates, and use good judgment that parallels my coaching. Even a bad call can get excused by way of their trust in me to prevail in their best interests, allowing me to regain my better sense of judgment.

Bonded together as a family, traversing the field of life as teammates with a sense of belonging together, the parenting game doesn’t need to be a competitive one. That alone is a win-win for us all.

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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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