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Reality is an Optical Illusion: How to Teach Kids About Perception

My mom was an incredible woman and a talented painter. Driven by a fierce and uncontrollable passion to create, she was the epitome of Susan Boyle’s song, “I am who I was born to be,” and she lived her life accordingly. Without a doubt she was loved dearly and respected by her many offspring.

In honor of her 85th birthday she held a one-woman exhibition to showcase her most recent work. Her colorful paintings, each of which she cherished the way a mother cherishes her children, were a genuine reflection of who she was: vibrant, vivacious, and vigorous.

And then, she fell.

Literally overnight she lost her stamina, her self-confidence, and her will to live. Downhill all the way, it was a slow, agonizing, and fearful process.

My brother and I share not only a deep love and respect for our parents and for one another, but also a lifetime of meaningful experiences and fond memories. And yet, the ways we dealt with my mom’s deteriorating health, emotional state of mind – and eventually her death – were radically different.

Being the son and living nearby, my brother was what my mom referred to as “her rock.” He was there. He took charge of whatever bureaucratic matters needed tending to. Being a scientist, he had a better understanding of her medical situation than the rest of us and was always there to speak with the doctors. Being a pragmatic doer, he got things done.

Being the daughter, I played a different role in my mom’s life. I was her confidante. Somehow over the years our mother-daughter roles reversed. Like a daughter, she talked; like a mom, I listened. She consulted and I gave advice, more often than not reiterating what she wanted to hear.

During the last few years of my mom’s life, my husband and I were working abroad. Every evening after work, we would call our moms back home. It was the one gift we could give them to compensate for the thousands of miles between us.

Some days my mom and my conversations were short and sweet. Other times they were prolonged, as she poured her heart out, sharing with me both past and present. “I never bother your brother with all this,” she used to say, as she rambled on. “He’s so busy! I’m lucky to have you. It’s cheaper than a psychologist!”

As her health worsened, our trips home became more frequent so that I could spend more time with her. And then, shortly before her death, my mom was hospitalized with serious kidney failure. We were a family in crisis and all hell broke loose.

During the first few days my brother and I exchanged fervent emails, in which we discussed my mom’s situation and explored different ways to help her, as she no longer could help herself. We both had good intentions and our hearts were definitely in the right place, but nonetheless our solutions differed drastically, causing much tension and conflict between us.

My brother’s understanding of what was best for my mom, did not gel with my interpretation of her wishes. No matter how hard I tried, there was no way I could persuade him without breaching my mom’s trust.

At one point, he wrote to me in despair, “You’re not here. You don’t understand the reality.”

That is when I began to question if there is such a thing as “reality.” What made my brother more of an authority about my mom’s reality than I? Did the fact that he was “on site” trump everything I knew about my mom and her situation from what she had shared with me alone?

I got on a plane and flew home.

One day in between visits with my mom, I was spending some quality time with my eight-year-old granddaughter. She was showing me the young girl/old woman optical illusion she had recently discovered on the Internet.

She was intrigued how people looking at the same picture could see two totally different images. “Just like Jasmine, Mrs. Cameron, and me,” she remarked. Jasmine was my granddaughter’s friend and Mrs. Cameron was her teacher.

“Meaning…?” I asked, hoping she would continue.

“When Mrs. Cameron looks at Jasmine and when I look at Jasmine we see two different girls! Mrs. Cameron thinks that Jasmine is stupid. No matter how hard Jasmine tries, Mrs. Cameron treats her like she’s dumb or something. If only Mrs. Cameron were a fly on the wall during recess,” she continued using a new expression she had recently learned. “She would hear all the smart things Jasmine says and how funny she is! Jasmine isn’t stupid, Grandma, just because Mrs. Cameron thinks so, right?”

“No, my lovely,” I reassured my granddaughter, “Jasmine isn’t stupid.”

And that’s when the penny dropped. While telling me about the optical illusions in her life, my eight-year-old granddaughter opened my eyes and taught me a profound truth: 

Reality is an optical illusion and we each have our own perceptions.

I’m an educator. My perceptions of the world are driven by my passion to teach and to delight. For me, life experiences – big ones like mom’s death as well as ordinary ones like chatting with my granddaughter – are learning opportunities meant to be shared.

We grown-ups sometimes forget that our kids’ perceptions and understandings of the world are often different from ours. Just like with optical illusions and Mrs. Cameron, we can be looking at the same thing and see two different images. It is not for us to judge which perceptions are right and which are wrong. From where our kids are standing, their perception is based on what they know.

As the responsible adults in our kids’ lives, it ‘s our job to provide them with tools that develop awareness that there is no absolute truth or unconditional reality, because people have different perceptions. We must help them expand their horizons and delve deeper, so that they can continually refine and redefine what they know.

The following family activity does just that.

Scribble Art 

  • Using a dark marker, one participant scribbles an abstract shape on a piece of paper.
  • Working together, brainstorm what the scribble could be.
  • Try to come up with as many different ideas as you can.
  • The scribble cannot remain an abstract design and must be turned into something “real” – a person, an animal, something from nature, or any other object.
  • Each player then traces the shape and transforms the scribble into one of the suggestions or anything else that comes to mind.
  • When done, share, compare, and discuss what you discovered from this activity in relation to how people looking at the same object see totally different things.

I recently conducted this activity with my husband and four grandchildren ages three to nine. It was fascinating to witness the different interpretations, as well as what they had to say about the differences.

Try this fun, eye-opening activity with your family and let us know how it goes!

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When we consider all the skills our kids will need to succeed in the future, what comes to mind? Perhaps creativity, tech skills, or an excellent understanding of math might be at the top of many parents' lists. Social-emotional skills, like empathy, compassion, or the ability to understand another person's viewpoint may not be the ones you thought of right away, but deep down you know they matter.

We've all had those co-workers who didn't know how to listen to our ideas or friends who couldn't compromise with others. We know that in the work world and in our personal life, emotional skills are key to developing and maintaining healthy relationships.

If you are the parent of a toddler, you know that young children are inherently self-centered. It's not some faulty aspect of their character or a misstep of parenting skills. Young children simply do not have the brain maturity to consider another person's perspective or needs just yet—their brain physically is not ready to handle that kind of mental work.

However, child development research shows us that we can do a few things along the developmental path to help foster social-emotional skills in our kids. With a little help from us, our kids' brains can develop with meaningful connections that tune them into the feelings of others.

Here's how:

1. Treat others how you want your kids to treat others.

How we talk to our kids becomes their internal dialogue. We know from research that this goes for emotional skills as well. A recent study showed that when parents talk to their kids more about how other people might be feeling, the kids had better perspective-taking abilities—the ability to see a situation from another person's point of view.

This, of course, is the basis of many emotional skills, especially empathy. Just by talking about another person's feelings, kids begin to develop those crucial brain connections that help them develop empathy.

It's worth pointing out that very young children under ages 3-4 do not have the brain maturity to really understand another person's perspective. They lack a crucial skill that psychologists call Theory of Mind, meaning they can't understand the mind of another person.

However, our urgings and thoughtful phrasing to point out how another person might be feeling can only help them down this developmental path. Then, once their little brain matures, they will be in the habit of hearing and understanding the feelings of others.

2. Model positive emotional behavior in daily life.

It's probably not surprising to learn that how we react to our kids' feelings influences their emotional development. When your child gets upset, do you get angry or ruffled by their big emotions? We are all human, of course, so sometimes our kids' emotions are the exact triggers that fuel our big feelings, too. However, if we can remain the calm in the emotional storm for our kids, their development will benefit. Through modeling emotional regulation, over time our kids will learn how to self-regulate as well.

One study, in fact, showed that toddlers whose parents exhibited anger or over-reacted to tantrums were likely to have more tantrums and negative emotionality by the end of the study. However, the opposite dynamic can happen, too. Parents who model firm, but calm emotional regulation help their kids learn these skills as well.

3. Don’t be afraid to show your emotions.

Many times, we feel that one of our main jobs as a parent is to protect our children from the big, often overwhelming emotions of adults. For instance, we try not to break down crying or become red-faced with anger in front of our kids. It just feels too big for them to handle and perhaps not developmentally appropriate.

As they mature, however, older kids are able to handle a bit more discussion and expression of honest emotions. Have you noticed that kids usually pick up on the fact that you are upset even if you try to hide it? Kids are naturally curious and, many times, very sensitive to the emotional tenor at home. If they are developmentally ready, this can be a good time to have more discussions about emotions and how to handle them.

For example, my 9-year-old is playing a lot of baseball this summer and always wants me to pitch to him so he can practice batting. Now, I am not a very skilled player so my pitches often go off course or are too weak. He had gotten in the habit of correcting my pitching or (more likely) complaining about it every time we played.

After repeated experiences with this, I was not only annoyed but it also sort of hurt my feelings—so I finally told him how I felt. Guess what? His behavior at practice time changed dramatically! The mere fact of him realizing that his mom has feelings too really made him think about his words more carefully.

These types of interaction can become part of your "emotion coaching." It may sound silly but it can make a big impact for kids, especially as they grow older and are more able to really understand the emotional lesson. On some level, it's nice that our kids think we are superheroes, but it's also crucial that they understand that we are still human, with real feelings.

The magic of helping our kids develop empathy doesn't happen in well-planned lessons or elaborate activities. The real magic happens in the small, simple interactions and discussions we have with our kids each day.

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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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Sometimes it can feel like you never get a minute to even finish a thought—let alone a to-do list. When your day is packed with caretaking, your own needs get pushed back. So when you finally get to lie down at the end of the day, all those thoughts are waiting for you. While we haven't figured out the secret to keeping you from over-analyzing every.single.thing. (sorry, mama!), we do believe you must carve out time for you. Because that rest is just as important—and you've certainly earned it.



PS: We spoke to Jessica Alba and she gave us the lowdown on why she stopped breastfeeding, and Nordstrom is having their anniversary sale until August 5th. Here's everything we want!

My Instagram feed has been full of pictures of friends that their kids to the beach. I get it, I like the beach a lot. But the forest and the mountains are my real loves.

The way the damp leaves smell in the morning. The peace of walking underneath a canopy of trees. The sound of firewood crackling at night. Sigh, heaven.

I also grew up camping with my family and have done some intense hiking, backpacking and search and rescue. So it's kind of in my blood—I wear my frostbite scars with honor.

So I couldn't wait to get my future kids out into nature (minus the frostbite). I had visions of us hiking to a stream, swimming and splashing all day, then cooking a big meal over a campfire as we sing songs and laugh.

Then, I actually became a parent. Of three kids, actually, all of whom are still very young… and a dog… and a husband who doesn't really like camping.

Despite the realization that it wouldn't be exactly as I planned, this summer we finally decided to take our first camping trip as a family.

Here is what I learned:

1. Set the bar low

I had to remind myself over and over again that this trip would not live up to my expectations. I know this sounds like a bummer way to start a trip, but it really helped. I have the tendency to over-plan and get really (really) excited about things. This is not a bad quality, but it can lend itself to disappointment when things don't go as hoped. I didn't want us to leave the trip feeling like it was a failure in any way.

This trip was a success, and a big moment for our family, no matter how it turned out.

Instead of forcing activities or memories, I forced myself to just… be. Not expecting the trip to be magical opened us up to appreciate the unexpected moments of magic as they occurred naturally, without being forced.

This got harder, of course, when our car got stuck in the mud (true story), and we had to wait three hours for AAA to arrive. But when our kids talk about the camping trip now they still squeal with delight as they recount the story of the tow truck coming. You're welcome (I guess)?

2. We made it really easy

I put my camping ego aside, and we took a lot of shortcuts on this first trip. We didn't stay in a tent but rented a barebones cabin instead. For dinner, we ordered a pizza. And we let the kids play on our phones for a little bit in the evening.

Those things didn't make for a truly authentic experience, but goodness, they really helped. I have started to realize that there is no shame in making things easy, especially when you have little kids. And they didn't know any different. As far as they are concerned, we hiked the Appalachian Trail and gathered all our own food from the earth.

This was a lazy camping trip, for sure—and that was exactly what we needed.

3. I over-prepped for safety so I could calm down

I have hiked and camped in the White Mountains of New Hampshire in February—this was not that. At any given moment on our trip, an ambulance could have easily reached us, and we were only a few minutes away from a hospital at any point. But it made me feel much better to know that we were safe and ready for anything that should happen.

We bought a first aid kit, a survival kit, too many flashlights and bottled water. I was really big on everyone wearing good footwear and teaching them how to walk carefully on uneven terrain.

We also used the opportunity to teach about other areas, like water safety. Rita Goldberg of the British Swim School recommends "[teaching kids] to avoid water hazards and to not approach a fountain, river, pool or lake without an adult's supervision and permission."

We also incorporated their "Water Watcher" program, which assigns a "badge of responsibility" to one adult at all times, who maintains a constant watch over the kids while they are near water.

These easy steps, that we decided on ahead of time, made me feel much more relaxed, and therefore better able to enjoy our time.

This trip took some emotional adjustments on my part. It wasn't glamorous, or particularly exciting. But that was exactly what it needed to be. Emily Glover wrote that "by getting away from the distractions of home and focusing on each other...we're reminded of what really matters."

We found that in the woods—together.

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