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Parents of young children tend to worry a lot about whether or not their kids are making adequate gains as they launch into their academic careers.


"Can Johnny read the list of 100 high-frequency words?"

"Does Betty know how to count to 500?"

"Is Tom doing quantum physics yet?"

While early education creates an important foundation for academic skills, many parents would be surprised to know that social skills are actually far more predictive of outcomes into adulthood than early academics.

For example, a study published in 2015 showed that even while controlling for family demographics and early academic ability, the social skills observed in kindergarten showed significant correlation with well-being at age 25.

That's a lot of staying power!

Regardless of how advanced of a reader they were or how much money their parents made, kindergarteners who demonstrated social competence were more likely to graduate from high school, go to college, get a job, and stay out of jail than those who showed a lower level of social competence.

So while many parents and schools may be feeling the pressure to cut back on play and social interaction in order to get more "hard skill" instruction time in, it's actually those "soft skills" that are most predictive of long-term success.

Here are five important social competencies you can foster in your child.

1. How to play well with others

Play is a powerful catalyst for development in the early years. By playing with others, children learn to negotiate, problem solve, take turns, share and experiment. You can help your child build these skills by making time for free play with other children.

While dance class, soccer practice and choreographed play dates may have their own value, children need plenty of time engaging in unstructured play with other children, where they may be supervised—but not instructed—by the adults around them.

2. How to problem-solve

It is tempting to swoop in at the first disgruntled squawk and make everything right again. We confiscate the object of the argument, set timers, or send children to play in different areas. We're good at problem-solving because we get SO MUCH practice as parents! And while some of this may be necessary for survival, our kids need some of that practice too.

So the next time your child has a problem, invite them to take part in that problem-solving process. Ask your child to describe what's going on, brainstorm solutions and try one out. You're still an active player, supporting your child through the process, but rather than doing all the solving yourself, let your child own the problem by asking, "What do you think you could do about that?"

Teaching a child to be a problem solver also means that we teach them how to fail and try again, which is another critical "soft skill." When we ask children how their solution is working out, we give them an opportunity to evaluate their experience and make improvements when necessary. We're teaching them that mistakes help us learn and move forward.

3. How to label and recognize feelings

Children who are perceptive to the emotions around them are also better able to get along well with others. You can foster this skill by calling attention to emotional cues and naming emotions. You can do this not only in your home ("I'm looking at your brother's face right now, and I don't think he's having fun." "You looked so happy when you won, your smile was like a laser beam!") but by also talking about the emotions in stories as well. ("How do you think he felt when that happened?")

Storybooks are FULL of conflict and emotion—it's often what drives the plot. These conversations about observed emotions are often easier because your child isn't tied up in the turbulent emotions themselves. From this comfortable vantage point, they're able to be more thoughtful about the emotions on the page and then apply their understanding in real life.

Another thing to keep in mind is that research has shown that excessive screen use may interfere with a child's ability to recognize emotions in others. So make sure that your kids get plenty of time playing and interacting face to face with other humans, rather than with pixels and lights on a screen.

4. How to be helpful

Being helpful to others requires children to look beyond themselves and recognize the needs of others. By noticing and complimenting your child when you notice helpful behaviors, you encourage them to continue.

Give your child simple opportunities to help within your family—putting away groceries, getting the baby's fresh diaper ready, or helping a sibling to get dressed—and then be generous with your gratitude afterward.

Point out the helpers around you and show gratitude together to instill a value of service. This may be as simple as thanking the bagger at the grocery store or taking cookies to the fire station. It can also take a fanciful twist. For my own superhero-obsessed boys, I found that equating heroes to helpers made them feel like Batman just by helping with simple tasks around our home.

5. How to control their impulses

Impulse control is a part of the executive functions directed by the prefrontal cortex of the brain. This area doesn't completely develop until well into early adulthood, but some of the most rapid development happens in the early childhood years. That's why children need opportunities to practice this growing skill.

That may look like the infamous marshmallow study, where a child must delay gratification and wait before consuming a treat, but it can also look like play time! Movement games that require a child to stop and go like Red Light/Green Light, Dance and Freeze, and Simon Says give kids practice quickly shifting gears and controlling their impulses to move.

Pretend play is also a great way to build these skills. By taking on a new character and an imaginative storyline, children have to plan before acting, take turns and make rules to follow. They also practice thinking outside of their own perspective and act as they think another would, rather than simply following their own impulses.

Our fast-paced society may give you the impression that your child needs to learn more academic skills—and sooner than ever before. However, the reality is that the "soft" social skills they gain in early childhood—through the slow, simple processes of playing and interacting, engaging with their families, and paying attention to the world around them—will serve them much better and for much longer.

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Toddlers can alternatively be the sweetest and most tyrannical people on the planet. Figuring the world out is tough, but it is possible to teach them how to care for and respect others—and the first steps start with you.

Here are five tips from Clinical Psychologist and Co-Founder of Harmony in Parenting Dr. Azine Graff on teaching empathy through modeling and playtime, with some of our favorite dolls from Manhattan Toy Company.


1. "I wonder if she's sad." 

Think about it: The first step to understanding the emotions of others is being able to recognize them in yourself. Graff recommends looking for opportunities to label emotions throughout the day by helping your child identify sadness, anger, happiness, and fear.

You can do this by pointing to someone smiling in a book or noticing a baby crying in the grocery store. Try saying, "The baby is crying. I wonder if she is sad." Over time, your little one will learn to label emotions on their own.

2. "How can we take care of her?" 

Dramatic play can be a great time to model care and compassion for others. That's one reason why baby dolls make such great toys for toddlers—not only are they great for open-ended play, they also provide the opportunity to teach caretaking.

For example, you can ask your child, "The baby is yawning and seems very tired. How can we take care of her?" We love the award-winning Wee Baby Stella doll from Manhattan Toy Company to turn playtime into a time for empathy teaching.

3. "It is really hard when all the blocks fall and you're trying to build a tower."

You can set the best example of empathy by taking time to notice and validate your child's feelings. Instead of trying to immediately shush crying, react from a place of compassion.

For example, if your child throws a tantrum over a fallen block tower, try saying, "It is really hard when all the blocks fall and you're trying to build a tower." This demonstrates the importance of understanding feelings, even if they are not our own.

4. "Do you want to try with me?"

Once your child is better able to identify their emotions, they're in a better place to find solutions with your help. "When we can help our children through challenging feelings, especially when they are struggling, we are modeling care for others," Graff says.

The next time your child gets upset, you can say, "It is frustrating when something falls apart. It helps me to take a deep breath when I'm frustrated. Do you want to try with me?"

5. Express your own feelings

It can be tempting to hide your feelings from your child, but when modeled appropriately, it can teach them that feelings are a normal part of life. Over time, you will see them use the same strategies of empathy on you, like kissing your "boo-boos" or suggesting you take a deep breath when you're upset.


This article is sponsored by Manhattan Toy Company. Thank you for supporting that brands that support Motherly and mamas.

Dr. Azine Graff is a Clinical Psychologist and Co-Founder of Harmony in Parenting, which is based in Los Angeles and offers groups, classes, therapy and consultation services informed by the latest research on child development.

It's not always easy to get in and out of Target quickly (yes, the Target effect is a very real thing) and it can be even harder with little ones in tow.

That's why we're giving you this heads up now, mama: You might want to plan some solo Target runs in November, because the toy section is expanding in a big way. Pretty soon mom won't be the only member of the family obsessed with Target.

This week Target announced it will be re-allocating space in hundreds of stores to make room to show off cool kid-magnets like electric Power Wheels cars, outdoor playsets and playhouses and many (many) toys.

The revamped toy sections will include some interactive play experiences, so if you are making a Target run with the kids, you better add some extra time for that. Or, you may want to just plan to bring the kids and make a day of it during one of Target's family events—they're planning in-store experiences where kids can test toys and meet characters from kid favorites like PAW Patrol, Minecraft.

Of course, all this is going to make Christmas shopping a lot easier for a lot of us, and fill that big Toys 'R' Us shaped hole in our shopping lists. Target is doubling down on Christmas, mama, and quite literally doubling the number of "new and exclusive" toys on its shelves.

It sounds like a Christmas shopper's dream come true. Another dream come true? Target's new Christmas catalog, which is arriving in homes next week and in stores on the 28. If you have fond memories of circling toys in a certain Christmas catalog (RIP, Sears Wish Book) as a not-so-subtle hint to your parents, you can now pass that tradition down to your kids, but with a way easier way to actually order the presents.

When your kids circle stuff in the Target catalog you can just use an app to scan the page and add products to your cart.

Or, you can plan that solo Target run and sip a Starbucks while playing Santa for your kids (and yourself).

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As parents, we are all familiar with separation anxiety and know how tricky it can sometimes be to navigate our lives with a baby or toddler's strong feelings about us leaving. Although it gets easier as they grow, separations can still be challenging in older children.

But what happens when a parent's own separation fears get added into the mix? Our close bonds with our children can sometimes make it hard to meet our own needs for freedom, adventure and following our dreams.

Last year, I had an opportunity to study therapeutic writing—something I'd always been passionate about. The course involved traveling away from home for one weekend a month. My first thought was that it was too much time to spend away from my daughter. Then I thought about it again. Two days? Was it really that much?

I asked my 6-year-old daughter if she would mind me going away and she was fine with the idea. I also asked some parent friends if they felt that being away once a month would be too much. They all thought it was absolutely fine too.

So what was the problem?

I became aware that I was terrified being away from her too much would "break" our connection. I'd always prided myself on being a connected parent, and even my decision to train as a Hand in Hand Parenting instructor was partly motivated by separation anxiety—the thought that if I didn't parent well enough then my daughter would want to have nothing to do with me as an adult.

Adults get separation anxiety too and when we are dealing with our child's separation it can be helpful to look at how our own feelings come into play. If we are nervous and anxious about a separation, then it can make it harder for our child to feel safe to say goodbye.

Here are three ways parents can deal with their own separation anxiety:

1. Address your fears

In my role at Hand in Hand Parenting, we teach parents of young children the importance of having a ''long goodbye.'' Rather than rushing off and leaving a child with another caregiver, or at daycare, we approach things differently. We recommend that parents stay with their children, as long as they are upset so they can work through their fears and express them while you listen and stay close.

Adults also need this kind of support to work through feelings, not with the child themselves, but with another adult. This could be a partner, friend or trained counselor or listener.

What are you most afraid of? The first step to letting go of fear is to shine a light on them, to become aware of what your fears are telling you.

Write them down, or talk to an understanding friend. No matter how silly or irrational they may be, giving space to talk them through can help you to let them go.

2. Create a listening partnership

A "listening partnership" scheme is where parents learn how to listen to each other, and this is a powerful way to let go of worries and fears so they don't cloud your thinking.

Listening partnerships are an exchange that goes much deeper than everyday conversation. They allow you space to fully explore your feelings without being interrupted or given advice. This powerful practice allows you to follow where your mind takes you, and often your mind has a way of figuring things out and solving problems when you have the emotional support of another person to help guide you along the way.

You might find yourself having a good laugh or cry, and this physical release of feelings is key to lightening your emotional load and seeing things more clearly.

3. Focus on being present + address past experiences

One mother I spoke to found it hard to separate from her daughter because she'd had three miscarriages before her birth and was always anxious that something might happen to her. Another mother had a parent who worked overseas when she was young and the loss she had felt made her extremely conscious to emphasize connection with her own son.

Of course, we want to do the best for our children and learn by what didn't work so well for us when we were young. However, many of us find ourselves overcompensating for hurts we experienced in our own childhood.

Our parenting becomes an unconscious attempt to fill the own gaps, and holes in our own past experiences. We project our past pain onto the present and may lose perspective on what's really going on.

Healing our past hurts is vital to see the present for what it really is, and make decisions on when to separate from our child that make sense for what's really going on in the here and now.

If you find yourself feeling overly anxious about separating from your child it's worth asking yourself where did these feelings come from? Are they related to childhood experiences of not having enough close connection? Or are they related to early experience in your child's life, that have left you with anxiety?

Our anxiety can be affected by things that happened many years ago or something that happened just the other week. Giving these feelings attention, with the support of a listener or therapist can help you let go of them.

I did go and take the writing course, and I found that somehow my daughter and I actually became more closely connected through the experience. My daughter was taken care of by our village while I was away, and I got to follow my dreams.

Perhaps it was that we both spread our wings and faced our anxiety about the separation that allowed us to find a deeper sense of connection that lay beyond our fears.

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It's a decision many parents agonize over and one many have felt guilty about. But if you're considering daycare for your child that guilt is really unnecessary, mama. Daycare doesn't just give parents the time they need to provide for their family, it also provides children with important social interactions that may improve their behavior.

A new study published in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health concludes that "high-quality centre-based childcare may be linked to lower levels of emotional symptoms." Basically, being around children their age, under the supervision of professionals is really good for kids' emotional and prosocial development.

The study comes from France, a country where state-run nurseries are well regarded (but reportedly hard to get a spot in), and where most children start preschool at the age of three.

The researchers followed the development of 1,428 French children from birth to the age of 8 in order to better understand how daycare before age 3 might impact development differently than other common childcare methods in France, like staying home with a parent or family member, or with a babysitter who cares for a small number of children in their home or the child's.

The study found the children who attended high-quality center-based care for at least one year had lower rates of emotional, conduct, relationship and attention problems later in life than kids who were watched by a family member or babysitter. The study's authors suggest interactions with trained staff in the centers, along with having to follow rules and getting extra stimulus from playing in the supportive environment give kids a social and behavioral boost.

The French study's findings didn't surprise some experts. Good early childhood education programs (like Head Start, for example) have been proven to have long-term benefits for kids, and while society often looks at daycare as simply a place to park children during the workday, a good daycare is so much more.

It's not just a place to be supervised, it's a place to learn and socialize, too.


"The evidence is clear that high quality, early childhood care is beneficial for children," Dr. Jillian Roberts, a child psychologist and associate professor at the University of Victoria, told Global News. "These programs include not only play and socialization, but also educational and nutritional components from highly-trained early childhood education professionals."

As Vox reports, it's likely not so much the educational lessons that center-based care provides, but the stability that children (and their families) benefit from, especially when we're talking about children under a year old. A recent Vox report highlights a decades-old America study called the Abecedarian Project, in which families were provided with high-quality childcare from birth. The kids who were in that daycare are adults today, and the science suggests they're still benefiting from it.

A 2014 study compared the cardiovascular health of men who had been in that daycare as babies to men who were not, and found "one in four males in the control group is affected by metabolic syndrome, whereas none in the treatment group are affected."

Going to daycare early had a positive impact on those children, and for some of the children in the recent French study (whose parents were asked about their care at 4, 8 and 12 months, and then again and 2 and 3 years old) going to daycare as a baby led to better behavior and relationships.

The study's results are just another reason for governments to consider investing in state-run or subsidies daycare centers. Parents (even some in France) are struggling to find and afford daycare. Investing in these programs helps two generations: Our and our children's.


Of course not every family needs or wants full-time, center-based childcare, but would probably still like some of those prosocial benefits. High-quality part-time preschool programs allow kids to be exposed to the educational aspects of high-quality daycare (and give stay-at-home parents a minute to catch their breath) without as high a price tag or as much in-center time as full-time care.

The science isn't suggesting that professionals at a daycare center should replace parents (and we know there are plenty of stay-at-home mamas and dads who are providing amazing, enriching care to their children every single day) but rather that professional care can complement a parent's.

The point is, moms should not be made to feel guilty because we have to work, or because we can't afford a nanny, or even because we just want a couple mornings a week to do the grocery shopping without a toddler. It truly takes a village to raise a child, and if we're lucky enough to live in a village where we can find high-quality daycare, our children can benefit from it.


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We had our first baby, Valley, in January of 2017—15 weeks early. I had been in the hospital for four days with extreme pain that we couldn't figure out until they finally discovered it was my liver failing due to HELLP Syndrome (H: hemolysis—breakdown of red blood cells, EL: elevated liver enzymes—liver function, LP: low platelets counts—platelets help the blood clot).

So, I had an emergency C-section at 25 weeks within five minutes of diagnosing me.

Then, we began our 4-month NICU stay where we watched our 1 lb 11 oz baby fight for her life. She was taken immediately after birth to be intubated and stabilized and we couldn't hold her until she was over two weeks old.

We watched for months while she endured transfusions, IVs all over her body, blood draws, eating almost entirely from a nasogastric tube, many days of fasting due to a bloated tummy, infections, ventilators, oxygen, and many other procedures… all on a tiny one pound body.

At first, I felt at peace knowing that everything would be alright. I think our calmness may have actually been shock, now looking back. I remember one day about three months into our NICU stay where our doctor said, "I think we can now say we are out of the woods" and I remember thinking… We just got out of the woods now?! I felt like my mind had only been processing the positive things.

We were so thrilled to get our baby home after four months in the NICU, but that was when the reality of everything that happened hit me.

The life or death stress—for me and my baby—was over, but the hard part was just beginning. I felt like I was finally experiencing all those emotions I felt like I should have experienced at the start of all of this. It felt what I imagine PTSD feels like. And I didn't think I could talk to anyone about it.

How do I explain these feelings after my beautiful, now healthy baby just got home? On top of that, my doctor had explained to me that women who develop HELLP Syndrome in their second trimester (like I did) have a higher chance of getting it with every pregnancy thereafter, versus if it had developed in the third trimester. I wasn't thinking about having a second baby yet, but I was already terrified of this happening again.

I didn't want to put my own mom through another night of not knowing if her own daughter would survive delivering a baby. I didn't want to wake up to anymore 3am phone calls from the NICU, thinking it might be "that call."

Valley was difficult when we brought her home. She wouldn't eat and she hardly slept. I think we had 50 doctor's appointments in a six-month span after she left the NICU—it was a lot.

I felt an internal struggle, too. I felt so much pressure to remain "optimistic." There wasn't a more grateful mom at that moment to be able to hold my baby in my arms. My heart aches for mothers who don't get that. But I felt like I never got even one second to grieve. Or struggle. But I needed to.

I started to become angry.

I forgot how blessed we had been. I got upset when I saw other people comforting moms with what I thought was "an easier problem" when I felt like I needed help. And then, one day, I thought again about those mothers who lost their babies. I may have had a baby at 25 weeks (which was so scary, of course), but what is even harder than that is losing a baby.

I thought if I was bitter about people with "easier" circumstances than me, imagine how a mom who lost a baby feels about me? I decided to make a conscious effort to try to change my thought process.

My incredible husband helped me understand that sometimes someone else's problems may seem easy to us, but that just might be the hardest thing they have had to endure so far. You can't compare. I wanted to help and love anyone struggling, and I needed a change of heart to do that.

My husband and I decided to do something about all of these feelings and all of our experience. We created an annual 5k race which we named, "The Littlest Valley 5k"—which marked the start of a healing process for me.

We donated the proceeds to a family in the NICU with a micro-preemie. We sobbed when we met the parents and discovered that their baby was the exact same weight, length, and gestation at birth as our daughter was. It was another reminder to me of the miracle our little girl is.

I am still learning every day how to process my experience, but I have been refined and taught (over and over) what true love is—all from my powerful, tiny miracle baby.

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