Sitting in a drab medical examination room, I was clammy with excited apprehension. My OB/GYN rolled over to me on a small, round stool to offer her congratulations on my being eight weeks pregnant. She then took a deep breath before giving me my first bit of parenting advice, “Preschool enrollment starts now.” Then, she quickly printed out my sonogram and told me to take it to the top preschools in Manhattan, where we were living at the time, for when I add my baby boy or girl (it was too soon to tell) to the waiting lists.
My jaw dropped. That was it? The first thing my doctor needed to tell me after confirming my first pregnancy was about nursery school? Apparently, enrolling in the right preschool really mattered. What about eating healthfully, getting plenty of rest and taking prenatal vitamins?
To my relief, prioritizing my children’s enrollment in the absolute, best preschool turned out to be bad advice. In fact, after becoming a mother, I found out that parents are constantly bombarded with bad advice. And instead of listing off all the well-intended, yet sometimes poor suggestions, from family, friends and complete strangers, let’s stay positive.
We know that parents have limited time and resources to apply towards nurturing their children, so here are the three most highly recommended, research-based parenting practices that are worthy of every parent’s time, energy and money.
#1: Talk to your Kids, Frequently
*Click here, for a link to one early childhood language study conducted at Stanford University.
I regularly see studies come across my desk that tout the importance of parents speaking frequently to their children. A baby’s intelligence and future success is strongly correlated with the number of words spoken per day in the home. Moreover, speech directed toward the child (called child-directed speech) is even more meaningful than a child just over-hearing other people’s conversations or even shared reading between a parent and child. Additionally, not dumbing down your vocabulary and using advanced sentence structure also produces positive results.
Parents are advised to provide plenty of eye-contact, bending down to a child’s level, while listening and responding in-turn to a child’s attempts to communicate. Engaging in meaningful communication daily reinforces the child’s sense of self-worth and group belonging. It also helps the child to practice their communication skills so that they can pursue their own interests without tantrums and aggression.
In summary, high-quality and frequent child-directed communication facilitates a positive childhood experience as well as learning and development.
#2: Stop Trying to Control Kids
Children do not belong to their parents, anymore than parents belong to their children. From an evolutionary standpoint, a parent’s job is to enable a child to grow up and replace the parent within society. But sometimes, well-meaning and loving parents confuse their child’s individuality for their own and use control as a means to progress their own development. For example, consider a parent who needs a child to play baseball, because that parent found meaning in life through his/her love of baseball.
Overly-controlling parenting almost always leads to poor developmental outcomes for the child, as well as for the parent-child relationship. Promoting a child’s autonomy with supportive early-care experiences is a one-way ticket to improved cognitive and social-emotional development. In fact, the parent-child relationship sets the stage for a child’s future relationships with spouses, co-workers and friends. Inhibiting a child’s attempts to develop autonomy (“I want the green dress, not the pink dress!”) can also lead to anxiety, depression and general shyness in the childhood, teenage and adults years.
#3: Sleep, Routines & Play Matter
Americans value hard work and independence. The best way to feel like we are working hard and pulling our weight is to stay busy and we train our children to keep up with our frantic pace of life. Often, our commitment to hard work and the American dream conflicts with a child’s optimal pace of life and their need for sleep, play, predictability and a chance to “do it all by myself.”
Sleeping, or generally resting, is seen as an unproductive activity, when for adults but especially for children, sleep is exactly the opposite. Due to the unique rate of development within a child’s body, and especially their brain, work, learning and growth happens when sleep occurs. Sleep occurs most when it is experienced daily, at the same time(s) of day, and happens more when it is encouraged and enabled and can lead to improved cognitive functioning and social and emotional developmental outcomes.
*Intelligent Nest was founded to champion free play in childhood. To learn more about why play is critical in childhood, click here for a variety of my articles on the topic.
Sleep must be part of a daily routine, as this facilitates the child’s development of a healthy circadian rhythm (i.e. schedule of bodily functions like rising/sleeping). In fact, sticking to all types of daily routines enables a child to take control of their own life, make predictions and participate in their own care. Avoiding chaotic days and sticking to schedules can also help parents to build-in regular unstructured playtime, which is the most critical part of a child’s waking hours.
Parents, we can’t do it all and there is a limit to the amount of time and resources that we can invest in parenting. Thankfully, science has an egalitarian conclusion for our parenting conundrum. Contrary to my Upper East Side obstetrician’s recommendation, providing the most expensive and exclusive education cannot promise an ideal future for a child, but quality and quantity parent-child communication, forgoing excessive controlling tactics and providing structure, sleep and play are tried and proven ways to invest our parenting resources wisely.