Holidays have a way of wrapping childhood in a nostalgic glow, but we all know that modern life for our children is more complicated, competitive, and crazed than it has ever been for kids. So much of their life is shaped by possibilities and pressures that didn’t even exist a generation ago. If you’ve felt the past year was more high-pressured and stressful than you wish for your child (and you!), then the holidays offer a perfect time to pause and consider ways to shift to a saner lane of family life. No need to race to stay ahead of school and social trends or digital distractions. A growing body of scientific research shows that some simple “old-school” parenting wisdom holds new relevance for our children.
Backyard play time. Grocery shopping. Shared meals. Storytime. It turns out that certain types of interactions and experiences, from infancy through adolescence, help the young brain develop the hub of skills essential for successful learning, social interaction, self-awareness, and empathy. These brain-based skills, called executive function, include memory, organization and planning, focusing attention, regulating emotions, and adapting to new situations. Certain aspects of kids’ hurried, high-pressure, and digital or online lives have reduced the time they spend actively engaged in other activities that are vital to robust brain development.
There are many ways to help your child develop and strengthen these qualities of mind, but as the holidays remind us of traditions worth carrying forward, here are 10 that stand out as simple, time-honored, and with lasting benefits for kids. Not only are they great brain-boosters for your child, they’ll also bring your family closer, creating opportunities to make new memories and some new traditions of your own.
1. Cultivate conversation. Talk with your child about simple, everyday things that matter to them. That may be about one of their favorite games or interests, music, friends, what they’d like for dinner, or their fantasy vacation. It may be about something going on at school or something that’s happened to them recently. Don’t wait for big issues or problems to prompt conversation. Simpler subjects help your child grow comfortable with face-to-face communication. They learn to read body language and facial expressions, pay attention, engage in the back and forth of sharing ideas, practice managing emotions and expressing feelings, take turns, understand another person’s point of view, and use listening as a channel for learning. Simple conversation starters: What was your high today and what was your low? What was fun for you today? What did you eat for lunch?
2. Make kids wait for things. It does not have to be their birthday every day! Use Amazon Prime less and have kids wait more. From fast food to wish lists, opt out of options that promote instant gratification. Allow things to take time. Practice the when/then mantra: “When you (finish the task, meet the milestone, save the money, put your toys away), then you (can have the reward). Teach patience as a virtue—and practice it. Learning to wait helps kids learn to self-regulate and manage emotions and impulses.
3. Celebrate first steps—and every step toward a goal. Want to make new friends, run a race, read a big book or take a special trip? Show your child how every goal—no matter how small or grand—begins with a plan. Plans are the stepping stones that help you get where you want to go. Talk about small changes that can jump-start bigger ones. For New Year resolutions, tackle big goals by identifying smaller, more manageable ones that line the way. Avoid the all-or-nothing trap of setting excessive goals for a child.
4. Go outside and play! Nature is an awesome teacher and a stress buster, too. Children learn through play, and when they play outdoors, they learn all the more about themselves and the larger world. Risk-taking, exploration, physical and mental skill-building, sensory experience and hands-on creative play: these are the some of the ABCs of brain development that will help your child listen and learn in class, get along with others, and adapt to changes in social and learning situations.
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5. Play board games. Have family fun nights and board game nights where you are present, relaxed and ready for a good time. These traditions make lasting memories of family and wholesome fun for fun’s sake. Your child also practices strategic thinking, anticipating other people’s behavior, emotional regulation and how to be a good sport, win or lose.
6. Create screen-free times or zones at home when digital distractions are absent, and your child can enjoy unstructured free play or hanging out together “unmediated”—without media. Also put your phone away and take electronics out of the family spaces and bedrooms. Break the addictive habit of “just checking” for messages or responding to every ping when it interrupts a moment with your child or family. Silence your phone for meals or other times to deliberately be fully present to your child and others. Create a pact to allow more opportunities for outside time and less dependency on the Xbox for entertainment. Set conditions for recreational use of electronics—a media “allowance”—and otherwise limit use to homework and park their electronics in the kitchen.
7. Make reading a social activity in your family. Give books, magazines, and newspapers a print presence in your home; model reading and talking about books and articles an enjoyable shared tradition. Whatever your digital or online reading habits, also give your child the experience of the printed page as a source of fun, information, and things to talk about. Subscribe to a children’s magazine—there are many wonderful ones!—so your child can look forward to checking the mailbox and discovering something there just for them. With online activity, it’s easy to get lost and drift into endless diversions. A book or magazine in hand helps your child experience how it feels to stay focused, as well as get lost in a single worthwhile story or subject. Your interest in hearing about what they’re reading, and talking about it, is a win-win for everyone.
8. Pitch in, help out. Show your child that team work begins at home—it’s not something you save for the soccer field or after-school clubs. Meals, housework, helping a neighbor or a friend in need. It’s never too early to teach your child that families and communities need everyone’s contribution to thrive. This is a positive way for them to see the bigger picture, recognize their role in the “something larger” and how their behavior affects others.
9. Give an allowance—and a bonus option so your child can do more to earn more. There’s a boatload of advice out there on the benefits of giving your child an allowance to teach work and financial responsibility. I suggest you go one step further: a bonus board. Nothing motivates like desire, and a simple bonus incentive system gives your child a way to do more and earn more to reach a goal. (See #2). Eliminate whining and negotiation by listing extra tasks your child can do, and the bonus (cash or points or whatever your household currency). This will sharpen your child’s skills for planning, organization, anticipating cause and effect, and achieving goals.
10. Talk about choices and character. Be a good citizen first. Talk about stories of helping others. For example—the cross-country runner who was going to place first but turned back to help a struggling friend and they crossed the finish line together. Focus on the process, not the result. This helps your child see beyond grades or winning as the sole measure of someone’s worth, and shows them that people (including themselves) can shine in many other ways. Being able to see people with different strengths and different thoughts in a larger, positive context can help your child understand why other people respond the way they do, and helps develop metacognition—taking a birds-eye view of a situation and seeing that all things connect.