The Importance of Reading to Children

You all know I am passionate about childhood literacy, so much so that I am helping to start Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library in our home town. However, I want to talk a little today about why childhood literacy is so important.

Here are some frightening statistics for you: Two thirds of children who cannot read proficiently by the end of fourth grade will end up in jail or on welfare. 37% of children enter Kindergarten without the skills necessary for lifetime learning. Or, the one that’s most disturbing to me, The US is the only nation out of 20 OECD free-market countries where the current generation is less well educated than the previous.

This is not acceptable. This is not how any nation in the world should be, and we need to take steps to reverse these trends. Fortunately, reading to young children, making books freely and easily available to them, and encouraging them to be life-long readers can make a huge difference in their lives!

Let’s look at some other studies too that show the value of reading to young children: A study of children aged 3-5 who were read to at least 3 times a week revealed that these children were two times more likely to recognize all letters, two times more likely to have word-sight recognition, and two times more likely to understand words in context. Creating a steady stream of new, age appropriate books has been shown to nearly triple interest in reading within months. The most successful way to improve the reading achievement of low-income children is to increase their access to print.

Of course, maybe the US Department of Education says it best:

If daily reading begins in infancy, by the time the child is 5 years old, he or she has been fed roughly 900 hours of brain food! Reduce that experience to just 30 minutes a week, and the child’s hungry mind loses 770 hours of nursery rhymes, fairy tales and stories. A kindergarten student who has not been read to could enter school with less than 60 hours of literacy nutrition. No teacher, no matter how talented, can make up for those lost hours of mental nourishment. (USDOE, 1999)

How can anyone make up for it? Read to your children. Support childhood literacy programs in your community. Make a difference in the lives of children today.

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Planning Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library

It’s been a while since I last talked about Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, a fantastic non-profit dedicated to developing childhood literacy by giving children under 5 age-appropriate books at no cost to the children or their families. If you remember, I am working with a group to begin an affiliate in our county in Kentucky, and I wanted to give you all an update.

This project began close to a year ago, when my wife, Emily, and I were talking with someone at church who also happens to work as an early education professor at the local community college. She asked if I would be interested in working with her on a literacy-based event, and I mentioned to her that I was interested in starting the Imagination Library in our community. She had heard of the program before and was excited to bring it to our town as well, but none of us were ready to jump in with both feet yet, since we were still expecting Samuel and in the middle of a school semester.

So, about six months later, we began talking about this again and pulled the children’s librarian at our local public library into the loop, and we began planning in earnest. Our public library’s foundation agreed to be our “champion”–the non-profit entity that officially backs the program–and we began to talk to local business people and other community oriented groups to see who would be interested in serving on our board and donating funds.

This has been tremendously successful, and we even discovered that one of our local rotary clubs was already working on starting the program themselves! We quickly and happily joined forces and funds and we are now planning a kick-off event for May, when we begin enrollment.

We have a great deal of support from our local public library, rotary clubs, and chamber of commerce, plus we have begun talking to local businesses and government officials to continue raising funds and awareness of the program. I tell you this partly because I am so excited about our prospects and how this has progressed so quickly, but also to encourage you to become involved in your own local affiliate, or found one yourself. This is not terribly hard. People get excited about the program, in part because it’s so great on it’s own terms, but also because it’s an easy sell: Give kids books.

Here in southern Kentucky, we’re excited about what we’re doing, and I guarantee that people will be/are excited about in your area too. Let me know if you have any questions by commenting below, and I encourage you to share literacy with the children in your life today.

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Music

In keeping with the series on light psychology I’ve been doing, I spent some time considering the value of music recently. The concept that music is good for babies isn’t a new one. We’ve all heard about the studies showing that classical music has a positive effect on children–even if we know now that those studies had some major flaws. However, a more recent study has demonstrated the value of musical instruction even in very young children.

It was no mistake that one of my earliest posts was a review of a music album. Music is universal and one of the oldest activities humans do–maybe that’s why it’s unsurprising that children love music so much. Sam is no exception! He loves hearing music at church, singing songs at home, listening to CDs in the car. Recently, a friend came to our house and played guitar for a while, which he adored!

Music is useful for so many different things–relaxation, excitement, catharsis, and much more. However, right now I’m most interested in the educational properties of music. I remember as a child learning many things through music. The alphabet, my home address and phone number, aspects of safety, and more were all taught to me through music; through songs that I still remember and can sing.

I fully plan on teaching Sam many of the same songs that my parents used to teach me valuable things, but I also intend to make sure he receives music lessons–and I might even join him. I have wished for years that I could play a musical instrument, something I wish I had not resisted when I was given music lessons in childhood.

I think we already bond through music. We enjoy singing together, and I hope we will continue to do so. Music fills a void in us. Fred Rogers, a major hero of mine, says this:

Music is the one art we all have inside. We may not be able to play an instrument, but we can sing along or clap or tap our feet. Have you ever seen a baby bouncing up and down in the crib in time to some music? When you think of it, some of that baby’s first messages from his or her parents may have been lullabies, or at least the music of their speaking voices. All of us have had the experience of hearing a tune from childhood and having that melody evoke a memory or a feeling. The music we hear early on tends to stay with us all our lives.

Share some music with your child, and give them a song for the rest of their lives.

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5 Ways to Deal with Stress & Frustration

I sometimes feel like I give the impression that I’ve got it all together or that parenting is a breeze for me. Let me tell you, it’s not always! I have my bad days, and Sam does too–particularly when a writing deadline is staring me down, like right now. However, I have some tools I use to help me deal with this stress, and I’ll pass them on to you. Please feel free to add any other tips you have in the comments below!

1. Worry about/do stuff when it needs to be done.

This has been a major problem for me throughout my life. I have a tendency to over think even the smallest of things–or even worse, things that never even happen! Because of this I have been working hard over the past few months to think about and do things when they need to be done.

Don’t misunderstand me though–I’m not saying you should only “live in the moment” or something like that! Sometimes things need extra planning hours, days, or even months ahead. The trick is learning which is which and how much time it actually takes to do/plan things rather than letting it overwhelm you. Learn to handle tomorrow’s troubles tomorrow and you will be happier.

This has absolutely been what I have looked like before.

2. Walk away.

This seems counter-intuitive. You’re a parent caring for a child who is incapable of doing anything on his or her own, and I’m encouraging you to walk away?

Yes and no. I’m not saying you should abandon your child. I’m also not saying you should hide and let the kid scream for hours. What I am saying is that frustration builds easily when you’re doing your best to take care of a child all day (and sometimes all night) long and nothing seems to help. It wears on you–quickly. It’s no wonder Navy SEALs are trained to withstand torture by listening to babies cry for hours on end!

However, leaving yourself in a situation where you could easily hurt your child or yourself is not heroic in any way. Put your baby in the crib and walk away from the screams for a few minutes. Ideally your partner or another helper can step in at that time so you can get a break, but even if you have to let the baby cry for a little while, it’s better than remaining put when you just need a five minute break.

3. Get help.

Speaking of needing a break, get help from somebody. As I’ve mentioned before, I had some fool-hardy and “heroic” notions about new parenthood. Thankfully, we had a lot of help from the beginning and my wife and I still have good teamwork and regular visits to and from our parents.

Even if you don’t have parents nearby (Sam’s grandparents range from a 2.5-4.5 hour drive away), rely on your partner or other members of your community. As you know, I’m a stay-at-home-dad, but there have been some times when I have needed help during the middle of the day. Fortunately my wife has a job where she can quickly and easily leave if I need some help–or at the very least take an early lunch–and we have had some times when I needed that.

There’s no shame in needing help.

Yeah, this has been me before too.

4. Take a deep breath.

This is really simple. I’m not a medical expert and I can’t explain it, but the act of simply taking a deep breath does wonders for stress relief. If you practice yoga or other activities that involve deep breathing, continue that practice and use that knowledge for when you’re in the middle of the 17th straight spoonful of peas that have been thrown on the floor and you just can’t take it any more. Take a deep breath or 5. You’ll be amazed at how much it helps.

5. Lower your expectations.

Again, I have sometimes had overblown notions about what was expected of me or what I needed to be doing. Probably because I over think things (ahem, point 1). Anyway, release those notions. You’re not going to be Super-Parent. There is no parent of the year award–or if there is, I don’t know about it because I’m spending too much time rescuing paper from Sam’s non-stop chewing. You don’t have to be a great parent. You don’t have to have a great kid.

You just have to be the best you can be. And sometimes the best you can be is somebody who needs to put the baby in the crib while you walk away, take a deep breath, and dial the number of somebody who can lend a hand for a while.

That’s ok. Really.

As my wife says constantly during baseball season when her favorite players come up to bat, “Don’t be a hero! Just get a base hit!” Keep plugging away at the daily work of parenting while not becoming overwhelmed, and you will make it through. It may not always be pretty, but your child, your partner, and ultimately, you, will thank you for it.

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Christmas

Christmas is here again. I don’t want to take too much time from your family, so I’ll just pass along a bit about the interconnectedness of life and death from Dylan Thomas’ classic poem, “And Death Shall Have No Dominion”:

Though they go mad they shall be sane,
Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again;
Though lovers be lost love shall not;
And death shall have no dominion

Our lives are fleeting. It can be easy to forget that as our days stretch on. But life is incredibly short. One of the most beautiful things about life is that it is still present even in death.

I am sometimes amazed at how quickly Sam’s mood can change. From cheerful smiles and laughter to full-blown wailing and tears and back again within 5 minutes, without incredible stimuli to prompt it. Sometimes I think he has a better grasp on reality than I do, simply because of that. He recognizes that there is sadness and joy held within our grasp and our lives at any given point.

And yet, the advantage I have is that I can decide which is more significant and which needs to be felt at the time. So, my encouragement to you is to recognize that there is life and death in front of you right now. You probably don’t have to look too hard to find either of them. Choose life, and live.

Flow and parenting

Recently I talked about the importance of relaxation. However, today I want to talk about something that looks very different, but can frequently feel very similar: Flow.

If you’re unfamiliar with the idea of Flow, it can seem very foreign, but its really a very simple concept. Flow is when you’re doing something you are good at and that challenges you adequately, and you do it until you lose track of time and whatever other needs you might have. You’re “in the zone”, so to speak. Music, art, sports, exercise, even (and perhaps especially) playing a game are all ways people regularly experience Flow. Flow is the meeting of high challenge, high skill, regular feedback, and pure delight.

I think I’d like to add one more thing to that list of common Flow actions: Parenting. High challenge? Of course! Regular feedback? That kid is watching you all the time and letting you know how you’re doing through visual cues if not through sound. High skill? It may not always seem like it, but I think we’re probably better parents than we realize much of the time.

Whether you’re rolling a ball with your 18 month old, playing superheroes with your 4 year old, building a science fair model with your 8 year old, or discussing the finer points of why a Zulu warrior would beat a medieval knight in full armor (should this natural and obviously historical battle ever take place) with your 16 year old, Flow can quickly and easily come into play.

Of course, not all activities foster Flow. Those low skill and/or low challenge activities aren’t going to work. Take the time to develop interests in other areas and turn off the tv. Go out and experience Flow with your child today.

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Relaxation of childhood

This post was initially intended to go up last Friday. Frankly, I forgot to post it as the horrific news from Newtown Connecticut spread. However, I’m not sure there’s any better time to talk about enjoying the simple things in life and spending special time with your family than now, so here’s the original post.

Although there are many joys of parenthood and being a stay-at-home-dad in particular, one of the best is the ability to relax easily. I have to admit, this doesn’t always come easily for me. I have a tendency to push hard and actively do things, even if they are intended as a form of relaxation or entertainment.
In fact, it helps me to remind myself to take things slowly. One of the best things I can do as a parent is to take things slowly and let life develop at its own pace, or perhaps more accurately, Samuel’s pace.
It is good to relax. It is good to sit outside and watch the leaves fall–not that there are any left at this time of year. It is good to turn on the lights decorating the Christmas tree and just look at them and the ornaments on the tree. It’s good to sit and watch a ceiling fan. It’s good to just lie on the floor and play with each others fingers.
Of course, it’s good for children to play with toys and to challenge ourselves in new ways as well. But I think it’s easier to forget to relax than to forget to play, which is just plain too bad. Take some time to smell the flowers–literally or otherwise. Let life shape itself around you instead of trying to mold life or mold yourself into a certain way. I think you and your child will both be better off for it.

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5 Things I needed to know about Labor & Delivery as a dad

This post was originally written for another parenting blog I thought I was going to contribute to regularly. That didn’t work out, and the original version of this post was written in their proprietary system, so this is a rewrite based on my memory. Still, I liked how it turned out before, and I liked how it turned out now, so here’s some wisdom for your week!

Books have been filled with this topic, like every other parenting topic. I can’t claim to know all the secrets, but I do know that I learned a lot (some by doing the wrong thing…) about what it’s like to be a dad during labor & delivery at the very least. It may have been almost 6 months ago–which is incredibly hard to believe–but hopefully this will help other non-delivering parents make it through the labor and delivery process.

Walking around the hospital with barefeet is just a bad idea…

1. Don’t walk around barefoot. Ok, so this should be a no-brainer. Walking around a hospital without shoes on is dumb for a number of reasons–cleanliness is paramount, who knows what else has been on that floor (and in the labor & delivery ward, you REALLY don’t want to think about that), and who knows what medical supplies might have fallen on the floor that you could step on accidentally.

Keep your shoes on. Even if you try to sleep. If you do take your shoes off, put them back on before you leave the room. Period. Even if you think you need to go get something immediately, at least slide your feet in your shoes. I kinda learned this the hard way, and I’m still recovering from the tongue lashing I received–and deserved–from the nurses at the nursing station.

2. Keep a sense of humor. This is essential. There’s nothing pretty about childbirth. It’s messy, ugly, your body (or your spouse’s body) is doing things you never really thought about or understood before, and it’s extremely undignified. All of this is why I have to say thank goodness for Ann, our first nurse. We got to the hospital a little before 7 PM, after water broke at 6:15.

The overnight nurse (Ann), was incredibly gracious, kind, and hilarious. She helped us figure out what we were doing and what was going on while maintaining a wry sense of humor about it all. There are some points where you just have to laugh about things, or at least treat them lightly enough that you don’t let it overcome you, and humor is a great way to do it.

They will make–or break–your hospital stay. Make ’em happy.

3. Be nice to the nurses. Another no-brainer. The doctor may get the glory, but the nurses are the ones who do a lot of the unpleasant but necessary work. You will rely on them throughout the whole process, and your life is just plain easier if you suck up a little and give them all the courtesy, kindness, humility and thanks you can.

4. Don’t be surprised if the non-laboring spouse gets less rest than the laborer. Ok. Now, before we get too far into this, I want to be clear–I did not expect to get much (if any) sleep, and I’m certainly not complaining. Frankly, I probably got more than most people, thanks to the soporific effect of the epidural. Nonetheless, between the adrenaline, the uncomfortable chair I had to sleep in, nurses coming to check on things in the night, me waking up to take care of things in the night, and the trouble I have going to sleep anyway, it just didn’t happen for me.

Thankfully, I brought three books and got a lot of reading done that night, so there’s a silver lining for you.

5. It’s ok to go home and sleep. All of the other things on this list are important, and I wish I had been told, or actually was told, before labor. However, if I only could share one thing with you, this would be it.

I had grand ideas about spending our first night together as a family of three. I thought it was important to set a precedent. I didn’t want to force my wife to take care of the baby herself the night after she had given birth. I wanted to be there, just like I want to be there for so many nights and years to come. However, I just couldn’t do it.

I was exhausted–see point 4. I had been through countless completely new experiences in the past twenty four hours. I was still coping with the incredible changes my life had just taken. I needed time to myself and time to decompress. But I would not accept that I needed to go home, decompress, take a long, hot shower, and get a good night’s sleep in my own bed. Thankfully, my exhaustion was apparent enough to my wife and mother-in-law that the women prevailed upon me and made me go home.

I needed that more than I can say, and although every family is different and has different needs, I will affirm anyone’s decision to do this. Don’t feel bad because you want a real shower or a solid eight hours of sleep. You need it–you’re a parent now! And one night to yourself isn’t going to make you a bad spouse, parent, or person.

Like I said, there is far more to labor and delivery than I could ever say, even just on the dad side of things. Hopefully this will help a little though, and best of luck to all of you who will go through this soon.

If you have any more tips you wish someone had told you (men and women!), feel free to comment below!

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Holiday Game Guide

It’s no secret that I love board games. The last time I wrote about board games here, I got a question on my facebook page (Have you liked the facebook page? It’s a great way to keep up to date on new posts!) about what games would be good for a very small child. Since we’re now fully into the holiday shopping season, I thought I would pass along a few more thoughts on what would games would make a great gift for someone in your life.

Animal Upon Animal in action–image courtesy of Boardgamegeek.com

AGE 3 & UNDER

It’s hard for children much younger than 3 or 4 to really get into games. Ability to understand and follow rules, take turns, and stay engaged for the entire length of the game all make it difficult for kids this young to really get it. However, that doesn’t mean that you can’t try, and it CERTAINLY doesn’t mean that you have to resort to Candyland (which frankly isn’t a game anyway) either! I recommend something light, easy, and that has value as a toy, even if playing as a game doesn’t appeal to the child at first: Animal Upon Animal, designed by Klaus Miltenberger. In Animal Upon Animal, players build a pyramid of animals, stacking them on top of each other, ala Jenga. Great fun, and your kids will love the animals.

AGE 4-7

At this age, kids should be able to handle more complex rule systems and stay involved with a game longer. However, I don’t want to leave the land of toys quite yet, so here I will recommend Pitchcar/Pitchcar Mini, designed by Jean du Poel. Better yet, if you can still find a copy of Cars 2 Sorry Sliders, go for it. It’s substantially the same game, but at a fraction of the retail of either Pitchcar game, even at full price. I picked up a copy on clearance last week at a Toys R Us (Cars 2 the movie did come out 2.5 years ago after all), so move fast if you want to go that direction! For more information on Pitchcar, I recommend reading the review I wrote about a month ago. In short though, it’s a fantastically fun game where players race around a track by flicking small “cars” on their turn. Kids this age particularly seem to love it (I picked up a copy of Cars 2 Sorry Sliderslast week and Sam’s 7 year old cousin couldn’t get enough of it!), even though people of all ages will enjoy playing.

Pitchcar Mini in action–image courtesy of Boardgamegeek.com

AGE 8-10

Now this is a great age for board gaming! This age group should be able to handle the complexity of most “gateway” or “casual” games, like Ticket to Ride, Carcassonne, or Pandemic. If you don’t already have those, they’re all great choices that no modern game collection should be without. However, I want to veer a little off the beaten path here and recommend Zooloretto, designed by Michael Schacht. Zooloretto is a great game and 2007 Spiel des Jahres (German game of the year, one of the highest awards given for board game design excellence) winner, about running your own zoo. Kids love the animals, and its light enough they will get it and enjoy it, but interesting enough adults won’t be bored.

AGE 11-13

This is the point when your options become very wide open. These kids should be able to handle most things, and are really ready for some complex interplay between game mechanics. I can’t think of a better choice than Dominion, designed by Donald X. Vaccarino. Dominion, another Spiel des Jahres winner (2009), is all about building a medieval kingdom. However, while the game can be enjoyed on a fairly simple level, a well planned strategy will always win out. At this age, most kids should be able to handle the game (it is also incredibly easy to explain), and will enjoy diving deep into the many strategies available.

TEENAGER/COLLEGE STUDENT

Again, anybody this age should be able to handle virtually any game, and some will be interested in playing the highly complex games of the world. However, by and large they will be more interested in playing light “party” style games with other people. To that end, I recommend 2 different games: Zombie Dice, designed by Steve Jackson, and Wits & Wagers: Party, designed by Dominic Crapuchettes. I don’t really know why, but zombies seem to be the pop culture flavor of the year, and Zombie Dice will suit your zombie fans perfectly. A fairly simple dice game where players play a zombie who, unsurprisingly, wants to eat brains and not get shotgunned. Roll dice hoping you get brains, but stop and “bank” your brains before you roll 3 shotguns. It’s fun, simple, can be played by any number of people, and leads to great moments when someone defies incredible odds as they roll the dice.

Wits & Wagers: Party is a new version of the modern party game classic Wits & Wagers. Really, either game would be a great choice, but the party version is designed to be simpler and easier to jump into, and without the vegas style betting system the original has. Both games feature number related questions where all players write down a guess, like in many trivia games. However, then players guess who actually wrote down the closest answer, so it really doesn’t matter if you know the answers or not–you can win simply by knowing who does know the answer. It’s another game that large numbers of people can pick up and play quickly, and your kids and their friends will love as much as you.

Of course, I may have missed some other great games that would make equally good gifts for someone in your life–or you might have a special case and you’re looking for some more insight into great games for your family. If so, write a comment! Let me know what I missed or what else you might be looking for.

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“You’re such a great dad!”

I received what struck me as an unusual compliment recently. I did some grocery shopping, and while I was walking back to the car with Sam in his carrier a woman I didn’t know yelled “You’re such a great daddy!” across the parking lot. I really wasn’t sure what was going on at first, so I turned around to see who was yelling, and the woman then said, “Yes, you!” I immediately smiled, said thank you, and put Sam into the car.

Frankly, I hesitate to write this post. I’m afraid it looks like I’m bragging, or on the contrary, like I’m being overly humble (or maybe somewhere in between, ala “humblebragging”) by talking about this chance encounter with a stranger. But I wasn’t doing anything special. I was grocery shopping. I’ve never seen someone say that a woman was “such a great mommy” just because she went grocery shopping with her baby.

Does it say something sad about the state of fatherhood in America? Not that this woman could have known I was one, but is it simply an indication of support and appreciation for a stay-at-home dad? Is it indicative of the lower bar that men have to clear in order to be considered a good family man?

I don’t know. I’m not sure being a father is any harder than being a mother. I’m not sure being a stay-at-home parent is any easier or harder than being a working parent–although I will say that I can’t imagine being a single parent, and my hat is off to those who are.

What I do know is that this week, a week when we Americans take time to give thanks for the many blessings we have, is the perfect time to thank your parents for what they did for you. Or, if your parents were not great, to still at least try to reconnect with them and reconcile that relationship. Take time to thank and support the other parents you know, and especially your spouse. Everybody could stand to hear that they’re being a good parent, even if all they’re doing is buying some bread at the grocery store.

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