‘Theory of Mind’ is the label psychologists give to a young child’s growing awareness that other people have thoughts, feelings and intentions that might be different from their own. Having good theory of mind skills at age 4 has been linked to better social and emotional outcomes throughout childhood.
The development of a Theory of Mind starts with a baby learning to follow an adult’s gaze and culminates when a child is able to predict the thoughts of others based on their situation or perspective (even if these thoughts are different from what the child believes to be true). This occurs at around 4½-years-old. The classic test for Theory of Mind is a false belief experiment. Continue reading →
I found myself crying in the car last night. Truly blubbering. I had just dropped my teenage son off at his girlfriend’s house – well, around the corner from her house. I’d pulled over a few hundred yards early to give us a moment to finish our conversation and he’d got out and stormed off. (And, when I say ‘conversation’, you know what I really mean is argument…)
I calmed myself down, drove home and accepted his conciliatory hug this morning. But why was I so very upset? It was a stupid argument about tidying his bedroom, one we’ve had a hundred times before with much less drama. But as I sat crying in the car, I was really hurting. My brain was quick-firing with all the things my son had done that had hurt me – a litany of blatant unkindnesses all the more outrageous and undeserved given the hours of love, thought and lift-giving that I plough into his life. Continue reading →
I recently took part in some research on what adults think are the best toys to buy for children. Unsurprisingly, Lego was considered the top ‘classic toy’ that all children should have. Play Doh came out second highest (which was a bit of a shocker as so many parents curse it for getting into the carpet!). In general, bikes, puzzles, board games and balls were considered the top types of toys that all children should have. Which is not a bad list.
If you want to help kids become independent, the principle of minimal assistance is a great motto to parent by. It’s a neat way of ensuring your child gets as little or as much help as they need to learn a new skill. When kids learn to do things for themselves, they feel good about themselves (and you have one less thing to do!).
On the scale of parental assistance, doing a task for your child counts as maximum assistance. Leaving them to get on with it unaided is zero assistance (or full independence). So far, so simple.
The difficulties arise when faced with a task that your child hasn’t yet mastered. Or a complex task that has lots of stages. Like washing your own hair, for example. If your daughter can’t yet wash her hair but you just leave her to get on with it, there is a good chance of an unsuccessful (or uncomfortable) outcome. Shampoo in her eyes, knots and tangles, water on the floor or still dirty hair, to name a few! But take over and do it for her and she will never learn to do it for herself. This is where the principle of minimal assistance comes in.
The principle of minimal assistance is a way to help kids become independent by giving them only the amount of help they actually need in order to learn a new or complex task. Here’s how to do it: Continue reading →
One of the things I encourage parents to do is to see parenting as a relationship between a parent and a child rather than as a one-way activity. That means focusing on building a good relationship with your child and tuning in to how they communicate. Seeing parenting as a two-way relationship not only enriches family life, it opens us up to understanding the influence of children’s innate personalities.
Modern parents like to think we’re very important. The fashion for blaming parents for how children turn out – or indeed giving credit to parents when kids do well – leads us to believe that we really matter in our children’s lives. That we are the deciding factor. That if we parent ‘right’ then our kids will turn out great. That way of thinking supposes that 1) we can choose how we parent and 2) our kids are totally shaped by their environment. It tends to forget that there is a child in the mix with their own unique fixed set of variables.
Now, there is most definitely evidence from quality research that certain parenting styles and strategies are associated with good outcomes for children. But, equally, there is clear evidence that the genetic factors that predispose children to certain personality traits are also influential on kids’ long term outcomes. Both nature and nurture are at play and parents are only part of the picture. Continue reading →
David Cohen’s How the Child’s Mind Develops is quite an academic read so probably best for parents who have a very keen interest in children’s cognitive development. But if you are that way inclined, this book gives a really good overview of key issues and ideas in developmental psychology. It covers huge ground in a level of detail ideal for those without a deep knowledge of cognitive development theories but with an interest in children and/or psychology.
Cohen kicks off with a summary of the methodological difficulties in studying developmental psychology. How we can research babies’ brains when they have no language for expressing their thoughts or preferences? Given the over-interpretation of much psychological research in the popular media, this is a great antidote to our tendency to jump to big conclusions from methodologically dodgy ground. Continue reading →
When my children were little I didn’t have a mobile phone. Smartphones hadn’t been invented. (Wow that makes me feel old!). When we were out and about, there wasn’t the option to reach for an i-Phone to keep the children occupied. I had to carry a Kids Boredom Kit.
Alongside snacks for staving off hunger and underpants in case of accidents, my bag always contained bits and pieces to keep the kids engaged in case of down moments or unforeseen delays.
I quickly learned that it’s no good keeping the same old things in a kids boredom kit (or the kids will get bored of it!). Young children love novelty so regularly refreshing the kit with surprises is essential. And, of course, any object in the kit has to be small and multi-functional so it can fit into a bag or pocket and adapt to a variety of uses.
There has been a lot in the press recently about the role of digital technology in children’s lives and whether kids are becoming addicted to screens and smart phones. There is no doubt that children are spending more time on digital devices and from a much younger age. Exactly what the impact of that will be on children’s brains is still not fully understood. But what worries me most is not what the screens are doing to our children but what our children aren’t doing because they are on screens. And the biggest loser is free play.
Free play is a special type of play that is child-led and child-driven. During free play, children (not adults) choose what they want to do, how they want to do it and when they want to stop. It’s not an organised activity – think bored Sunday afternoons building dens out of sofa cushions rather than tennis lessons. Free play has no externally set learning goals, it is self-directed learning fuelled by fun and curiosity.
Why is free play important?
Play is the most important thing a child can do. Play builds children’s brains. Babies are born with a brain full of cells called neurons which look a bit like pieces of string. By interacting with their environment and having experiences, these neurons become associated together and link up into pathways which store knowledge and skills. Through repeated experimentation, children learn the fundamental principles of the universe – that water flows and objects fall to the ground, that some things fit inside other things and that pebbles sink. No matter how many times a child sees a plane on the TV (or travels in one), she will really learn how air holds up flying objects by tying her dolls to makeshift plastic bag parachutes and throwing them down the stairs… Continue reading →
When it comes to gender, science has got a poor track record. Across the centuries there has been a consistent tendency for scientists to come to big conclusions about the differences between men and women, boys and girls, based on pretty flimsy evidence. And usually these have been conclusions which conveniently justify existing inequalities and the power status quo.
Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender: the real science behind sex differences sets out to systematically challenge and dismantle this neuroscientific sexism that uses skewed science to prove that women are inherently more suited to caring roles and men to action and objective decision-making. But the brilliance of the book is that she does it, not through ideology but by unpicking centuries of flawed scientific methods and unconscious bias. Taking on the scientists at their own game. Continue reading →
Boredom is good for children because it stimulates curiosity and fires the imagination. At its best, boredom is a creative state that leads to new ideas and new play. And we know that good quality play drives children’s development and builds intelligence.
But boredom is good for children only when it results in children using their imagination to rise to the challenge of boredom. If they always turn on the TV or reach for tech as an easy chewing-gum boredom filler, then that spark of imagination is lost.
Imagination is vital for children of all ages. It stimulates children to explore their environment in new ways, which in turn leads to learning and skills development. Imagination also enhances social skills – after all, empathy is really just the ability to imagine being in someone else’s shoes.
And, because imagination is an internal resource – a habit of mind – it is something that children need to develop through practice and repetition. Adults providing imaginative activities for children is never as effective as children inventing their own.
Here’s how parents can harness the power of boredom to support children’s development: Continue reading →
Concerns about managing children’s screen time and the impacts of technology on children’s wellbeing are high on the worry list for modern parents. But most advice on positive parenting seems to have been written in a golden age when wrestling iPads off children just wasn’t an issue. So how can modern parents adapt positive parenting techniques to help manage children’s tech time?
The problem with children using technology is that tech use tends to expand to fill all available time. That can displace many other valuable activities that are vital for children’s healthy development. Like running around. And face-to-face communication. And physical play.
Tech is an easy boredom-filler. But boredom is an essential driver in children’s development through which they learn creativity and self-sufficiency and new ways of interacting with their environment.
And it’s not just children’s use of technology that’s at issue. Digitally-distracted adults are less able to provide the connection, attention and eye contact that help children develop healthy brains and essential life-skills. Parents and children are now spending more time in each other’s physical proximity but we are talking to each other less. Continue reading →
The absolute best way for children to learn social skills is through practice. Young children needs lots of opportunities to play with other kids – older, younger and the same age. There will be some bumps as children make mistakes and refine their social strategies but, in general, the more opportunities children have to practise social skills, the more quickly they learn them.
Sometimes, children need a little bit of adult intervention to help them on their way. Snuggling up with a story can be a great way to talk through issues sensitively with young children and introduce new ideas. When it comes to social skills, there are some great books out there to help you raise your little one’s awareness of key issues like sharing, empathy, friendship and patience. Here are my recommendations for the best books to teach children social skills (for children aged 2-7yrs). Continue reading →
Babies are born with almost all the neurons in their brains that they will need as adults. Their first developmental task is to start linking those neurons together to form the neural circuits that govern knowledge and skills. Growing babies’ brains is serious work!
In the first year of life, a baby’s brain develops these neural networks very rapidly. That development is driven partly by genes but also by the baby’s experiences and environment. So it is vital that babies get a safe, nurturing and stimulating environment.
Here are my top tips for how parents can help grow their babies’ brains: Continue reading →
As the parent of teenagers, I have found that knowing a little bit about their internal mechanisms really helps me keep some of their less desirable behaviour in perspective. So, for your amusement and edification, here are a few weird and wonderful facts about teenagers that might explain why they do the things they do….
Teenagers can’t remember future tasks
Teenagers have poor prospective memories which means they are not very good at holding things in their heads to remember to do later. When you nag them, it really does go in one ear and out the other. Teaching teens to use props like timetables, planners and checklists can help get them organised (see Teaching teens self-organisation skills). Continue reading →