Play, Imagine, Create This Halloween

By Taryn Yates

Published in the Post Register October 19,2017.

Its Halloween season and I’m well into the process of celebrating with my family. I have excitedly planned out activities for every weekend as well as prepared for the big day. The house is decorated, the pumpkins are painted, and our costumes are (almost) picked out. My son can’t decide if he wants to be a T-rex or Batman for Halloween.  I tell him, “Why not both?”  Thanks to a rather ingenious costume that you can put on your toddler to make them look like they are riding a dinosaur, he can trick or treat as, you guessed it, Batman riding a dinosaur!  There’s not much cooler than that.

It’s no surprise that this time of year is special to so many people. Halloween taps into both our imaginations and our desire for community.  Fostering imagination and imaginative play are great for a child’s brain development.  Children around three or four have rapidly developing imaginations.  They love to pretend they are different people doing different things and could have imaginary friends-all of which are developmentally typical and should be encouraged.

My son and I play a game where he can change me into a zombie with a magic wand.  Now, before your eyebrow gets too high about the scary subject matter, he doesn’t actually know what zombies eat in modern, adult movies.  He just knows they walk slowly and groan like in Hotel Transylvania.   I play along and moan as I walk stiffly toward him.  Sometimes he uses his magic wand to change me back and sometimes he waits until I reach him.  He knows that in our world of make believe, when a zombie reaches you- it kisses you all over your face!

Research shows that imaginative play is a key element in developing the social and emotional competence of children by allowing them to work through scary experiences (like going to the doctor), explore both positive and negative feelings, and develop a concept called “theory of mind” which is when a child becomes aware that their thoughts are different that other people’s and that others see the world differently than they do- it also gives them insight into how they are perceived.   This allows children to develop empathy and navigate social interactions with greater ease- a skill very useful as they grow into teenagers and adults. (Kaufman et al, Psychology Today, March 6, 2012)

Social and emotional competence of children is one of the protective factors that strengthen families, promote optimal development  and prevent child abuse and neglect. Generally, children who can identify and communicate their emotions are better at getting their needs met.  Parents can play a key role in helping their child develop these skills by being involved in play, encouraging imagination, and communicating often.

Imaginative play is a good time to work on identifying and dealing with emotions in a safe way. It is naturally difficult to process feelings like fear, anger, and sadness when children are experiencing them because their brains are in a defense mode. During play, however, you can bring up what to do when Batman is sad that Joker stole his candy or let them tell you what “he” is scared of. 

This October 31st, make the most of the occasion by finding special ways to let your child express their wild imaginations as much as possible. Put on costumes, paint your faces, and speak in a Transylvanian accent. To you, it may just seem like a day you have to buy candy, but to kids, it’s when everyone around them finally seems to see the world as weird and magical as they do.

Be the adult you want your child to be

By Taryn Yates

Posted in the Post Register on September 5, 2017

Last night, I placed my five month old on the floor to play while I took a bathroom break. When I came out, I spotted my two year old with him. At first glance, it looked like he was practically on top of him- and my heart jumped at the potentially dangerous situation. My two year old is heavy and can be aggressive. Fortunately, I let a split second go by before I rushed in, which allowed me to witness something remarkable. My two year old was leaning over his baby brother, with his face very close. He was saying “Whaaat? Whaat are you doing?” in a very specific sing-songy way that sounded just the way I say it to elicit coos and giggles. And the baby was responding!

Two things struck me in that moment. The first was how well my 2 year old had embraced his big-brother role. His actions have been beyond my best hopes. I was expecting quite a bit more jealousy and was happy to have underestimated the little guy. The second thing was just how well he was mimicking my baby voice. It was almost eerie. Hearing my words and tone come out of my son’s little face reminded me of just how closely he watches me. I honestly hadn’t noticed him noticing me and my interactions with the baby, yet here was proof he had been watching me all along. Not just watching- he was taking my actions as a lesson and example of how to treat the baby.

Suddenly I had a surge of insight which led to a theory. As valuable as parenting books and experts are, maybe the best parenting advice has been under my nose the whole time. Be a good role model. Be the person you want your child to grow into and they will. Could it really be that simple?

My son has gotten into a bit of trouble at his child care facility for a while now. He is aggressive. He really loves people, but he also pushes, hits, and throws things. It has gone on despite my best efforts. I’ve researched how to parent the willful child and how to teach empathy and kindness. I’ve learned about redirection and teaching him how to “calm his body down” and I’ve told him that kindness is the most important quality a person can have. Yet I still stressed out that I was failing as a parent. What if I raise a mean child? A bully? The thought haunts me.

If my theory is correct, then I can just relax and be patient. Throughout my fear and stress, I’ve tried my best to be kind. To avoid yelling. To understand where he is developmentally and respond accordingly. I ask him why he is sad and I tell him I am listening when he gets frustrated. I ask him if he needs a hug or some quiet time alone under a blanket on the couch. I tell him that hitting hurts and makes me sad, but I’ve never hit him to demonstrate. I’ve done my best to be a kind and loving adult even when I’m frustrated. And he’s noticed. Sure, he still throws things and isn’t good at sharing, but there are these increasingly frequent moments when he shows what a good person he is becoming. He shows concern when a friend is injured. He gives unsolicited compliments about my hair. And sometimes, when he thinks no one is watching, he makes his baby brother laugh…just like his mom.

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"Good Enough" is Just Right

Article from the Post Register

By our Grants Manager, Taryn Yates


Posted July 12, 2017

Three months ago, my family and I welcomed our second child: A bright-eyed boy with several cowlicks, the most noticeable of which causes a tuft of hair in the back of his head to stand up distinctively. It's adorable and I do adore him. However, I must admit that having a second child has been challenging. Fortunately, I don't stress anymore about rigidly keeping a feeding or sleeping schedule, making sure no one touches him with unwashed hands, and a lot of the other big standard worries I had when I was a new mom. I learned with my firstborn to just feed my baby when he's hungry, that sleep patterns usually emerge when they are ready, that the baby will be exposed to germs whether I like it or not (his germ-ridden brother keeps kissing him), and life will carry on.

However, since I had the logistics under semi-control, I was caught off guard by a familiar foe: Guilt. I didn't feel like I was enjoying my baby. I didn't have time to. I was trying so hard to just keep my toddler alive and cared for, not to mention all the feeding, holding, burping, diaper changing, and bathing required to keep a newborn happy, that I didn't have any time to simply stop and smell the baby powder. I felt like I was mentally hunkering down and pushing through the hard part until my baby was a little older and life got more "manageable". That started me to worry: if I wasn't enthusiastically embracing every single mothering moment- was I hurting my children? Would they notice? Would letting my toddler watch too much television so I could take care of the baby or throw in a load of laundry ruin his brain development?

Somewhere in the midst of worrying, I was reminded of the concept of "good enough parenting". Good enough parenting comes from the research of Donald Winnicott and was expanded upon by several others. There is a lot of information out there on good enough parenting and attachment (google it, you'll see what I mean), but the basic idea is that parents have an insider's knowledge of their child that experts don't, so a well-meaning mother who is "fond of her baby" and tries her best will have good outcomes for their child. In Psychology Today, Dr. Peter Gray used Goldilocks as a metaphor for good enough parenting. Children need a parent who doesn't parent too much or parent too little. There is a sweet spot of good enough parenting right in the middle. So I decided to reflect upon my parenting with a more positive "good enough" lens. Am I fond of my children? Absolutely yes! Am I trying? Yes, I'm trying very hard, actually.

Through this lens, my guilt began to fade. Yes, I am rushed much of the time, but when I'm not worried about making every moment meaningful, I noticed that I do, in fact, put meaning into the little moments. I quickly tousle my toddler's hair as I'm getting him to brush his teeth. I coo at my baby while changing his diaper. I sing silly songs as I'm putting their clothes on. And I kiss each child as I'm putting them into their car seats. Sure, I offer my iPad for a much-needed distraction, and it's not unheard of for me to either rush through breakfast or offer a children's protein shake to my toddler in the car in lieu of scrambled eggs. It's not perfect. But it is good enough. In fact, one could say it's just right.

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