You all know that on the show we pretty much steer clear of the clickbait articles that try to convince you that something is wrong with your child, in favor of getting a balanced view of the overall body of literature on a topic.
But every once in a while a study comes along and I think “we really MUST learn more about that, even though it muddies the water a bit and leads us more toward confusion than a clear picture.”
This is one of those studies. We’ll learn about the original Hart & Risley study that identified the “30 Million Word Gap” that so much policy has been based on since then, and what are the holes in that research (e.g. did you know that SIX African American families on welfare in that study are used as proxies for all poor families in the U.S., only 25% of whom are African American?).
Then, Dr. Doug Sperry will tell us about his research, which leads him to believe that overheard language can also make a meaningful contribution to children’s vocabulary development.
I do want to be 100% clear on one point: Dr. Sperry says very clearly that he believes parents speaking with children is important for their development; just that overheard language can contribute as well.
And this is not Dr. Sperry out on his own criticizing research that everyone else agrees with: if you’re interested, there are a host of other issues listed here.
The overarching problem, of course, is that our school system is so inflexible that linguistic skills – even really incredible ones of the type we discussed in our recent episode on storytelling – have no place in the classroom if they don’t mesh with the way that White, middle-class families (and, by extension, teachers and students) communicate.
But that will have to be an episode for another day.
One of the most-often asked questions in parenting groups that I’m in is “My child WILL NOT let me brush his/her teeth. How can I get through this?”
Oh my goodness; I feel your pain.
We went through this too when my daughter was about 15 months old, and it persisted for several weeks on and off before we finally figured it out.
I would say “OK, it’s time to brush your teeth!” and she’d say “NOOOOOO! I don’t wanna!” and collapse in a writhing heap on the floor.
The usual advice
The parenting experts tell us to offer choices, and there are lots of these available with toothbrushing:
“Would you like the pink toothbrush or the orange one?”
“Would you like the flashing toothbrush or the one that doesn’t flash?”
“Would you like the strawberry toothpaste or the bubblegum flavor?"
And when the choices don’t work, there are the games:
“Would you like to brush my teeth before I brush yours?”
“Can I look for the food you’ve eaten today in your mouth?”
“Can I look for wild animals in your mouth?”
“Should we brush Tiger’s teeth first?”
“Would you like to brush teeth in the bath?”
But sometimes it doesn’t matter how many choices you give and games you play the child still says “no.” Also, we really have no idea why the child won't cooperate, which isn't helping us at all.
And I find tooth brushing an especially hard place to set a limit because, really, their teeth are not going to fall out if they don’t brush this one time. But if they get into a habit of not brushing, you could find yourself in real trouble.
So where do you go from here? Do we have to hold the child down and force the brush into their mouth?
Psychology to the rescue!
There’s a psychological theory that can help us to understand what’s going on here: it’s called Self-Determination Theory. In short, SDT says that all people have a need to feel autonomous (having freedom to choose what we do), competent (having abilities and skills) and connected (having warm and loving relationship with someone).
The more of these needs are satisfied, the more likely a person is to work with us to achieve our mutual goals.
So what do we do to overcome the tooth brushing problem?
1 Next time your child refuses to brush their teeth, do what parenting coach Robin Einzig recommends: Drop the Rope. You can’t have a power struggle if only one of you is pulling on the rope. (Don’t worry; we’re not going to do this every time we need to brush teeth!)
2. Say “I can see this is hard for you, and it’s tough for me too. I don’t want to force you to brush your teeth. Let’s not brush teeth tonight; let’s get ready for bed, and we’ll talk about it tomorrow.” Chances are your child will be stoked to get out of tooth brushing for the night, and will willingly cooperate with the rest of the bedtime routine.
3. Continue with the normal bedtime routine: stories/songs/kisses. There is no punishment for not brushing teeth. You are showing your child that you love them unconditionally, even when you disagree (and are thus developing your connectedness).
4. The next day, look for a time when you’re both in a good mood, relaxed, well-fed, and not in a hurry to go anywhere. Sit close to your child – perhaps even next to each other or them on your lap so you can hug while you talk.'
Say “Hey, can we talk about tooth brushing?" (Wait for acknowledgement or assent of some kind.) "It’s really important to me that we brush your teeth twice a day, because if we don’t do that, your teeth could get holes in them and they might actually fall out. Brushing helps to keep them clean so those things don’t happen. I notice you’ve been finding tooth brushing really hard lately, and it’s hard for me when you find it hard. Can you help me to understand why you don’t want to brush your teeth?”
5. Listen to the response, even if you think what they are saying is ridiculous. Things we think are ridiculous are often really important to children.
6. Say: "I wonder if we can think of some ways that we can make tooth brushing acceptable for you?”
By asking this question you are saying that you trust your child’s competence at generating some ideas for ways to solve a problem and that your child’s autonomy is important to you – you truly want their help in solving this problem.
Boom! We covered all three SDT components.
a. If your child is on the younger side (perhaps ~2 years old), you’ll likely need to provide the ideas for things that could make tooth brushing acceptable. Use what you heard when your child told you why they don’t like brushing their teeth to spark ideas. Think outside the box – no ideas is a bad one. Consider writing the ideas down on a piece of paper – this helps your child to see that you treat their ideas seriously.
b. If you start doing this kind of thing when your child is around two, by the time they’re three or a bit older, they will be able to start generating ideas alongside you. Write them all down.
8. Cross out any of your child’s ideas that won’t work for you, and explain why as you do this. Read your ideas to your child, and ask them which ones won’t work for them. Cross these out.
9. Select from or adjust the remaining options as needed to arrive at a mutually agreeable solution.
What you did here was not only solve an immediate problem of tooth brushing, but you simultaneously scaffolded your child’s ability to generate solutions to problems that will serve them incredibly well in many aspects of their life.
In our house, the phrase “Let’s talk about this later” (said in a warm, not threatening tone) has become an indicator that the respective parties should start thinking of solutions to a problem. We recently had a problem because my daughter (age 3 ¾) wanted to wear pajamas to school.
Finally I said “OK, you can wear pajamas to school today but let’s talk about it later.”
On our way home from school that night I said “Let’s not forget that we need to talk about wearing pajamas to school.”
She said “I been thinking about it ALL DAY,” and proceeded to give me some options (one of which was acceptable to me; no further negotiation required).
And as for the tooth brushing: we made it through our struggle.
What was the incredible solution that made tooth brushing acceptable to her?
Brushing in the living room. A solution I would never have imagined without her input.
Toothbrushing struggles solved, instantly.
Give a try, and let me know how it goes!
“Storytelling? I’m already reading books to my child – isn’t that enough?”
Your child DOES get a lot out of reading books (which is why we’ve done a several episodes on that already, including What children learn from reading books, How to read with your child, and Did you already miss the boat on teaching your toddler how to read?.
But it turns out that storytelling benefits our relationship with our child in ways that reading books really can’t, because you’re looking at the book rather than at your child. If you ask your child what kind of story they’d like you to tell, you also get incredible insight into both their interests and concerns – I can attest to this, as I’ve been singing story-songs about poop and various kinds of baby animals who can’t find their mamas on and off for several weeks now (we had an incident a few months back where she couldn’t find me in a store).
In this episode we also discuss the ways that people from different cultures tell stories, and what implications this has for them as they interact with our education system.
Other episodes mentioned in this show:
"Social and Emotional Learning" is all the rage in school these days, along with claims that it can help children to manage their emotions, make responsible decisions, as well as improve academic outcomes.
But what if those programs don't go nearly far enough?
What if we could support our child in developing a sense of compassion that acts as a moral compass to not only display compassion toward others, but also to pursue those things in life that have been demonstrated - through research - to make us happy? And what if we could do that by supporting them in reading cues they already feel in their own bodies, and that we ordinarily train out of them at a young age?
Dr. Brendan Ozawa-de Silva, Associate Director for the Emory University’s Center for Contemplative Science and Compassion-Based Ethics, tells us about his work to bring secular ethics, which he calls the cultivation of basic human values, into education and society
Learn more about Breandan's work here:
Desbordes, G., Negi, L.T., Pace, T.W.W., Wallace, B.A., Raison, C.L., & Schwartz, E.L. (2012). Effects of mindful-attention and compassion medication training on amygdala response to emotional stimuli in an ordinary, non-meditative state. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 6(1), 1-15.
Frey, K.S., Nolen, S.B., Edstrom, L.V., & Hirschstein, M.K. (2005). Effects of a school-based social-emotional competence program: Linking children’s goals, attributions, and behavior. Applied Developmental Psychology 26, 171-200.
Lantieri, L., & Nambiar, M. (2012). Cultivating the social, emotional, and inner lives of children and teachers. Reclaiming Children and Youth 21(2), 27-33.
Maloney, J.E., Lawlor, M.S., Schonert-Reichl, K.A., & Whitehead, J. (2016). A mindfulness-based social and emotional learning curriculum for school-aged children: The MindUP program. In K.A. Schoenert-Reichl & R.W. Roeser (Eds.), Handbook of mindfulness in education (pp.313-334). New York, NY: Springer.
Ozawa-de Silva, B., & Dodson-Lavelle, B. (2011). An education of heart and mind: Practical and theoretical issues in teaching cognitive-based compassion training to children. Practical Matters 4, 1-28.
Pace, T.W.W., Negi, L.T., Adame, D.D., Cole, S.P., Sivilli, T.I., Brown, T.D., Issa, M.J., & Raison, C.L. (2009). Effect of compassion meditation on neuroendocrine, innate immune and behavioral responses to psychosocial stress. Psychoneuroendocrinology 34, 87-98.
“How much can there really be to learn about storytelling?” I thought when I started on this mini-series.
It turns out that there’s actually quite a lot to learn, and that family storytelling can be a particularly useful tool for parents. We’re all trying to figure out how to transmit our values to our children, and storytelling can be quite an effective way of doing this. Further, storytelling can be a really valuable way to support children in overcoming traumatic experiences. In this episode we dig into the research on the benefits of family storytelling and look at how to do it.