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Teaching Children Empathy with a Family Pet

April 30, 2015

By Ana Vela

Teaching Children Empathy with a Family Pet | Mariana and her dog strike look-alike poses for the camera. Having a pet can teach both babies and even teenagers empathy.

Photograph of Manitas and Mariana (left to right) by Ana Vela. 

No matter how much my siblings and I pleaded while growing up, my parents did not allow us to have a dog. Which is why I was shocked when my parents decided to get my younger sister a dog once I left home for college. I guess you could say Cookie was “replacing me” so my sister wouldn’t feel alone after my departure. At first I was a bit upset, but I quickly saw the positive impact Cookie was having on my sister—she was teaching her empathy.

There are many ways to define empathy, but according to a review in the International Journal of Caring Sciences, “empathy is the ‘capacity’ to share and understand another’s ‘state of mind’ or emotion.” Empathy is a component of Emotional Intelligence (EI). EI can be critical to your child’s success in school and later in life because it includes skills, as described in this review, in “perception, expression and control of emotions, self-control and empathy, communication, conflict resolution process, conscience, and perhaps many more.” Many studies argue that a person’s EI can be more important for success than IQ. Educators also see the value of teaching children empathy, as demonstrated in the wave of new school programs that help promote this skill in the classroom.

Empathy should be promoted at home, and having a family pet such as a dog can be a great avenue for teaching this skill to your child. Other benefits include building responsibility and living a healthier lifestyle. Here are some practical ways you can guide your child’s practice of empathy with your family pet:

Take care of a pet’s needs.
Your child can learn empathy by taking care of a pet’s needs, such as feeding, bathing, vet visits, providing medicine, and caring for the pet when it is sick. He or she will become considerate of the pet’s scheduled needs, and feel compassion when the pet is not well. My sister quickly became Cookie’s advocate and made sure she had everything she needed, which led to her eventually advocating for others.

Show the pet affection.
Your child can learn to express his or her emotions through affection with the pet. Teach him or her to gently pet, hug, and if you are okay with it, even kiss the pet. A dog will naturally reciprocate, which will validate your child’s self esteem and help him or her express affection with others.

My parents were not very affectionate people, but once Cookie entered our lives, it was amazing how quickly affection just flowed out of everyone in our family. She became an avenue for us to express ourselves without feeling judged.

Provide everyday joys for the pet.
Your child can learn what makes their pet happy. Most dogs love walks and playing games such as fetch. Guide your child to safely play with the pet and encourage making it happy. Your child will be able to better read others’ emotions and will develop a desire to make others happy. I remember my sister would find the most creative ways to play with Cookie and developed positive social skills when playing with other children.

Encourage communication with the pet.
Your child can learn to develop positive communication skills with the pet. Guide your child to practice communication by being polite, describing and talking about their day, talking during play, and even reading to the pet. Because a pet will never judge, children can develop confidence in communication and learn to listen to others. When I would talk to my sister over the phone while I was away in college, I noticed how her communication skills had improved as she described her adventures with Cookie.

Remember that as parents, we set the example for how a child should treat the family pet. I had three dogs in my home prior to the birth of our now 10-month-old daughter. Although I wasn’t directly teaching her how to interact with the dogs, I quickly realized how much she was learning from observing me. I was surprised when I first saw her gently pet one of the dogs on the head when she was about four months old. Eventually she was giving them hugs and laughing with them. And now she is learning to play with the dogs.

With a family pet, always practice safety with their interactions with children. Cookie is 15 years old now and still bringing joy to my sister and our family. I, too, am enjoying using the three furry members of our family to teach my infant empathy and am looking forward to creating long-lasting memories.

For more ways to foster your child's emotional and social well-being, check out our YOU: Your Child's First Teacher books, now available on Amazon

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For the Kids: 4 Steps to a Kinder Divorce

April 28, 2015

By Amanda Alpert Knight

For the Kids: 4 Steps to a Kinder Divorce | It's tough to stay kind and civil through a divorce, but this mom shares tips she's learned while going through her own divorce that can help you and your partner team up for your children. | A young girl looks at her father as he and her mother each tug one of her arms.

I never thought I would get divorced. I never thought I would be in a position to write an article like this.

How do you divorce kindly? How do you divorce in a way that ensures your children are okay, or even better than okay? How do you divorce in a way that each parent can maintain their sense of self, their pride, their personal well-being, and their ability to be the best parent they can be?

I’m not an expert—my divorce and parenting through it is a work in progress. But through the process of separation and divorce, I’ve learned a lot about what to do, what not to do, and what we can do to not only put our children first but to ensure that the process allows each parent to remain whole and to be set up for success. That is the key to ensuring the livelihood of our children. As my ex and I make our way through this process, I see a bright future for both of us individually and for our children thanks to these four key things we’re focusing on.

  1. Don’t give up on therapy during the separation and divorce process.
    Even after you both decide to divorce, continue to see a therapist or coach to work through issues. This process should focus not on the past and who did what, but on the present and what is happening. This professional is a neutral figure who can help significantly along the way. They don’t take sides and they don’t try to solve or figure out how you got to where you are, but they can help you figure out how to strategize moving forward.
  2. Continue communication.
    Because your children are involved, you can’t stop communicating with your ex. Figure out what the best methods of communication and scheduling are for each of you and be willing to compromise. You each might have different ways of doing things and you need to find a happy medium. There are several shared calendar apps available, like Google Calendars. Use technology to assist in scheduling and communication but stay consistent.

    Agree to share all information about the children (schools, childcare, afterschool programs, friends, etc.) with one another. No one should be left in the dark. There is no advantage to one parent trying to be the “superior” parent. And when other parents see you, as exes, being cooperative and supportive of one another, they gain so much respect and admiration for you.
  3. Keep a family dinner night.
    While I don’t know that this will last forever, we have informally continued to have family dinner nights one or two times a month with just the four of us (my ex, our two kids, and me). I hope we continue this tradition to show our children that we are still a team—we are co-parents who support and love them.

    As our children get older, it will also show them that they cannot pit us against one another. We work together as parents—we aren’t silos. This will not be an easy task if and when other partners come into play, but it’s a lofty goal that I hope to maintain.
  4. Express gratitude.
    Thank you goes a long way. I was really bad at this in the beginning of the separation. But it’s important to be thankful for what the other parent does, not only for the children but also indirectly for you. Swallow your pride and say “thanks.” 

It takes a lot of strength and determination, but parents can work together to make divorce kind and civil for the kids. Show compassion, cooperation, and support despite this life-altering event.

As an educator and a parent, I’m struck by all of the stories I hear about divorce. I think it’s time for a movement toward Kind Divorce—a movement where we don’t forget that life is short, childhood doesn’t last forever, and what we are teaching our children now will last them a lifetime.

Marriage is difficult and divorce is even harder (as it should be). So put in the effort to make it kind. Your kids, friends, and families will appreciate it.

For a holistic approach to parenting well-adjusted kids, check out our YOU: Your Child's First Teacher books, now available on Amazon

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Talking About Infertility

April 23, 2015

By Jessica Vician

Talking About Infertility | It's National Infertility Awareness Week, so reach out to your friends who are dealing with fertility issues and offer your support. | A couple talks to a doctor about fertility issues.

It’s National Infertility Awareness Week, and whatever your parenting situation may be, it’s important to remember that not everyone is able to have children naturally. One in eight couples suffers from infertility of some form. For an issue so common, it’s a wonder we don’t talk about it more often.

RESOLVE is a movement founded by the National Infertility Association. This year, they are focusing their outreach efforts on the theme “You Are Not Alone.” In that spirit, I encourage you to reach out to your friends who are dealing with fertility issues. Talking about infertility is a touchy subject, so keep these recommendations in mind.

Establish boundaries
When you first learn that your friends are going through fertility issues, have a sympathetic but frank discussion about boundaries. What questions can you ask? Can they keep you updated with the process? What topics are off-limits? 

Explain that you want to be there to help, but you don’t want your friends to feel pressured to share. 

Understand that they might not want to talk
Accepting and working through infertility can be a very private matter. If your friends don’t want to talk about it, honor that request. You can still check in and see how they are doing, but know that your friends might not want to talk about every detail.

Each person’s situation is unique
Even if you have faced infertility yourself, no one’s struggle is the same. Never assume you know what your friends are going through. Talk to them about how they are feeling, but don’t assume anything. Some couples feel like failures for not being able to have children, some feel like outcasts, and some feel that it’s simply biology and are just frustrated.

Maybe you felt one way but your friends feel another. That’s okay. Don’t project your experience or emotions onto them. Being there to listen is the best thing you can do.

Be supportive through treatment
Again, ask your friends for boundaries if they are going through fertility treatments. If you’re very close, you might want to know when an IUI or IVF procedure will happen, and you might want to know right away if your friends are pregnant. But they might not want to tell you, so it’s important to discuss boundaries in advance and not take it personally if that’s the case. Many couples prefer to keep pregnancies private for the first trimester for a number of reasons, so respect your friends’ preferences.  

Avoid giving advice
Many people going through fertility issues receive unsolicited advice from well-meaning friends and family. 

“Once you stop trying so hard, you’ll end up getting pregnant when you least expect it!”

“Why don’t you just adopt?”

“If you can’t have kids, think of it as a blessing—you’ll save money, get more sleep, and can travel more!”

While it’s easy for you to think you’re being optimistic, statements like those are like salt in the wound for couples struggling with infertility. It’s best to simply say, “I can’t imagine what you’re going through. Do you want to talk about it?”

Be sensitive when talking about your kids
You don’t need to stop sharing your joys with your friends, but try to be more selective about what and how much you share while they are dealing with these issues. When facing the idea of not being able to have children, it’s hard to hear complaints from parents about their kids, or on the other hand, excessive bragging about them, so choose your stories with a bit more care than usual.

It’s nearly impossible to empathize with someone going through fertility problems, but you can still remain a good friend as long as you establish boundaries and set expectations during this time. Overall, letting your friends know that you are there for them is the best thing you can do to help them know that they are not alone in this struggle. 

Tags :  physicalhealthparentingsocial
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6 Earth Day Resolutions

April 21, 2015

By Jessica Vician

6 Earth Day Resolutions | Treat this Earth Day like you would New Year's Day and make a resolution you can stick to for the whole year. | The image shows a landscape of mountains and valleys.

Earth Day is one of my favorite days of the year because there is so much media attention dedicated to helping the Earth. Despite the bleak situation we’re in with this planet, on Earth Day we focus on the small changes each of us can make to sustain our planet for future generations. This year, I challenge you to treat Earth Day like New Year’s Day. Make a resolution to try one of these small efforts for a full year—until Earth Day 2016.

Banish Paper Towels
This first resolution might sound impossible, but it’s easier than you think and makes a big impact. By mostly converting to this method, my household now buys less than six rolls of paper towels a year.

In my home, my partner runs through his cotton socks like crazy, and I end up with stains on kitchen towels all the time. When these items are no longer presentable, I wash and add them to a basket designated for rags. Instead of using paper towels when I clean the counters, toilets, sinks, mirrors, etc., I use these rags. We have so many that we never run out, and I just wash them in a separate cycle from the other towels.

You can start the conversion slowly. If you don’t have any clothing or towels to convert to rags right now, start by buying the cheapest white towels you can find (think a six-pack from a dollar store). You’ll find opportunities to convert old clothes to rags in no time.

Recycle Toilet Paper Tubes
Several years ago, I realized that there was no reason to throw the toilet paper tubes in the garbage if I was recycling other cardboard. Once someone in your family finishes the roll, ask them to put the tube in with the paper recycling.

You could also forego the tube altogether. Scott is now making tube-free toilet paper. They even have a quick quiz you can take to find out how many rolls your household uses in a lifetime (mine is over 9,000—good thing I’m recycling the tubes!).

Convert to Cloth Napkins
Americans use over 2,000 paper napkins on average in a year. Along the same lines as banishing paper towels, you can reduce your paper use by switching to cloth napkins, too.

I recommend darker colors and patterns to hide stains that will inevitably happen over time. You can get a great set of four napkins for under $10.00 and can reuse one napkin per person for a few days before needing to wash it. Give each member of the family a unique color to make keeping track easier.

Use Natural Pesticides
Avoid using chemical bug repellents around the house, as they can harm your kids, pets, and plants. Instead, do a little research on your favorite search engine or Pinterest and find natural pesticides.

For example, use mint or cayenne pepper to prevent ants from coming inside your house. Plant peppermint in your garden to keep spiders and mice away, and sweet basil to repel flies. Find more natural ways to deter pests here.

Stop Using Plastic Bags
You probably already know about this resolution, and have likely already tried it. But time and time again, I often find myself making a quick stop after work somewhere and forget to bring my reusable bags (hint: find a small, foldable bag that will fit in your handbag, manbag, or diaper bag).

If you’re like me, make this an official resolution this year so that you make a greater effort at it. Next time you find yourself without a bag at the store, buy less and refuse the bag. One experience of balancing your few handfuls of groceries without a bag will teach you to remember your reusable bags next time.

Buy in Bulk – Produce Less Waste
It’s not only less expensive to buy in bulk, but it’s better for the environment because you reduce the overall packaging you consume (and recycle or throw away). Just be sure to only buy as much as you’ll use.

Does your family go through yogurt quickly? Stop buying individual packs and buy a larger tub. Keep smaller glass or plastic containers in your cupboard so you can make individual servings for lunches. Buy some Mason jars to store nuts, granola, and dried fruits that you buy from the bulk section at the grocery store.

Try one of these resolutions to stick to until Earth Day 2016. It will take a little effort at first, but chances are you will find it easier as time goes by and may even be inspired to pick up a new Earth Day resolution mid-year.

Are there other Earth-friendly resolutions you recommend? Tell me your favorites in the comments below.

Looking for activities that will help your child grow to his or her potential? Check out our YOU: Your Child's First Teacher books, now available on Amazon

Tags :  organicactivitieshealth
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Where to Find Immunizations on a Budget

April 16, 2015

By Nikki Cecala

Where to Find Immunizations on a Budget | Where to find low-cost or free vaccines for your child. | National Infant Immunization Week: Immunization. Power to Protect.

April 18 marks the beginning of National Infant Immunization Week, an annual observance highlighting the importance of protecting infants from vaccine-preventable diseases. It also celebrates the achievements of immunization programs thus far. This recognition might not seem like something big to celebrate, but think of all the diseases we are now able to better manage because of the available vaccines—measles, whooping cough, chicken pox, and polio, just to name a few.

It is very important to have up-to-date vaccines for children, especially newborns. Unfortunately, doctor visits and immunizations can be expensive—even more so if the sole provider does not have the insurance to cover the child. If you are providing for a bigger family, the costs could be more than half of your paycheck. Thankfully, there are two great websites that provide multiple options for inexpensive vaccines.

Immunize for Good
This website lists the different shots both you and your child need depending on age. It has a wonderful resource page that explains different types of free or low-cost vaccine programs, like Vaccines for Children (VFC), which provides vaccines at no cost to doctors who serve eligible children. Children 19 years old and younger are eligible for VFC vaccines if they are Medicaid-eligible, American Indian or Alaska Native, or have no health insurance.

Vaccines.gov
On this website, you can find great information on necessary vaccines for everyone from newborns to teenagers to seniors. It provides the latest vaccine resources and requirements from federal agencies for all ages.

If you’re seeking insurance on a budget, visit the Health Insurance Marketplace. Find out if you qualify for free or low-cost coverage available through Medicaid or the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP). Most Americans are eligible to use the Marketplace.

Children can receive over 30 vaccines by the time they are four years old. That’s a lot to keep a child healthy! Check out school-based health centers, community-funded clinics, and your state’s healthcare and family services for other low-cost immunization options.

Take a few moments to research the proper places that provide free or low-cost vaccines for your child. If you opt out of vaccinating him or her, you risk multiple doctor visits, hospitalizations, and in some cases even premature death. Sick children can also cause parents to lose time from work. It’s worth the research and the vaccinations to prevent these issues, and in turn give your child the best chance for success throughout his or her life.

Learn more about immunizations and well-baby checkups in our YOU: Your Child's First Teacher books, which help parents from birth through high school graduation and beyond. Now available on Amazon

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