As a newborn photographer in Los Angeles, I see our future. Most of us know by now that the first 3 years of life contain the brain's most intense development. What your newborn, infant or child experiences sets the pattern for how they will develop later on in life and through adolescence. Please do not get me wrong. This is not determinism. As a teacher I can tell you that no matter what a child experiences, there are too many variables to tell how a kid may "turn out". Seriously, I was an educator long enough to have students I taught as third graders come back as adults and tell me how they were doing. Some, who I thought would go the college route, opted for manual labor jobs. And others, who I would have bet would be in jail, had AA degrees or better. You just can't ever know.
Given this, it is still true that kids who have a lot of experiences in their first 3 years definitely have it easier in school. It is easier for them socially, academically, and emotionally. I'm sure there are amazing reasons why this is true, but even if you are like me and don't understand the brain science behind it, you can do a lot to capitalize on these early years. Here are a few of my faves:
1. Provide Choices: In life, in school, in everything, there are choices. Kids have to make them. But making choices is a skill. It really is. Learning how to think about what will happen if I choose this over that, how much I like this more than that, are skills. We learn them by sheer practice. So give your kids choices: Do you want to wear sneakers or boots? Do you want the blue or yellow pencil? Would you like to take a walk, or play with Legos. These may not seem like such big decisions, but they enforce critical thinking and they help kids get to know themselves; what they like and dislike.
2. Use Adult Vocabulary: Truly, a poor vocabulary is probably the biggest disadvantage one can have in life. Opt to use "big words", words that may seem NOT to be age appropriate. Instead of "boo boo", say "Did you injure your finger". Instead of, "What do you want for dinner", ask "What do you prefer, this or that?". Here are some alternatives you can start using today:
- Emotion words: angry, frustrated, devastated, impatient, joyful, elated.
- Words instead of "nice": delightful, wonderful, extraordinary, delicious, marvelous, friendly.
3. Have Conversations: Whether your child talks yet or not, have conversations (not fights) in front of them. Show them that one person talks, the other listens. Then vice versa. Opinions are shared. Not ridiculed. If your child talks, then engage them in conversation. You can talk about anything and make it a way to prepare them for school. "What if the only clean clothes you had were your pajamas? Would you wear them to school? Why or why not?". It does not matter what they say to you. What is important is that you accept what they say. Don't judge their response ("Are you kidding me? That's crazy..." do not encourage kids to talk). Trust me, if they made an unrealistic choice, they will soon realize it on their own. They are little, so they do not see the worlds as adults do yet. Be patient. Not only are you validating them as persons with hopes, dreams and ideas, you are preparing them for life.
I hope that these easy things to do can help you with your toddler.
Katie Katsenis is a maternity, newborn and infant photographer in the Sunland Tujunga areas of Los Angeles.