Parenting is hard. It is a time of growth, development, and learning for the parent as well as for the child. There is no all-inclusive “book” or “guide” on how to parent. There are no one-stop resources on what and what not to do in parenting. There are no set answers because each child is different.
Today’s society has inflicted so many additional pressures and expectations on the children of this generation. Society has placed higher expectations in preschool, kindergarten, and beyond. This often results in parents thinking they are not doing enough and are not adequately enabling their child to succeed.
Dipesh Nevsaria MD speaks candidly from personal and professional experiences about the topic of early childhood experiences in the episode of The Gladney Center for Adoption‘s reFRAMED Podcast. He speaks and focuses on the benefits children have from reading and from parents reading to their children and the help it provides in preparing children for future experiences.
Dr. Nevsaria begins the conversation by reiterating how valuable books are for everyone. He encourages all parents to read to young children as often and as early in their life as possible. While the words of the books are important, the conversation and interaction with the book the parent and the child engage in is just as important—if not more important—as the words. It’s about “reading with them, and not at them.” It all stems from the connection that comes from reading the book, not only the book.
He noted that when reading to young toddlers, ages 2 to 3 years old, their not having an attention span for an entire book is completely appropriate. As they grow and develop, 4 and 5 years old are in a much more mature development phase and will usually be able to sit and have a longer attention span for books.
For children under 3 years old, Dr. Nevsaria stated that young children do not understand that printed words are actually telling them something. Reading to them as much as possible will lead them towards “print awareness” (understanding that the words mean something) as they get older.
There are many other benefits to reading out loud to your baby and toddler, including the development of social connections. Reading out loud has many positive influences for your child, including social development, thinking skills, language skills, and attachment with the parent reading. It builds social skills by reading to them in different voice tones and sounds. It builds thinking skills to have the child look at the pictures in the books and point to different objects, engaging in a dialogue about the image. It builds language skills by exposing children to new words and vocabulary which will help them develop vocal words as they age. It builds attachment with the reader if the reader holds the child, snuggles with him or her while reading, or reads the book a toddler brings to a parent to read. It reinforces children’s confidence that you see them and see what they want. And it reveals that they feel safe in your arms while reading and that reading with you is something they enjoy. The article linked to above reiterates that there is no wrong way of how or when to read and emphasizes it is okay to not finish a whole book. It suggests establishing a routine by trying to read every day to your child as well as different times of the day as to establish that idea that any time is a good time to read.
Everyone has heard the phrase “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” Dr. Nevsaria stated that is not the case with children. Some research has found that 80% of brain development occurs in the first three years of life; however, going back to the phrase, that is not necessarily accurate. Dr. Nevsaria stated, for example, that for a child adopted after the age of three, there is a huge potential for the amount of growth and development that can happen. However, it will take a lot more work, commitment, resources, and love from the parents and community resources, but of course, it is possible.
Dr. Nevsaria also discussed reading electronic books versus reading hard copy books. He stated that although some doctors believe there may be detrimental effects to reading media (on a kindle, phone, etc.), he has not read any published peer reviews to confirm that, although he maintains his focus on the detriment of distractions. He shared an example of a mom who runs many errands during the day. She has 50 books on her phone and knows she couldn’t possibly carry that many hard copy books. His opinion, stated in the podcast, is that the mom reading from her phone while out and about during the day is fine if it offers relationship, communication, and bonding with her child. When it becomes negative, he says, is when the device becomes a distraction. For example, an animal book that does all of the animal sounds on the electronic version copy versus parents needing to make the animal sounds themselves with the hard copy book. If the child gets distracted with the electronic version, without any human interaction, the child will sooner lose interest in the book. Potentially, the child will be distracted from reading and realize there are games on the device which may be more satisfying to the child. So while they are not intentionally harmful, electronic books may take away from the time and interaction between the parent and child.
Another important aspect of relationships is that of neuroplasticity and the brain. Dr. Nevsaria discussed how, as a pediatrician, he likes to evaluate the relationship between parent and child. One way to accomplish this is through a book. He claimed that at some of his visits with his families, he will hand the child a book, developmentally appropriate for his or her age, and often, the child will look at the book for a minute or two, looking at the front and maybe the back. Then, the child would often take the book to the parent and hold it up for her, “asking” her to read it. According to Dr. Nevsaria, this tells him volumes about the relationship between the child and parent; the relationship between the child and parent is largely informed by the child’s comfortability with taking a book to the parent and knowing that reading with the parent is something that both of them could enjoy together. The same concept is at work as when the child takes the parent’s hand and points to something he wants. The child has learned his parent is someone that will provide him comfort.
A recent article supports and offers additional insight from pediatricians on the benefits of reading to newborns and young children. It enumerates the many positive benefits of reading, including bonding, more words equal more brainpower, allowing the child to hear and imagine different expressions and emotions, and—most importantly—shows the child that reading is fun. In the article, it stated, “A 2019 study published in the journal of developmental and behavioral pediatrics, found that kids who are read to every day are exposed to around 78,000 words each year. Over five years, that adds up to 1.4 million words heard during story time.” Also, showing a young child that reading can be fun and engaging has lifelong positive impacts.
Parents, myself included, often feel like they are not doing enough or are not giving their children the best. The standards our society follows and views our children are exposed to continue to change and confuse. It can also be hard to not compare our children to the children of others. It is human nature to think, “Is he/she pairing up to others who are the same age?” “What do I do if my child can’t do something society ‘says’ she should at his age?”
For families who have adopted, such as my family and Dr. Nevsaria, developmental milestones can and probably will look different. Prenatal care, hospital care, early childhood upbringing/resources, all have an effect on the development of a child. In adoption (other than adoption at birth), families do not have an influence on those conditions. Adopting a toddler, as my family did, we had to establish developmental milestones based on my son’s circumstances. We started the baseline on where he was at 3 years old and started from there, not on where a 3-year-old “should” be. It still is at times, but I have learned that my son is my son, and that doesn’t change or lessen my love for him, regardless of development or diagnosis.
With adoptions, there is always some degree of trauma, which somehow will affect the child’s development. The article states, “early trauma has lasting impacts and far more negative health effects than most people realize.” Adverse childhood experiences include, “early alcohol use, substance use disorders, depression, prescription drug misuse, and illicit drug use,” which can lead to many forms of abuse including witnessing violence or incarceration of parents. These situations can lead to children being separated from their birth parents and being placed into foster care or adoption.
This research shows many ways how early trauma can impact early brain development. This includes the hippocampus (learning and memory), corpus callosum (communication), prefrontal cortex (emotion regulation), ad cerebellum (motor behavior).
However, just as Dr. Nevsaria stated that children can overcome early developmental deficits, the research states: “this does not mean that adopted kids will be crippled by these issues. Quite the contrary: with professional help and loving adoptive parents, adopted kids can move past their early experiences and enjoy their adolescence.”
An article from the Child Welfare Information Gateway shared many wonderful ideas about adoption and development. It stated that learning developmental milestones are important, but with adoption, there are many other factors that may also take place such as separation, loss, anger, and grief. “While the stages described below correspond generally to a child’s chronological age, your child’s development may vary significantly. . Some children progress more quickly from one state to another; others may continue certain behaviors long past the time you would have expected.”
As a pediatrician and adoptive parent, Dr. Nevsaria shared many values that he considers important which he emphasizes to parents. One is that “no one is perfect” and “no parent is perfect”; we all make mistakes. Dr. Nevsaria revealed “that he is not perfect” during his tours when sharing his recommendations of early childhood development and reading. He shared a time that when finishing a major research paper, his son bought him a book to read, and he told him no; he was too busy to read the book. It was a wake-up call for him: he was educating and researching on the exact topic!
Another important value that Dr. Nevsaria underlines with all of his parents is that “You are doing a good job.” He personally needs to be reinforced about that concern with his own children and knows his pediatrician families need the same reinforcement.
When asked what he wants for his families, he shared, “They are an important influence on their child and a good influence.” He wants to ensure that families know how to find the necessary supports to enable those influences. There is much value and importance in these statements for all parents to hear and ingest.
So, what can we as parents learn from the advice and research of behavioral/medical doctors? We can never read too much to our children. We will make mistakes, and that’s okay. Do not judge the development of our child with other children. Dr. Nevsaria stated it beautifully: “A book on the shelf does nothing. The magic comes when it is in the hands of a parent.”