I’m fascinated by a new parenting book, which is strange, since I’m not a parent.
But this isn’t your ordinary parenting book. This is a book by an Omaha pediatrician, a one-time sidekick of Dr. Benjamin Spock, a former preschool owner and current director of innovation at the University of Nebraska Medical Center who has serious expertise in both Silicon Valley and potty training.
This book, by Dr. Laura Jana, borrows from the lessons we have learned about succeeding in the 21st century — old-school lessons like persistence and playing in the same sandbox and new ones about curiosity and adaptability.
She seeks to apply those lessons to the youngest among us — children who Jana thinks we often still parent like we’re in the Industrial Age instead of the Digital Age.
The assembly line is dead, and with it should die the rote memorization and safety-at-all-costs approach to parenting, she says. Instead, we can help kids with skills — skills like empathy, self-motivation and even how to fail — vital in an era where the only constant is change. Think about this, she says: Research predicts that today’s average third-grader will eventually find employment in a job that has yet to be invented.
And yet, far too often, we train out of that third-grader the very skills he or she needs to succeed in this brave new world.
Parents may sense that this is a new era and that their kids will face different challenges, Jana said, but they can use some help in figuring out how to adapt.
“Can you think of a time in life when you are more buried than when you have a new child? Like, now you are going to start thinking about a new way to look at the world? No way!” she said. “So I had seen all these bits and pieces, too, except that I hadn’t seen anybody putting it all together.”
Jana is one of the few people who could have put it all together as she does in “The Toddler Brain,” which went on sale at major bookstores this week. She’s a pediatrician well-versed in early childhood education, cutting-edge brain science and the Harvard Business Review. She also has a mother of three’s practical sense of how to relay this information to parents.
“The Toddler Brain” is eminently readable. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but this parenting book was actually fun to read.
Jana identifies seven skill sets that today’s toddlers need as they grow up. She gives these skills easy-to-remember names. Then she shows parents why — and, just as important, how — to incorporate them into daily life.
One example: Silicon Valley CEOs prize innovation, and research shows that to truly innovate, you need to know how to handle failure. Except we don’t tend to teach our kids how to fail in 2017, Jana thinks.
Instead, we tend to overvalue safety, she says, often at the risk of tamping down the swings and misses that a young child needs to learn both small failure and then meaningful success.
To illustrate, Jana mentions that she is a national expert in injury prevention who long ran a private Omaha preschool that had a state-of-the-art cushioned playground.
And yet, when a child occasionally fell and bit through his lip — a common injury for the pre-K crowd — she expected, and often got, an irate phone call from the child’s parent.
“The only thing left in those situations, the only thing to keep a kid absolutely safe, is to tell them, ‘Don’t run!’ And that’s not what we want, is it? We want to give kids the skills they need to overcome adversity, because if they have them they do stand more of a fighting chance out in the world.”
A second trait prized in the adult world: intrinsic motivation, also known as willpower. And yet much of how we teach our toddlers and young children uses the exact opposite motivational tool, Jana says.
You get to watch 30 minutes of television if you eat your vegetables. You get to stay up a little later if you pick up your toys. And you get a handful of M&Ms if you use the potty while potty training.
“The mastery of things needs to serve as its own reward in a lot of these cases,” Jana says. “But everything becomes an extrinsic reward. We all do this without thinking about it, without realizing it. And it does very little to prepare a kid for creative thought, for motivation, for doing more beyond what you need to do.”
A third trait valued in the business world: empathy, or the ability to see others’ points of view as you manage a business or strike a deal. Studies show that even computer coders, often stereotyped as maladjusted lone wolves, need to know how to collaborate with others in order to find success in their field.
How do toddlers learn empathy? They learn it, from a young age, by quite literally putting themselves into the shoes of other people, Jana says. After all, what is a child doing when he or she tromps around in Dad’s shoes? What is he or she doing when she plays house? The child is pretending to be you. The child is thinking, “What would Mom or Dad do in this situation?” Those questions lead to empathy, she says, and also spark imagination.
“You can’t cut out the make-believe,” Jana says. “You don’t get empathy from a worksheet. You have to learn to read, but you also have to learn to read other people.”
If it sounds like some of these examples are actually old-school parenting techniques that our grandparents used, that’s because they are, Jana says. The pendulum in parenting swings back and forth, as it does in almost every other facet of life. But what you take away from “The Toddler Brain” isn’t ultimately an old-school lesson. It’s a simple and devastating argument: The world has changed, in a whole host of fundamental ways. We need to change the way we prepare our next generation for it. We need to do it now.
“The world is complex and interconnected, whether we like it or not,” she says. “Reading, writing and ’rithmetic are still important. They always will be. But if we’re going to make a difference, add to that relationship-building. Reading other people. Working with people not like you. Communicating. Having to quickly adapt. It’s not because these things are more important than reading or writing. It’s because they have been sorely neglected. We need to stop neglecting them.”
Seven key skills
In her book “The Toddler Brain,” Dr. Laura Jana identifies these skills as being necessary for children growing up in 2017. Learn more at: drlaurajana.com
Self-management skills that include self-awareness, self-regulation, self-control, attention, focus. Also, executive function skills which allow us to manage, regulate and control our emotions and behavior.
These are the people skills that allow us to understand, share and “play well” with others, including the language, empathy, listening, and social-emotional skills necessary for effective communication, collaboration and teamwork.
Skills that include questioning, curiosity and inquisitiveness that allow us to see the world as a question mark and strive for a better understanding of how the world works.
Self-motivation and drive define these critically important skills, including a can-do attitude, conscientiousness, determination, gumption, persistence, perseverance and focus put into action.
Physical and intellectual restlessness make up the WIGGLE skills that play a key role in putting WHY and WILL skills into action.
Skills that allow for, build and foster agility, adaptability and resilience, and confer the ability to face, overcome and learn from failure.
Encompassing curiosity, imagination and creativity, these are the skills that ultimately allow us to understand not just how the world is, but envision how it could be.