Using children’s books for easier (and fun!) information sharing

children reading books

Going to the doctor’s office you are likely to get handouts on important health topics. You might have noticed that these handouts are always full of information but is usually in very small font, with A LOT of words that sometime are hard to pronounce and challenging to read.  This can be a problem for families who have a harder time with reading.

There has been a lot of emphasis within medicine to help patients be active participants in their care. Half of the battle is making sure our communication with families is clear, concise and easy to understand. Not just with how we say things, but with the written material we hand out.

In some ways, it is more important to ensure that the pamphlets & handouts are easy to read and understand because  parents will refer to and share this information with other family and friends.

We have explored the use of children’s books to share parenting information.  Why? Because children’s books are written in simple and plain language, have colorful illustrations and can be easily understood.  The bonus? It is sure to be used by parents and children TOGETHER to learn and can be easily read and shared with others.  Even if one parent has a harder time with reading, you can usually follow the storyline through pictures and still grasp the ideas and concepts contained within.

One of my studies published in 2012 tested whether children’s books by author, Stacey Kaye (ParentSmart KidHappy series) could be used in pediatric clinics as a way to share positive parenting information to families. Parents and children LOVED these books! Parents learned different ways of handling common situations through the illustrations and story. Children asked their parents to read it over and over. See the Press Release for a summary of our findings. The full article is published in the Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics.

Starting this Sunday I will be sharing a book review of some of my favorite children’s books I use or recommend to families.  There are so many wonderful books out there and more titles come out all the time.

Share your favorites for each pediatric or parenting issue when I post reviews so we can chat about your favorite children’s’ books!

Parenting: there is no “right” way

keepcalmOne of the things I get asked about is whether there is a “right” way to do things when talking to parents about how to raise their children. My response? No, there is no “right” way, but there are likely other ways–especially when something a parent is doing in the moment is not working. Some times it takes another person who can be objective to think through a situation and come up with a different approach.

This is because how one takes on the parenting role is often a reflection of one’s personal beliefs, values, culture and past experiences. Plus there are other factors to consider:  the child’s temperament (or their usual way they respond to a situation), the presence of multiple kids in the house, and other issues within the parent (such as maternal depression or anxiety) or outside of the parent’s control (violence in the home, life stress) that often affects how well a parent can attend to their parenting role.

There are countless books on just about every parenting topic you can imagine. I certainly have not read them all, but I do try to keep up with as many of the most popular titles available because I am often asked for my opinion. Take sleep for example. If you go to the bookstore or library and look at all the parenting books on getting your child to sleep, it really is amazing at how many titles there are and the different view points on this topic. It is mind boggling. If you read more than one book on any topic, advice can be conflicting. But which one is right?

I have learned through my own parenting journey and those I have observed that parenting takes perseverance and an ability to look inward at one’s actions and emotions. The key is to be consistent and to give yourself a break because there is no such thing as the “perfect parent.” No matter which parenting approach to sleep you identify with, you are likely to succeed if you give which ever techniques you choose a solid go and that your partner is in sync with your approach. It also means re-evaluating when things don’t go the way you expect and being open to other ways it can be done.

This is what makes counseling parents on this topic so challenging because in the end, we ask parents to take the first step to try something new or different and giving it a good go. Sometimes it takes a lot of trial and error. This can be hard especially if a parent is stressed and feels that they have no time to keep trying behavioral strategies. Unlike other issues parents come to see pediatricians for, behavioral issues are not treated with medicines. At least not at first and especially not for young children without first understanding how to optimize the environment and parent-child interactions. I often tell parents that there is no magic wand or potion I have that can make the challenging behaviors go away overnight or that will erase the stress. The best we can do is to ensure all parties agree on the alternate approach, try it, and then report back. There is not a “one size fits all” approach to parenting…but there is a team approach.

I find the best place to start is to remind parents of the small successes they have achieved in the past (potty training is one the hardest tasks to accomplish and yes, eventually all children are potty trained!), to ask them what worries them most about the behavior in question, what they are hoping to achieve and  what they have tried.  Together, we brainstorm other ways of handling the situation. When needed I often seek input from teachers and other family members who interact with the child to see if the challenge is only with one parent or in one context. Sometimes we need to bring on board behavioral therapists who often do the hard work of providing weekly support and guidance to families, especially if families need more one-on-one time to begin to change parent-child interactions. I am reminded of the quote, “It takes a village to raise a child” and this is indeed true.

Parenting is hard, but it is also a very rewarding life experience. We can continue to strive to do the best we can and to be role models to our children when we have those “mommy or daddy fail” moments. We must embrace those moments and learn from them and keep moving forward.

Praise: the undervalued positive parenting tool

PraiseWe have all heard the advice to praise kids more. However, that requires some clarification. We need to communicate clearly to our children what it is we like about what they are doing when they are doing it. This helps to “connect the dots” between the desired behavior and what our expectations are. As busy as we all are, we can forget that feedback is helpful, especially when you want someone to repeat a behavior again.

It is easier to focus on what has not been done, what has been done wrong or what needs to be done quicker. Notice also how when we focus on the negative, it often is done with  raised voices because we are frustrated, angry, or disappointed.

Yet, these are exactly the times when we can make use of a teachable moment. We can instead turn it around to help our children understand what it is we want them to do by using praise.

What do I mean by praise? Not simply issuing a generic or vague statement, such as “good job!” or “wow!”To be as effective as possible, make sure praise is SPECIFIC and IMMEDIATE. This is especially helpful when giving praise to a younger child or a child with ADHD. By communicating exactly what it is you liked when your child completes a task or behavior, you are letting children know that you notice them and their actions. This, in turn, will help children feel good about themselves, about the choice they made or the way in which they acted. When children feel especially proud or receive positive attention, they are more likely to have a repeat performance.

This is how praise can be so powerful. Yet, it is woefully underutilized and overlooked as a way to help shape behavior.

This, however, doesn’t mean to praise everything and go over the top. In order for praise to be effective, you need to use it appropriately and with genuine feeling. Kids can often see through praise that is given just because or praise that may even end up not being true, “You are the smartest kid I know!” Praise when delivered right can be a powerful motivator to help give kids the extra boost they need to keep going with challenging or multi-step tasks. Praise can help them see that they are capable and competent, help them see we value their contributions.

Sometimes parents may feel praise is phony or should not be used for tasks or chores that just should be done. However, children often need guidance to understand what is expected of them. When parents use praise for making an effort or for compliance with a request right when we ask or without argument, it helps children keep going and to try to be the best they can be.

We all like to be recognized for efforts in our work, in our homes and in our relationships. It reminds us that someone else values us for who we are and what we do. Who doesn’t thrive on little reminders?

Below are a set of handouts (in English and in Spanish) on the basic principles of PRAISE that can be used when counseling families about the importance of this tool.

Click here for the English handout.*

Click here for the Spanish handout.*

*Please retain copyright in the lower right hand corner.

Note: I always welcome comments on the handouts in general, its utility and any feedback you receive from parents.

Time-In: The Foundation of Parent-Child Relationships

The concept of “time-in” seems so simple but it is often overlooked once children grow older. We get busy. We are tired. There are a million things to do. However, everyone needs ‘special time’ with their partner, spouse, parent, friend. Somehow, as we grow older and our lives become even busier, it is easy to forget the small things.

I first learned about “time in” when I sat in on a 22-week parenting group. This was before I had kids of my own. I had been running a foster care clinic in Seattle and was seeing well intentioned foster parents struggling to care for children entrusted in their care. Children who were acting out because of the stress and scariness of losing their parent, their home. Sometimes they acted out because they were angry and tired of all the change, all the uncertainty. Some children were placed with strangers. But sometimes children were placed with family friends or relatives.. but for that moment, it was not with their parent. All this translated into a difficult time for all.

I learned a tremendous deal during that parenting group led by Dr. Carolyn Webster-Stratton, the developer of the Incredible Years parenting series. I also learned that pediatrics residency had not prepared me for the tough questions that these foster parents had and the even tougher behaviors the children were having. It didn’t feel right to medicate these children just to “calm them down” or “make their anger or aggression more bearable.” These children needed security, routine, structure and the repeated knowledge that a nurturing and caring adult was in their corner.

In that group, I learned Dr. Webster-Stratton’s approach was to teach the skill of “time in” no matter if the parenting group was for prevention of behavior problems or for treatment of them. She ALWAYS started with building that foundation. I learned if parents do not make an effort to do “time-in”, “time outs” won’t work. This is because time outs are essentially an extended ignore and if parents are not  giving children positive attention in the first place, time outs won’t make a difference.

Time-In simply refers to spending one-on-one time with another person without life distractions. For young children, the word “time-in” often conjures up images of parents on the floor playing with their children. However, even as we grow older, time-in is just as important. It can be that ‘check-in’ with your high schooler after practice while driving home or the family conversations over dinner.  Time-in means going back to the basics of just focusing on your child and being sensitive to their cues, their need for attention. We can forget that even with all the material things we can buy our children, our time and presence is what matters the most.

Educating parents that children thrive on attention is important and should start early. Attention can be positive (hugs, kisses, praise) or negative (yelling, reprimanding); in the end, children just want our attention. If parents give positive attention freely, kids won’t have to act out to get attention. This concept applies to all relationships. Water and tend to your friendships and they blossom and thrive; neglect them and friendships wither and slowly lose touch over time.

Always go back to the basics.

Below are a set of handouts focused on “Time In” to be used with families to discuss the importance of this essential positive parenting skill.

Time In English (English).*

Time In Spanish (Spanish).*

Parent-child Time-In Love Note Activity (It’s Challenge Time).*

*Please retain copyright in lower right hand corner.

For more information about The Incredible Years, go to