A radical aspect of Dr. Montessori’s work was her assertion that “nurture” is every bit as important as “nature” when it comes to a child’s potential outcome. Scientific research is proving this over and over—and making all of us parents take serious note of the many things we do that shape our child’s potential, from our vitamin levels at conception to the family discussions that encourage critical thinking skills. Our children’s school environment is important, but the child’s home environment is even more crucial to development than the hours spent at school. And that begs the question, What are the most important aspects of the home environment that impact our children’s outcomes? If we could limit this “to do” list to just a very few things, what would they be?
The foundation of our children’s needs, as Maslow pointed out, are the physiological—including diet, sleep, and physical activity. If your child is struggling with cognitive, social, or emotional skills, the first thing to pay attention to are these three aspects. It is not unusual for Childpeace guides to strategize with a parent to help a child get more sleep, with another parent to pay closer attention to the nutritional value of what is in the child’s lunch box, and with another parent to inspire a child to engage in more physical activities after school.
Reading aloud, and modeling the joy of reading, is also on the short list. “Research has shown that the single most important thing that a parent can do to help their child acquire language, prepare their child for school, and instill a love of learning in their child, is to read to them.” (Russ et al., 2007) For most Children’s House and Lower Elementary parents, reading is a part of the evening bedtime routine and a lovely, snuggly moment of connection. When your child outgrows the need to have you guide the bedtime process, and begins mastering the reading process alone, it is still important to keep reading aloud, using the opportunity to introduce different genres and more advanced texts. By Upper Elementary and middle school your child benefits from being the reader as often as the listener.
Quality conversation merits being on the list. Even from the very youngest ages, there is a qualitative difference between “business talk” (when we tell our children what to do next) and open-ended conversation. The baby needs to have the verbal dance of babbling back and forth with the parent; the toddler needs to be asked what she thinks, followed by the listening gaze of the parent; the young teen needs to be heard and the pros and cons acknowledged even if the parent has a different opinion. This kind of language dance at all ages begs for eye contact and full immersion of each participant’s mindfulness. In our jam-packed days, it is too easy to have this replaced by “business talk” called from one room of the house to the other.
The family meal is one of the perfect places to make a habit of quality conversation and limited technology. A recent Time Magazine article reads, “Studies show that the more often families eat together, the less likely kids are to smoke, drink, do drugs, get depressed, develop eating disorders and consider suicide, and the more likely they are to do well in school, delay having sex, eat their vegetables, learn big words and know which fork to use.” These are important outcomes for the teen years, and it is much easier to have a consistent family meal time if the expectation is established from the youngest ages.
At this time in history, it is imperative to include limited technology as one of the major home environment aspects that impacts a child’s outcomes. Television has been around enough years now that there is hard data to support having a TV-free home for children two years and under. We know that TV trains the brain to a passive learning mode which makes it harder for children to initiate self-direction. While we can see the positives of a screen game that requires creativity, planning ahead, and critical thinking skills, there are negative impacts such as dependence on instant gratification, higher risk of attention problems, and difficulty falling asleep after a length of time in front of a screen. Our recommendation is that families carefully choose particular moments for technology, rather than welcoming this powerhouse into everyday life as if it were another family member.
Plentiful sleep, healthy diet, physical activity, enjoyment of reading, quality conversation, the family meal, and limited technology; if you bathe it all with the deep and abiding expression of parental love, you have a home environment that promises good outcomes for your child.
Merri Baehr Whipps, Assistant Program Director
Childpeace Montessori School