All posts by Bella

Leave of absence or let’s call it a sabbatical…

Last night, after I tucked my boys into bed, after I read them one extra story than usual, after I kissed them all over and came back and kissed koala and teddy and penguin and moosey because "they love mama too" and after I put on the boys' favourite lullaby CD (because you DON'T want to hear me sing… it is anything but soothing to an innocent child's ears), I closed the door to their bedroom. And then CRASH: The now familiar smack of guilt and dread. Now, you have to understand that my baseline emotional state is at least 30% guilt no matter where I am and what I'm doing. After all, I hadn't come home early enough to make the home-cooked meal I had intended; instead I passed on the duty of reheating last night's leftovers to my nanny. I hadn't picked up the kids' vitamins for 3 days running now, preferring to get home in time to play with them a little before bedtime. I also had left work too early to finish what was due last week; finishing the job would have meant missing bathtime.

But the guilty feelings coupled with dread that were mounting now as I closed my boys' door were about this dear blog. I have been writing in this space for over a year now and I have honestly LOVED, LOVED, LOVED the experience. I would never have predicted how much I would get from writing the blog and so much of it has had to do with you, your comments, your questions, your emails, your support. But in the last month or so, the feeling that I have been neglecting this space — and letting myself down in the process — has become a tad too much to bear. So I need to take an "official" break, one that will allow me to return when I have more time, energy and motivation to write about the things that really excite me and that might interest you.

I also wanted to let you know that there's a damn good reason I need this break: I'm moving! EVERYTHING! My family, my job, my life… to another freaking CONTINENT!  I've accepted a position as a full professor in the developmental psychopathology program at a university in the Netherlands. It is a HUGE transition, but a very exciting opportunity (mixed with a lot of sadness for leaving my parents and brother and his family back in Toronto). Marc and I are in the throes of trying to figure out some of the most basic details like how one gets a driver's license and bank account in a country that we don't speak the language. (Ugh… don't get me started on the Dutch language… Suffice it to say that my Rosetta Stone tutorials are not exactly catapulting me to fluency). So, the basic math is that the time after my boys go to sleep, the time that I used to spend researching and writing blog entries, has been eaten up entirely by house selling and hunting, frantic google-mapping ancient little towns that I can't pronounce, preparing boatloads of paperwork for our immigration, and so on. 

But here's the thing, I couldn't just take this break without telling you how much I have loved writing this blog and how much I've appreciated your many, MANY insights and thoughtful discourse along the way. I started this space thinking I was going to "disseminate developmental science to real parents in the trenches" and I've come out realizing that I have actually learned more than I've taught. Your comments and emails in the last year have energized my program of research in a way I never would have anticipated and you've inspired new ideas that I can't wait to pursue in the next phase of my career. But most importantly, somehow writing this blog has contributed to a renewed sense of purpose and I think I finally get why. In this space, in the themes and discussions and questions that emerged, I was able to pull together what I'm most moved by: my fascination and love for my children (as well as the heap of frustrations, of course) and my passion for science. I can't tell you how rare it is that I get to explore these parts seamlessly and resonate with others all the while! THAT'S what I'm going to try to do more over the next few years: In this space, when I return, but also in my everyday work and play in the next phase of our life.

I'm not sure when I'll be back… it may be as long as September if things get as crazy as I expect (our move is planned for the end of August). But if you become a fan of this site on Facebook or sign up for the RSS thingy, then you'll know when to come back and check up on me. I really hope you DO come back.

Happy summer, everyone!

Can we think together about kids and the internet?

I'm sorry, again, for abandoning this space for a while. I'll save you all the long-winded winging (wingeing?) about work and family and preparing to relocate to a different continent and so on. Suffice it to say that I'm a tad overwhelmed. So, in the hopes of trying to bring my work life closer to what I write in this space, so that each can inform the other and I can feel less pulled in 10,000,000 directions, I thought I'd throw out a question to all you fabulous, thoughtful parents.

A bit of background: I've been doing some very preliminary research on the social and emotional (as well as cognitive) implications of children growing up online/plugged in/tech savvy. Among other core questions, I've been asking myself the following basic question: What are the social and emotional differences between digital "natives" (those who have grown up never knowing a world without the internet) and digital "immigrants" (most of us basically, those who may have whole-heartedly adopted technology and the use of the internet, but who have NOT grown up with it)? The distinction between digital native and immigrant was made by Marc Prensky, an innovative thinker in my mind (among other things, he works on trying to figure out how "gaming" can be used for educational purposes and how students', teachers' and parents' learning goals may best be met by harnessing the characteristics and benefits of online gaming).

There is some, but precious little, research on the real hard-core questions about children's online lives. Most of the developmental research has focused on self-reports of children's time spent on Facebook and other social media outlets. I find the implications of growing up with online social media fascinating, but I'm bored by the types of self-report, questionnaire studies that simply ask kids to report what they're doing in these spaces. I'd like to think more along the lines of the potentially massive social, cognitive and emotional implications and to start designing studies that DON'T rely on self-reports. There are massive changes that are being introduced or proposed to boards of education and to parents alike — most of these recommendations or proposals will be implemented with almost no research to back up their implications. Here's just one example of reforms proposed for reading and the like in the UK. So there's no time to lose in terms of asking new questions about the online worlds of our children. Here are some of the things I'm wondering about. I'd love to hear your feedback on how important you think these questions are. Even more interesting to me would be to hear about what you wonder about when it comes to your own children's development and how they're influenced by technology and the internet.

I wonder:

- Are digital natives (our children) more comfortable with uncertainty than we are?

- Do our children have shorter attention spans? Do they have a harder time sustaining attention to one task?

- When asked to think about a problem, do our children tend to think more "actively" (pointing and clicking away in trial and error sort of way towards an answer) rather than more "contemplatively" (taking time to sit back and simply think, without pursuing information outside of the self)?

- Are our children able to remember less than we do (possibly due to the many prosthetics we use… but maybe not, we've been using calendars and notebooks for a long, long time)?

- Do our children feel more or less connected to a community than we do? How does this sense of community, if it does exist, impact on feelings of civic responsibility, political values, and so on?

- Are our children more or less lonely than we were during adolescence?

- Are friendships that were formed online any different than "real life" friendships for "natives?" Does the nature of online friendships differ for digital natives vs immigrants?

- What are the essential "literacies" of the information/online age? (e.g., critical thinking skills, self-direction, focus, communication skills, programming)? How different are these from the essential skills that digital immigrants needed to cultivate?

- What do/will our children consider "private" vs "public"? Is this different for natives vs immigrants?

- How do social hierarchies form online? Do these social hierarchies (status levels) mimic the ones in the playground/schoolyard/hallways?

I have tons more, but I'll stop now. You can see I'm all over the place in terms of my interest in this very broad field (or very narrow, depending on your perspective). What do you think? Do you think your children will think fundamentally different than you did because they will be growing up "digital?" Or do you think that the online world won't make such a huge impact on the basics of development? What do you wonder about in terms of your own children's development and their online involvement?

Some Food for Thought on Selecting Books for Your Young Child

Oy!  What a couple of weeks! Unfortunately, my son and I were hit with a nasty, nasty bout of stomach flu. We're talking about 10 days of 'round the clock misery. Poor thing missed a week of school. I apologize for the blog neglect, but am happy to say that we are all mended (I actually slept through the night last night, in my own bed, without a bucket within reach!) and now it's time to think about more stimulating things. 

Child_reading_lg.312125913_std Too weak or interested in much else, we have both been doing a lot of reading – separately, together, out loud, silently, to each other and everything in between. At some point I was thinking of how far we've come on the literacy front (he's 5.5 now) and it occurred to me that I was pretty lucky to be armed with some very useful information about children's books and reading in the early years, information that you may benefit from too.

Of course, there is a lot to be said about appropriate themes in the reading material for young children, but what you might not be as aware of is how much research has been devoted to the more basic topic of how young children think about the symbolic information in books (the letters/numbers, pictures etc.). It's part of a much bigger research enterprise on how we come to understand symbols in general (not just pics and letters/numbers and language broadly speaking, but maps, models, videos, graphs etc), so this could easily turn into a mini-series. Let's start with some basics that might help in your selection of reading materials for your very young ones and see where it leads us. 

First off, you probably already know all about how important it is to read with your child, even way, way before they are anywhere near getting ready to read. Even if they are getting little more than just a glance at a picture and some (usually) black blobs on the page (that would be the letters), the research is clear that just learning the rituals of early reading – page turning, reading and pausing as appropriate, pointing to the pictures that go with your words etc. – bode very well for future reading and for academic achievement. I started reading to my son at about 3 months of age and we've never looked back.

You should know that babies need to learn about the differences between real 3-D objects and their 2-D depictions. Even if the picture of the object is highly realistic – like the digital pic you just took and uploaded moments ago – don't assume that they appreciate it's symbolic nature. Researchers have found that even though 9 month olds perceive depth cues and can tell objects from pictures of objects, they don't seem to get the significance of those cues. In other words, they don't really get the 2-D nature of the pics. So they tend to grasp, rub and pluck at the object in the picture as though they are trying to pick it up. The more realistic the picture, the more likely the manual exploration. I remember noticing my son trying to remove trucks from his pajamas! It was good to have this knowledge tucked away back then. No cause for alarm. If we want to read a short'ish and sweet version of this, try here.

Upside down bookDid you know that at first most kids don't even care if you read a book to them upside down? Yup. Before the age of 18-24 months children who are read to from an upside down book will go along with this quite happily. After this age, they are more likely to turn the book the right way around. Try it and see what happens. Don't be alarmed if your little one is still merrily "reading" upside down. Many things about printed matter are about convention remember…they are still working it all out.

What about learning from books? This is actually a very interesting issue. So you're thinking it's time to introduce some books, get little so-and-so up to speed on the alphabet, numbers and so in, in prep for preschool. You're a busy, modern mom. Probably going to hit up Amazon or something. What you'll find is an incredible array of early books on the topic. Lots of colourful stuff, some pop up, some very stylized (hey, I like pretty things too, why wouldn't my offspring you think), some with your favourite characters from when you were little like Curious George, Noddy (yup, I'm that old), Mickey and so on. Lots of books are made to be very attractive to young children and it seems reasonable to think this might help kick start that interest in learning. But you guessed it…the research suggests that we should think again.

Recent work has shown that young children are actually more likely to learn e.g. the alphabet, from books with very simple, clear depictions compared to books with more stylized renderings. Young children were taught the alphabet using books with either plain black letters on a simple background or using the more stylized (though fun) example you can find here (you may need to click on "search inside this book" and then on the first page. You should see an alligator with an "A" artfully placed in his mouth). The researchers tested the children's knowledge of the alphabet before and after the reading sessions. They found that the group that had learned from the simple depictions learned more.

Finally, other work shows that young children learn more from books with pictures that are also highly realistic, or visually similar to the thing they represent (so e.g. books with realistic photographs or with line drawings) compared to books with more artistic, less-realistic pictures such as cartoons. In one study, 15- and 18- month olds were taught a novel word "blicket" to go with a novel object by reading them picture books that contained the target information. The reading sessions were very low key, much like the type of parent-child reading that goes on at home, where Mom (or whomever) points out new words, interesting things in the pics etc. The researchers then tested whether or not the children extended those words from the pictures to the actual objects (and vice versa). Both groups of children could extend the words in both directions (pics to obs and vice versa), but the extent to which they could do so really depended upon how much the pics and objects resembled one another. In a nutshell, there was better word learning when the pics were photographs or line drawings of the objects, compared to when the pics were cartoon versions of the objects. 

So what's the deal about the simplicity and the realism, and learning? The short story is that children can get distracted by the perceptual features of the material (the pop up, the fun artwork etc.) and this can detract from attending to the content, or the material you want them to learn. Think about this in the context of early elementary text books and you get a hint of where some of my research is heading.

I know where you're going with this. Isn't it a privilege of childhood to enjoy all those beautiful, artistically appealing, fun, imaginative books?  What about budding art
ists? It's not all about learning letters and numbers etc. The answer is yes, of course it isn't!  Am I saying that you should you stay away from the pretty books? Well, no. If your goal is entertainment – to enjoy reading, art and a fun interactive activity – then you're home free as to what you choose (on age-appropriate topics of course) . But if your goal is educational, then it's worth choosing more carefully.

I'd love to hear about our experiences with any and all of the above. If you can, and want to send in pics or direct me to books, I'm happy to take a look. 

Happy Reading!


Selling the house, visiting Mickey Mouse and other misadventures

First off, I really wanted to thank you all for such thoughtful comments on the last couple of posts. Your various ideas, hopes, worries, beliefs and so on have made me think hard this week. In a good way. I want to return to the topic of raising moral children and some research that I've uncovered that might help us think together about how to do so, with and/or without religion. Unfortunately, I'm not going to be writing about this research this week (it may actually take me a while to digest it first, before I can filter it to its most important components and make it coherent to others).

But I'm not going to be posting this week at all. Hopefully, Tracy will get some time out of her insane schedule to post a couple of times. But I won't be because I'm "COOCOOMANGA," as my dear boy says to me often. I am feeling nutty, whacko, off kilter, to say the least. You see… we're putting our house up for sale tomorrow. My first house, my dream house, the place that I've lovingly loved and cooked in and played in with my kids since they were born… We have to sell it.  (More on why when I actually accept that fact completely).

So, I'll be in California. With my kids and husband. Frequent flyer points are awesome!  Ostensibly, we're supposed to be going because of a family reunion (husband's family), but really it's about getting out of the house with its 5 bajillion planned open houses that will kill me with two 4-year olds (if I was in town for them, that is). We'll go to Disneyland. My boys' minds will be blown and that will make me deeply happy (while the ambivalent-about-Disney-characters-and-over-marketed-plastic-crap-industry part of me will be repressed completely). I cannot freaking wait to go on the Peter Pan ride again. And to show them the "real" Mickey Mouse. And to buy them those dorky ears. I SERIOUSLY cannot wait. Don't ask. Someday I will explain to you what Disneyland meant to a first-generation Romanian family who immigrated to Canada in the height of the badness that was pre-Revolution Romania — suffice it to say that one of my favourite childhood memories is my mother's INSANE glee at the thought of going through the Haunted House just ONE. MORE. TIME. 

Back soon!

More on god, religion, children, morality and no research

The conversation in the comments section of my last post has been so interesting, I couldn't help but continue the dialogue. Yes, I know I might be alienating some readers, although I really hope I'm not. I was going to write this post in the comments section also, but then realized that (a) it was getting way too long for a comment, (b) I wanted to include some links and (c) some of you might not read comments or follow them after you post, so this might get a few more people involved in sharing their views.

First and foremost I want to once again encourage those of you who do NOT share my views to pipe in with your perspectives and help this space fill up with a multitude of voices. My choices are not meant in ANY way to disparage yours, nor are they meant to be prescriptive about what will help children grow up happier or healthier. I made it clear in my last post that research is not even close to coming up with an answer to these questions.

I completely agree with those who have said that you don't need religion to teach morality or practice a moral life. I obviously think my atheist parents brought me up with some pretty reasonable morals, given I write a whole lot of posts on this blog about how we might think about raising our children as best we can. A reader mentioned this book in the comments and I have to agree that I have found reading Parenting Beyond Belief a nice way to start thinking about the issues I'm struggling with, particularly trying to incorporate rituals and moral teachings within a larger framework that has to contend with culture, family and established religious doctrines. There are some very moving essays and some great practical tips for dealing with all sorts of issues from a skeptical/atheist/agnostic standpoint.
On the other side of the fence, from a more supportive-towards-spirituality and a less science-centred perspective, I referenced Karen Armstrong's book in the last post, but I thought I'd point you to
this article which is a much more condensed version of her approach to god, religion and spirituality.
I wanted also to elaborate a little more on where I stand on religion and god, building on some of the issues that other commenters brought up. What I'd like to teach my children — like many of you have mentioned — is a deep awe, respect and reverence for the natural world and for other humans, and the relationships we form with one another. Much of the natural world is (potentially) knowable through principles of science. Science does not leave me nor my husband feeling bereft of "higher meaning." It's quite the contrary… when I think about the wonders of how everything around us self-organizes into these exquisite patterns of order (and disorder), when I learn more and more about physics, biology, ecology, evolution and so on, I am more and more humbled.
@Andrea said it better than I could: I'm humbled by the way these natural forces work and, for me, imagining a deity did it all cheapens that sense of awe for me. Just because there are questions about this natural world that have not been answered by science (and may never be), does not mean for me that I want to invoke a "higher being" to explain away the mystery. In a way, I believe that "godliness" is IN all of this but the term is so loaded and singular and patriarchal FOR ME that it no longer can mean any of these things TO ME. Also, the term god often implies a "being," one which people feel they can talk to, communicate with, ask favours from, and so on. For me, that goes beyond the "godliness" in the natural world (and in our relationships with one another) and it's not something I feel I need to teach my children to believe or practice in order for them to feel peace and comfort or to learn moral principles. 

Many people tell me that a critical reason they feel their religion is so important, or wish they had religious beliefs when they don't, is because of the comfort that these sets of beliefs provide in terms of dealing with death… and helping our children deal with death. I want my kids to experience the wonder and awe that science can provide them… even in reference to the biggest questions about death and what happens later. Science can tell them that after death, their bodies don't just go "POOF" and disappear forever; they become part of the rest of the world. Basic physics will reassure them that matter does not disappear forever. It changes form, but it doesn't just go away. That to me is a deeply reassuring message to provide children when they worry about death — ours and theirs. Their bodies become part of the whole system we call earth and universe and nature and so on. (Don't get me wrong, this is a TERRIBLE subject to talk about with your kids and I am dreading it more than any other, to tell you the truth. Any of you who have had to have the difficult talk about your death, their death, the death of a loved relative, friend, pet, etc. know better than I do that often no words can comfort completely. I'm just not sure that science can't provide the same level of comfort that religion can, even in this tough domain). I have nothing to say about a soul and I don't feel any need to invoke one for the sake of my children. I don't really think my consciousness is all that darn important in the grand scheme of things and I think teaching my children that sort of humility might actually empower them to do some pretty cool things in THIS lifetime, with THIS consciousness. BUT I HAVE ABSOLUTELY NO RESEARCH TO BACK UP MY CLAIMS.

What do YOU believe but cannot prove?

Develpmental science and god: Now there’s a topic I never thought I’d post about

I thought I'd try to tread on ground that is usually considered decidedly UN-scientific. I've been thinking a lot about religion, faith, and the like, given that it's Passover for some of us, Easter's around the corner for even more of us, and spring has most definitively sprung in my neck of the woods. I find it fascinating and troublesome that there is shockingly little research out there on the implications of religious beliefs and/or the belief in a god (or gods) on children's development. There are studies out there that touch on the subject, of course, but systematic programs of research that investigate whether children benefit or are harmed by certain types of religious beliefs vs others do NOT abound (a kind reader pointed me out to this line of research, but it deals more with the cognitive developmental implications of assigning "theory of mind" to human vs non-human agents… in other words, not quite what we're looking for). But there ARE some studies scattered around that might help us think about the question a bit more deeply.

First, I'll back up a bit and give you my personal context which, let's face it, will colour the way I see the research and  the questions I most want answered through science. In fact, that last little bit I just wrote? That is a doozy of a thing to say for some people, I know. Yes, I firmly believe that science CAN and SHOULD inform how we think about religion and faith and its impact on children's well-being. Sam Harris, at an awesome TED talk, said it MUCH better than I could, so go ahead and listen to his talk on the subject and let me know what you think. His basic premise: Morality has for too long been the sole purview of religion and faith. This is a bad thing. A science of morality can and should exist… and the sooner the better.

(Of course, this doesn't mean we shouldn't also talk about what might be outside the bounds of science… and why. The why part is crucial for me. Karen Armstrong is this brilliant woman who does an excellent job of cracking my brain open every time I read another page of her book, The Case for God)

I'll come right out and say that I generally consider myself a hethen in that I was raised a (very guilt-prone, heavily moralistic) atheist. I do not associate myself with one religious institution and although I have stepped foot in many types of places of worship, I do not groc most. Of course, this upbringing and belief system will now heavily inform what my children will learn about religion and faith. There are several studies that have shown that, in general, children and adolescents most often appropriate the religious beliefs of their parents. Yes, they question them. But the better the parent-child relationship is, the more likely that children will align with their parents' faith. Also, factors such as growing up in a relatively strict family, with a father working out of the home and a mother in the home, and marital happiness all are associated with an increased chance of children and parents sharing the same religious beliefs

So, as I sit singing with my children at the Passover seder (my husband
is an atheist/agnostic Jew), as I cry with my in-laws about the plight
of oppressed people (thankfully, they focus on oppression
EVERYWHERE, not just for the Jews), as I watch with a mind-boggling
amount of pride as my children sing "the four questions"… in FREAKING
HEBREW, as I read from the haggadah and say words I don't believe (but
also don't feel hypocritical about reading), I wonder what this whole
thing is all about. I wonder what I'm teaching my children. What is this "thing" that they will likely appropriate from my husband and me? What are the core messages about religion and faith that I'm imparting to them? I wonder
what I'm going to say to my kids when they ask me why I'm praising a
god I don't profess to believe in, why I celebrate a group of people
who I most definitely do NOT feel are the "chosen" ones (for that would
imply that others have not been chosen and, dude, that can't be a good
thing). But I DO sing, and I DO teach my children these rituals and I
DO feel they are important and meaningful and quite beautiful (some of
it, not all, of course). I think the themes of oppression, death, rebirth, renewal, hope and transcendence are so important to discuss… over and over, year after year. I DO want them to celebrate spring and connection and love with their extended family. I want them to feel
connected not only to this generation and the last, but to generations
and generations before them who sang the same songs, told the same
stories, ate the same food, made the same jokes (oy… the jokes). And
I can't seem to do this outside of a context that revolves around a
deity that is not my own.

And we'll also be going to Easter Egg Hunts this weekend.

So many of you will be going to church and telling another story this weekend to your children. But at our seder table last night, I kept realizing that the Christian story at this same time of year has such similar themes: oppression, death, rebirth and so on. I'm not a theology expert and I've read far too little on the subject of how these Judeo-Christian stories arose in the first place and are connected. But it DOES seem to me, on the most basic level, that we're telling some pretty darn similar stories to our children.

So, here's what I'd like to talk about… or, rather, here's where I'd like to start this conversation that I hope can take us to some interesting places: What are you teaching your children about morality, faith, god, religion, worship, and so on? What do you most hope to give your children by telling these stories? What questions do you wish science would tackle in this area? Do you even think science has a place in this discussion? How would you feel if your children appropriated a completely different set of beliefs about faith than you espouse?

(I FULLY acknowledge that I have only touched on the two most widely talked about religious traditions in this post. In part, I do this out of ignorance. I don't want to misrepresent faiths that I know only a tiny bit about. I'd love to hear from you about the whole variety of faith-based traditions that are being practiced at this time and how you think they can effect your children's well-being.)

It’s hard being a family

I just read a great post over at Science-based Parenting (a group of parents writing from a "skeptics" perspective). Have you read the blog? The post resonated so well with many thoughts I've been having recently about teaching my children how to cope with their own intense negative emotions, especially when those emotions are aimed at the people they are closest to, those they need the most, those without whom they could not survive (literally). The post was a reflection on the movie (and book), Where The Wild Things Are. Go read it (trust me)… it invokes so many of what I believe are the key emotional experiences that form the building blocks of our personalities. Experiences in particular that involve jealousy, shame, anger and anxiety. I also reviewed the book here and suggested why the story has appealed to so many kids (and adults).

If you haven't figured it out yet, I don't think of childhood as a happy-happy, carefree, rainbow-filled period in development. I sure would like my children to experience as little pain and sorrow as possible, but I know they'll feel some. And I know that there's not a whole lot I can do about that. What I CAN do is give them a safe place to express and work through their tough emotions. I can also try to cultivate a family environment that does not quash all conflict, but instead works through it, with all the messiness that that might entail. (After all, it's within the family microcosm that children most often practice how to regulate, evaluate, negotiate, and express their inner worlds. If most emotions are left unexpressed and hidden, then it's difficult to get the chance to learn much about how to handle them later on.)  I can also own my own mistakes and communicate that to my kids in developmentally appropriate ways.

I suspect that one of the hardest realizations that comes about in childhood is the insight that your parents aren't all-powerful, all-knowing and perfect. Oy… the anxiety that must come about with this awareness… I wonder if it's a "sudden awareness" or if it slowly dawns on a child, much like the idea that Santa doesn't exist. I suspect that in some cases, traumatic family events may induce these more "sudden" realizations while a more gradual understanding of human fallibility may emerge in the absence of trauma… but that's pure speculation. Now I'm off to see if any developmental researcher has actually studied that "aha" moment when a parent loses their deity status in the child's eye…

Blog block and some link love

Hi everyone. I've been going through a massive writing/blog block. Most of it has to do with feeling completely overwhelmed with my work while I plan a very, VERY big transition. I haven't actually come out with this move fully to all the officials that need to know, so I'm going to keep this vague for another 2 weeks. But it does mean that I've been having a hard time focusing on pulling together the right research for several posts I have in mind.

I'm also selling our house in 10 days.

And looking for a new house.

And generally losing my mind through it all.

But I haven't forgotten about you all. And I am by no means planning on abandoning this space. I really love writing this blog and all the great interactions I've been having with some many of you bright, funny, fascinating parents out there. So please bear with me while I get my sh*% together.

For now, here are three articles suggesting very different perspectives on discipline / parenting approaches. Food for thought for sure, but I just couldn't put together my pros and cons lists coherently enough to make this a "real" post. It's hard not to form SOME opinions though, as you'll see if you read them. Maybe they'll inspire or piss some of you off enough that an interesting discussion can ensue in the comments:

1. Here's an article about the merits of "permissive parenting," one of the three parenting styles we've discussed in this previous post.

2. Here's one suggesting that spanking our kids could lower their IQ.

3. And then there's this one, an article that espouses the varied merits of spanking children.

I'd be thrilled to hear what you all think of these various views. In fact, I wish we could all just meet at a coffee shop and have a proper chat about it all — I could sure use the company and the caffeine…

Let’s recap: 4 – 5.5 months pretty much sucks… for most of us

I'll start with a confession. When my boys were 4 months, I hit my wall. I was so sleep deprived; I often got 2-4 hours of sleep / night for weeks. On a good night when my husband took several night feedings, I would get 5 hours of sleep (I know, this seems like HEAVEN for some of you right now, but I'm a sleep wuss so I couldn't cope well even with that "much" sleep). I NEEDED my brain back. So the first time we tried sleep training, the boys were 4 months. The short story is that it was a miserable failure… I was a miserable failure. There was no pattern to how often they'd wake up and how long they'd cry.  Although we'd TRY to be consistent and implement a sleep-training plan (not CIO, but still some crying was happening all the time) there always seemed to be some major issue that one or the other of the boys was going through: one started teething as early as 4 months, one would be hungry constantly and needed to  "cluster feed," the swaddle seemed too confining, the swaddle seemed too loose, one had flipped on his stomach, the other didn't burp before being put down, and so on. In sum, it sucked. And there seemed too many variables at work, too many possible and impossible baby reasons for them to legitimately need a better, less wimpy, more kick-ass, responsive, sensitive mom. So, after about a week of banging our heads against the wall with some pretty basic sleep-training methods, I gave up. And then I proceeded to lose my mind for the next 2 months. The only thing that got me through it was knowing that it was TEMPORARY. I knew I had a plan and I would put it in place… at 6 months.

Mine is not a unique or even particularly interesting story. It is SO common. So what's the deal with this age? Four months is the beginning of a major stage transition in cognitive development. Babies at this age are now beginning to coordinate simple actions, like reaching and grasping, into routines that have a deliberate impact on the world. Now your baby can actually reach what he’s aiming for, put it in his mouth, and explore it. That means that objects are accessible, reachable, touchable, and YUM, suckable. But more than that, babies at this age are beginning to develop expectations. They start being able to PREDICT what's going to happen in the world. When they reach, they expect what they reach for to be there. Having this prediction confirmed time after time gives them a sense that their actions are causing a particular effect. Piaget termed this level of cause-effect thinking “magico-phenomenalistic causality” (ah, yes, we psychologist are so hip with our terms…), which just means that the baby has a kind of magical expectation that his actions will produce desirable effects. With respect to people, these growing expectations are the key to gratifying exchanges of smiles and gestures; it's that incredibly social "aha" time when the baby realizes when I coo to mummy, she'll laugh, when I laugh, she'll laugh back! Babies will now make a noise in order to elicit a smile from the parent. A time when attention to other people is not just a static state of awestruck delight (like at 3 months and before), but a state of turn-taking, when every noise, every gesture, is offered in order to get a response from the other person. That response means everything. And so, in the middle of the night, perhaps during dreams, certainly when babies wake up throughout the night or during the "middle" of their nap, this is what they're most concerned with: re-engaging that power to socially connect, experiment with, and play with the most important people in their worlds.

When we try to sleep train at this age, we need, at some point (like, at 4 in the morning!), to cut off this quest for a reaction. And babies are not usually happy about this. If they coo, they want you to goo-goo back. ALL. THE. TIME. If they cry, they want you to run and soothe them. EVERY. TIME. They're playing with these cause and effect relationships and they want to feel like they've mastered this little world that continues to grow for them.

In short, the four month stage transition is as magnificent as it is crazy-making. I think one of the hardest parts of this time is that most parents have reached the end of their sleep-deprivation ropes. It's around this time that many of us lose all that adrenaline we've been running on and the realization of how difficult it all is, and how long it could go on for, hits hard. Maybe for some of us, an equally bad part of this stage is that we've lost much of the social support we had when our babies were newborns and our kind mothers, friends and neighbours brought us freezable dinners and words of sympathy that made us feel a little less alone. Also, many parents have to return to work around this time in their baby's life and oftentimes this seems like an impossible transition to make.

How are you coping with the 4-month stage? What's the hardest part for your family? If you've already been through this period, what do you remember about this time in your family's life and please tell us all how you managed to muddle through it…