The “scientific” way to raise our kids is so intuitively simple many parents are likely underestimate its importance, Notre Dame University paediatricians and public health researchers have warned in a new report.
The researchers explored the latest science for children’s optimal mental, physical and emotional development, finding the best advice is as basic as it is pivotal.
The basics in our children’s lives can make the greatest difference. Credit:Stocksy
Simple activities like reading books, playing with our kids, preparing meals and eating together are highly significant for children's emotional development, while unscheduled time allows children to develop creativity through boredom, improving their resilience, independence and resourcefulness.
Looking at physical health, the report said encouraging physical activity will improve both physical and mental health, offering water and whole foods instead of juice and junk foods will boost children's microbiome, and learning to switch off devices to allow for social engagement and sleep.
“It’s not simply going back to basics, it’s understanding why the basics are important,” explains lead author Christine Bennett, a paediatrician, mother of five and dean of the school of medicine at Notre Dame University.
Because, unfortunately, many of these basics are not currently being met.
The report found Australian children spend more time interacting with their devices than interacting with their parents each week (an average of 14.6 hours in front of screens versus 9.3 hours with their parents).
It also found nearly one third of children aged 12 to 15 experience broken or inadequate sleep as a result of excessive screen time.
“Sleep is when your brain and body heal. It’s when your brain defrags,” Bennett says. “For children it’s particularly important.”
Having more face time than FaceTime is also vital for the wellbeing of developing brains: excessive screen time is linked with poorer mental health and often displaces physical activity, playing with friends, and face-to-face interactions.
Bennett recounts seeing a toddler repeatedly trying to get the attention of her mother while they were on a train together. The mother ignored the child and continued scrolling through her phone. Eventually, without saying a word, the mother pulled an iPad from her bag and put it in front of her daughter to keep her quiet.
She tells the story not to “bash people up”, but to remind parents of the significance of our time and attention to our children.
According to the report, many decades of “strong research” reveal that regular time where children are physically and emotionally close to their caregivers “act to positively shape” their development.
“Time when the adult providing their care can focus their attention, affection and stimulation – the optimum conditions for children to learn and engage,” the report says.
“Material rewards are not meaningful expressions of love. Children feel loved when they are given time and attention.”
Bennett adds that social connectedness is “one of the predictors of length of life, our sense of purpose and our sense of self”.
“We can be so busy and so rushed, children don’t get the chance to buddy up and move as a pack or see their grandparents or feel part of the broader community,” she says.
In an age where children are scheduled within an inch of their lives and parents feel run off their feet, these basics are often forgotten, or considered somehow less important.
“[The report] is really supporting what we have always intuitively thought; reading to our children, having fun with them and spending time with them is really good for their brains,” Bennett explains.
“They are the things that get squeezed out of the busy life and they are as important and powerful as the music lesson… lessons are great but you have got to get balance there.
“We now have the science to empower parents to spend that time with their children doing those activities, knowing you are doing them the world of good.”
The five practical ways to improve your children's wellbeing
Safety, security, love and belonging: talk, listen, read, play, sing, dance and hug every day.
Healthy eating and drinking: food prepared and enjoyed together. A balanced diet full of fresh fruit and vegetables, with a priority focus on whole and unrefined foods. Water as the preferred drink.
Active play: encouraging creativity and imagination. Be more interactive. Playing sports and games that children enjoy and spending time outside.
Healthy sleep: a priority for all the family. Healthy sleep hygiene and developing a bedtime routine.
Positive screen time: use digital technologies to aid, rather than dominate, living by learning to use the off-button to limit screen time and avoid cyber-addiction. Monitor the online "playground".
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