Category Archives: Healthy Child

Beginnings, endings and the important stuff between

quilt puzzle

In the early 2000s, this poster was used to help explain the concept behind Healthy Child Manitoba.
Although no longer current, the poster is still accurate. It illustrates the partnership between government departments to ensure the healthy development of Manitoba children.

I always thought of it as a puzzle, with those jutting out pieces fitting into the concave parts of the next to form a whole that suddenly became a unified picture.
But years later I have come to think of it as a quilt. The topping is all these services stitched together. The backing is the support given by government and community. The fill is our children and families, connected by the services that are available to everyone. The stitching is the common thread throughout.

Although both analogies are appropriate, I prefer the quilt version.
Puzzles are fun and for many they are play, which relates strongly to early childhood. But quilts are warm and can become fuzzy with usage, reminding me of family and community.
A puzzle can be taken apart. It is much more difficult to take a quilt apart.
If you lose a puzzle piece, what used to be fun becomes frustration. It is much harder to lose a quilt.
And often I find that the value of a quilt is directly proportional to its age and usage. The more fraying the better. Frayed puzzle parts, however, do not make for good play.

Analogies are easy; in life, it is not quite so simple. Families are complicated. Communities are complicated.
But what a marvelous quilt we can create when we spend the time and make the effort.


Childhood has a beginning and an end, although the latter is not so well-defined. Some manage to keep their inner child alive much longer than others.
The seasons of our lives come to an end as well. Pre-school becomes school-age. School-age become teenage. Teenage becomes adult. The child may eventually become the parent.
Beginnings and endings could not exist without each other. One flows into the other.

As the late Harry Chapin used to sing:

“All my life’s a circle
Sunrise and sundown
The moon rose through the nighttime
Till the day break comes around.”

Or as poet T.S. Eliot wrote:

“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

Here’s to  the further exploration of quilts and puzzles, partnerships and relationships, parents, children and family.


Happy New Year

Happy New Year


The beginning of each year is a time for looking forward. Perhaps making resolutions, perhaps not. Some of us search for inspirational messages to post on our social media pages.

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”

These words were written by American writer and humourist Mark Twain, who was born in 1835. It is not hard to imagine the author of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn penning the words; there are so many waterway references.

Another famous man, born forty-four years later in 1879, said this:

“A person who never made a mistake never tried anything new.”

He was Albert Einstein, the theoretical physicist and author of “the world’s most famous equation”. E=mc2 You know the one.

Fast forward eighty-one years and the British author Neil Gaiman was born. His New Year’s quote is a personal favourite.

“I hope that in this year to come, you make mistakes.

Because if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world. You’re doing things you’ve never done before, and more importantly, you’re Doing Something.

So that’s my wish for you, and all of us, and my wish for myself. Make New Mistakes. Make glorious, amazing mistakes. Make mistakes nobody’s ever made before. Don’t freeze, don’t stop, don’t worry that it isn’t good enough, or it isn’t perfect, whatever it is: art, or love, or work or family or life.

Whatever it is you’re scared of doing, Do it.

Make your mistakes, next year and forever.”

The births of these men, two authors and one scientist, span 125 years. Basically though, their quotes are the same.

Do not be afraid to try.

It’s a message that is equally true for adults and children. And the passage of time will never make it less true.


What’s in a Village?

Lots of children.

So says Dr. Peter Gray, a research professor at Boston College and the author of an article in Psychology Today entitled “The Culture of Childhood: We’ve Almost Destroyed It.”

“Children learn the most valuable lessons from other children, away from adults,” Gray says.

In fact, he turns the much-used African proverb around to suggest that the village raises the child because of the presence of many children within its boundaries. He quotes J.R. Harris (1998):

The reason it takes a village is not because it requires a quorum of adults to nudge erring youngsters back onto the paths of righteousness. It takes a village because in a village there are always enough kids to form a play group.

Gray says that children are biologically designed to pay attention to the other children in their lives, to try to fit in with them, to be able to do what they to, to know what they know.

Throughout most of human history, that’s how children become educated and that’s still largely how children become educated today, despite our misguided attempts to stop it and turn the educating job over to adults.

There are many lessons, he says, that children learn or can learn from other children that they cannot or are not likely to learn from adults.

  1. Authentic communication

For example:  an adult points to a red ball and asks “What color is that?” Gray argues that this is not an honest question, since the adult knows the answer. It is not really a question at all; it is a test.  A child would never ask such a question, nor would a child give false praise to another child, the way that adults praise a child’s artwork, for example.

2. Independence and courage

According to Gray, the ultimate goal of childhood is to move away from dependence on parents and establish oneself as one’s own person. Part of gaining independence is gaining courage to face the challenges and deal with the emergencies that are part of every day life. Children must learn to manage fear.

3. Creating and understanding the purpose and modifiability of rules.

Adults follow the rules when they play a game. Children make up their own. When playing with other children, they feel free to challenge ideas about the rules. They learn to negotiate. They learn that rules are not ‘fixed in heaven’, but made by humans to make the game more fair.

This is an important lesson, Gray says. It is a cornerstone of democracy.

4. Practicing and building on the skills and values of adult culture

Children incorporate into their play many of the skills and values that they observe among adults. That is way farmers’ children play at farming, for example.

5. Getting along with others as equals

The adult-child relationship is not equal. The adult has all the power. By playing with other children, children learn how to get along with peers: how to pay attention to the needs of others, how to share, how to negotiate, how to assert their own needs and desires.

And here’s something else that Gray turns inside out and asks us to re-think. We bemoan the ‘screen time’ that our children have; we want to ban or limit that time. But Gray says that children are using the Internet to connect because adults have prevented them from getting together anywhere else. They have creatively found a way to do what they have always done.

If we did ban or limit screen time, Gray says, while still banning children from public spaces without adult supervision, we would finally succeed in destroying the culture of childhood.

We would prevent children from educating themselves in the ways they always have, and we would see the rise of a generation of adults who don’t know how to be adults because they never had a chance to practice it.

Gray’s entire article can be found at

Gardeners and Carpenters

An interview with psychologist and author Alison Gopnik in the August 22 issue of Macleans magazine is worth the read.

Alison Gopnik is a professor of psychology and affiliate professor of philosophy at the University of California at Berkeley.

She is an internationally recognized leader in the study of children’s learning and development and was the first to argue that children’s minds could help us understand deep philosophical questions. She was one of the founders of the study of “theory of mind”, illuminating how children come to understand the minds of others, and she formulated the “theory theory”, the idea that children learn in the same way that scientists do. In other words, they formulate a theory and then test it to see if it works.

Caring deeply about our children is part of what makes us human. Yet the thing we call “parenting” is a surprisingly new invention. In the past thirty years, the concept of parenting and the multibillion-dollar industry surrounding it have transformed child care into obsessive, controlling, goal-oriented labor intended to create a particular kind of child and thereby a particular kind of adult. In The Gardener and the Carpenter, the pioneering developmental psychologist and philosopher Alison Gopnik argues that the familiar twenty-first-century picture of parents and children is profoundly wrong – it’s not just based on bad science, it’s also bad for kids and parents.

Drawing on the study of human evolution and on her own cutting-edge scientific research into how children learn, Gopnik shows that although caring for children is immensely important, the goal shouldn’t be to shape them so they turn out a certain way. Children are designed to be messy and unpredictable, playful and imaginative, and very different both from their parents and from one another. The variability and flexibility of childhood allow them to innovate, create, and survive in an unpredictable world. “Parenting” won’t make children learn – rather, caring parents let children learn by creating a secure, loving environment.

– from the front jacket flap, “The Gardener and the Carpenter”, Alison Gopnik 2016

Gopnik uses the carpenter as a metaphor for the 21st century parent. The carpenter knows from the outset what he wants to create; he has a plan. Using the tools at his disposal, he whittles and joins and sometimes hammers. The end product is his. If there are faults with it, they lie in his execution of the work.

The gardener, on the other hand, plants the seed and has no idea what will grow. But he gives the seed the best chance he can. He waters as necessary. He culls the weeds that come up around the plant. He keeps an eye out for pests. His job is to watch over the plant as it grows, but he has little control over what the adult plant will look like. It may look nothing like the picture on the seed package.

A carpenter actively participate in the creation of his project. When it is done, he gets to keep it. A gardener on the other hand oversees the process, but possession is temporary.

A person could play with the analogy for a very long time, finding much to think about.

 The concept of parenting as a verb is interesting and relatively new. As Gobnik says in her interview in Macleans, we don’t ‘child’ our parents or ‘wife’ our husbands or ‘husband’ our wives. So why do we ‘parent’ our children?

If you would like to learn more about Gopnik’s theory, read the Maclean’s article. Better yet, read the book.

What children want

I first saw this commercial in 2014 and have seen it several times again this year. It’s worth sharing.

Ikea Spain invited ten families to participate in the filming of a new commercial for the Christmas season.

First of all, the children were separated from their parents and asked to write letters to the Three Kings, making their requests for Christmas gifts. In Spain, the Three Kings, not Santa, bring gifts and they bring them January 6, not on Christmas Day.

The children’s requests varied from the expected (a Wii) to the musical (a guitar and a piano) to the downright impossible (a unicorn).

Their letters were folded and put into individual envelopes;  the envelopes were then sealed and placed in a mail box for delivery to the Three Kings.

Next the children were asked to write letters to their parents. What would you like from your parents this Christmas, they were asked.

The answers?

“I’d like my parents to spend more time with me.”

“I’d like my mom to tickle me.”

“I’d like my parents to spend one whole day with me.”

“I’d like my mom to play soccer with me.”

None of these were a surprise to the parents.

What they did not know was that their children had been asked a third and final question:

If you could  send only one of those letters, which one would it be? The letter to the Three Kings? Or the letter to your parents?

If you haven’t seen the commercial already and would like to see its conclusion, go to:

But I bet you’ve already guessed which letter the children chose to send.




Newcomers and oldtimers

Lately I’ve been thinking about newcomers and old-timers.

A newcomer is anyone who has just moved to your community, whether they moved there from just down the road or from a country half way round the world. Old-timers have been around so long no one remembers where they came from.

I am not a newcomer to anything except perhaps old(er) age. I live in the same community I was born in. And with the exception of the years I went away to school and the years I worked before marriage, I have lived here all my life.

I am a Canadian by birth.  I am not an immigrant, but I do have immigrant roots.

I am the fifth generation in a line that began in the Orkney Islands and the fourth generation in other lines that began in Iceland. My Scottish great-great-grandfather and my Icelandic great-grandfathers came here to escape poverty, crop failures and natural disasters.

I know that my ancestors faced some of the same challenges that today’s newcomers face. I know that children, for example, were given the strap at school for speaking their mother tongue instead of English. And that parents were told to speak only English in the home to make it easier for their children.

They were certainly different times, though. Today’s newcomers are not likely to be threatened by outbreaks of scurvy, although the harsh Manitoba winters continue to challenge all of us. My ancestors wrote letters to the home country that took months to arrive; Internet access has made communication speedier, although penmanship may never be the same.

I’ve come to realize that immigrant roots run very deep, even though we may not think about it much. The attitudes, beliefs, customs and folklore glimpsed in our words and actions can often be traced back to those who carried them as invisible luggage to this new land.

In a way, Canadians like me are a link between the old immigrant and the new.

Our ancestors came to Canada with the hope of a better life for themselves and their families. Generations later, we are that hope fulfilled.

That same hope lives in people who are newcomers to this country and it connects us each to the other in positive and life-enriching ways.















Brain games

brain game

How do you build a tower with pipe cleaners and drinking straws?

From the bottom up. Carefully.

Exactly the way a brain is developed.

Judy Cameron, a professor of psychiatry and neuroscience at the University of Pittsburgh, told participants at the Canadian Association of Family Resource Programs conference in Hamilton last month that brains are built over time and that early life stress impacts lifelong health.

Some stress is positive – getting married, for example, or having a baby. Other stress is negative, but tolerable when there are supports in place – the death of a loved one or losing your job. Negative stress for which you have no buffers becomes toxic stress; sources of toxic stress for infants include neglect, maltreatment, postpartum depression and parental substance abuse.

Cameron then led participants in what she has called the “brain architecture game”, a game that is still in the developmental stages but will soon be available for everyone.

The object of the game is to build a tower (brain) using pipe cleaners (neurons) and supports (drinking straws). Tallest structure standing at the end of the game is the winner.

If your tower collapses at any point, you are out of the game.

We started with what I can only call a kind of  genetic lottery. You throw the die to come up with the number of pipe cleaners that will form the foundation for your brain tower. Six is maximum; our table rolled four. You fasten the pipe cleaners together, remembering that once connected, the pipe cleaners cannot be taken apart later.

Another throw determines the number of supports the baby will have – strong parent-child attachment, for example, extended family nearby, economic stability.

Our table threw  a one which entitled us to one straw.

By inserting a pipe cleaner inside a straw, you made it stronger. The brain you were building had more stability.

Now that our foundation was in place, we began the task of building upwards. For each year of the child’s life, the team draws three cards. In year one of our child’s life,  the cards we drew were ‘inherited disease’, ‘childhood illness’ and ‘malnutrition.’ Toxic stresses, each and every one of them.

For years one through five, each positive stress card drawn gives you a straw to use for additional support. Each toxic stress card gives you a pipe cleaner.

When you get to ages six through eight, you can no longer earn straws. Only pipe cleaners. And each toxic stressor earns you a small weight to add to the structure.

During the course of the game, our child experienced sixteen toxic stresses, nine tolerable stresses and eight positive.

Besides the inherited health conditions and poor nutrition, we suffered through the town’s destruction in an earthquake, a parent who lost a job, exposure to chemical poisons, conflicts with peers, an unsafe home, an awful teacher, drug exposure, domestic violence and bullying at school. On the positive side,  we had a language-rich environment, good friends in the community, a clean and safe playground and popularity in school.

Our brain structure was a bit ragtag but it did not collapse. It stood tall and we were proud of ourselves.

Did we learn something? You bet.

We learned how important those first years are in the development of a child’s brain, how connections made cannot be unmade and how supports can make toxic stress into tolerable stress with positive outcomes for the child’s future.

Playing the  game also reinforced something we already knew. Still we welcomed the reminder.

Play IS learning.



The case of the disappearing acorn

Margaret Atwood and other literary giants have spoken out recently against the dropping of various nature words from the Oxford Junior dictionary.

Some of the dropped words  include acorn, blackberries, minnow ,buttercup, catkin, cauliflower, chestnut, clover, hamster, heron, herring, kingfisher, lark, leopard, lobster, magpie, minnow, mussel, newt, otter, ox, oyster ,panther.almond, beaver,blackberry and crocus.

(One word that did surprise me was “beaver’. But then I am a Canadian and the beaver is the symbol of my country. The average Oxford junior dictionary reader may not share my interest in large rodents with flat tails, a good work ethic and high pest potential.)

These nature words have been replaced in the Oxford Junior dictionary by words that illustrate  our current tech savvy.

Instead of “A is for Acorn, B is for Buttercup, C is for Crocus”, we have “A is for Analog, B is for Broadband, C is for Cut and Paste”.

Spokespersons for the publication say that today’s children no longer use these words, no longer see these things and seldom go outside to try to see them. On the other hand, they do understand the Internet and the concept of cutting and pasting, for example, is well known.

Atwood and her colleagues are dismayed because today’s children don’t have the opportunity to get outdoors as much as their parents did and if they don’t see these words in books, the words and their meanings will disappear.

Same issue: different response. Both legitimate.

From the outset, I have to say that I write this as someone who knows what an acorn is and who, as a child, tasted several and found them edible. I have caught minnows in a pail and put a buttercup blossom against my throat to see if I liked butter. I have taken pictures of a beaver in the ditch that runs in front of my house and have chased magpies away from the dog dish.

I can remember gathering acorns under the farmyard oak tree. I grew up on stories of the industrious squirrel who stowed his nuts away for a snowy day and thereby lived to see the next spring. My grandmother said that the more acorns there were and the  thicker the shell on each, the harder the winter was going to be.

And I grew up on axioms such as “big oaks from little acorns grow’ and “the acorn doesn’t fall far from the tree.” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “The creation of a thousand forests is in one acorn.”

My world has been enriched on several different levels by little acorns and,big oak trees.

But am I worried because the Oxford Junior Dictionary does not contain the word ‘acorn’? I don’t think so.

I’m willing to bet that a seven year old who understands the term ‘cut and paste’ also knows how to google something on the internet.  Google ‘oak tree seed’ and you get more than one and a half million hits. ‘Oak nut’ gets you 12.5 million and ‘acorn’ itself more than 41 million (although not all of them have anything to do with oak trees).

There are other books that contain the word or pictures that illustrate it – other dictionaries, picture books, story books, poems and rhymes.

I’m an acorn, small and round,
Lying on the cold, cold ground.
People pass and step on me,
That’s why I’m all cracked, you see.
I’m a nut, (clap, clap)
I’m a nut (clap, clap)
I’m a nut, (clap, clap)
I’m a nut. (clap, clap)

 We just need to remember to open those books for our children.

Better yet, we just need to spend time outside with our children and talk together about what we see.




Yule cat blues


This is a tourist shop version of Iceland’s infamous Yule cat. It has a lengthy almost unpronounceable name, but all you need to know about it is that it comes to homes on Christmas Eve to see whether the residents are wearing new clothes. If they are not, it eats the children. (A less grisly version of the tale states that it will eat the children’s Christmas dinner instead).

Apparently there are similar stories about a goat in Norway and a bull in the Baltics.

The Yule cat may have been nothing more than an incentive for children to behave, similar to the threat of coal in a Christmas stocking. Or it may have been a reference to desperate times when the sheep sickened and died and there was no woolen yarn for making garments. Such times in Iceland’s history were marked by famine and high childhood mortality.

I had never heard of the Yule cat until a few years ago; certainly it played no part in our Christmas traditions. But my Icelandic mother always insisted that each of her six children had something new to wear on Christmas Eve. I thought it was just a family tradition. Now I wonder if it were not more of a cultural one.

Culture defines and shapes  families  and family life in ways that can sometimes be obvious, sometimes not so. But whether obvious or hidden, they are equally important.

Charlotte Shoup Olsen (associate professor and family systems extension specialist at Kansas State University) and Linda Skogrand, associate professor and family life extension specialist at Utah State University) note in an online dissertation that “educators need to have an understanding of the role that culture plays in family life among potential participants from their communities, especially if the targeted audience has a background different from the educator”.

Being unaware of one’s own cultural framework creates the “potential for both personal conflict and interpersonal misunderstanding in multicultural environments”, said P.M. Greenfield and L.K. Suzuki in the 1998 paper “Culture and human development: Implications for parenting, education, pediatrics, and mental health”.

Sharing of cultural backgrounds and traditions both within and outside the family unit can therefore be an effective way of increasing that necessary awareness.

And what better time for sharing than at this time of year when so many cultures have their own ways of celebrating and so many cultures do not celebrate at all?



Capacity Building by Definition

CAPACITY BUILDING – the development of knowledge, skills and attitudes in individuals and groups of people relevant in the design, development and maintenance of institutional and operational infrastructures and processes that are locally meaningful. (Groot & Mulhern, 2001)

What’s that you say?

This is an official definition of the term “capacity building”, one of the four possible program requirements for Healthy Child Coalition – Central Region funding. But ‘officialese’ is not that easy to understand.

I prefer a simpler approach.

One of the meanings of the verb ‘build’ is ‘to establish, increase or strengthen”. Capacity can be defined as “the ability or power to do, experience or understand something.”

Therefore, capacity building becomes establishing or strengthening that ability.

Part of the coalition’s mandate is to help establish or strengthen the ability of Central Region communities to address the needs of their children and families.

Each community is unique. Each community is at a different stage in its journey.  But many are showing signs of their success.

Logically, if all communities grew in their ability to meet their needs, there would eventually be no more need for the coalition. It would have done its job.

It’s not that easy, of course. Nothing is. The process does not have start and end points; it is ongoing.

But when you come to think about it, it’s rather like being a parent. You teach your children how to do things so that they can do them on their own without you.

Parenting as capacity building. Put that in your dictionary.