Raising a Well-Rounded Child
Practical Ways to Build Lasting Life Skills
by Bob Benenson
Childhood is a time of magical discovery and a training ground for adult life. Yet today’s world introduces unprecedented problems that can challenge a child’s bedrock: escalating violence including mass shootings, bullying, social media pressure, environmental crises and cultural conflict, not to mention the COVID-19 lockdowns.
For kids to develop the solid foundation they will need in these trying times, a powerful approach is a full-spectrum one that rounds out their experiences and skills, while instilling confidence and resilience. It includes a broad-based education, artistic and cultural exploration, experiences of diverse cultures, training in mind-body tools, healthy eating habits and connecting with nature. These facets enable children to cope, adapt and thrive in a changing world. It gives them the necessary building blocks for the rest of their lives, which has an invaluable return for all of us now and for future generations.
The Parental Toolbox
Boston-based Casey O’Brien Martin, an expressive arts therapist and author of Skills for Big Feelings: A Guide for Teaching Kids Relaxation, Regulation, and Coping Techniques, defines a well-rounded child as “one who is balanced in the many different areas of their life: socially with friends and by having their own interests and hobbies; physically by being active and eating nourishing foods; emotionally by accepting and acknowledging their feelings and using coping skills to deal with uncomfortable or stressful situations.”
Encouraging kids to try new things—and allowing them to experience failure—affects how they respond to life. “Well-rounded children are flexible in their thinking toward changes in schedule or environment, have been exposed to boundaries and as they mature, can apply their different experiences to their understanding of safety, social skills, fundamental learning and communication,” says April Christopherson, an occupational therapist and owner of Exploration Kids Therapy, in Gunnison, Colorado.
Kids keenly observe and try on adult behavior, and in this practice lies tremendous potential. “One of the very best things parents, caregivers and educators can do is to model healthy coping skills. Just telling kids what to do is not enough. We need to walk the talk, too,” Martin says. Attaining family balance is key to avoid over-scheduling and feeling overwhelmed, especially if prompting kids to follow their bliss. Integrating mindfulness techniques like meditation, yoga and sensory engagement into a household’s everyday routines can help to fortify emotional stability when kids experience rough waters.
“When kids learn to focus on their breathing, it helps to bring their attention to the present moment. By practicing mindfulness daily, these practices become second nature, and kids are able to tap into them whenever they need to. By teaching children these tools at a young age, we are planting seeds that they will be able to grow and cultivate throughout their lives,” says Maura Bradley, founder of Bee You Yoga and Mindfulness, in Manasquan, New Jersey. The author of Mindfulness For Kids In 10 Minutes A Day emphasizes that mindfulness can be a formal or informal practice, can involve the entire family and does not require a lot of time. It can be as simple as taking a moment each morning to connect with each other, notice the weather or play an “eye spy” game on the way to school.
Christopherson concurs: “I suggest a child practice meditation, breathwork and mindfulness, first together with a parent or caregiver to get familiar with the practices, and then practice the techniques during non-stressful times.”
The Colors of Learning
Focusing on grades with a one-size-fits-all educational model poses many problems, and changing times demand a broader, more vibrant paradigm. COVID-19 lockdowns brought radical changes to the classroom, and more than ever, parents are opting for a more holistic approach with various methods of homeschooling or whole-child curriculums like those offered at Waldorf, Sudbury and Montessori schools. Alternative learning presents the world as a laboratory, goes beyond math, reading and science, and endorses character-building immersion in community, compassion and culture.
“Montessori learning stresses the beauty of nature,” says Ruth Tencati, a Montessori teacher in Charlotte, North Carolina. “Geography, music, art and practical life skills are taught. Ideally, each child is given lessons that balance learning in all areas and at the right time for each child’s level of skill and curiosity.” Students are given peace education, “where they are encouraged to think of others, as well as themselves, and to see themselves as part of a community of learners,” she says. Tencati views technology as an ally when it is used to deepen students’ understanding of lessons, but believes it should never be used as a pacifier.
Familiarity with the arts is key to a well-rounded view of life, but the number of school-based arts programs has been declining since 1980 due to a heavy focus on standardized testing. To assess the impact of art on children, Rice University researchers ran a randomized controlled trial in 2019 with 10,548 students enrolled in 42 schools in the Houston area. They found that students that participated in the arts at elementary and middle school levels improved their writing skills, increased their compassion for others and were less likely to misbehave in class.
In lieu of school-based art programs, kids can learn from virtual tours designed specifically for them by the Louvre, the Van Gogh Museum and other outstanding art museums. For a fun dive into history, the British Museum, Boston Children’s Museum and the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History bring the past to life with online “field trips” just for kids.
When kids learn about other cultures, religions, languages and belief systems, it increases their capacity for empathy and the ability to see different perspectives, a trait often found in successful adults. To introduce kids to an expanded worldview, families can enjoy a weekly ethnic meal, go to local heritage festivals and celebrate the holidays of different countries.
Food for Life
Giving a child lifelong tools includes instilling a healthy respect for good health. Positive eating habits have been shown to boost academic performance and lessen the potential for speech and language acquisition delays. Research on laboratory animals by the University of Georgia in 2021 published in Translational Psychiatry showed that sugar consumption in adolescence diminished learning capacity even into adulthood, possibly due to imbalances in gut bacteria.
“Hundreds of studies identify nutrition as one of the most critical factors in the development of robust brains,” says Lorie Eber, a holistic nutritionist in Orange County, California. “Consumption of whole foods such as eggs (choline), oily fish (omega-3 fatty acids), vegetables (folate and antioxidants), beans (zinc) and Greek yogurt (gut health) are vital for the healthy development of children’s brains in the first years of life.”
Nutrition has a measurable impact on psychological health, she says. “Diets high in refined sugars and saturated fats increase the risk of kids developing hyperactivity and ADHD. Children who skip breakfast have difficulty concentrating and low moods, which detract from learning.”
Eber encourages children’s participation in meal planning and food preparation, as well as weekly excursions to farmers markets, to experience the colors and tastes of local produce. “All of these things will lay the foundation for your children to develop a healthy relationship with food. That is a rare gift in today’s food-centric society.”
Connecting to nature is not only good for growing bodies, but also for self-image. A 2018 systematic review of 35 studies published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health shows time spent outdoors positively impacts young people’s mental health.
Research conducted by the Institute of Education at University College London drives it home even further: Primary school children that connected with nature in brief Wildlife Trust programs felt better about themselves and experienced more positive relationships with their teachers and classmates. Adding to Mother Nature’s feel-good benefits, exercise during childhood and adolescence, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, lowers the risk of depression, improves academic performance and reduces the risk for chronic diseases later in life.
In the end, parenting is about doing our best for our children while being human. “Being a parent is hard. One of my mantras for myself is ‘grace, gratitude and grit,’” muses Martin. “Giving grace to myself by forgiving myself for my parenting mistakes, being grateful for my family and having grit to keep persevering and working hard to build a good life for my family.”
Each parent’s formula might be different, but the basics never get old. “Let a child experience life! Give them opportunities to get into nature, play with non-toy items, interact with animals and support their curiosity,” advises Christopherson. “Be safe, but let your kids be kids.”
Marlaina Donato is an author, painter and visionary composer. Connect at WildflowerLady.com.
Takeaways from Childhood Experts
Some Sound Strategies for Child-Raising
- Expose kids to different cultures and countries to broaden their horizons and instill compassion and tolerance.
- Encourage unstructured playtime, spontaneity and social interaction, while allowing kids to also value solitude and the enjoyment of their own company.
- Foster creativity with such strategies as simple arts and crafts, keeping a nature journal, taking up a performing art, taking virtual museum tours or learning about the history of an art form.
- Schedule time in nature for fresh air and plenty of physical activity.
- Don’t overthink parenting. Like children, parents learn as they go, and it’s a collaboration.
- Cheer effort more than ability. Instill their striving for personal excellence without adding any expectation or pressure.
- Practice self-care and be an example of what living a healthy, joyful life looks like.
- Provide a predictable, low-stress routine; encourage participation in household chores and enforce boundaries.
- Teach children a sense of gratitude.
- Provide kids with tools to manage everyday emotions with simple mindfulness practices, calm breathing and engaging the senses.
- Encourage children to express themselves and communicate their feelings and needs.
- Teach kids that good health is wealth.