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Connected Play: Babies understand more than you think; 'terrible twos' doesn't exist

Posted July 5, 2015

Meytal Barak has a message for parents of very young children: Your babies understand more than you think. And there's no such thing as the so-called terrible twos.

"I really feel passionate about children and I believe that emotional development is very important for the child," Barak tells me. "I think that parents are keyholders of that, especially when they are so young. There's so much that we teach them as parents, but there's so much that we learn from our children."

Barak is a Durham mom of two and creator of Connected Play, a hands-on parenting program that provides guidance and advice for parents of babies and toddlers. For sessions that run eight weeks, caregivers and their babies meet together. Parents watch as Barak interacts with their babies to learn strategies to better bond with their babies and parent.

"As parents, we tend to forget that babies are people since the moment they're born," she said.

Barak has worked with children for years as a teacher and early childhood educator. She holds a master's degree in early intervention and family support from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She also worked at Chapel Hill's acclaimed Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute as a research assistant and consultant.

That training, but also her experience being a mom to two young children, shaped her interest in helping parents in those early months and years. Her programs are designed for kids ages 2 months to early walkers and their caregivers.

"I had a clearer picture of the importance of starting effective parenting strategy [from when] babies come home," she said.

Parents, she said, often consider babies almost extensions of themselves until they become more mobile. But she said we need to be respectful of their needs and treat them as we would anybody else even if they rely on us for everything. Parents also need to listen to their babies and watch for their cues to understand if they're really hungry or if they're just frustrated because they can't pick up a toy.

It's as simple as not just wordlessly picking up a baby off the floor or out of the car seat, but actually talking to him to tell him that you're picking him up to move him from the living room to the kitchen where it's time to make dinner.

Or, while on a walk, instead of quietly pushing the stroller or talking on the phone, having a conversation with your baby, pointing out the birds, flowers, cars and other sights along the way.

For a toddler, it means listening to his cues, for instance, after he gets home from preschool. If you're ready to serve him lunch, but he wants to play for a few minutes, what's the harm in letting him play, Barak asks.

"It's not just about your needs," she said. "And it might be that he doesn't have lunch that day. What's the worst that's going to happen?"

That kind of ongoing conversation not only sets the scene and builds early language skills for young children, but it also inspires ongoing communication and respect between parents and their children beyond the baby years, Barak said.

"I believe they do understand what we're saying and it creates this habit," she said. "It's this idea of treating your baby as you would treat a friend or older child."

Barak's program also provides recommendation on building a child-friendly space that isn't cluttered with big toys and all of their bells and whistles. Her office, where babies play happily for 90-minute sessions, is filled with just a handful of very simple toys. She's a firm believer in quality vs. quantity.

If kids grow up in a household where they feel they're heard and respected, she said parents can avoid many of those frustrating "terrible twos" moments.

"I don't believe in the terrible twos if you have a relationship based on respect from the time babies come to you," she said.

Of course, Barak knows, with her years of experience as a teacher and now a parent, that doesn't mean it's all going to be sunshine and smiles.

"I'm not saying every day is going to be smooth," she said. "But it's a little choose your battles."

Barak offers sessions in both English and Spanish. The Connected Play website has more information about what she offers. And stay tuned for more from Barak, who will be sharing tips here on Go Ask Mom on Wednesdays for the next several weeks.

Go Ask Mom features local moms every Monday.

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