Advice for parents

New book about children melds theory and practice

When a three-year-old keeps hitting her brother or a toddler sits, mesmerized, in front of the television for hours, parents can better respond when they understand why their children are acting the way they do.

A new book written by members of the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Development aims to help parents negotiate their way through their children's early years—and perhaps prevent problems from occurring. Proactive Parenting, Guiding Your Children From Two to Six is being published in February by Berkley Books. The goal, said George Scarlett, one of the 11 faculty members who wrote the book, is to teach parents about children so they can generate their own tools to deal with behavior.

The faculty of the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Development have collaborated on a new book to help parents negotiate their children's early years. © Mark Morelli

Parents know their kids best
"Oftentimes," said Scarlett, who served as one of the coordinators for the project, "the best strategies for supporting and nurturing children are very specific to the particular child and family. Only the parents can come up with the strategies, because only the parents know their children in detail. Most books for parents are written by physicians, clinicians or by developmental psychologists. Few are written by educators, which makes the Eliot-Pearson book special because it draws on the expertise of its multidisciplinary faculty, including those from both psychology and education.

"What educators bring to the table," said Scarlett, "are lots of things about the way children function in groups and the organization of time, space and materials. If you're taking care of 20 children, you had better have it all together to provide meaningful activity. Psychologists bring research that unearths new facts about such issues as language, play and the effect of the media."

Scarlett, whose training is in psychology, said the hope is that parents will "get it" at a strategic level, but also at the theoretical level. "It's a 'how-to,' but also the 'why' is explained so parents can apply strategies in a variety of situations."

So while the book explains, for example, what a three-year-old is like, it also talks about something as seemingly mundane as what kind of blocks a child should play with and where to keep them so that she can get them at her own initiative, and why that is important.

Knitting the family together
The first section of the book, called "Children and Parents in Relationships," focuses on developing a healthy home life and creating a positive atmosphere in routines and in the management of behavior. "The strategy to knit together the family is the bedrock of good parenting," Scarlett said. "So the focus is not on what you do to children but what you do to establish a healthy family. With fostering the healthy family as the focus, then such things as bedtime routines and behavior management are positive and don't undermine relationships."

"Children and Parents as Learners," the second section, incorporates the Eliot-Pearson viewpoint that learning is not just confined to school but is a lifelong activity. "Children learn from a walk in the woods, a visit to grandparents in another part of the country or a stop at the post office," writes Prof. David Elkind, an expert on cognitive and social development in children.

One of the goals was to cover issues that aren't normally addressed in child-rearing books, so there is a chapter, for example, on physical closeness and affection and another on the media's influence on children. Other topics include discipline, school adjustment and friendships. Yet another goal was to make sure the book addresses all kinds of families, not just the notion of the 1950s family with mom, dad and two kids.

Writing for parents is different
While the authors are experienced scholars and teachers who individually have written scores of papers and books, a guide for parents presented many of them with a new challenge as they sought to make the book entertaining and readable while maintaining a scholarly foundation.

Scarlett said ideally, the authors tried to "write with the style of E.B. White, the theoretical knowledge of Jean Piaget and the practical wisdom of Penelope Leach. When you write for scholars, you don't have to write well. You do have to write well for parents because they won't tolerate poor writing."

Each faculty member wrote a chapter, and Scarlett and Prof. Fred Rothbaum served as project coordinators. The entire Eliot-Pearson department contributed by reading and reviewing chapters. Ultimately, the group decided to hire professional writer Cheryl Olson, who helped ensure that the information was being expressed in one voice.

Range of contributors
Among those contributing to the book is Janet Zeller, a lecturer in the child development department and director of the Tufts Educational Day Care Center. Zeller writes about how to help children cope with change and transitions, including vacations and visits, moving, changing schools, the birth of a sibling, divorce, illness and death. Deborah LeeKeenan, the director of the Eliot-Pearson Children's School, the laboratory school for the department, along with Betty Allen, a lecturer in the department and the coordinator of student teaching and field placements, contributed a chapter on children's friendships. They write about how to help children learn to make and have friends as well as some of the factors, such as temperaments, cultural experiences and gender, that affect friendships.

Calvin Gidney, who studies linguistic development, writes about children and language, and he and Maryanne Wolf, director of the Center for Reading and Language Research, discuss how children learn to read. Rothbaum, who studies parent-child relationships, and Elaine Dyer Tarquinio, a former pre-school teacher, write about physical closeness, and Scarlett addresses behavior issues. The other contributors are Richard Lerner, Sue Steinsieck, Julie Dobrow and M. Ann Easterbrooks.

The authors hope the book will raise money for scholarships for children attending the Eliot-Pearson Children's School and for minority graduate students in the department's master's and doctoral degree programs. The book, which is available at major bookstores, is owned by Tufts University and had encouragement and financial support from Susan Ernst, dean of Arts & Sciences.