Holiday Shopping Tips: Happy Kids and Healthy Brains

Holiday shopping is once again upon us—as your kids make their lists and write their letters to Santa, could the type of gifts they receive affect their brain development, not to mention how home life will be for everyone in the months ahead?

“Yes”, says Dr. Marcia Slattery, UW Health Professor of Child/Adolescent Psychiatry and Pediatrics. “A child’s brain goes through massive developmental changes throughout childhood and adolescence, and the type and variety of experiences a child has can influence the pathways and connections in the brain”.

Parents should keep this in mind as they set out on the challenge of holiday shopping for their children. The goal: selecting gifts that are fun, enjoyable AND promote healthy brain development.

A Well-Balanced Shopping List

Consider approaching your holiday shopping list similar to how you approach your family’s grocery list. We’re all familiar with the four food groups of protein, fruits, vegetables, grains, and dairy that make up the daily “healthy plate” to maximize our child’s physical growth and health.

The same is true for brain development. A child’s brain needs a balanced “diet” of different types of activities and experiences to grow strong and be flexible in the face of changing situations. Daily physical activity, creativity/hobbies, learning/cognitive challenges, and social interactions with family members and with peers activates and exercises different parts of the brain. When done on a consistent basis, these different types of activities are like “cross training” for the brain to strengthen growth and flexibility of connections. Stronger connections and flexibility optimizes learning, problem solving, emotional development and social skills, and many other brain functions we need to successfully navigate day to day experiences and challenges.

Now imaging relying on your child to make the grocery list and fill the cart—for most kids, their priorities and favorites would include things such as chips, candy, sweets, etc, while conveniently ignoring the fruits/vegetable isle!

So too will your child’s wish list and letter to Santa likely be weighted for what they want –and you guessed it—for many this will include NEEDING to have the latest electronics ranging from smart phones to tablets to gaming systems/games, to name a few; and fewer requests to include other categories for a balance “diet” of activities for healthy brain development.

Here’s where it’s important for parents to take the lead and consider ahead of time what variety of gifts will be both enjoyable and healthy for their kids. Be thoughtful about including different types of gifts to promote a variety of activities, games, etc to insure a wide range of experiences for your child.

What to consider? Consider gifts for physical exercise including both indoor and outdoor activities, for strength, coordination/flexibility, and cardiovascular health. Consider gifts that encourage creativity outside of screens e.g. artwork, building, hobbies/crafts that not only tap into a child’s creativity, but also require fine motor skills with fingers/hands, eye/hand coordination, and learning/problem solving. Consider games and activities that require in-person communication, outside of on-line gaming and social media, e.g. board games to play with peers and family members to promote the development of critical social skills to enhance more consistent communication at home between parents and kids, and between peers for the development of friendships.

Educate your kids to the importance of a healthy lifestyle for healthy brain and body development, and have them include ideas for things they’d like in the categories of physical, creative and social activities—have them include these ideas in their wish list/letter to Santa.

Plan Before Gifting Electronics

And yes, electronics can have a place under the tree as well, although parents are encouraged to be very thoughtful ahead of time about what electronics will be introduced, and how they will be monitored and limited. Increasing studies show the negative effect of overuse and over-focus on electronics, at the expense of other activities, on kids—increased likelihood of problems with attention/focus and learning; increased irritability and emotional/behavioral outbursts; anxiety, aggressive behavior, and problems learning important in-person communication/social skills. Limitless electronics can also contribute to more arguments/tension at home, and resistance to complete other responsibilities like homework and family expectations.

Seek out information and be knowledgeable about whatever device/game you’re giving to your child including things such as parental ratings, blocking sites, managing internet use at home, and monitoring use/content. Parents should agree upon rules for use of electronics BEFORE giving them to their children including when they can and cannot be used e.g. not at meals, not in the bedroom at night; where they can be used e.g. open area of the home; and total daily time for use. Parents who have different rules/expectations for electronics use provide a set up for kids to find ways to bend limits, and sets a course for excessive use. Consider having a family media plan as suggested by the American Academy of Pediatrics that clearly outlines rules of using electronics in the home each day, and post if for everyone to easily see.

Review the rules/guidelines for use with your children when they receive their electronic gifts, and implement them consistently, starting on the day they receive them. Adding more electronics privileges in a thoughtful manner that includes discussion ahead of time with your kids will be worlds easier than trying to take privileges away later.

Think of electronics use, especially for younger children, like “dessert” at your dinner table—only after eating important healthy foods, and then in small portions. Even kids can acknowledge that only eating dessert wouldn’t be good for them!  Teach them the same approach to electronics use—only after having the essential daily “portions” of physical exercise, creativity/learning, and social engagement with family and peers, in addition to day to day expectations including schoolwork, and home responsibilities. Engage teens in discussion of electronics use as well, including setting clear guidelines of use, expectations of incorporating other activities, and consistent completion of day to day responsibilities.

Finally, holiday shopping for kids is also an important time for parents to review their own activities each day, and set goals for positive physical and cognitive/emotional health. The good news is that adult brains also continue to benefit from exercise, and are more healthy when we find ways to increase flexibility and challenge in our thinking—increasing studies also suggest this is important to decrease risk of illnesses such as dementia.

Do as I Say, AND as I Do

Parents also need to remember that they are among their child’s most influential teachers in life. Modeling is a powerful tool to teach kids important lessons for a healthy lifestyle. Emphasizing healthy lifestyle choices, including limits on daily electronics use, and incorporating physical, creative, and social components in each day, can be a powerful lifelong lesson for kids to learn and experience as a family.

The holidays and the New Year are opportune times for parents to adopt a lifestyle approach of “do as I say, and as I do” instead of the all too familiar “do as I say but not as I do.” Make it a goal to balance your “diet” of activities/experiences with your children–the payoffs are abundant in setting the course for a lifetime of balance, health, more open communication, and meaningful relationships.

Good luck shopping! What will your shopping list include?