Alison Gopnik says when small children are "getting into everything," they're actually conducting experiments that teach them more about their world. It's a view the child development expert, who teaches at University of California Berkeley, shares in a TED Talk called "What Do Babies Think?"
The toddler-scale experiments she describes have a lot in common with the TED Talk mini lecture format Gopnik employs to describe them: Both are simple, inexpensive ways to learn important things. In less than an hour, families and individuals can dabble in a topic and discover something new — from how to grow new brain cells to doing rapid math tricks to figuring out how to become happy — or learn something unexpected, like that an octopus can almost magically change its skin to blend into the ocean floor.
As YouTube do-it-yourself videos help an inexperienced mom or dad figure out how to install a new water heater or patch a wall, lectures like these offer accessible, no-cost coaching that's a logical next step in a self-improvement-loving culture. Marketdata Enterprises in 2013 said the paid portion of the self-improvement market is a $10 billion industry in America.
"Gaining knowledge about how your child ticks and parenting more effectively is usually the goal of every parent," said Seattle-area psychologist and marriage and family therapist David Simonsen. "It is often difficult, though, to sift through the mounds of information in the public domain. Finding nuggets of information in the form of TED Talks is invaluable. The formula is perfect. Packing insightful and valuable information in a short amount of time is the most effective way to reach out to a busy parent. Everyone has a moment to spare if it involves the future of their child or becoming a better parent."
"We're living in a time and culture where everything is very fast-paced," said Fran Walfish, a Beverly Hills-based child, family and relationship psychotherapist and author of "The Self-Aware Parent." Amid all the digital tools that folks use regularly, "people are primed for a fast response and quick answers. It's the logical next step for self-help," she added.
Walfish likens a good TED Talk or other video lesson to a "cheat sheet," while for Stephanie Mihalas, it's a chance to sample something bigger that helps a busy family get meaningful information without a long lecture or having to read a self-help book when you need the information quickly. The psychologist, who is an assistant clinical professor at University of California Los Angeles in the Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences, said families can get a lot of information on a lot of topics and then "determine if they want to learn more."
The other reason that such online tools are so popular, she added, is that kids love social media and video and all things digital. Although they may hear the same person in front of them at school, for example, "when it's on video, they are more pulled into it. So you can use it as a tool for getting information."
A TED-ucation sampler
"TED talks can be a great resource for families to engender a love for learning," said Todd Manwaring, who organizes the TED presentations at Brigham Young University and is director and associate teaching professor in its Melvin J. Ballard Center for Economic Self Reliance. "The TED talks are given by experts and their short and entertaining format makes learning exciting."
With thousands of talks available at TED.com, it's hard to know where to begin, so some may like the curated lists, such as "Short Talks for Parents Who Are Short on Time." Or browse topics — child development, for example, or the brain. There are lectures on most academic topics, including the sciences and art.
Here are a few family-topic TED Talks to get you started. A warning, though. They're geared for a variety of audiences, so it's a good idea to screen them to find the ones you want to share with your kids. And occasionally, there's a swear word:
• Robert Waldinger directs the Harvard Study of Adult Development, which has followed the same Boston-area men for 75 years and uses its data to share what he has been learned about happiness. In less than 13 minutes, his "What Makes a Good Life?" covers three truths that point out happiness is more accessible than some might believe. And "the lessons aren't about wealth or fame or working harder and harder," he said.
• New parents will like Gopnik's "What Do Babies Think?" She calls babies and little kids the "R&D (research and development) division of the human species," and in this 18-minute lecture she makes the case that children are researchers themselves discovering how their world works and how best to fit in and thrive. In one experiment, kids 15 months old try to share crackers, which they love, instead of broccoli, which they don't. But when an adult expresses love of broccoli, instead, an 18-month old will remember the preference. From the youngest age, kids are learning, and she explains how some of it works.
• Brené Brown is a research professor at the University of Houston who knows a lot about human relationships. In "The Power of Vulnerability" she looks at what shame does to the connections between people and how allowing oneself to be vulnerable strengthens those connections.
• Someone who needs to break a bad habit might try Judson Brewer's "mindful" training. In "A Simple Way to Break a Bad Habit," Judson, a psychiatrist and addiction expert, outlines why some approaches simply don't work. Curiosity is a big secret to success, he notes in this nine-minute video. Researchers told a woman who wanted to quit smoking to go ahead and smoke, but to be curious about it. It changed what she noticed and boosted her efforts to change.
• Author Dan Gilbert, also of Harvard, who wrote "Stumbling on Happiness," has his own take on the topic. In 21 minutes, "The Surprising Science of Happiness" explains that humans are not built to stay miserable. The human psyche comes with a wondrous adaptability that allows even those in dire or troubling circumstance to circle back around to hope and joy. Watch this one with a teen or spouse who's feeling blue.
• Parents of teens and even younger kids can start a side-by-side conversation about how to behave online with Juan Enriquez' "Your Online Life, Permanent as a Tattoo." What one posts and how one behaves become a part of that individual's legacy, for better or worse. Enriquez, whose many titles include former CEO of Mexico City's Urban Development Corporation and chief of staff for Mexico's secretary of state, uses Greek mythology to offer suggestions on who to be — and avoid being — as online personalities are crafted. It's a sobering reminder that an online personality matters.
• Families looking for an interesting project to do together might consider urban artist and activist Britta Riley's "A Garden in My Apartment," a short (7-minute) video that details a hydroponic gardening experiment that invited the entire world to participate and teach each other how to grow food in places where traditional gardens aren't likely. The response has been global, with people around the world sharing knowledge and improving each others' efforts.
— For fun, check out Keith Barry's "Brain Magic," which is a great magic show about how the brain works and how it can be fooled. Warning, don't try these things at home. Amusing but somewhat dangerous.
— To appreciate the wonders of nature, nothing beats oceanographer Dave Gallo's "Underwater Astonishments." It's 5 minutes of pure fascination, and to say more would spoil it. There's a reason it's one of TED Talk's all-time most popular lectures.
Online video lectures clearly aren't the only tools that have evolved to broaden knowledge and help families in a digital age. There's a wide array, from online support groups to text message counseling and basic math help.
Mihalas points to Edutopia.org, which has a film festival of 5-minute offerings focused on "empathy, kindness and connection" that can foster a sense of belonging.
There are also a host of website to provide educational help, like Khan Academy's well-known math assistance, she said.
Another tool parents and kids might not think of to get information Walfish recommended is "warmlines" and helplines where parents can ask basic parenting questions like how to get a child to sleep or how to choose a pediatrician or where women who are breastfeeding can get advice.
"You can have a 10-minute free phone call with a child development expert and get your answer to basic questions," said Walfish.
Some hospitals and nonprofits staff such telephone support lines to provide information or just listen to someone who needs a connection. Hotlines — including those for crises like suicide — offer calm advice or just someone to listen.
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