I often catch myself feeling guilty when it comes to my children. Whenever I feel bored, unwilling to play, or I’m incapable of transforming a hint of a meltdown into an opportunity to have fun, I have to remember to try to be kind to myself.
Let’s not kid ourselves: not every moment can be inspiring or precious. But certain environments can inspire us to be more attuned to what’s going on with our children or at least provide a moment of inspiration. This happens for me mainly when we’re out in nature. But it can also be when I am surrounded by friends who have a thoughtful and different approach to children, and who try to use humour, for example, more often than I do.
Last year, I guest edited Early Childhood Matters, a leading magazine on early childhood, financed by the Bernard Van Leer Foundation, which specialises in early childhood development. As part of my research, I did some deep learning about how behavioural science, or the science of human behaviour, can help caregivers with their children by prompting people to change their behaviour.
When I interviewed Alona Abt, co-founder and co-CEO of the Hop! Media Group, who owns Israel’s leading television channels for preschoolers, I had a deeper aha moment about the importance of positive environments that help caregivers. It was a similar realisation to the one I had when I found out about an initiative in Brazil that encourages caregivers to play better with their children by reminding them of their favourite childhood games.
Hop! created the Magic Moments and Beautiful Moments campaigns, in Hebrew and Arabic respectively, to help caregivers rethink chores and routines and make them more pleasurable. Think of doing groceries, waiting at the doctor’s office or preparing dinner, and getting some prompts to get you to change your perspective.
The campaigns — designed with a team of child psychologists, behavioural scientists and digital marketing experts, with input from a national survey of parents and focus groups of parents and children — shared practical suggestions for simple activities for caregivers to do with children.
They started with television programmes and social media content, and expanded through a range of partners. They are now seen everywhere, from QR codes in playgrounds to posters at train stations, signs in supermarkets and messages on milk cartons.
The campaigns were a big success. An evaluation found that 58% of parents reached by the campaign said they better appreciated everyday moments with their children, while 44% had put some of the ideas into practice.
I spoke to Abt to find out more about the campaign and how small changes can make huge differences.
This interview has been shortened and edited in parts for clarity.
Irene Caselli (IC): Why did you want to develop a campaign focused on parent–child interaction?
Alona Abt (AA): As a child, I was very fortunate. I grew up with a very smart and creative mum who knew how to turn everyday things into something special. After 20 years as Israel’s leading preschool television channel, Hop! knew how to captivate preschoolers. I felt that we could take our work to the next level by talking more directly to the parents to create an impact on family life.
IC: What were your main aims?
AA: We had three main aims. First, to raise parents’ awareness of ways they can impact their children’s development in the shared time they have. Second, to give parents practical, evidence-based ideas for simple daily activities. And third, to encourage parents to adopt new behaviours that can benefit their children’s development.
IC: How did you decide what behaviours to try to change?
AA: We started by looking at the practical side. When do parents have most time with their children: in the morning, on the way to school, at bedtime? What are the pain points of each of these times? What do parents find stressful rather than pleasurable? These are potentially the times when parents could be contributing more to their child’s development. Then we wanted to understand what are the differences between mums and dads and different income groups.
Finally, we started to think creatively about what suggestions we could make to parents. We realised that we could not deal with all the pain points. For example, many parents told us that they find the morning time to be especially stressful – and realistically we felt it is too stressful a time for us to suggest games they could play.
We got government ministries on board, national community centres, daycares, health clinics, and the private sector. Some experiments worked and some didn’t. Most initiatives with the private sector were very successful because the private sector is quick to make decisions and execute them.
IC: Magic Moments launched in Hebrew in 2019, and Beautiful Moments in Arabic the following year. What are their similarities and differences?
AA: The goals were the same, but we had to design Beautiful Moments specifically for the routines and cultural concepts of Arabic-speaking parents. We researched the differences within the Arab community to understand what kinds of family we needed to portray – for example, a very religious family, a family that lives in a village, a family that lives in the city. There was a special challenge in reaching fathers, who are traditionally less involved.
It made us think about how we might approach expanding beyond Israel. One possibility is an animated version showing everyday moments with short suggestions, which could be a basis for adding local expertise – it’s important that people don’t feel as if some expert is coming from a different country telling them what to do.
IC: What is your main insight from these campaigns?
AA: Parents are overloaded with stress, with guilt, with the feeling that they are not adequate, that they’re not doing enough. It is very important that we don’t use a preaching tone, but instead have an attitude of “Hey, we know what it means to be parents today, it is not easy. We have a good idea for you.” The campaigns prove that, with the right approach, we really can make a difference.
What I’ve been reading
This story in Politico looks at forced removals of children in high-conflict custody cases in Italy. The visual descriptions of police forcing a door open with the help of firefighters using a chainsaw make it hard to read. How can institutions create such traumatic events for young children if their alleged aim is to look after the children?
What I’ve been watching
I finally watched Memories of My Father (Spanish: El olvido que seremos), the 2020 Colombian film by Spain’s Fernando Trueba based on the bestselling memoir by Colombian author Héctor Abad Faciolince. I saw it reluctantly, because I have been wanting to read the book first. But I am glad I watched it. It tells a moving and intimate story of a university professor who fought against oppression and social inequality and became a target of Colombia’s organised violence. What I liked most about the film are the scenes where we see the deep, love-filled relationship between the father and his son, the only boy among six children.
Who’s been inspiring me
I feel incredibly lucky because of the many ways that my different jobs intersect and keep me inspired. This month I am particularly excited because of a new cohort of 36 journalists who are going to be reporting on early childhood thanks to fellowships by the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma at Columbia University. You may remember that I work for the Dart Center’s Early Childhood Journalism Initiative in a variety of roles. I am a story coach to new journalists, but I also foster more journalism on early childhood through workshops, conferences and webinars. This new cohort has me really excited. They have story ideas from all around the world on issues that need to be investigated, from incarcerated mothers and their infants in Italy, to water pollution affecting the health of children in Nigeria and the children of domestic workers in Argentina. Stay tuned to hear more about what these talented journalists will produce.
With love and care,
📣 The First 1,000 Days is edited by community member and friend, Shaun Lavelle.