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The 10 Best Things You Can Do For Your Child

What can you do to make sure your child has an advantage in life? Get season tickets to the symphony, travel through Europe together, provide French lessons by age 5?

Surprise: Some of the most beneficial things you can do are the easiest and least expensive:

1. Spin the globe. Let's face it: We Americans don't know geography as well as we should. And hand in hand with knowing which countries are in Africa is understanding that the cultures there are different from our own  -- and different from one another too.

To raise a child who appreciates this, get her a globe or world-map puzzle and discuss other countries and places. You might need to do a little research yourself, but you needn't have all the answers. Show your child how to look up this kind of information online or at the library. Challenge each other to come up with a new place to learn about every week.

Sue of Grand Rapids, Michigan, had a more immediate reason to teach her son, Nic, about U.S. geography. "My husband travels for work, and because Nic and I have spent a lot of time with our states puzzle, I know Nic has a good sense of where his dad is when he says he's going to California or Minnesota."

[BLUE_TEXT_BOLD {2. Put him on the family payroll.}] Even a preschooler can learn good financial habits that'll serve him well as he grows up. You can start to teach him today by setting up an allowance  -- but don't tie it to chores or grades. "Think of giving your child an allowance as sharing the family's resources," says psychotherapist Eileen Gallo, Ph.D., coauthor, with husband Jon Gallo, of Silver Spoon Kids: How Successful Parents Raise Responsible Children. Having a little money of his own will help your child learn to make good decisions early and figure out that saving money  -- and postponing gratification in general  -- can be worth it.

Another great reason to start talking about money now, even though your child's still too little to really get the dollars and cents of it: Even young kids are able to be empathetic and understand giving. So involve your child in whatever charity or volunteer work you do, and he'll come to realize that money is not just for buying what he wants but for helping other people too.

3. Bring up the big stuff. Whether you're religious or not, talking to your children about issues larger than your own family  -- from the vastness of the universe to God  -- can help them keep their own lives in perspective for years to come. Denise of St. Louis feels that taking her 7-year-old daughter, Phoebe, to Sunday school lays a moral foundation for Phoebe's life. "I also think that teaching her about spirituality answers some of her questions about the world," she says. "The other day, Phoebe said, 'God is a good artist, because the world is a beautiful place.'"

Not sure where to start? Ask your child what she thinks about God or point out something amazing or mysterious that happens in nature.

[BLUE_TEXT_BOLD {4. Laugh at his jokes.}] Maybe you can't listen to your child chatter about Bob the Builder all day long, but even the busiest parent can take 30 seconds to hear the latest knock-knock joke. Your undivided attention means the world to your kid  -- and we all love it when someone thinks we're funny.

[BLUE_TEXT_BOLD {5. Release your inner pop star.}] You can't carry a tune. So what? Your singing voice doesn't have to sound like Norah Jones's to communicate with, calm, and encourage creativity in your child. Not remembering the words to kids' songs isn't an excuse either. Teresa of New Wilmington, Pennsylvania, started singing to her daughter, Olivia, when she was a baby. "I would just make up songs or use silly words to old rock-and-roll tunes. My voice always soothed her when she was cranky," she says.

Charlotte Latvala is a mom of three, ages 8 months to 9 years.

Responsibility and Togetherness

6. Assign a chore. It may be a pain to make your 4-year-old hang up her jacket or stash her boots, but it does matter. "Kids get a sense of responsibility and accomplishment by completing chores and being part of a team," says Norbert Herschkowitz, M.D., a pediatrician, neuroscientist, and coauthor of A Good Start in Life: Understanding Your Child's Brain and Behavior.

Children are capable of more than we give them credit for. A 3- or 4-year-old can pour cereal for a family breakfast; a 5-year-old can help you fold clean socks and towels.

7. Write a will. Drawing one up usually costs a few hundred dollars, but it's quick  -- and essential for your children's well-being. "If you don't have a will, the state will end up writing one for you to determine who gets your property and who become the guardians of your children," says estate-planning expert Jon Gallo. While that doesn't mean your kids will end up living with strangers, they may not be raised by the people you would have chosen.

Also, ask your lawyer to help you create an "ethical will," to guide the guardians you select in making educational and other decisions about your kids. "My advice for parents of young children is to write a family mission statement," says Gallo. "Really think about your values, what's important to you  -- and then put it in writing."

8. Read together for 15 minutes. Sharing a story is important not just because of the brain-boosting power of books  -- reading also guarantees a snuggly-good time. "We like to cuddle in bed as a family when we read; for us, it's as much about being together as it is about the particular book we pick," says Jeanne, a mom of two in Philadelphia.

Even 15 minutes a day is enough for kids to feel that close connection with you and develop a love of books, says Sharon Darling, president of the Louisville, Kentucky—based National Center for Family Literacy. Carry books in the car, encourage your child's interests (so what if he only wants to read about dinosaurs), and consider reading together a reward.

9. Hit the playground. Get out there and have fun with your kids! Playing outdoors is a great way for toddlers and preschoolers to improve their large motor skills. Exercise also affects the brain: Recent studies show that kids who are physically active do better in school and have higher self-esteem than those who aren't. And, of course, the more exercise your child gets, the less likely she is to become obese.

So take your baby out to the park in the stroller; that way, she gets used to being on the move right from the start. An older child can focus on having a good time doing some of her favorite activities. "Don't push her to be competitive," says Robyn Housemann, Ph.D., a public health expert. "Some kids who don't like team sports end up loving to dance, bike, or study karate." And get in the act yourself: Look for opportunities just to play together as a family. You're never too old for the swings.

10. Get 'em to bed by 8:00. "Things run so much more smoothly when they go to bed early," says Carrie of Edgeworth, Pennsylvania, who puts her sons, Ben, 5, and Will, 2, to bed at 8:00 every night. "The next day, they're not cranky and they get along better." Early bedtimes are a bonus for her too. "Evening is a peaceful time when I can read, catch up on e-mail, and do scrapbooking  -- things I don't have time to do when the kids are around."

According to the National Sleep Foundation, 60 percent of children feel tired during the day. "For better or worse, the sleep habits kids learn now will follow them through adulthood," says Karen Waldron, Ph.D., author of Unleashing Kids' Potential. "One problem is that kids' bedtimes are driven by adult schedules." The result: tired children who forfeit restful REM sleep. They become cranky, find it tough to concentrate, and suffer from impaired memory and judgment. Not what any of you need on a Monday morning. Start to remedy this tonight. Then go and get some rest yourself  -- you've had a busy day.

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