UW developmental psychologist and grandmother Rebecca Cortes leads a certificate program intended to share wisdom about how adults and children can work for their mutual benefit.

Share story

That advice your grandma gave you about raising kids works, and we need to spread it around.

That’s oversimplifying, of course, but humans wouldn’t have lasted very long if we didn’t know how to raise our young. But sometimes circumstances disrupt the natural transmission lines for all that accumulated wisdom.

We have to adjust and teach those skills more intentionally.

Rebecca Cortes is doing just that. She is a developmental psychologist and a grandmother whose passion is making the connection between adult and child work to the benefit of both.

This week, save 90% on digital access.

We met Tuesday to talk about a new University of Washington program to help improve that interaction partly by combining grandma’s knowledge with the latest scientific research.

One area that is particularly important is social and emotional development.

Cortes said she was changing her grandson’s diaper once when he was 15 months old. It was a wrestling match and she was losing. “Finally,” she said, “I picked it up and I was holding it above him and I said, ‘look, a fresh diaper, for you!’ And he said, ‘fresh diaper feel happy?’ ” She said yes, and he stopped squirming. He had a way to think about and to express his feelings.

Thirty years ago teachers and parents were telling children “use your words,” she said, but now science explains what is happening when children do that.

Cortes showed me brain images that capture what happens when a child feels an emotion, like anger.

The region of the brain where emotions live lights up. If the child then uses words to describe the feeling, the part of the brain where executive function resides becomes active.

Around age 3, the connections between those areas begin to strengthen, Cortes said, and a child develops the ability to have some control over his emotions.

That kind of control can be an antidote to violence and a key to achievement.

Science illuminates the mechanisms at work and helps us know which words work best and what is going on at various ages, so that we can tailor approaches to best help children grow.

Cortes is one of the people who helped create the UW’s new Early Childhood Leadership Certificate program, which is intended to spread the most effective child-development practices.

Mona Murr Kunselman, who first told me about the program, plays a big role in getting all that UW research out into the world. She said the six-month course, which begins in a couple of weeks, has attracted people from a range of fields involved with children.

Kunselman said people who earn those certificates will be expected to spread what they’ve learned to parents, and also to champion a broader community understanding of what children need to thrive.

Context and environment matter. A child in a violent neighborhood may learn survival skills other than using words.

“If you say it’s just the parents, you are putting it all on one variable in the system,” Kunselman said, and that won’t work.

Kunselman and Cortes are on a mission to make life better for children.

Cortes remembers when she was 8 or 9 years old, “My mother was upset with one of my younger sisters. She was saying, “why did you do that?” Cortes said she could understand what was going on with both of them, but didn’t know how to intervene.

Cortes decided someday she would be a translator who would help adults and children understand each other.

As a grandmother and a researcher, she’s doing that now.

Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or jlarge@seattletimes.com.

Custom-curated news highlights, delivered weekday mornings.