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Children’s books for supporting very early mental health and well-being.

Caring for young children can be exciting, joyful, annoying, messy, frustrating, painful, boring, uplifting and exhilarating all at the same time.  Some of us take to parenting like a duck to water, some of us struggle through, making it up as we go along. But no matter the range of emotions, challenges or victories that we deal with each day, parenting young children is never easy.

On those hard days it can be a struggle to feel like a “good” parent. We worry that somehow we are harming our kids, that somehow something we do along the way is going to make things go wrong for them.

And, as it turns out, there is no big secret to giving our little ones the early foundations for a sense of confidence, belonging and self-worth:

Young children simply need to know that they belong to someone who loves them, delights in them and has their back when things get hard. Underneath all the battles about [sleep, food, manners, tidying up] there is a simply a little person who simply wants to be seen, accepted and someone to share their up and down feelings with.

This month’s book recommendations are a helping hand for those of us who are human, and from time-to-time need a reminder that good parenting is not about milestones, clean babies, or what other people think of us. These are the books that remind us that our love for our kids is what will stay with them, long after the last piece of broccoli. These books remind our babies that underneath all the mistakes and mess, that they are seen and loved by us, no matter what.

So, with the Autumn weather settling in, grab a blanket, snuggle up on the lounge together, and read aloud these delightful books that will turn the never-ending days into the most important moments of someone’s life.

If I could keep you little (Marianne Richmond)

If I could keep you little, captures the bitter-sweet experience of watching our children grow. It is a beautiful reminder that each phase of parenting serves as a foundation, eventually passing to make room for a little person to grow into themselves. For children, it is a delightful story to spark conversations about how exciting it is to learn new skills and what adventures await. For some young children, it may help articulate any worries they have about being more independent: it’s a beautiful book for helping reassure them that you will still be there. It’s also a perfect prompt to share family stories about “when you were a baby, I used to…”, supporting each child’s sense of identity and love within their family.

Excerpt:

If I could keep you little,
I’d hum you lullabies.
But then I’d miss you singing
your concert’s big surprise.

If I could keep you little,
I’d hold your hand everywhere.
But then I’d miss you knowing,
“I can go… you stay there.”

If I could keep you little,
I’d kiss your cuts and scrapes.
But then I’d miss you
learning from your own mistakes.

If I could keep you little,
I’d strap you in real tight.
But then I’d miss you swinging
from your treetop height.

If I could keep you little,
I’d decide on matching clothes.
But then I’d miss you choosing
dots on top and stripes below.

If I could keep you little,
I’d cut your bread into shapes.
But then I’d miss you finding,
“Hey! I like ketchup with my grapes!”

If I could keep you little,
I’d keep you close to me.
But then I’d miss you growing
into who you’re meant to be!

More details about this title.

Whoever you are (Mem Fox)

It would hardly be a book list for Australian families, without at least one Mem Fox title! When we think of promoting early mental health and well-being, we tend to think of building things like self-esteem and confidence. But equally important for this early development, is children’s sense of connection and belonging to others. Mem Fox’s Whoever you are explores the ways that children all over the world can look, eat, learn, dress and live differently – but that, “whoever you are, wherever you are, their smiles are like yours, they laugh just like you, their hurts are like yours, and they cry like you too…joys are the same, and love is the same, pain is the same, and blood is the same…smiles are the same, and hearts are just the same, wherever they are, wherever you are, wherever we are, all over the world”. The illustrations, by Leslie Staub, are stunning, making this a delightful story for supporting a child’s sense of community, and a soothing anecdote to media which exposes children to messages of isolation and fear.

More details about this title.

That’s me loving you (Amy Krouse Rosenthal).

Author Amy Krouse Rosenthal is a prolific children’s author (among other things – watch her TEDx talk if you get a chance).

That’s me loving you is a simple, beautiful story in the voice of a parent explaining all the ways they are connected to their children.  “Wherever you are, wherever you go, always remember and always know, that shimmering star? That’s me winking at you. That drifting cloud? That’s me thinking of you…That pouring rain? That’s me missing you. That soft breeze? That’s me kissing you…”

There are many books we looked at for this review dealing with separation anxiety, but so many of them have an “instructional” and “counselling” feel to them and a clear aim of fixing a child’s anxiety or worry so that ‘everyone can be happy’.  In contrast, this was one of the few we found that told a sweet story of how a child can feel connected to their parents, without implying the child’s feelings of fear or alone-ness are wrong and should be “fixed” so that everyone else can get on with life. This book is a celebration and validation of feelings, rather than an attempt to ‘get rid of them’.

We also loved the simplicity and open-ended nature of the book – making it appropriate not only for young children who struggle to separate from their parents in child care or pre-school, but also for children in circumstances where no reunion is guaranteed: through perhaps divorce, foster care, adoption, death or abandonment.

Perhaps the author has such a sense of what message children need to really need to hear because it is the last children’s book she published in the end-stages of ovarian cancer. This is not a sad or morose book – it is a celebration of the strength of love. But knowing it is written by a mother as she said a final goodbye to her own children, makes it just about impossible to read this without a box of tissues. We recommend you brace yourself and rehearse a few times before reading it with your kids 🙂

More details about this title.

You belong here (M.H. Clark)

You belong here is like reading a love letter from parent to child. The writing is rhythmical and lyrical and the illustrations truly exquisite. As a bedtime story, at the end of a long day, this could just as easily be read as a love letter from a little person to their adult, helping to reconnect and remember what is important.

The stars belong in the deep night sky, and the moon belongs there too. And the winds belong in each place they blow by, and I belong here with you.

The whales and the fishes belong in the sea, and the waves belong by the shore. And the dunes where the grasses belong to be, because grass is what dunes are for.

The trees belong in the wild wood, and the deer belong in their shade. And the birds belong so safe and good, and warm in the nests they have made.

And you belong where you love to be, and after each day is through, you will always belong right next to me, and I’ll belong next to you.

More details about this title.

In my heart (J. Witek)

Many parents hope that their children will develop a healthy way of expressing and dealing with a range of emotions.

Helping little children to do this can be hard work. And it can be even harder for those of us who, in our own childhoods, were taught that certain emotions (like anger or fear) were seen as unwanted or unacceptable. Many parents with this experience want to know how to pass on different messages to our kids. We want them to feel accepted and loved for who they are, but also to be able to express their emotions in a healthy and appropriate way. To learn how do this, children first need a lot of practice in simply recognising their feelings, this requires the ability to recognise the sensations of emotion and linking this with language to describe them.

Most children’s books about feelings and emotions use the typical “when I feel angry I feel hot” type of narrative and are, to be honest, a bit dry and over-simplified, with a set resolution. This leaves children no-where to go, and a sense of being told ‘how they should feel’, rather than what they are feeling and what that might mean.

But In my heart is not just another one of these books about children’s feelings. The author starts with a little girl, walking through her day, encountering many feelings along the way. Each time, she explains the physical sensations, but not necessarily with any resolution. The sweet, whimsical illustrations with the tactile cut-outs also help children engage with this book on many sensory levels.

The effect is to link the conscious language and the sub-conscious sensations of feelings, in a narrative that strongly communicates the acceptance of the full scope of a child’s rich emotional world. This empowers children and parents to explore what this means, and to work out how they want to handle the “big emotions” in a way that makes sense in their own families.

 

More details about this title.

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