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Are you wondering how to raise happy and healthy kids? What factors should you consider when thinking about your child’s health?
Raising healthy children isn’t just about their physical well-being, it’s also about their emotional and mental health. Children who understand their emotions and are physically and mentally healthy may turn out happier.
Below are the most important factors you need to consider when raising healthy children.
There are many unhealthy temptations that parents give into when raising their children. Snacks are just one of these temptations. With so many delicious options, it can be hard to protect your children from diabetes, chronic diseases, and unhealthy eating habits in general. Below, we’ll explore why eating three meals a day at the dinner table actually builds a positive relationship with food. In addition, we’ll look at the benefits of reducing children’s consumption of cow’s milk.
Promote a Positive Food Culture
TITLE: In Defense of Food
AUTHOR: Michael Pollan
If you eat only three meals a day—breakfast, lunch, and dinner—and eat them with other people, you can reduce your caloric intake and promote a positive food culture to raise healthy children. Americans tend to eat more snacks than meals, especially meals with other people. In fact, researchers have ceased studies that strictly focus on the big three meals. They now include a fourth “meal occasion,” that of all-day continual snacking and drinking of processed beverages.
Why is this a big deal? In Defense of Food author Michael Pollan says that those of a certain age will remember the culture of family meals and the benefits gained.
- People socialized around a table, sharing knowledge and intimacy.
- Parents modeled positive eating habits, such as eating healthy portions or not wasting food.
- Children learned manners and how to converse socially.
At one point, American culture was defined by group and family meals. Not anymore. One study found that one-fifth of all eating for people aged 18 to 50 years old happened in the car. And although many families state they eat 3 or 4 meals together a week, those meals resemble little of the old customs.
Family members now tend to forage for their own meals before sporadically making their way to the communal table, if they do at all. As soon as they’re finished eating, they leave the table. The food industry has conducted studies to observe the habits of families during meals, and seeing this new trend, they now market what they call “home meal replacements” to families. Each member can eat what they desire, whether low-carb, low-fat, low-cholesterol, or high-calorie. Portion sizes are dictated by whatever company packaged these ready-to-serve meals.
Social graces and culture have very little to do with the way American families eat these days. Still, nothing has threatened the Norman Rockwell culture more than snacks. Snacking now occurs in places that were once food-free environments. For instance, workplaces have well-stocked kitchens, and a box of pastries or bagels can often be found in work meetings. Times between meals are filled with foods packaged specifically for snacking.
Our snacking culture is so big that cars were redesigned to support it. Cup holders are large enough to fit a bottle of soda or Big Gulp. Glove compartments are refrigerated. And snack portions continue to grow. These snacks are rarely fruit slices or vegetable sticks. They are flavored, processed refined carbs, hydrogenated oils, salt, and sweeteners. This culture is so ingrained that changing it must be intentional. The following considerations can help raise healthy children that aren’t negatively affected by snacking culture.
1. Eat only at a table.
- A desk or bed or car seat is not a table. To curb your snacking, eat only when you are seated at a proper table.
2. Don’t buy food from gas stations or convenience stores.
- The corn industry’s best client is the gas station. They provide ethanol for your car and high-fructose corn syrup for you. In fact, people spend more money at gas stations on snacks and sodas than on gas. And gas station food is never high-quality and rarely nutritious.
3. Eat with others when possible.
- Communal eating helps curb overeating, likely because there’s an active audience to judge your consumption. You are also more likely to be careless in food choices and mindless about portioning when you eat alone. Food marketers know this and spend millions to make it possible for you to eat quickly by yourself. Plus, when you eat alone, you aren’t supporting a positive or social food culture.
Consider Weaning Children Off Dairy
TITLE: The China Study
AUTHOR: T. Colin Campbell and Thomas M. Campbell
Type 1 diabetes develops primarily in children and there is no cure. In people with Type 1 diabetes, the pancreas stops producing insulin because the immune system has destroyed the cells that make it. In The China Study, T. Colin Campbell and Thomas M. Campbell suggest reducing the amount of dairy your child eats or drinks to prevent Type 1 diabetes.
The Role of Milk in Type 1 Diabetes
Multiple studies have found that infants weaned early and fed formula with cow’s milk have a 50-60% higher risk of developing Type 1 diabetes.
This may be because some infants can’t fully digest the milk protein in formula. These undigested proteins can get into the blood. The immune system attacks these foreign invaders. Unfortunately, the pancreas cells responsible for making insulin look exactly like these undigested milk proteins.
A virus may corrupt the immune system, causing it to destroy both the foreign milk proteins and the identical pancreas cells. Consequently, the infant develops Type 1 diabetes. This known connection is one reason doctors recommend breastfeeding over formula if you want to raise healthy children.
In one study, every diabetic child had antibodies to the milk protein BSA at levels above 3.55 IgG. This indicated that they’d consumed a lot of cow’s milk. Conversely, every child who didn’t have diabetes had antibodies to this milk protein lower than 3.55 IgG. There was no overlap. The number 3.55 neatly split the children into two groups that aligned exactly with whether they had diabetes or not.
Although it’s not clear that these BSA antibodies caused the development of diabetes, it’s a possibility. Further supporting this argument is the fact that Type 1 diabetes is more common in countries where children consume the most cow’s milk.
The Role of Genes in Type 2 Diabetes
Some children are genetically susceptible to Type 1 diabetes. However, genes don’t cause the disease. In a study of identical twins, if one twin had diabetes, there was only a 13-33% chance the other would develop the disease, even though they had the same genes.
Further, of children with genetic predispositions, fewer than 10% get Type 1 diabetes.
Another sign that genes are not determining factors is the fact that Type 1 diabetes is increasing worldwide at a rate of 3% per year. Genes remain relatively stable over hundreds of years, so this increase has nothing to do with evolving DNA.
While certain genes increase your chances of developing the disease, cow’s milk consumption is likely one of the triggers that determine whether or not you’ll get the disease.
Your child’s mental health is just as important as physical health. For instance, if your child doesn’t have a healthy relationship with food, there’s the possibility they could develop an eating disorder. Further, many children are also suffering from depression. How can you prevent this? There are a few ways: taking a good look at the relationship dynamic you have with your child and understanding your child’s sleep patterns.
Helping Children With Depression and Eating Disorders
TITLE: Emotional Intelligence
AUTHOR: Daniel Goleman
International data reflects a modern epidemic of depression in today’s young people. In Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman says that each generation since the beginning of the 21st century has a higher risk than their parents of suffering major depression.
- This is partially because of the erosion of the nuclear family due to industrialization. Many children don’t have connections to their extended family due to increased mobility and don’t get the attention of their parents due to divorce rates and longer working hours.
- Waning religious beliefs also contribute to this epidemic—kids have fewer resources to turn to in the face of a crisis than they once might have.
Some people think kids grow out of depression, but the opposite is true: mild episodes of depression in childhood often lead to more severe episodes in adulthood.
Depressed children, like angry children, are more likely to be isolated and ostracized in school, making it harder for them to learn social skills and build relationships that could help pull them out of depression. Depression also affects concentration and memory, leading to worse grades and poorer academic performance.
Relationship problems of any kind are the most triggering factor for depression in young people.
- Depressed youths have difficulty understanding or talking about their feelings, specifically sadness. Because of this, they seem to translate depression into other emotions–anger, irritability, impatience, specifically toward their parents. This of course makes it harder for their parents to connect with them and help them, which in turn isolates the children more.
Handling setbacks is another frequent trigger for depression. Interpreting their failures as personal shortcomings they can’t change, or things that don’t work no matter what they seem to do drives them deeper into depression.
Eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia develop primarily due to an inability to tell the difference between negative emotions (sadness, anxiety, anger) and bodily impulses (hunger or lack of appetite). They’re essentially incorrect responses to impulses.
Therapy that addresses these emotional deficits can go a long way in helping rehabilitate children suffering from eating disorders. Learning how to identify and distinguish between feelings, and how to self-soothe or manage relationships more productively will lead to improvements in their relationship to food, which helps you raise healthy children mentally and physically.
Relationship Dynamics That Interfere With Mental Health
TITLE: It Didn't Start With You
AUTHOR: Mark Wolynn
Mark Wolynn’s self-help book It Didn’t Start With You looks at the four relationship dynamics that form the backdrop of people’s suffering. These dynamics can initiate or continue a cycle of suffering in our families, according to Wolynn. Three of these relationship dynamics involve parents, who play the most important role in children’s ability to adapt, form healthy relationships, and thrive.
Wolynn acknowledges that there are no known factors that definitively predict how relationship dynamics affect children. Yet he notes that factors such as birth order and gender can influence your children’s mental health outcomes.
Recognizing if you have a dysfunctional relationship between you and your child is one of the first steps in raising healthy children. Let’s look briefly at the relationship dynamics Wolynn specifies and how they can disrupt children’s ability to process and address trauma.
Relationship Dynamic #1: Unconsciously Taking Responsibility for and Repeating a Parent’s Negative Emotions or Trauma
Wolynn says it’s common for us to internalize a parent’s trauma and then project that trauma in our relationships. Here’s an example: If your mom suffers from severe social anxiety while you are growing up, she may isolate herself. To alleviate her loneliness, you step in as her friend and confidant. Now, as an adult, you are repeating that dynamic with your son while still serving as caretaker for your mother. You resent your mother and feel guilty about imposing on your son.
Relationship Dynamic #2: Renouncing a Parent
Wolynn asserts that cutting ourselves off from parents who have caused us pain can give us the illusion of freedom, but doing so often blinds us to the ways we embody the very qualities in them we reject. Here’s an example: You cut ties with your father because he had an affair that led to your parents’ divorce. Now the unresolved pain and anger you directed at your father are surfacing in your life in unexpected ways—and you find yourself exhibiting the same qualities you rejected in him. You refuse to consider marriage, you are aloof with your partner who you love deeply, and—to your horror—you find yourself tempted to cheat on him.
Relationship Dynamic #3: Enduring a Disrupted Bond With Our Mother
This disruption may involve your mother’s physical absence (due to work, illness, or travel, for example) or emotional unavailability (perhaps due to intense grief or mental illness). If this break happens while you are young, Wolynn asserts, it can have deep, lasting effects—even on your own children. You might unconsciously avoid getting close to anyone because that feels like a precursor to being hurt or abandoned again.
Relationship Dynamic #4: Repeating the Patterns of a More Distant Relative
Wolynn says we may unconsciously take on behaviors and qualities of family members other than our parents. Here’s an example: You may unconsciously make choices that parallel a disgraced uncle who drank himself out of a high-paying job. You didn’t get fired, but you quit your job without a clear plan, and now you spend your days drinking alone.
Wolynn contends that until we unearth and resolve these unhealthy relationship dynamics, we will continue to feel unsettled—and we will continue to unconsciously sabotage our freedom and happiness by projecting trauma from the past onto our current relationships with our children.
How to Break the Cycle of Trauma
TITLE: The Whole-Brain Child
AUTHOR: Daniel J. Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson
Research shows that if you consistently respond to your child with empathy, they will thrive physically, emotionally, socially, and academically. However, The Whole-Brain Child’s authors Daniel K. Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson say one of the biggest factors determining the strength of your relationship with your child is how you’ve made sense of your relationship with your parents.
Your childhood experiences create the foundation for your life narrative, which is the story you create to make sense of who you are, how you feel about the past, why your parents (and other significant people) behaved a certain way, and how all of those factors shaped you. Just as implicit memories that haven’t been integrated can affect your present behavior without you realizing it, an unexamined childhood and lack of coherent narrative can have the same effect (in fact, implicit memories can play a role in this).
For example, if your father’s parents were cold and unsupportive, then he would’ve had to learn how to comfort himself as a child. Consequently, he likely took a similar approach to parent you, telling you to suppress your feelings when you were sad or upset. If you don’t reflect on the wounds that produced your parents’ behavior and how their behavior affected you—through therapy, journaling, or talking with a friend or spouse—then you’re likely to repeat the pattern with your own child.
However, if you examine your experiences and create a coherent life narrative, then you can determine how you want to raise your children healthily. Rather than repeating the pattern or blindly doing the opposite, learn from your own childhood experiences and be deliberate about your approach to parenting.
Handling Your Child’s Sleep Patterns
TITLE: Why We Sleep
AUTHOR: Matthew Walker
Sleep is an important part of a child’s health and development. However, their sleep patterns look different throughout different ages. Handling sleep disruptions and adjusting to your child’s biological clock can help their mental health at certain ages. Let’s look at different sleep patterns in babies, childhood, and teens that could help you understand how to raise healthy children, as described in Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker.
Fetuses spend almost all of their time in a sleep-like state. They don’t yet have the part of the brain that causes muscle-atonia during sleep, thus explaining why babies in the womb kick and punch.
Walker explains that during the last two weeks of pregnancy, REM sleep in fetuses ramps up to 12 hours a day. This causes rapid synaptogenesis, or the building of neural pathways throughout the brain. In experiments with rat fetuses, disturbing REM sleep stalls the construction of the cerebral cortex.
Walker says it can be harder to raise healthy children if their mother drank alcohol when she was pregnant or breastfeeding. Alcohol impedes REM sleep in fetuses and babies, causing abnormal synaptogenesis. Walker suggests that this abnormal wiring of neurons is connected to autism—once the construction of neural connections is disrupted, a fetal brain may never fully regain normal function.
- Newborns of alcoholic mothers spend far less time in REM sleep.
- Two drinks in one sitting reduce subsequent REM sleep and breathing rate in unborn infants.
- When babies drink milk containing alcohol, their REM sleep reduces by 30%.
Walker writes that because REM sleep is involved in emotional recognition and social interaction, disrupting REM sleep in utero might contribute to the development of autism spectrum disorder.
- Autistic people show 30-50% less REM sleep than normal.
- Rats deprived of REM sleep develop into socially withdrawn adults.
While they’re born with very irregular sleep patterns, babies eventually show more regular sleep patterns starting at four months, as their suprachiasmatic nucleus—the part of the brain that controls circadian rhythms—develops.
With age, total time sleeping decreases, and the fraction of time spent in REM sleep decreases. Walker explains that now that the synaptogenesis of REM tapers off, NREM plays a larger role in brain refinement, pruning the associations that are most valuable and unique to that child’s life.
He says to consider NREM to actually cause cognitive development in children—changes in deep NREM sleep always come before cognitive milestones, up until the final cognitive milestone in late adolescence, which is the development of rationality in the frontal lobe.
How to Deal With Bedwetting
NREM sleep is vital to a child’s cognitive development, so it’s important to manage sleep disruptions like bedwetting or nocturnal enuresis. This childhood problem has various causes, including sleep apnea, and can make it difficult for both child and parent to go back to sleep after cleaning up. It’s estimated that 25% of five-year-olds wet the bed at least once a month.
If both you and your child are losing sleep over this, The Sleep Foundation lists some ways to help you address the problem:
- Ask your child if anything is making him worried or sad to help you determine if the cause is something emotional or psychological.
- Remember that bedwetting is unintentional, so be supportive and don’t punish him for it.
- Keep a bedwetting calendar and reward him for milestones (e.g., one full week with no bedwetting). While punishment can hurt, giving rewards may help.
- Have a regular sleep and wake-up time.
- Make sure he’s hydrated throughout the day and try to keep him from drinking anything an hour or two before bedtime.
- Talk to your pediatrician to determine possible underlying causes.
In puberty, teens develop a later biological clock than adults, preferring to stay up later and wake up later. This isn’t just teens being rebellious—it’s in their biological nature. Asking teens to sleep at 10 PM is like asking adults to sleep at 7 PM.
Walker theorizes that this is evolutionarily helpful for teens to gain independence from their parents (having time to be awake while their parents are sleeping). Moreover, teens do so collectively, and so they get private time to socialize.
Unfortunately, in the modern day, schools start at a very early hour (largely to match the circadian rhythms of adult parents). It’s far out of sync with the natural circadian rhythm of teens, so they tend to sleep late and wake up far earlier than they naturally would.
Considering all this, Walker says that if you’re a parent, there’s no need to get frustrated at your teenage kid for seemingly being lazy and sleeping too much, when their environment is heavily geared against their biological tendencies.
Sleep Deprivation and Mental Illness
Now that you know what sleep looks like at different ages, let’s look at why you should consider sleep when thinking about raising healthy children. Sleep is important for our mental health. More gravely, sleep may play an important role in mental illness. Walker provides suggestive evidence:
- Sleep disruption is a common symptom of all mood disorders. The causation is unclear: does bad sleep cause mood disorders, or do mood disorders cause bad sleep, or both? But the author believes sleep plays at least some aggravating role.
- One night of sleep deprivation can trigger a manic or depressive episode in bipolar patients.
- Sleep deprivation is associated with suicidal ideation in teenagers.
- Surprisingly, sleep deprivation makes one-third of depression patients feel better, possibly by amplifying their positive emotions. However, it makes two-thirds feel worse, so it isn’t prescribed as a treatment. (Shortform note: Research from the University of Lincoln in the U.K. suggests why sleep deprivation might be helpful for some: People with a specific mutation of the brain-derived neurotrophic factor gene are more prone to revisiting negative memories during sleep, so sleeping less can be more beneficial. Meanwhile, a 2021 study suggests that waking up one hour earlier could decrease the risk of major depression by 23%.)
Sometimes it can be easy to overlook how children are feeling in favor of how they’re behaving. Teaching your child to understand their emotions can boost their mood significantly. That being said, let’s look at ways to raise healthy children who are in tune with their emotions.
Address Emotions Healthily
Emotional Intelligence states that parents who want to raise emotionally healthy kids first need to work on their own emotional health. Setting a good example for your children is the first step you can take to better their future.
Then, parents need to encourage and help their children develop good emotional habits. This will lead to better academic performance, more social skills and better relationships, better performance in the workplace, and better health.
Parents who address emotions healthily:
- Take their kid’s feelings seriously and try to understand them.
- View emotional moments as opportunities to coach their kids on what to do.
- Offer up positive ways to deal with emotional reactions.
Here are the qualities a child needs to be the most efficient student and a successful person. Parents can help their children learn and practice these qualities so they can raise emotionally healthy children:
- Confidence. Control over their behaviors, their bodies, and their environments, and a belief that they can achieve what they set out to do, and that people will help them.
- Curiosity. Taking pleasure in discovering things and learning about them.
- Intentionality. Wanting to have an impact and persistently acting upon that desire.
- Self-control. Controlling their own emotions and actions in appropriate ways.
- Relatedness. Engaging with others based on understanding them and being understood by them.
- Communication. Wanting to and being capable of exchanging feelings, ideas, and concepts with other people, trusting others enough to communicate with them, and taking pleasure in communication.
- Cooperativeness. Balancing their own needs versus the needs of others, specifically in group activities.
Stop Using Rewards and Punishments
Focusing on your child’s emotions and feelings doesn’t mean ignoring bad behavior. Addressing bad behavior correctly can ensure that you’re raising healthy children. In Unconditional Parenting, Alfie Kohn notes that most parents have similar long-term goals for their children: They want them to be happy, independent, confident, and creative. But he cautions that it’s easy to forget about these goals in the short term and shift your focus to whether or not the child is being “good” (doing what you want them to do) or “bad” (doing something else) at any given moment.
This concept of “good” and “bad” behavior, and the system of rewards and punishments that springs up to reinforce it, entangles both parents and children so deeply that it can be hard to see alternatives. Kohn identifies several problems with these disciplinary systems (which he calls “conditioning parenting”), but the central one is that rewards and punishments make children feel that their parents’ love, approval, and affection are contingent on them behaving well.
According to Kohn, mainstream parenting advice focuses almost exclusively on discipline: how to use rewards to encourage good behavior and punishments to discourage bad behavior. He argues that even seemingly progressive parenting advice (for example, doling out attention, affection, and praise when you catch your child behaving well or putting a misbehaving child in a time-out) still buys into an overall parenting framework built around rewards and punishments. This framework, he says, is outdated, and it may even be damaging your children.
Parents are often advised to tweak these strategies to make them less damaging, for example by ignoring bad behavior rather than actively punishing it or by praising effort, not ability. But Kohn says this misses the point—he encourages parents to break free of the old framework entirely.
The Problems With Rewards and Punishments
Kohn argues that any system of rewards and punishments (and their close relatives, bribes, and threats) is ultimately destined to fail both parent and child. Specifically, parents should stop using these techniques for six reasons:
1. They’re rooted in behaviorism, an outdated psychological theory that’s inappropriate to use with human children. Kohn traces conditional parenting techniques (including the time-out) back to the work of 1950s behaviorists, most of whom experimented on pigeons, rats, and chimpanzees.
2. They send children the wrong message. Conditional parenting techniques teach children that:
- You only love them when they behave well.
- Compliance is more important than independent thinking.
- Their parents’ approval is more important than their own desires.
3. They make children self-interested. Rewards, punishments, threats, and bribes make kids selfish because these techniques cause them to focus on the consequences to themselves rather than on the consequences to others.
4. They’re manipulative and disrespectful. Rewards and punishments are designed to control children. They trivialize kids’ own desires and points of view in a way that you’d never consider doing with another adult.
5. They don’t work. Rewards, punishments, bribes, and threats might “work” to achieve compliance in the short term, but in the long term, they’re ineffective and often backfire when you’re trying to raise healthy children. Children whose parents don’t offer rewards and punishments are more likely to comply when their parents do ask them to do something. This effect even seems to kick in instantly—in one study, 3- and 4-year-old children whose mothers were told not to control their play during a short play session were more likely to comply with their mothers’ instructions immediately afterward. And even if a technique does elicit compliance in the short term, Kohn encourages you to question whether the short-term win is worth the damage you might have done to the relationship.
6. They have damaging long-term effects. Kohn cites studies showing that children whose parents use “control techniques” end up with poor self-esteem and depression and may even be more likely to commit crimes.
The Solution: Unconditional Parenting
To replace ineffective and damaging conditional parenting tactics, Kohn proposes “unconditional parenting.” This means making it clear to your child that your love doesn’t depend on their compliance. If you want healthy children, raise them with unconditional parenting that…
1. Prioritizes the relationship over the behavior. Kohn argues that people who use rewards and punishments treat the parent-child relationship as transactional. But while transactional relationships are common for adults, they’re not appropriate within families. Parental love and affection shouldn’t have to be earned.
2. Prioritizes long-term goals over short-term ones. Conditional parenting techniques might make a child comply right now, but they don’t help her to develop empathy, autonomy, and healthy self-esteem in the long run.
3. Prioritizes the child’s developmental needs over the adult’s convenience. Let’s be honest—parents often demand that a child do something because it makes the parent’s life easier, not because they have his best interests at heart. Unconditional parenting is putting the child first. To do this, you’ll need to be patient, flexible, and scrupulously honest about your motivations.
4. Sees the child as an active, rather than a passive, participant. Kohn recommends “working with” children rather than “doing to” them, which means seeing difficult behavior as a problem to be solved together, rather than as a trigger for criticism or punishment.
Kohn notes that unconditional parenting is much more demanding than falling back on rewards and punishments. Parents who want to move toward unconditional parenting have to be patient, self-aware, and scrupulously honest with themselves and their kids. They also have to battle the tendency to pass conditional parenting from generation to generation. However, the result of unconditional parenting means that children are more in touch with their emotions, as they don’t feel the need to get angry or have an outburst when they don’t get their way.
Parents Need to Model Grit
AUTHOR: Angela Duckworth
In Grit, Angela Duckworth observes that consistently, parents who successfully impart grit to their children are those who model it—she notes that even parents who parent wisely won’t impart grit to their children if they aren’t living it. She emphasizes that there are two components to this:
- Have your own passion and perseverance for your goals.
- Foster a positive relationship with your child so they will be encouraged to emulate you.
She notes that many studies have shown how readily children imitate the behavior of adults they observe and that anecdotally, many successful, gritty children have careers that are in some ways similar to the careers of their parents, indicating that the interests of the parents are passed down to the child along with a work ethic.
As a caveat, she notes that while parents are typically the source of most of the grit-training in a child’s life, this is not always the case. Sometimes a child won’t have authoritative parents but will instead have another adult in their life who provides the right feedback, guidance, and emotional support to help them develop grit.
She points to examples of children from disadvantaged homes where the parents are either incarcerated or absent, but who still grow up to be successful, happy adults because other adults stepped forward to offer support at some point in their development: teachers, coaches, other relatives, and so on. The important thing is that there is some adult presence in a child’s life to model grit and support the child’s development.
Does This Advice Work For You?
It’s important to remember that every parent-child relationship is different, so not every piece of advice may work for you. Raising healthy children all depends on your child, who is their own person and has their own specific wants and needs. That being said, try our tips and see if they help your child’s health.
Let us know in the comments below if our advice worked for you, in addition to other tips you have for raising healthy children.
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