Here's a thought for you - every interaction you have with your child will leave a trace - in the wiring of their brain. Repeated interactions of the same type will build permanent connections - so we want these to be helpful ones which build resilience rather than reliance.
In this episode I'll share the five core skills we should be teaching our under five year olds to give them the best possible start whilst reminding you it's never too late to start.
Here are the highlights:
(01:02) Our children are the house, and we provide the scaffolding
(03:41) Positive early development is critical
(06:26) Every interaction with your child affects the wiring in their brain
(10:13) Managing big emotions with good communication skills
(14:10) Activities to aid your child’s emotional literacy
(17:23) Help your children to problem solve
(20:50) Understanding emotions
(25:32) Building natural curiosity
(28:03) The freedom to ask questions
(30:43) I can’t do that... yet
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Hello, and welcome to the How Not to Scrub Your Kids' Podcast. So pour yourself a cup, find a comfy seat, and enjoy the conversation. This is episode 84. Four and today's episode, great habits for super young children comes at the request of a listener and is all about ways we can incorporate my top tips for raising confident, resilient children who are able to manage those.
Big emotions from the outset. So I am talking about children that are younger than school age. So super, super young. How can we start putting these things in place really early so that we can give them the best possible start and potentially the best possible outcome? Now, you might not know this, but my doctorate research, so the research that I did for my PhD was all about children who were younger than three years.
So I'll be drawing on some of my findings today when I share my. So here we go. Now for context, I think it's really helpful if I remind you about the analogy that I like to use about what our role is as parents when it comes to raising children. So you'll, you'll be familiar if you've been listening to the podcast for a while.
If you are new to the podcast, then this is a useful sort of starting point and it's this notion that our children are a house, a building under construction. , what that building looks like at the end. We don't know. It's not down to us. It's down to our children. They're all individuals. They'll all, you know, create their own home.
But our role as parents is to provide the solid foundations on which this building will eventually rise and stand. Firm, tall and strong. So our role as parents is initially is to provide the solid foundations on which this building then rises. And then once those solid foundations are created and are there, and the building itself starts to kind of rise and erect properly, we then shift our attention to becoming the scaffolding.
So in those early years, so. Birth to five. Our focus really needs to be on building those fo solid. Foundations so that when the the building rises, it's, it's able to rise strong. And the research shows us that time and time again. If we get those early years right, when our children's brains are growing rapidly and making lots of new neural connections, then we are likely to set up our children to do really well in the.
Doesn't necessarily mean that we protect them from everything, but those early years are supremely important. And if you are not aware, the center, um, for the developing child at Harvard are really researching a lot of this and pioneering how. You know, what do we need to know about those early years in order to protect children?
And particularly they're looking at it from a position of, you know, how can we change policy? And particularly for children that may well grow up with adverse conditions, but we can incorporate some of the kind of broad findings from that study. And I just wanted to share three before I start going into my, my top tips three that I think are particularly relevant.
They've come up with more, but I. because they're also looking at adverse sort of outcomes and adverse situations as children are growing up. It's not necessarily going to be relevant here, but these, these are the three that I think are particularly relevant. The first one is that positive early social and emotional development is critical for life chances.
So children who do better. Then in terms of adulthood life chances, you know, being. Happy having their own emotional wellbeing being met. It's all related to those early social and emotional development, which we will talk about. So that's number one. The second is what parents do is more important than who parents are, and I think this is such a crucial thing.
It is around this notion of what do we do day in, day out? Children are much more likely to do what they see than what we say. So this is about making sure it's not about guilting us. It's not about making us feel that, you know, everything we do is gonna have this profound impact on our children. And I'll talk a little bit more about this and shortly, but it is remembering that what we do is really important than who we are.
So it is, it's that, you know, what are we doing? And then the third one that I think is particularly relevant is that parental mental health is closely linked. To early childhood inequalities. So when our mental health is poor, we're te not taking care of our own mental health. We're struggling with our own challenges.
Then that usually then builds in these inequalities. I don't want you listening to this. If you are a parent who struggles with anxiety, struggle with depression, that doesn't mean that because you have. That your child is then going to have challenges. It's much more a case about actually what do we do about supporting our own mental health?
And if we're putting in all the framework, we're putting all, all the right support for ourselves, doing the right things, taking care of ourselves, then we don't necessarily see that. So I think for context, we've got this idea about our children are building under construction. And we might not always sort of make that connection when our children are really, really young.
They're under five. But if we can start with that and really think about what are those foundations that we're going to be building on, and I'm gonna talk to you about what I think are the five crucial foundations that we should be putting in place from the word, from the get-go. I think that'll be helpful.
But whilst also understanding that this backdrop about, around these early experiences, these early years, these first five years can really be supremely pivotal for our children. So a thought for you just before I started recording this podcast, I was, I've been consuming, uh, lots of reading lots and just a thought for you.
Every interaction you have with your child will leave a. In the wiring of their brain. Now, if you haven't already listened to episode 82, wiring our children's brains, then I would highly recommend you go and listen to this episode after you've listened to this one. But in essence, we know that repeated interactions of the same type will build permanent connections.
We talk about this idea that our brain is a muscle, and I'll talk about it a little bit more in these five skills. So we want those to be helpful, these interactions, helpful ones which build resilience. So this notion of I can pick myself up and try again rather than reliance on us to solve their problems.
So let me talk to you about my five. What I think are the five crucial things that we should be looking at doing in terms of building that foundation for our children. Now, part of that foundation of that building are going to be things like moral values, which I'm not gonna touch on. I really want to touch on these five competencies that I think really equip our children to be resilient, to be confident, to be able to manage those big emotions.
And the first one is, Build communication skills. This is so crucial and I know, goodness, I was thinking about this the other day when my children were younger and you are worried about them speaking and learning their first words, and obviously that comes in time. And it may well be you have a child who's an early talker.
You might have a child who's a late talk or there'll be somewhere in between. But what I'm talking about with communication skills isn't just the words that they use because you could be listening to. And you got an eight month old. But it is a much more about that ability to communicate, which goes beyond just words.
Researchers talk a lot about this notion of serve and return style play, so you may well have come across this, but maybe not necessarily the term. And it's this idea that if we, it's time taking, we serve our child returns, sometimes our child serves and then we return. So it's this notion of play interac.
The servant return, um, interactions, which build our children's brain architecture. So simply put, These are the things that build the neuronal connections, that build that muscle in our children's that helps with those connections that wire this idea that every interaction we have with our child, if we've had an interaction with our child, the structure, the architecture, the wiring in their brain is going to be completely different.
After we've spent time with them, and this even with us as adults, but as we get older, the wiring just takes that bit longer. So repeated patterns of serve and return are absolutely crucial in terms of building our children's brain development. And building that, those communication skills. So at the basic level, if you're listening to this with a really young baby, it's things that you probably have read about already.
So when our children babble, it's bubbling back to them. It's having that kind of communication because our children will inherently, Look to us and seek to communicate with us in some ways, if we then return that communication through whatever means. If our children are using words, then let's use words.
If they're not, but they're babbling or they're making noises, it's that servant return. You say something. In whatever that language might be. I return back, I say something, you return back, wait, listen, turn, taking, and these are really, really crucial. So it may well be when they're younger, it's that battling as they get older.
It's that conversation of that interaction and games that we play with our children. Around that. Now, what I will say as part of the research that I did when I did my doctoral, is this notion that it's really crucial when we're talking about managing big emotions, and we'll talk about that in a moment, but what the research has found is that there's lots of idea about these toddler tantrums and children.
Might go through them at different ages and stages, but what the research has shown is that if we can give our children, if we can equip them with means of communication, what we usually find is those really big emotions at a really young age. Generally tend to disappear because if you think about it, what is generally happening is our children's brains are being wired.
They're making all of these incredible connections. There's so much going on, but they don't necessarily, what's happening in their developing brain doesn't always match their ability to communicate with us. Their needs. So there's lots of research evidence that supports this notion of if we can find other ways for our children to be able to communicate when they are preverbal.
So they're not able to say, I'm hungry, I'm tired, I'm bored, these sorts of things. Then if we can give them other ways to communicate that. So it's looking at potentially aspects of sign. Or ways that we communicate with them. It may be our own sign language that we make up, but it's being really aware that quite often with young children, preschoolers, they're not five.
A lot of the challenge is I've got these feelings, I've got these ideas, and I cannot express them. I cannot communicate with you precisely what I need. The words won't necessarily come out, or I don't, I can't, haven't got the combination of words. . So building those communication skills through that serve and return, but also through listening and finding mechanisms with which we can teach our children to be able to communicate with us is the first step to helping them in terms of managing those big emotions.
So the first one is around this building communication. and play, you will find across all of the five areas that I'm gonna talk about in terms of building these great habits is a crucial part because play is our children's work. We have a job, we will go to work, we'll have certain tasks that we need to do as part of that role.
Play is the exact same thing for our children. It's what fundamentally helps make those connections, builds up their muscle in their brains and helps them. A similar information about their environment and then helps them interact within their environment in that confident and resilient way. So it's really crucial that we have those interactions with our children around play.
But it doesn't mean we we're, you know, don't get me wrong, we'll talk about this as well. It's not about playing with them. All of the time, but just making sure that when we do play, we're fully present. So the first one is about building communication skills. The second one is around emotional literacy.
This is all about the building blocks to being able to, what we might call emotionally self-regulate. So in other words, it's about being managing. Big emotions without needing an adult to do it for you. So it's crucial at the very, very basic levels, even with our super, super young pre-verbal children. So they're not communicating in words, but it's really crucial.
We talk about emotions. It's really crucial. We label emotions. I can see that you are happy. I can see that you are sad. So at those basic levels, I'm happy. I'm sad, exaggerate. Those emotions wait for your child to then, you know, the serve and return, let them come back. Why are we feeling sad? How can we make up, you know, how can we change how we're feeling?
So it's that conversation. So at the basic level, we want to be labeling our emotions and there's lots of games and things that you can do. So I'm gonna share some specific activities, um, that I've done that will help to build that kind of emotional literacy. Be at the basic level and then we can move on to that sort of problem solving.
So you can get things like paper plates and you can draw eyes and a nose, and then you can use plaster scene Play-Doh. some sort of sticky substance to then draw the mouth expression. So really young children, they can then make it into a happy smile. They can make it into a sad, downward turned mouth.
They can, you know, make it like surprised, whatever that might be, theirs. It helps our children in terms of that manipulation, we can then play around with what might that emotion look like in a face? How might we be able to recognize it so that you can do that on paper. Literally, you just put, draw the eyes or even stick the eyes on, you know, put a nose with spaghetti or something, or pasta.
But it's about helping them see. that at the basic level, one of the ways that we can tell how somebody's feeling is through their face, and obviously I'm the mouth is only one aspect of how we can tell someone's emotions. But these are some of the things that we can do at that basic level. So that's one thing that we can do that kind of, kind of helps build that.
And one of the other ones that I used to love to do with my children was that, you know, those times that we would sort of sit. Maybe you take them to a coffee shop or maybe you go to the park and they're sitting and they're eating a sandwich or they're eating their ice cream or whatever it is, or they're drinking their water is doing a bit of a sort of people watching and maybe sort of say pointing somebody out, um, in a subtle way rather than in an obvious pointy finger way.
But you know, that person in their red coat, they look really. I wonder what made them happy. I wonder whether they ate a huge chocolate cake before they came out, or maybe it's their birthday and they're really excited and they're going to go and open their presents, whatever that might be. It's about labeling emotions for your child, helping them, being able to work at how that they can.
Tell the difference in people's facial expressions, but then actually now can we apply it in the real world? Can we observe other people and we can try maybe problem solve and try and think, and the more ridiculous it is, in some ways, the better. Maybe that person looks really cross. , I think they stub their toe and when they got out of bed and they're still feeling grumpy about it, or their favorite breakfast wasn't, wasn't available at home, they didn't have it, they'd run out and they're feeling really hungry.
Whatever that might be, we're making a bit of a game of it. It goes back to the servant return. You know, we, we are having that conversation. We're beginning to make those connections. If you. Can think of it in that way. How can I make sure that the data input that my child is getting is helping them understand the emotions and what might cause those emotions and how that might affect somebody.
So that's in terms of being able to label and identify emotions. But when we're talking about emo emotional, what being able to self-regulate, obviously labeling our emotions is only one step of it. The next step has obviously got to be, how can I best manage. Emotion, what do I need to do for myself in order to help that?
So the next step if you are layering this up, is then looking at helping our children problem solve, and I can't remember if I've talked about this before. I feel like I have talked about this before in a previous episode, but I'm gonna share it again, is something that I, that I do is, uh, when I feel I may.
I need. So this is something that you can do as the, as children are, have then got more language, but adapt and modify. This is a perfect activity for super young children, for, for sort of like children who are not at school, but also for big kids too. So you can do this with a 20 year old. It, this is such a crucial one.
So it's this idea about when I feel blank, put the emotion in when I feel sad. , I may. So this is about, how would I know that you are sad? So how would I recognize that? So with young children, you might do this, not necessarily starting with your child. You might do it with a teddy bear that they've got, or a doll, or it may well be that they have a, a sheep or a cow that they love to play with.
So it's like, how would we know that Sheepy is. How would we know that cow is sad? How would we know that you are sad? So it's this idea of helping our children make those connections. Then to the smiley faces and the sad faces we've made with our Play-Doh or the people that we've observed, how would we know that they're sad?
What does that look like? For sheep, cow child. So that may be crying, it may be quiet, it may be withdrawn. It may well be angry. Uh, it may well be not angry. Well, although actually some children when they're sad, can get frustrated. But it's helping them might be able to understand when I feel an emotion, whatever that emotion is, I may, how would an onlooker be able to tell that you're feeling that emotion and then the crucial part, the next part.
I need. So in that moment, what do you need? Helping children understand what they need, because if we can help them work out what they need, this is part of the self-regulation. Now it may well be in a, the instance of sad. It may well be that they say, I need a hug. And that great, amazing. That's what you need at that moment.
But then I would encourage your children to think beyond that. Okay? You might need a hug, but what happens if mommy, daddy, sister, teacher, Nanny Childminder, preschool key worker is not able to give you that hug. What else might you then be able to do to make you feel less sad? Because we're encouraging our children to be able to look inwards for what they might need.
Now obviously the language will change in terms of how you use that, but you can use this on really young children. You know, it may well be that you begin the first layer. Because that's what we're doing when we're observing, when we're playing with Play-Doh and the, and these paper plates. It's helping them begin to recognize what emotions look like.
And as our children get older, get really diverse with the emotions that you, that you use. Because a lot of the research shows that we quite often restrict the number of informations we talk to our children about, about happy, sad. Angry or cross, we don't expand that. You know, we can feel frustrated, annoyed, angry, irritated, jealous.
So let's begin to diversify those and obviously with young children. We may not necessarily go into all of those subtle nuances, but we certainly want to expand. The more emotions that our children understand, the more they understand those subtle differences, the easier it is for them to be able to self-regulate, because the reality is quite often with anger.
There are aspects within anger isn't just anger. It may well be sadness, there may be shame, there may be embarrassment. So it's how can we begin to build some of those subtle things? Because if we can help our children in those moments where they're not experiencing a big emotions by. Being able to understand and label them when they experience those big emotions, we can then help them with that self-regulation because they all might have their, we can then create a special box or a basket or something that they can go to.
when they're feeling sad, when they're feeling angry, that helps them dip into that box. What might they need? And this is where certainly when we're talking about emotions, where the glitter jar can be so, so helpful because they can see that these big emotions are like the glitter swirling and swirling around, and that they, it feels big.
And that's a great activity for them to see. Shake that glitter jar. See how that glitter is swirling around. And then being able to observe that it then settles and calms. So two R that I've covered so far is build communication skills. The second is around emotional literacy. The third one is building problem solving skills.
From an early age because problem solving skills and some of the things we're gonna look at for problem solving might not seem to be obvious ones in terms of helping our children self-regulate. But if we, if our children regularly feel that they get a choice, that they get to choose that, that they're beginning to solve some simple problems when they're younger, it means that they're much more like, to then solve bigger problems cuz they're used to that process of making a decision and then living with what that outcome is.
So problem solving skills is about let's help our children make decisions where we possibly can. So do you want peas and carrots or do you want peas and broccoli? It can be as basic as that. Where possible encourage our children to make choices, give them those choices. Should I put on this shoe on when our children are dining on this foot or this foot, you know, which feet are you gonna give me?
It doesn't even need to be when our children are able to necessarily communicate, it's where possible. Let's hold up choices for them. Let's say we can play this now or play this. Or this one, um, we can play that later, or we can play this now, give our children those choices so they can regularly see that they're empowered to make choices, but then, then they can then, because they're making those decisions and they see the consequence of those decisions, not in a negative way, but they see what happens, they then feel much more empowered.
So it's really encouraging those, our children to be able to do that. And if they. Sort of if something comes up, it's really trying not to jump in straight away. And I know that this can be a really difficult one because, and particularly when our children are quite young and they're falling over when they're learning to walk, or they're getting supremely frustrated because they're trying to learn how to do something, whether that's, you know, do some Velcro or post some, you know, a square.
In a square hole. It's that really try to make sure that we don't jump in and that we encourage our children to keep going and problem solve and just help in certain ways so that they can then experience that success cause it's so much more powerful for them. if we do that. So it is about dis, you know, encouraging decision making processes through problem solving and not jumping in straight away.
And that's a kind of, that's a really crucial, and it's also about sort of using language of sort of like, you know, uh oh, rather than, you know, so that it's, it's light rather than our children feeling that they've made this huge, huge error or huge mistake. So build those communication skills, build that emotional litera.
Encourage problem solving skills by giving our children decisions. And those decisions and those choices will obviously change as they get older. They can get that. We encourage them to do more choices and it's within the framework of we fundamentally know what we want our child to do. We know what those parameters are, but what we want to make sure that we do is give them choices within those parameters and making sure that they do.
The fourth one is about building natural curiosity. Our children's brains are developing at phenomenal speed, phenomenal speed. So if we encourage our children to be curious. So when our children ask questions, sometimes we can respond to those questions. We can give them specific answers, but sometimes it's actually about to say, Hmm, I wonder that isn't such an interesting question.
How could we find out? So it's about looking at ways that they might then be able to answer those questions. So sometimes that might. Experiments. So I remember very vividly the CH Children took, I think one of, I can't remember which child it was, was asking about, why do we have to wash our hands? And of course you know you want to do that?
Well, germs and da da. So in the end it was just like, well that's really interesting. I wonder. , well, why do we wash our hands? So we then got pieces of bread and we cut them out with a cookie cutter and you know, we washed our hands and put our hands on the bread. Well, we did. We did, obviously first one we did without washing our hands and putting our hands on the bread.
And then other one went washing our hands, and then we just literally put them on plates on the windowsill and saw what happened. So it's that you don't necessarily have to do that, but sometimes it's about thinking about how can. Children have got such inquiring and inquisitive minds, and sometimes from a time perspective we just answer and respond cause that's the right thing at the time.
But sometimes there's so much, it's so much more powerful to help them go through that learning process. So, you know, when our children go through those periods of time, maybe it was just my children, where they didn't want to take a coat with them, they didn't wanna wear their cardigans, or they didn't want to wear their raincoats, you then give them that decision.
You are helping them be curious. I think we probably ought to put the raincoat on, and I know it feels a bit itchy and annoying because I think if it rains, you're going to get wet. But if you think, if you want to see how it goes, then that's fine. So we are helping them be curious and learning from their environment.
And sometimes absolutely it's about us giving them the answer, but I think if we can help them explore rather than us restricting and saying, no, no, you mustn't do. We can talk about, you know, well what might happen if we did that and really kind of help them understand. But where we, where possible is help them kind of work through that curiosity and find ways of them learning and being that.
And that's really about us being creative. And sometimes we don't have the opportunity, we don't have the time, we don't have the space. But I think where. where we do. I think that that's a really crucial one. It's about encouraging that curiosity, encouraging children to sort of feel textures of things, learn different things, take different steps, go down different routes that we know are not necessarily going to be fruitful.
But let's see. Let's be curious. I wonder whether this person might be doing this. I wonder if that's how they're feeling. I wonder what might happen if we do. So it's really encouraging them because that helps them again, with, you know what's so crucial is that they are so malleable. Their brains are so open to discovering and finding things that it is so crucial that we kind of build and encourage that curiosity about what might happen if I do this.
This might be what I should do, but what might happen if I do this? What happens if I maybe put cheese with my broccoli? What happens if I might try this food combination? , you know, it's that sort of thing. So it's really trying to promote and encourage curiosity within our children, because that just helps with their kind of, The next step, which we're gonna talk about, is this idea about growth mindset.
So this is very much by the work by Carol DW and her incredible TED Talk, the power of yet. So we really want to promote our children's growth mindset, which links into curiosity, which links into problem solving and growth mindset simply. And Carol Dweck's work basically comes from this premise that. We can learn to do anything.
We just need to put the work in rather than a fixed mindset, which tends to see abilities as as very much innate. You are good at maths or you are not. You are a great communicator or you are not. You manage your emotions or you don't. It's this idea and growth mindset is simply this notion that our brain is a muscle.
Which absolutely is. And if we exercise it enough, if we repeat certain patterns of behavior, those muscles get stronger and those connections get faster. And so we can learn and we can do anything. Riding a bicycle, learning to swim, all of these things that we tend to teach our children when they're really young.
So it's about how can we as parents begin. Foster and create this growth mindset with our children? Well, the the simple answer is by praising process. So it's being really supremely aware of what we praise in our young children because that will then feed in to their mechanisms, and then we will get more of that.
So if we praise process. You know this idea of you've worked, you've tried really a great trying with your words or whatever it might be, or trying to build something or make a connection with something, or learning to ride their bike if they, or fall over and they graze themselves and they pick themselves up.
It's praising the effort that our children put into things rather. Great job. You were able to achieve this. You are so smart. You've managed to do this puzzle, or it's the process that they go through. It's the trying the puzzle and the different combinations, and that's the thing that we want to be praising.
So it's being aware of the language that we use and this. I just love this idea. You know, Carol's notion of the power of yet, so I often talk about this idea that I can't fly a plane, I can't, but if I add the word, I can't fly a plane yet. I give myself the option that at some, if I choose to, I could learn to fly a plane.
So it's even at those. At really young ages when our children say, I can't do it, then we can add the word yet. I can't do it yet. So let's try, let's practice so that our children understand that everything is within their reach. Anything, whether it's managing those really big emotions or whether it's that puzzle or that learning to tie their shoelaces or do a button or um, you know, whatever that might, building something and that frustration.
Oh those tower block keeps falling over. Is that, it's that process they're learning, you know, it's not there yet and it will be, cuz that's such a crucial part. So it's, it's making sure that we don't get caught into this rabbit hole of our children ticking certain boxes and being able to achieve certain things.
Great, they're now doing this, but actually it's reinforcing constantly around that process rather than always necessarily praising that final. . So let me just quickly recap these five. So the first one is around building communication skills. It's that notion of this servant return play, which comes into every single one of the five crucial areas that I think we need to be working on.
When our children are super young, it's that notion of how can I help my child and whatever developmental age they are not actual chronological age, cuz children learn to communicate and their ability to communicate their. And their feelings is gonna be different. There isn't a, by the time your child is two, they're gonna be able to communicate because some children are communicating really effectively at two.
Some are not really communicating effectively till six or seven. , it's not an issue. It's what does that look like? So build those communication skills through this serve and return style play. Build that emotional literacy to help our children self-regulate again, with serve and play. Understanding those different levels of helping them self-regulate, they need to be able to.
Label their emotions so that when they experience these big emotions, eventually they're then able to problem solve, but they're not gonna problem solve in the heat of the moment of those big emotions they're gonna problem solve. Through the activities that we've done with them around building that emotional literacy, it's about encouraging problem solving skills by giving our children choices from super, super early.
As soon as we're able to give them the options of things, then let's do that. so that we can give them choice and they can see how their choices empower them. And what then happens in terms of outcome. It's building curiosity. Let's not always jump in and give our children answers to things, but maybe ask about how we might find out, build up, you know, make little experiments where it's possible and it's feasible to do so.
Our children learn through experie. That experiential learning is so important, but build that curiosity around them, about cause and effect and what might happen. And then this final one about this growth mindset. It's being really mindful of the language that we use with our children so that we encourage this notion of trying an effort and praising the process rather than that outcome and using this power of yet simply adding the word yet to absolute statements and being mindful of the language that we use about ourselves and adding yet to what we say.
Because children are much more likely to do what they see than what we say. So it's about remembering that what we communicate, how we take care of ourselves has a profound impact on our children. So my give this week is gonna be these top five strategies, again, in my usual checklist with gaps. So you can start reflecting on.
Which are the areas that can I currently work on? Depending on how old your child is, where is that emphasis and that, you know, I've almost kind of listed them in the order. You know that communication is crucial. and that serve and return, that's what we should be doing at the absolute basic level. And then we can start layering these up.
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