Parenting advice: Help for raising children of all ages

May 29, 2014

Family Almanac columnist Marguerite Kelly discussed the ups and downs of parenting, and tips for helping children through challenging times.

Hi, and thanks for joining us for the Family Almanac chat with Marguerite Kelly. Here is a link to Marguerite's most recent column, about helping a child cope with night terrors. We have lots of great questions waiting for Marguerite, so let's get started!

Welcome to the Family Almanac and today's many questions.

Our four year-old son tells us he's scared to sleep alone. Because he still nurses at bedtime (for about one minute, total -- no judging!), I've always lain down with him at bedtime for a nursing session followed by snuggles with Mama. Now, when I get up to leave his room, he tells me he's scared to sleep alone. He'll fall asleep with me or my husband, we'll leave the room, but during the night, he'll wake and either cry for us or climb into bed with us. We've established that nothing traumatic happened at preschool to start the issue; he's not scared of the dark; he just doesn't want to sleep alone. He's always slept in full dark, but we tried adding a blue night light -- same problem. What to do? We'll put him back in bed if we wake up enough, but half the time, we fall right back to sleep until we get kicked in the head by the boy as he moves around the bed.

Or at least I feel that way! Hi, Ms. Kelly. I'm a 21 year old DC area college junior. My older sister, my only sib, is 30, married with 3 small sons. Apparently my father always wanted a son because when he retired last summer he and my mother moved 2,500 miles away because "that's where the grandkids are." They've done well by me financially, paying my tuition and other expenses and rentng me a studio apartment. But there's no room in their condo for me and when we do skype or e-mail it's all about my nephews. I did go out for Christmas and Easter but was basically ignored. I do have friends but no family in the area. I was born and raised here and plan to stay but I really do miss my family. I don't think my mother is too happy either, but she agreed when she married that my father could make all these decisions as long as she didn't have to work outside the home. He kept his side of the bargain and now she feels she has to keep hers.

Ouch.  This must really hurt, honey, and it probably will keep on hurting until you have sons of your own.  It won't hurt as much, however if you create a sort of parttime, temporary family--a couple you've met at church or temple or someone you've met at a retirement community after you've talked with the director and told him that you miss your family and want to adopt a couple who reminds you of them.  Sometimes we have to invent what we don't have.

And since your mom is at the same place, psychologically, as you are, why don't you ask her to visit you for a long weekend or for your birthday, and why not set up a regular time to Skype with her once or twice a week but don't try to compete with their grandsons, because, as any actor will tell you, "never go on stage with a child or a dog" because everybody looks at them. And please, keep in good touch with your sister.  She may not always have the time to answer you but any mother of small children yearns to hear from a grown-up who loves her and who doesn't spend every moment talking about the kids

Life isn't a competition unless you let it become a competition. 

My son's close friend also age 11 has always refused our sleep-over invitations and always does so sadly with his head downcast. I suspect it is because the friend wets the bed due to a comment his father once made to my husband about their continual washing of sheets and blankets every day. The parents do this chore, not their son. This boy is bright and comes from a similar 2-parent working family with 2 siblings. He excels in school and has many friends. His mother has never mentioned this issue, and I don't bring it up as we are not close although a group of us meets for dinner once a month. I hate to see their son miss out on sleepovers the other children are enjoying. Is bedwetting a physical or mental problem and is there a cure? Shouldn't he be over this by now? Thank you for your good parenting advice over the years.

Most doctors believe that it's definitely a physical problem and that it is almost always outgrown.  About 40% of the time bedwetting reflects a sensitivity to milk which makes the detrusor muscle in the bladder swell; prevents the sphincter muscle from closing completely and if it's an allergy, it makes the child sleep so deeply he doesn't know that he has to go until it's too late. 

Usually at around 12 the pelvic cavity expands which relieves the pressure on the bladder and the problem goes away but in the meantime, it's nothing to be ashamed of so ask the parents why their son looks embarrassed when he says he can't spend the night and say, "Is he a bedwetter?"   If it is, the parents will be relieved to talk about it and if it's something else, they'll probably talk about, again with relief.  The more we talk about our problems, the easier it is to live with them.


Dear Ms. Kelly, My son, almost 6 and about to finish kindergarten, is an energetic, extremely talkative, excited, and creative kid who is always concocting one project or another -- making "prizes" for his friends, "inventing" things out of cardboard and foil from the recycling bin, and even writing an instruction manual for how to make a smoothie. Day after day, he also makes a terrible mess around the house and often loses things at school. Since he has been small, I've been trying to teach him to put his things away--and he usually will, if I stay with him, and on top of him. But the minute I look away, he'll revert to one of his 'projects' or start looking at a book. (Admittedly, this is a lot like I was as a child. I've gotten better as an adult, but it is still a struggle to stay organized.) By now, I wanted him to do some of this cleaning up on his own without constant nagging from me. On the bright side, if he spills something, he will grab a towel and wipe it up. It's putting away his things that is the problem. Unfortunately, my husband (who can't stand the sight of clutter) will usually clean up these messes by dumping things into baskets so they're out of sight rather than work with our son on cleanup --because it's easier and more efficient (in the short term, that is.) What are reasonable expectations around neatness for a 5 or 6 year old, and what are some strategies I can use so he can start learning to put away his things as he goes along? I'd really appreciate any tips you can offer.

A child can't learn how to clean up the messes he makes unless you teach him, bit by bit, but start with your own messes or with the projects he makes with you and then break each clean-up job into small segments so it won't seem so overwhelming to him--or to you. 

Over the last few months my soon to be 2 year old has developed a habit of waking up a various points in the night and incessantly calling out for Mom or Dad. We would respond by going in, picking her up to soothe her cries (but not actual crying) and make sure she wasn't sick/hurt/etc, and putting her back in bed. When this happened last night (twice), we did not go in to her. The first time either she stopped calling out or I fell back to sleep. The second time, we got up for the day. Which approach will best serve us by allowing my toddler to get herself back to sleep and not keep us up at all hours of the night? And, is it common for sleep issues to present themselves this late? Sometimes these episodes coincide with disruptions in her routine (being on vacation or not eating dinner) but many times I have no idea what may be the cause. Any insight or ideas you may have are greatly appreciated.

Putting oneself to sleep is one of the first steps of independence and it is often tested at various times, particularly in the early years. 

Always go to your child within five minutes when she cries but on your terms, not on hers.  Be quick, lay her down, speak very little, tell her you and her dad are right there and leave the room.  And each time you go back, talk less and leave more quickly.  Your child doesn't need to be rewarded with attention because she cries; she just needs to know you're still around.

With this treatment, the problem should end within a week.

Several times a day my 3 year old daughter lets out a blood-curdling shriek that could shatter glass, "just because she feels like it." I know in other circumstances you would say this was a way to get attention that is best ignored, but that's impossible. When she did this in a fast food restaurant last week, 2 patrons dropped their trays! We don't dare take her to a movie or even to church. She goes to Playschool 3 mornings a week and they have said she can't continue unless this stops. However, they have no idea how to make this happen. We've tried bribery, withholding privileges (tough with a 3 year old) but nothing works. Even though we're both strongly opposed to spanking, my exasperated husband said a swat on the rear might be helpful. Her pediatrician checked her over and physically she's fine. She gets plenty of love and attention from us and her elder siblings, ages 10 and 8. We're hoping this is just a phase that will soon die down, but is there anything we can do in the meantime?

I think it's a phase too, but an unpleasant one to be sure.  If you're going out with her to a restaurant or any place where there will be people around, take her outside and tell her to get rid of any screams in her belly before she goes inside.  And if she screams when she's in the room, don't say anything, just pick her up and go sit in the car, still without saying anything.  The more you reward bad behavior, the more bad behavior you're going to get for a child will do whatever it takes to get attention, even if you're fussing at her.

Our two year old daughter is starting to test her boundaries and has recently begun hitting and kicking us (her parents) when she doesn't get her way. I realize that this may be normal for a child that age, but we do not spank or use physical punishment and after addressing the issue with her preschool teachers, I learned that the kids in school do not engage in this sort of behavior either. I'm looking for some guidance on how best to deal with this situation. I would like to redirect her while also letting her know that those behaviors are not acceptable. Simply trying to distract her with another activity has not worked.

As I said to another mom, children who act up are looking for attention.  Therefore, the less you give for bad behavior, and the more you give for good behavior, the better a child is likely to behave.  And when she does kick you, give yourself a timeout, saying, 'it looks like you don't want me around right now'  and go to your room and read a book.   You'll get five minutes of peace and then she'll be there to see you--without kicking or hitting you at all.

How do I explain to my 12 year old daughter that accumulating toys from Christmases and birthdays past have a life cycle and that not all toys are meant to be kept for life, especially when bedroom and overall house space is limited? I wouldn’t consider my daughter a hoarder, at least not yet, but she completely shuts me out when I mention anything about… maybe it’s time to donate some toys and stuffed animals. We need the space back, and I can’t store everything. I don’t want to pull rank, but I am tired of treading year to year, waiting to see if she’ll grow out of it. I appreciate her sentiment and attachment – she’s always taken very good care of her things – but I simply don’t have space for another 6 years of accumulating items. Any advice?

It's always a good idea to rotate all but the dearest toys but do it when your child is out.  Just take a hefty and fill it, then hide the hefty in the top of your closet.  Six weeks later you can return some of them, taking another hefty-full of toys.  And if she notices and objects, you have to say that she can only keep her toys in her room.  And if she has too many?  Make a date with a clinical social worker, a psychologist or a psychiatrist and talk it over with him.  This could be a hoarder-in-the-making and if so, you'll want to nip it soon.

Can you re-post your response to the first question (about the 4 year old scared to sleep alone)? It's not appearing on the chat.

Tech and I are at a small war; that's the second answer I've lost but basically, I think parents have to remember that children like attention, day and night, and not always when it is most convenient to the parents.

That does not mean you should always give it however.  When it's inconvenient--such as the middle of the night--then go in when he cries (within five minutes) and in your most businesslike manner, lay him down again, say no reason to be scared because you're right there and "night-night, buddy" and leave him.  Really, it only takes about a week before a child goes to sleep, and stays asleep.  It's a matter of training the parents as much as the child.

I am curious about the answer to the first question, about the 4-year old who suddenly doesn't want to sleep alone. My almost-4 year old has also started kicking up a fuss about sleeping alone, I think because her 9-month old sister is still sharing our bed and she has figured this out. Our goal is to get both kids to sleep in their shared room but the baby still wakes up several times a night and I'm often too tired to move her in and out of her crib, so I relent and just let her sleep with me.

Yes, a little jealousy is going to tip the balance, but if you can make yourself get up to tend your child in their room, your older daughter will soon sleep through the noise and the problem will be solved.

You think it's ok for a two year old to be left on her own?

Yes--for five minutes or so because that's about how long it will be before she comes looking for her mom.

This doesn't necessasrily mean he wishes you had been a boy. It could be as straightforward as he says: 'that's where the grandkids are'. He might want to be near the grandkids, no reflection on you, Next time you go out, see if you can arrange beforehand one solo outing with each parent and your sister. Even if it's just the two of you having coffee, it'll really be great for all your relationships.

Another suggestion on this...

Another thing to do is to take a good look at his room and/or playspace. Does he even have designated places to put things away? We've had this problem with my daughter (now 11) over the years, and often it's a problem of too much stuff. So, you need to first cull his belongings (with him), and then, work with him for a storage solution. You can pick the bins and such at the Container Store, but he and you can work together to decide where to put things away. That way, he has ownership of the solution. Good luck.

Another suggestion for helping a 6-year-old get better at clean-up duty.

Have checklist for clean up chores eg for helping after dinner his check list might read: bring everything in from the table stack the dishwasher wipe down counters This will help if he's not remembering how to clean up but won't help if he just feels like reading instead of cleaning up. For that you need a reward/consequence system.

More on cleaning up...

My 10 year old son was like the 12 year old OP's child. What works for us is that we have several younger children through friendships and church. Once before every season or before a birthday or Christmas, he and I will go through his toys and move on those things he may have "loved" a lot, but that we know one of the other younger children will love even more. He enjoys sharing and often sees other kids at church with his former favorite shirt on.

Another idea on helping a child weed out old toys...

Thanks for joining us today for the Family Almanac chat. Until next time!

In This Chat
Marguerite Kelly
Marguerite Kelly has written the syndicated column Family Almanac since 1979. She is the author of several books, including "Marguerite Kelly's Family Almanac" and "The Mother's Almanac."

Read one of her most recent columns on monitoring a preteen's online "friend" or click here for previous columns.
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