Parenting advice: Help for raising children of all ages

Jul 10, 2014

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

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Hi, everyone, and thanks for joining us. Marguerite is here and ready to answer your questions, so let's go!

Eleven years ago my daughter and son-in-law lost their 9 year old son, their only child, in a freak accident. As I know you know from personal experience, this is the most wrenching experience on earth. You never really get over it. They had grief counseling and decided not to have another child, in part because of fear this might happen again. However, to everyone's (mostly) delight, my 42 vyear old daughter is now 4 months pregnant and things seem to be going well. I want to be as supportive as possible but I do have a concern. The boy who died had a unisex name and they plan to use the same name for the new baby (sex unknown). Is this a good idea? The new baby will be his or her own person and may be very different from his or her brother. Also the brother, who was a delightful but typical nine year old, has over the years morphed into the perfect child. Even with a different name the new child will find it hard to measure up. I've suggested X as a middle name to no avail. Could I please have your thoughts?

I think there is only one person who can answer this troubling question--the parents of the boy who died.  Ask them over for a drink and invite your daughter too, then ask them, point blank, what they think of the idea.  They'll either love it or hate it, be honored or say no and either way, at least one of them will be in tears and probably you will be too but you know, and they should know, that you could name a hundred children after their little boy and each one would be unique.  A child is irreplaceable.  

And so it will be for the new child.  Every one of you--including the perfect big brother, will be delighted with him--or her--as you see the miracle of life.  No two people are the same, no two parents, no two families.  

How can I stop my 2 yr old from throwing toys, whatever at 7 month old brother?

This stage won't last too long unless you give the two-year-old more attention for being bad than for being good.  He's jealous of his adorable brother so he throws toys, which is his way of telling you that he needs more attention than he's been getting.  Give him lots of it when the baby is asleep and have him do things with you that the baby can't do, like holding the hand mixer when you beat eggs for a cake (even as you hold it too).  Have tea parties too, with the baby and a few stuffed animals, but it's the two-year=old that pours the tea and passes the cookies to you (and plenty to himself).  You might also hire a pre-teen to walk the baby around the block a few times so you and your big boy can have some time together.  It will make him feel much more important.

My son and daughter-in-law have 3 children ages 8, 6 and 3. My DIL is an anxious germophobe who needs everythig to be perfect. Organic food, cotton or wool clothing, the house must always be pristine, Basically she won'[t let the kids be kids. My husband and I look after them on weekdays and run a much more relaxed household, which irritates my DIL. The mood changes completely when she comes to pick them up. They get fretful and anxious and sometimes the younger 2 even start to cry. This of course irritates her even more, to the point she even talks about making other child care arrangements, which is unlikely because we don't charge. My son is a hands-on, laid back father who has a much better relationship with the children. He has tried talking to her to no avail. Is there anything we can do before the stress on all of us reaches the boiling point?

Yes.  Only serve organic food and try to have the living room cleaned up before she comes over--or if you possibly can, ask your son to do the picking up for a while.  You might also ask your son to talk with the pediatrician about the problem and see if the doc will tell his wife that their children will be healthier if they can be exposed to germs so they can build up more immunity.  You have to accept that your DIL has a problem and guess what?  She's the only one who can change it.

What's the answer to boredom?

Work.  Whether it's you who is bored or your kids, there's nothing like washing bathroom tiles or kitchen windows to make boredom go away.  Anything is better than that.

It sounds as though the son of today's LW was fat (assuming he is being mocked for being fat, although skinny kids get teased, too, and the LW doesn't specify) before he was spending his days eating junk food and playing video games. Considering the body of evidence that shows criticizing someone for being fat results in weight gain, I don't see how focusing on the son's weight is helpful in any way. Also, I wish you would stop opining on weight and health, because you like so many people fail to understand the correlation is not causation. Obesity is associated with certain health problems (although a higher-than-recommended BMI is associated with greater longevity), but it is not clear that obesity is causing those problems or whether the habit that cause weight gain in many people often cause health problems, or whether underlying issues that result in obesity also create health problems.

I agree.  Sooner or later doctors will probably find out that fat is caused by some biological problem but until they do, we've got to do our best to get rid of it if only to get rid of the problem that is causing it.  And when a child gets bullied, the parents have to do whatever they can to help their child get rid of the problem that is causing the bullying in the first place.

I am very concerned about our sons especially that are labeled trouble by a teacher or principal. We had a principal that was extremely liberal and did not seem to like the children of military parents. From the very beginning of kindergarten, I had conversations with my children regarding their teachers and school "report cards" for their actions and behaviors.

I'd ask the teacher to let you observe their classes, quietly and objectively, so you could see for yourself how the boys are behaving.  The teacher will ignore you after 10-15 minutes and the boys will revert to their normal classroom behavior in 15-20 minutes.  This will give you the information you need if you have a meeting with the teachers and the principal but be as calm as you can--and wear a big hat.  It helps.

Also tell your sons that they might want to point their forefingers at a classmate and say "Bang, bang" but that this is a bad idea.  

Hello, I love your advice. I have a 3 year old and a just turned 6 year old, both boys. The 6 year old is smaller than average and pretty gentle. The 3 year old is a very big boy so gentle. The 3 year old will hit and kick and scratch his older brother. The 3 year old is also very good at doing things to annoy his brother, such as mimicing his words. His older brother doesn't usually retaliate, but instead will cry and come to us for help. How do we change this dynamic? I usually tell older boy to ignore or walk away from younger boy if the annoyance is not physical. For physical things, we usually put the younger in a time out for a couple of minutes. That's fine for that moment, and it often serves as a distraction, but in an hour or two we are in the same place.

Timeouts work, but only for a couple of weeks because parents are basically in a reactive mode.  As soon as they figure out how to address a particular behavior the child gets a few weeks older and the behavior changes and they have to change again.  And again.

Your children's temperaments are different too and that is the tack you might take with both boys.  Tell them that there are 16 temperaments and their temperaments are as different as their ages and their sizes but they must be respected.   While the older one is probably more cerebral. the younger one is more physical and does everything he can to get his attention.  

Tell the boys that you only give attention to the ones who behave and carry through with that because your younger boy acts up to get your attention too.

I think it is the same daughter - i.e., the parents of the child who died are planning to use that child's name for the child they are now expecting.

oh, golly, I misread that letter.  If you're right, the naming of the child is their business, not yours.   They don't know that they can't replace the child they've lost but let them try, let them try.

Yes - but the problem is it's really stressing out the children, DIL might have anxiety too. and it would be really good for their Dad to keep at it - with the pediatrician and at home. It's obviously a difficult environment for the children. Is this personality change? There was a similar thread with dad and a more difficult situation on Carolyn Hax's last online hour.

There is some interesting new work being done at the Mensah Medical on anxiety, which tests the blood of patients and if it's abnormal they give the compensatory vitamins, minerals and amino acids needed to make the blood normal, rather than drugs, because vitamins, minerals and amino acids affect the neurotransmitters and the neurotransmitters decide how we behave.  And guess what:  the doctors are coming to Annapolis Sept 9th and 10th to test new patients.  

Hi, I have 3 terrific kids - 12 (girl), 7 (boy) and 3(girl). They are great students, usually cheerful, inventive, energetic kids. Who have lost their minds this summer. I cut back on summer camps, wanting my older two to have time to relax and hang out with their little sister who is home with a sitter. The older two have now gotten grounded three times. Once for inviting kids over without permission and engaging in dangerous behavior they had been warned about (jumping off shed roof, climbing rope on a tree without a helmet). One of the kids that came over got hurt (not badly), and it was a mess. They flouted about 3 rules in the process of all this. I made them come with me and apologize to the neighbor and to check on the boy who was hurt. My sitter did not realize these kids were in the back yard as she was busy with the youngest. Next they sneaked out of the house through a window and went rambling around the house/neighborhood for about a half hour at about 11 p.m. They were grounded both times (no tv, no playdates, no ipad, nothing). Now they found 2 lighters at the park, and kept them for a week and played with them inside and out, experimenting with setting things on fire (mostly outside). I found the lighters and have taken away a fun trip they were going to go on. What is going on? My sitter is good, but three active kids are hard and I feel like they KNOW the rules (many lectures about matches, lighters). They are really on a roll. What can I do? frazzled & mad.

Look for a camp or the recreation department for at least one of the boys.  Or join a neighborhood pool or get them on a swim team.  They may be adorable but they're just too young to supervise themselves, no matter what punishments they get.  And this will be true for the next few years for the 12-year-old because studies show that the impulse center in the brain--which doesn't mature completely until the early to mid-twenties--won't do as well at 15 as it did when your older boy was 12.  For which camps and swim teams were invented.  Just because a child is smart and acts reasonably grown up when he's around you doesn't mean that he will be reasonably grown up all day long.

To keep my son reading this summer, he is allowed to play video/electronic games for the amount of time that he spend reading books. This might not be the best idea but the other day he read for 3 hours and only played games for 1 hour. Thoughts?

If he only played ball for an hour I'd invite him to bike up to the store for an ice cream cone or go for a walk after dinner but if he only played video games for an hour I'd say 'Thank you, Lord" and take him to Salvation Army or the library so he could get more books.

My two sons - aged 9 and 10 - fight a lot. One picks, the other whines and then there they go. How to get it to stop? Other times they play together wonderfully so it's not as though they hate each other. They'll watch t.v. at night piled on top of each other like happy puppies. Thoughts before I tear my hair out. I hate the chaos that ensues but love the bond when they're being nice.

Happy puppies--a good description because that's how brothers play with each other--like puppies.  To keep from pulling out  your hair you might designate one room as a 'wrestling room'--just tell them that their wrestling drives you nuts so that's where they should go to let off their collective steam.

Our five-year old son does not like to get up in the morning. We've just spent the last week yelling at him every morning to get up so we can get him to camp on time and it's a terrible way to start the day for everyone. He seems to be getting enough sleep; it just seems to be a matter of wanting to annoy everyone. We took away tv privileges this morning. Any thoughts? Should we get him his own alarm clock?

Yes, his own clock, and have him set it.  Also put out his clothes the night before and tell him that he has to make his bed (i. e., pull the quilt over the books and the apple cores) and be down for breakfast at x time because he can't have breakfast until he eats breakfast and he can't go to camp until he eats it.  But no calling up to him because you've hired a teenager to come over to babysit him if he can't get up for camp.  If she isn't needed, agree to pay her for two hours; if she is needed, tell her he can't watch tv or do anything that you see as a treat.  Boredom should teach him to get up the next morning.

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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 letting your teen grow up or click here for previous columns.
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