Parenting advice: Help for raising children of all ages

Jan 17, 2013

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

Welcome to the Family Almanac.  I'm so glad you're with me today.

What do you recommend for a woman who is scared of leaving her husband because he has threatened her and is a lousy father who teaches his young children (5 and 2) to say bad words, to hit and slap him (for fun) and who does not care what anyone thinks or feels.

There's probbly not a lot you can do to change this man's behavior, but because of the children, you have to try.  You o we it to them.

Begin by trying to change your own behavior about  five percent--which may as much as anyone can change and bylooking back at all photographs, especially of your children, to remember happier days.  Sign up for a parenting class at PEP--the Parent Encouragement Program--which has classes in Kensington, Reston, Silver Spring and Capitol Hill.  Some parents just don't know how to parent and these classes have excellent instructors.

You'll also need to know that no two parents handle their children in exactly the same way--nor should they.  Life would get too boring if they did and your children would be in for a disappointment and expect everyone to act the same as you did.

And while you're doing all that, find a good marriage counselor because you have to learn how to deal with each other whether you're married or not.  Because that's the thing about divorce:  when two people have children, they're really married by life.  You'll see each other at graduations, weddings, emergency rooms and funerals so you have to learn how to be civil to each other whether you separate or not.

I have a 38 year old daughter, extremely well educated, (Columbia U. NY under graduate in Economics and U. Chicago graduate in Public Policy), physically very healthy and used to be not at all lazy and now she does not want to work any more. Living off of 70 year old parents. We are not rich, but we worked all our lives and have decent means to live the rest of our time. My daughter depends on us for everything. I have tried three times to get career coach and help herself and she tries, but is not persistent. What should I do?

If my daughter started acting this way, I'd send a letter to a very good internist and ask him to give her a complete physical, because a young woman with two degrees shouldn't suddenly get too tired to work any more. 
Something like a low thyroid--which can happen at any time--could be making her act this way and there are undoubtedly many other problems that also could be causing her lassitude.  Not everything is psychological.  It's time to send her to a psychotherapist when and if all of  these tests come up positive

Do you have any good resources for new stepparents? Any 'must read' books for those marrying someone with children? I am going to marry someone with two young children and at times I expect the 4 year old to be doing more than she does. I come to find out that a four year old doesn't do everything I expect her to because that is the level of an 8 or 9 year old. So, also, are there any resources that talk about what children do (or should be doing) at certain ages?

My favorite books on children--the books that most parenting experts steal from, whether they admit it or not--are the year by year books that Dell publishes--Your One-Year-Old, Your Two-Year-Old, etc., based on the 15-year longitudinal studies that the Gesell Institute has been doing since 1924.  Their descriptions of each year are accurate, positive and reassuring; you'll love them.

Dear Ms.Kelly, My name is Jeniffer. No, that's not a typo. My parents thought it would be cute and unique. Well, unique it is, but cute, no way. Everyone assumes it's a typo. I'm challenged whenever I write a check or otherwise have to present ID. I solve it in part by going by Jeni, but I still have to carry a copy of my birth certificate when getting a driver's license, etc., to prove I'm not trying to pull a scam. I love my parents dearly but they blew this one big time.

They just did it Jennifer because they knew that there never was--never had been--a baby like you and they wanted your name to be just as unique as you are.   You'll get used to it one day, or you'll quietly change the spelling to Jennifer and don't even mention it to your parents.

I'm expecting our first baby (due in August). It'll also be the first grandchild, and the first great-grandchild. Needless to say, both our families are over the moon, and so are we. But. For me, at least, it hasn't really begun to sink in yet that this is real and that it's happening. I'm not showing yet, and apart from the occasional woofy feeling, I'm doing just fine. I thought I'd be in a rush to buy clothes and decorate the nursery, but I'm not nesting yet. Will "showing" more make a difference? When will it feel like I'm really going to be a mom (the first ultrasound was helpful). Also, since this is the first baby on both sides, how do you advise that we set good boundaries so that it also doesn't become the most spoiled rotten baby in the world? Thank you!

Nature was kind to us.  It gives parents nine months to get used to the idea of becoming a parent and as you progress, you'll find that each day wraps you more deeply into the knowledge that you're creating a new person, so you'll go through bouts of fear too and wonder if you'll be good enough or if your old life will be wrecked forever more.

Around the sixth month of pregnancy--when you've gone through the fatigue and the throwing up--and any danger of a miscarriage is behind you, you'll start making the decisions about the nursery, etc.  As for boundaries--very important but they're up to you.  The minute you start feeling that you're given too much advice, just give those grandparents and great-grandparents a blank stare and say, "Thank you for that; I'll keep that advice in mind.  Now tell me where you bought that blouse?  It's the perfect color for you." 

Our oldest son holds in his poop. We battled this when he was 3 and thought we'd gotten through it, but he is doing it yet again at almost 5 years old. We would ignore it, except he becomes a total terror when he's uncomfortable. He gets aggressive, talks back, won't eat, wants to climb/sit on us, etc. Clearly communicated rewards or consequences are not effective. Lately it's become a battle of wills where I make him sit on the toilet until he goes because he is so uncomfortable and out of control (this is after multiple time outs, usually around dinner time when he has refused to eat and continues to behave poorly). Once he goes, he is back to the wonderful, compliant, reasonable little boy he usually is. Repeat every 3-4 days. Are we handling this correctly or is there a better way?

He's probably holding in the poop because it's too hard and it hurts him to eliminate it, so why don't you give him a little vitamin C, a safe treatment because it  softens the stool and is water-soluable, so it won't build up in his system.  If you give him too much, however, he'll get diarrhea so you have to find the right balance.

Thirty years ago my father left his wife and the mother of his six children for a woman younger than four of his children. He did so in the cruelest possible way, saying, why would anyone want to [have sex with] "Fatso" (our mother!) when he could [have sex with] a Perfect 10? Mom got a miserable divorce settlement, 2 years of "rehabilitative alimony" (what a joke as she had never worked outside the home) and a clunker of a car and that's pretty much it, although in time she did receive her ex-spouse's Social Secuirity benefits. She lived with an older sister who took her in "out of charity" until her death a few years ago. We children helped some but we all have large families and times were pretty tight. Needless to say, except for one sister who kept in sporadic touch, none of us wanted to have anything to do with our father. He had 4 or 5 more children (I don't even know!) and never made any effort to contact us. He's now in his early 8's and is dying of some form of cancer. Hospice is involved and has urged him to "reach out to us" before he dies. A couple of my sibs are tempted, but I say a loud NO WAY. Just thinking of what he did to my mother and her 23 years of misery still makes my blood boil. Eeryone says you have to get over it, you'll have no peace until you forgive him, but I'm just not ready to do that. What are your thoughts?

Closure is such an overused term but it is not an overrated idea.  Just seeing your old, dying father should help you talk to him quietly and calmly about the damage he did when he walked off on your mom and his six kids and never even called to see how you were because you need to vent these things to him as long as you can be pretty gentle about it.  But before you have this visit, think back to his position, when he was still married to your mother, and how overwhelmed he must have been by all that responsibility.  Some men blithely have babies, only to find that fatherhood is more than they can handle so they run away, physically or emotionally.  This is no excuse for his behavior but it may help you see why he did what he did.  It had nothing to do with his wife or the family he created, but with himself.  His story is valid too.

I have a four-year old boy who is *very* attached to his father. When his dad is home, I cannot get my son to do anything with me (get dressed, go to bed, take a bath, etc.) because he wants his father to do it. This is frustrating for both my husband and me. How can we reverse this pattern? (FWIW, if my husband is not home, my son listens to me just fine and I have no problems with him.) Thanks much.

Two letters in a row, both with the same problem, which proves that a preference for one parent or the other is typical--often the mother at 2 or 3, then the father at 4, if only because he's more likely to laugh when his child calls him a poo-poo head.

Children often get demanding with their preferences because it gets them more attention and a child will do whatever it takes to get attention, even if he's sent to the time-out chair again.

Personally, I'd give less attention to your child when he acts like that, or remember that you need to run to the store when it's time for his bath, and I'd have the dad appeal to his sense of empathy--the only sense that can successfully be pushed on a child.  Your little boy needs to know that his behavior made his mom cry--just that, nothing more.  Silence and a sad look are wonderfully effective in this situation.

My 3 year-old daughter strongly favors me over my husband. She often insists that I do everything for her (put her in her carseat, get her dressed, do her bedtime stories, etc). When we don't comply she has a huge tantrum. We have tried towing a hard line and insisting my husband and I alternate. We have tried indulging her and giving her extra mommy time, but neither worked. We have also tried having special one-on-one time with daddy. This helps a little, but only after several days in a row of daddy-time and as soon as she has any alone time with me, all of our hard work is undone completely. I know this is a phase many children go through, but it has been going on for over 2 years and there does not seem to be an end in sight. My husband is a great dad and is really hurt by her rejection of him. He spends as much or more time with our children as I do (we commute to/from work together), so it is not that she is more used to me. I have more patience with her, but he is good about going to another room when he is frustrated. To make matters worse, my 19 month-old is beginning to follow suit. How can we turn things around?

The same advice that I gave to the previous reader applies to you.  You can avoid tantrums if you simply walk away when your child starts to pitch a fit saying, "I'm sorry.  I won't listen to this."  A little time-out will help you calm down and it will help your child too because children have tantrums to get attention and when they get none, they also calm down.  Otherwise, they'd be clapping with one hand.

Plan to do this on a weekend, when time isn't so important, and recognize that this is just the way children learn.

My wife and I are starting to wonder if our 8-year-old can play tackle football. What is the latest evidence on concussons for kids. I've been told that the risk for small kids is much less since they aren't as strong or fast as adults. He's also interested in hockey and soccer, which have their own concussion issues.

Concussions are a lot more serious than doctors once believed, not just at the time it happens but for at least two weeks afterwards--a time when they want children to lie down and watch TV rather than read. 

I know that boys like to compete but have you considered baseball or basketball where there seem to be many fewer injuries? 

Vitamin C could work. But please be very careful with this behavior. Google encopresis. This could be your child's problem. It is a very real and difficult problem that no one talks about. My son has dealt with this from the age of 3 until now (age 11). If Vitamin C does not help, please see a pediatric gastroenterologist. Good luck!

My daughter did this too. Our pediatrician had us give her castor oil in a glass of orange juice every morning. We also "forced" her to sit on the potty until she pooped. She eventually worked it all out. Know that you aren't alone and this too will pass. Pun intended.

really? you're advising her to try to work it out? Sounds to me like she needs to grab the kids and get out of the house. She said she's SCARED.

Dear Ms. Kelly, We have relatives in a city where the local newspaper presents "100 Neediest Cases" each December. Most of these cases are "adopted" by individuals or groups, and over 1000 additional cases are helped as well. However, because we don't live in the area, we were limited to those presented in the paper as, rather than give a general donation, I wanted my 10 and 8 year old daughters to be involved in the selection process. We decided to give $50 each to 4 cases. To my surprise, my daughters' top selection was a 30 year old single mother of 11 children "whose fathers are not in the picture." While I try hard not to be judgmental,having 11 children by age 30 just seems wrong to me. But they were adamant. My older even said, just because their mother is a [censored] doesn't mean the kids should suffer. I didn't know she knew that word! While we'll love and support our children regardless, we do hope they marry before having children and have no more children than they can support. We've been open about sex since they began asking years ago but figure we now have to add contraception and being a responsible parent into the mix.

Yes you do have to give them lessons on sexual responsibility but you don't have to tell 8 and 10 year olds that they have to use contraception.  Instead, give the lesson in the third person: "You know people are mature because they use contraception if they have sex before they marry.  They know that it's wrong to have a baby accidentally, before they can rear their child in a responsible way.  And a boy knows that if he did father a child he would have to pay child support for 18 years.  The indirect information you give your children now will guide them better than direct information after their hormones have kicked in in their teens.

I really need to remember this. Too often, I try to change the behavior by engaging him while he's having his fit. BTW, I think my son is so attached to his dad partly because my husband is a volunteer firefighter and is always dashing out of the house at a moment's notice, so our son never really knows when Daddy's going to leave and when he'll be back. I think it's very frustrating for him.

Children do like sameness in their lives, but maybe if his dad shows him around the firehouse and lets him talk to the other volunteer firemen he'll begin to see that his dad is protecting other people's children because he knows how precious his own child is to him.  I think the frustration will disipate when you emphasize your husband's bravery and ask him to give  his son a sanitized version of his experiences.  Children love heroes especially when the hero is his own father.

Are you kidding? Her husband has threatened her, and you suggest marriage counseling? How about individual counseling for her with an emphasis on how to safely get out of an abusive marriage? Of course parents will always be co-parents, divorce or not, but her first priority has got to be to protect her children and herself. That's what she owes them.

As I said, it probably won't work, but the children deserve at least a positive six-month effort on her part.

Hi Marguerite. For the past few weeks, our 21-month-old daughter has seemed almost afraid of her crib. We used to be able to put her in it awake for naps and bedtime with a few books, and she'd eventually go to sleep on her own. But now if we even so much as hold her over the crib, she cries, clutches onto us, and even wraps her legs around the bars to keep us from putting her in it. So we've resorted to letting her fall asleep on one of us, waiting until she's out cold, and transferring her to the crib. But she also sometimes wakes at night crying, which she never used to do. We've tried staying in the room with her while she's in the crib, but she still remains hysterical. She is getting in her 2nd-year molars, but we've been giving her Tylenol at night, and she seems fine with sleeping on me, so I don't think it's strictly a pain thing. Advice has ranged from switching her to a toddler bed to this just being a developmental phase that we have to get through. What do you think? Thanks for any advice!

About one in ten of my letters are like yours, but in varying stages.  Some parents believe strongly in co-sleeping, right from the start; some turn to it reluctantly, some are desperate to quit the practice.   Your little girl probably had a bad dream about her crib and probably needs to start out sleeping with you and then be returned to her crib when she's fast asleep, even if you have to take her back to it several times during the night. Don't go to a toddler bed however; that's just inviting her to sleep with you whether you like it or not. 

This too shall pass, although it won't pass as quickly as you'dlike

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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 recent columns on an unmotivated first-grader or click here for previous columns.
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