Parenting advice: Help for raising children of all ages

Jan 19, 2012

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

Hello and welcome to the Family Almanac.

My husband and I have five granddaughters, ages 19, 18, 16, 14 and 9. I have taken the older four individually to England, Ireland, Holland and Iceland and plan to take the youngest to Paris next summer. (My husband has taken our grandsons to the Super Bowl and hiking in Alaska.) To my surprise and outrage, her older sister and cousins have erupted, claiming the youngest always gets the best and this is no exception. I admit the youngest is a bit spoiled, and she doesn't help things by loudly proclaiming, "Grandma likes ME best -- she's taking me to PARIS!" But she is also a timid, awkward, somewhat backward child, and I see this is an opportunity to help her bloom. Mostly, though, I'm concerned about how to deal with the older four. I can't undo their trips, and it's too soon to cut them out of the will. We all had wonderful trips and have wonderful memories. Why isn't that enough?

May I be adopted?  

It's time to take those four older children to lunch, not to Paris, and to tell them--firmly, kindly and with no room for negotiation--that you are really disappointed in them for reacting as they have;  that you can't believe that four lovely teenagers would compete with a shy 9-year-old and that you want them to know reassure you and promise you that they will never act that way again.

And then take the 9-year-old out to lunch and, in the same manner, tell her that you're disappointed in her for saying that you love her best, because parents and grandparents don't have favorites and you don't ever want to hear her say that again.

My wife and I have three sons and a much younger daughter, who was born when her brothers were 20, 18 and 10. We were 50 and47 at the time. She's now 6 and a joy, but we are exhausted. Partly it's our age, of course; but everything is SO emotional. Bedtime, bathtime, what to wear, what to eat. She's a dawdler and cries a lot. We do, too! My wife said that yesterday, after grocery shopping for an hour, they both cried in the car for 20 minutes. Our boys were/are by and large easy kids, practical, a bit rough-and-tumble but gave us no real problems. The one still at home is ready to move out due to all of this drama, and I might go with him! Just kidding of course, but what can we do?

Girls really are different from boys but they shouldn't be this emotional, this dawdly.  So she's late for school because she wouldn't get dressed.  Then let her be late, no note to the teacher.  No talking, no begging, no wheedling.  And if she says she won't go to school, call the sitter you've arranged for, and let her stay home.  No TV, no cookies and especially no discussion about it.  Your little girl is getting a lot of attention for misbehaving and attention is what she wants, 0n any terms.  If you ignore her when she cries, dawdles or refuses to eat, and give her much attention when she's good she will soon learn to good much more often.  She has to learn that some things are non-negotiable and she has pushed you way too far.

Do you have any suggestions for a 6.5-year-old boy who bites his nails and toenails? We're especially concerned because he bites the outer layer skin around his nails to the point where it looks like he only has a single layer of dermis to protect him! We've tried the nasty-tasting nail "polish," offering chewing gum (he doesn't want it), keeping his hands busy, etc. Nothing works.

The experts say that we can break a habit if we don't practice it for 21 days but nail biting is a hard one to break.  Try talking to your son in the dark, so he doesn't have to look you in the eye, and ask him why he thinks he bites his nails and what started it because he may be expressing anxiety that way.  Then ask him what he thinks he should do about it and how you could help.  If you let him run this part of his life, he may try quarter to quit.  And then give him an ointment, like Neosporene, and tell him to apply it to his finger or his toe if it should ever get red because he wouldn't want it to get infected.  This will help him, maybe, and it may also help him if he asks the pediatrician for his advice, but basically, the drive to quit must come from him, not from you.

Good morning. My husband and I are expecting our first child, and we've begun to look for daycare options. Waiting lists around here are one and a half years long! The costs are astronomical: $1600 to $2100 a month was the range of quotes we got recently for full time daycare. That's more than our mortgage! What other options should we pursue? We live in the D.C. area and would love to know of any other resources we should be taking a look at as we dive into the search. Thanks.

Why not look around for family day care?  A mother who wants to stay home with her child but needs more money to do it can be a great solution.  Another possibility:  three or four mothers can pool their money to hire one caregiver who will watch the children at the home of one of those mothers.  Unusual answers are often better than the ones that everyone else has chosen.

Hi. My youngest son, 10 years old, is in fifth grade. He was diagnosed with ADHD two years ago and has been on Focalin, Ritalin and now Adderall. At school there was a recent incident where he tried to help a fellow student by sharing something. The student wanted what my son was using (which my son wasn't willing to share), and other students got involved. My son got angry, said some unkind things and started crying. He was sent down to to the guidance counselor to cool off. After school he didn't want to talk to mom and dad because he said thinking about it made him mad. We finally got him to share about what happened because we wanted to hear his side since we heard about what happened from the school counselor. Why was it so hard to get him to talk to us? He was in therapy with a social worker for the first year of his ADHD diagnosis, but we discontinued it because my son didn't want to go anymore. I have considered getting him to see a therapist again to talk about his anger and frustrations, but he is a child that doesn't want to talk about his troubles. And maybe we should just let him be? As his mom, I'd appreciate any insight and suggestions.

Every drug has a side effect, even if it helps with the main problem so I'd do a lot of reading about Adderall and I'd talk with the chief pharmacist at your drugstore because a good pharmacist knows more about drugs and their side effects than a good doctor, because that's what he worries about all day long while a doctor--even a specialist--is stretched in a hundred different ways.  And I'd also read Anatomy of an Epidemic and of course, talk with your boy too and ask him if he thinks that the drug he is on is really helping him.  It might be that instead he needs neurofeedback or meditation to help him handle his ADHD.  Check the studies with, where all the scientific studies are stored from around the world.

I never knew my father-in-law, but by all accounts he was a cold, distant man who, if not physically abusive, treated his children very badly. He spent little time with them. No gifts, never told them he loved them. My sister-in-law was in and out of the hospital with leukemia as a child, and he never once came to see her, which she says was fine with her. We now have four young children, and my husband is bound and determined not to repeat his father's mistakes, which is great. I would not have married him otherwise. But with such a poor role model, he has no idea what to do. He showers them with presents, often inappropriate; our youngest is still terrified of the 6' teddy bear he foisted on her last week (a "just because" gift, no particular reason). He also wants to spend every minute playing with them and taking them places. I hope that in time this translates into his coaching their little league teams or running their scout troops, but in the meantime it's just too much. Perhaps because of his childhood, he has poor listening skills and is not terribly patient. His heart's in the right place, but our lives are currently chaos. How do you suggest we start to straighten things out? The kids are 5, 4-year-old twins, and 2 -- two boys and two girls.

A good parenting class is in order here, and if you're in the Washington area, look for PEP classes (for Parent Encouragement Program, based in Kensington, Md.), where the volunteer teachers are trained for two years.  Even if your husband knew just what to do, four children under 6 would test the most sainted father and mother.  It's time for both of you to lower your expectations, laugh about the chaos and to spend that teddy bear money on a weekend away every season--without the kids.  You need to remember that the marriage must be nurtured as much as the children and also that the children have to fit into your lives, rather than you fitting into theirs.  If they're the center of the universe, the children will grow up expecting everyone to do their bidding and be distressed to discover that everyone says, "no thanks". 

My latest grandchild's name is Algonqua. (It's a girl.) Do children with unusual names thrive, or do they find it a burden? We named our children Mary, Mike and Jennifer, and find this all very unsettling.

Fortunately, it's none of your business. Your granddaughter will either love her name and all the attention it gets or she will get a nickname or she will simply change it in her late teens, as so many children do--even the Marys, Mikes and Jennifers.

Hi, Marguerite. Thanks for taking my question. We have a 4-year-old daughter and a 2-year-old son. I grew up with sisters, so maybe that's why my perspective is off, but our son seems to be wildly aggressive and physical in a way our daughter has never been. He does "normal" toddler things like hitting (which we address) but also things like pouncing on our daughter and rolling over on top of her, chasing after her and pulling her pants and underwear down, sitting on her head, all these extremely aggressive, extremely uncomfortable (for our daughter and for us as his parents!) things. I stay at home with him, so I know he's not exposed to anything like this, and I know he's not been abused in any way. We're just at a total loss as to what to do about it. Thanks in advance for your advice.

Children are so full of energy, especially boys and especially boys, especially 2-year-olds and especially if they are particularly physical and energetic. They're like puppies; they have to jump on each other, chase each other, keep their bodies moving all the time.

You can't change your son, but you can change his environment.  Please see that he gets to a playground every day; that he runs his little heart out and wears his little legs out because he's got to use up most of that energy every day.  If you have stairs, have him climb them over and over again or set up a stepladder in the living room.  This kind of child will climb it again and again, just because it's there.  And then read Please Understand Me, so you can see how your son's temperament is okay but so different from yours. 

I have three teens at home. My son is the oldest and he often says mean, cutting things to the younger two (twin daughters) -- completely without provocation. I think he is jealous (he struggles with ADD and anxiety). But I feel he is old enough to know better (he is a senior in high school), and we don't need to talk about it anymore. He just needs to leave the room for 15 mins (longer?). My husband is not as strict about it, but I just think he needs to learn that rude talk is unacceptable. Period. Help!

You sound like you nailed it with the jealousy suggestion, but when you send him out of the room to pull himself together, let him decide when he's calm enough to come back and to go to his little sisters and apologize for being snarky and even give them a kiss.  Even if the apology is forced, he has to learn that he must let them know that he is sorry because it will help him be kinder next time.

I have a tendency to look to the future and worry about everything related to my children. My latest worry is that my son, 19 and in college, has never had a paying job and is either not motivated or lacks the confidence to look for one. I've provided suggestions and websites and am very much trying to be supportive but not push. I thought over winter break he might start his inquiries into summer positions, but that hasn't happened. Last summer he checked out a couple of places and then gave up and did a once a week volunteer stint (for a couple of hours each week). He is a very low maintenance young man so he doesn't need much money. I am worried that without some experience, when he leaves college he'll have no job seeking or interviewing skills. Is this where you tell me just stay cool and lay low and he'll find his way?

You're right to worry about these things, because childhood was the time for him to learn the skills of an adult and it doesn't sound like he learned how to work--or why.  Mel Levine, a pediatrician who has started something called, I think, the Mind Institute, has written about this extensively and I think you should check him out.  (He says that colleges teach their students how to write a resume but they don't teach them what to do with it).  Whatever you do, however--don't interfere with his efforts.  Every child has the right to try and the right to fail.  The right to get the wrong job and to lose it because failure will define your son as much as success.  Yes lay low, even though you won't stay cool.

Check out It is an organization that accredits and organizes home daycares throughout Northern Virginia. I admit I have never used them, but I have always heard good things about them.

Sounds great!

I'm wondering why your first LW was musing "cutting them out of the will" as an option in dealing with angry grandchildren, but it was "too soon". Was she joking? This seems to be a very wealthy family that uses money and trips to mold desired behavior. Why didn't you call her out on that?

I probably should have but I've got a lot of questions to go!

Not sure if this is a question for you, or for the travel folks, but here goes. I'd love to take a trip with my family next year. It'll be me, my husband, a 5-year-old and an 18-month-old (both boys). But what's realistic? I know what's fun for the adults (driving around Ireland, anyone?) would NOT be fun for the littles, so any suggestions on fun trips with them would be appreciated. Thanks.

Just remember:  with young kids, it takes twice as long to go half as far.  Kids don't like to be rushed or to see Everything because it's too much stimulation, too much to absorb.  Why not look for one or two places within a country and park yourselves there, finding someone who can sit for you while you and your husband take little side trips during naptime and go out for dinner.

We have two healthy kids aged 3.5 years old and 2 years old. I'm 40. I've given myself two more months to decide if we're going to try for another child. My husband "sees the light at the end of the tunnel" now that our second child is more of a kid than a baby and doesn't want to mess with the awesome relationship the two currently share. So he says no (but would say yes if I pressed). We both grew up with only a sibling and very much enjoyed that. I can't understand why I have this very strong desire to have a third kid other than wanting to be pregnant again and knowing my biological clock is pretty much up, this is my last shot at another, and I'm not wanting to have a baby after 41. Friends and family are being respectful in keeping their opinions to themselves. I know I will always want a third, but if I do get prenant, I will look back at raising two kids as being "easy" and think "why didn't I pick the easy path?" Feel like I can't win. Of course I've already won, but you know what I mean. I just have to make a decision soon. HELP!

That yearning for another child is primal, isn't it?  One point to make with your husband:  three children add a little chaos to a family but they also spread the intensity that parents often lay on two children, and this is all to the good because it gives the three children the space they need to solve many of their own problems and therefore become more self-confident.  Perhaps you and your husband can both compromise.  If he will let you try for another child until you're 41, you won't try afterwards.

Our youngest, 2, is very particular that things be a certain way. We figured this out last summer when he was very distressed until we closed a cabinet door in the kitchenette of the hotel room we stayed in. Well, we've just moved into a different house, and everything is chaotic and in boxes. He become rather distressed when the packers came and put everything in boxes (frequent pointing and asking "gone?" with a somewhat worried expression), and I'm wondering how to help him adjust to the fact that right now we don't have places for things yet, and just because something will get unpacked in one place, doesn't mean that will be it's true spot long-term. Thoughts on helping him cope?

Straighten his favorite rooms out first--particularly his bedroom--and look surprised and delighted when you open a box and find out what's inside.  Then ask, "where shall we put the lamp?  the pot?  the toy?" and don't worry about moving it later.  In the excitement of so many new things to explore, he'll barely notice.

My daughter and my father are exceptionally close. He lives in a different city and recently had a stroke that has resulted in him being paralyzed and having a speech deficit. When is an appropraite time to take a (quite advanced) 4.5-year-old to see him? We want to have her help motivate his physical therapy, but we don't want to really scare or upset her.

Keep your daughter fully informed, so his condition won't be a surprise and ask the nurse if she can Skype with you at his bedside, so your daughter can see if for herself on screen before she sees him in person.  Then you and she can talk about ways to motivate him in his rehab and back to good or at least better health.  Having a goal will help your daughter most, rather than concentrating on the present.

Thanks for joining the Family

Almanac today!  See you next month.


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 her latest column on making a blended family work, and click here for previous columns.
Recent Chats
  • Next: