Parenting advice: Help for raising children of all ages

Feb 10, 2011

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

Dear Ms. Kelly, please help! My soon-to-be-5-y.o. daughter, an only child, has always been a delight, but recently she's turned into the policeman of the world. If one of us is speeding or doesn't come to a complete stop at a stop sign, she calls us on it. If a playmate sneaks a cookie, same thing. Her kindergarten teacher says she tattles there as well, relentlessly, on everyone. She even told another teacher, "I saw you smoking on school grounds," which is forbidden. Of course, we should not be speeding, but how can you not at times? And the teacher should not have been smoking. But I'm worried that not only will she have no friends, but she's making us all miserable. How can we help her learn to not sweat the small stuff while remaining conscientious about larger issues?

All children discipline each other; it's only when they discipline the grown-ups that it gets really annoying.  However, it takes two people to tattle successfully--the one who tattles and the one who listens to the tattle.  So you just have to stop listening.  Unless the tattle is life-threatening, your only response is, "Really?" and then you talk about something else.  If you chastise her, you reward her with attention and attention is what she wants.  Instead, when she has gone a while (a couple of hours, even) without tattling, congratulate her spontaneously for not tattling.  It's always better to praise children for the good they do than to chastise them for their mistakes.  This is the way they learn.

My wonderful 2-year-old daughter is mainly home with me, her mom. She attends preschool two mornings a week and has adjusted pretty well. She has also done well with daytime sitters from time to time. But whenever her father and I have tried to leave her with a sitter in the evening, she does fine until bedtime, when she refuses bedtime and stays adamantly awake, crying, until we return. (She does fine with just me or just her dad in the evenings, although she misses the absent parent.) In the last 8 months or so, we haven't even tried to go out together in the evening -- I don't enjoy the evenings while expecting a super-late night for her and all the crankiness that follows. We have no family locally and so I have tried to leave her (back before I gave up) with various high school students who have cared successfully for her in daytime. Do you have any recommendations? Her father and I have gone to theater matinees on weekends, had early dinners with child at restaurants, done take-out restaurant meals at home after her bedtime, watched videos, and taken turns seeing the same movie separately over a weekend. But I think it would be good for us to go out together some evenings again.

It's as important to protect the marriage as it is to protect the child.

Go out, please, once a week, if only to take a walk in the park, and go out an hour or so before your child's bedtime, and don't make a big deal about it, because it isn't a big deal.  Let the sitter handle bedtime; just tell your child that if she's asleep, that you'll wake her up when you get back and give her a goodnight kiss.  Also, touch her with a little perfume before you go.

Even though your world centers around your child, she will only be with you for 16 more years and with luck, you and your husband will be together for the rest of your lives.  This is more likely to happen if you honor each other and your marriage as much as you honor your child.

with respect to the ADD family - your response puts an awful lot of responsibility on the wife/mother. The husband needs to take responsibility for his own behavior and his parenting responsibilities. Yes ADD is a challenge but only he can learn techniques that work for him. Also, the children need to learn the skills and techniques appropriate to them so that they can do what they need to do.

Yes, ADD does put a lot of responsibility on the spouse, because in any relationship, each person tries to make up for whatever is lacking in the other person.  Someone with ADD needs a simplified environment--a place for everything and everything in its place--because there are so many things cluttering up his mind that he simply can't think straight if his world is disordered.   As anyone with ADD can tell you,  Attention Deficit Disorder is really Attention Surplus Disorder.   A wise spouse tries not to add to his confusion, so he doesn't add more confusion to hers.

There are many Web sites purporting to deal with this situation, but I'd welcome your common-sense approach. My husband and I are vegetarians (not vegans). We have three happy and healthy daughters, ages 5-4-2. While we strongly believe that eating animals is wrong, we don't want to make a huge deal out of it. Their daycare and preschool are cooperating, and we plan to send them to a small Catholic school that will work with us on this matter. I've asked their friends' parents to provide veggie meals and snacks if at all possible, or at times I send them along. But if they eat the occasional burger or chicken noodle soup, we are not going to go ballistic. We hope they will remain true to these values but realize that, in time, it will be out of our control. Our concern is how to inculcate these values into our children without turning them into the "food police." We recognize that most people have no problem with eating animals, leather shoes, etc. What we don't want is what happened to a friend's child who was somehow served venison at a neighbor's house. He yelled, "You're eating Bambi!" to the great consternation of his hosts and howling by their children. Those 2 families are no longer close, and the child can't understand what he did wrong.

It sounds like you're doing a dandy job handling your vegetarian lives.  There will always be people who criticize you, because you're not doing what they do, but don't let it bother you.  No two people rear their children the same way (or spend their money the same way or have exactly the same values).  It's the differences that make life interesting, not the similarities.

My husband and I are expecting twin girls in a couple months and cannot agree on names. He wants to name them "twin" names, like Tracie and Stacie or Molly and Holly. Sure, being a twin is great, but I want each to be her own person, and so each should have a distinct name. I think a person's name is important in shaping his or her personality and want to choose accordingly. But a recent "Jeopardy!" champion was named Eureka Nutt, and she appears to have done fairly well.

The choice of names seems important now because you have to worry about something when you're pregnant and that's a nice safe thing to worry about.

And yes, a child may be a twin but she should be her own person and you know what?  She will be, whether you give her a name to match her sister's name or not.  Why not choose matching middle names now and decide whether you want to use them after they're born.  Even if you don't, they can decide to switch to their middle names when they're older, which children often do in their late teens.

Re your column: do you have specific recommendations for adults newly diagnosed with ADD? I am a 35-year old woman who was tested and told I have mild ADD, but certainly exhibit some of the hallmarks (like the anxiety at seeing clutter and distraction that you mentioned in your recent column). I'm not sure where to go from here, though. I'd rather not take medication, but need some help. Thanks for any suggestions.

Some adults with ADD find that a very small dose of a medication will help because it clears their brains enough to say, "aha, so this is how those other people think!"  and then they carry these lessons into their lives even after they quit taking these meds.  Others just keep their worlds as uncluttered as possible and go their own slightly foggy way through life, helped by a large calendar in the kitchen, alarms to remind them what to do and when, and other external devices, most of which you've probably already figured out.

My family lives on a small, very quiet street with our 2 kids. Others in our town have bonded with neighbors or thru thier kids' sports teams. My kids never did sports. Frankly, my husband & I are lonely for friends. We have had annual get-togethers at our house with neighbors & others, been involved with our kids' schools, started a charity and I started a monthly woman's group, but it has not lead to any friendships. The weekends come around and we have no plans. Any suggestions?

Friendships develop through common interests, not through a common geography.  Figure out your own personal interests and pursue them--through clubs, through charities, through activities--and friendships will develop, as long as you remember to ask others what they're doing, how they're doing and what they think about anything.  When people are asked about themselves, they always think the asker is quite fascinating.

I am at my wits' end about how to *make* my 16-year-old do his homework...AND turn it in...It seems that if we stand over him with a metaphorical stick, he will do it, and will get good grades...but the second we turn out backs, he bails! I have taken away *things* - laptop, cellphone, tv...and he will comply just long enough to earn these things back...then it starts all over again. He is in 10th grade and I just cannot get him to understand how important his grades are for getting into a good college. My SIL says, "So, let him fail..." Changing the path of his entire life does not seem a fitting punishment... What is your advice?

I'm with your sister-in-law.  Your son needs to know that homework is his responsibility and that doing it, and turning it in to the teacher is his choice, not yours.  This will be painful for you, and hard to do, but this is the way you show your respect to him and your confidence that he will do the right thing--especially if he hands over his cell phone to you before he starts his homework; if the computer is in a central place, where youcan see that he's actually doing his work, not playing around online; if you ban TV on school nights; if you give him a certain amount of time to do the work and if you check it when he's done to make sure it is complete and is put in his backpack. 

My 13YO has always been self-centered. I have tried everything I can think of to get him to see the world differently, to see that the world is not all about him, but I can't get through to him. And he's selfish to a point of ridiculousness. When he was younger, I could simply move the toys he had outgrown into his younger brother's room. But now, I can't. He hasn't built anything with Legos for over a year, but he refuses to let his brother have his Legos. The two don't get along very well anyway -- partly because of the 4yr age difference, and partly because of very different temperaments, so the older one uses Legos as one more way to annoy his little brother. I know I can't simply give them to the younger brother, without causing serious problems... Any suggestions?

All children are self-focused to some degree, but this is sibling rivalry, which comes in many shapes and sizes.  Rather than make a special fight over Legos, wait a while and concentrate on teaching your son to give to others instead of his brother.  The whole family could work in a church group or a charity to do this giving or he could do it on his own, but he (and all children) should be required to tithe both his time and his money, so he will share his good fortune with others for the rest of his life--even with his little brother.

I was a bit baffled and disappointed in your response to the wife whose husband is apparently ADD along with 2 of their children. The first thing I would expect is that you advise the spouse to have a medical exam and diagnosis made on the husband and the children. I have 3 women friends who are confirmed with ADD (Curiously enough, 2 of the 3 husbands also have ADD) . In showing 2 of them your column yesterday, the response was negative to your advise. One said "Holy crap!" and went on to indicate that your knowledge was lacking in this area. The other said that the bell idea would not fly in her house. It would only built resentment and the cover for the game counsel was ridiculous. The idea of posting the week's activities on the fridge seems a good one but as one of my friends said, it would never get read or updates. In fairness, my third friend says if something is written down, she can and will act on it. Reading the comments, it was obvious that others just don't understand what this malady entails. It is more than just being lazy or indifferent. One of my friends wrote me a long, painful note about how she tries to cope, how she knows that she lets other people down and how she tries to combat this with many mechanisms learned over the years. She says that she is torn up inside because she can never be as good as she feels she can be and doesn't meet her personal expectation, much less of others. I think you may wish to research this a bit deeper and revise your advice.

One day one of my children told me that other families have initials behind their names, like MD or MA or PHD, but in our family we have ADD, ADHD, SPD -- the list goes on -- so a lot of my research is firsthand and some of it works for some members and some of it works for others, which I think is pretty typical, particularly where ADD is concerned.  For other, and perhaps better advice, read any books by Edward Hallowell.

My 4yo is a handful, but not unmanageable. Her older sister is calm while she is intense and sensitive, especially to food, clothes, and people. She moved up a class in her daycare, seemed to withdraw, but is now integrating more but only slowly. Her new class is larger; she is in small group enrichment activities at the daycare that she enjoys immensely. Daily reports, though, are transgressions ranging from pitching a fit to throwing a toy from frustration. She is a very smart child with an infectious laugh and beautiful smile who adores reading and drawing. How can we encourage more of the good and extinguish the undesirable behavior? She's going to be assessed for ADD/Asperger's at her future public school, and we plan to meet with a child psychologist if the school finds nothing. I don't want her ostracized when she does go to school. How can we parent her in ways she responds to?

Always work to a child's strengths, not her weaknesses.  She's not going to be good in everything.  She also doesn't need daily reports--who does?--because she can't be good every day.  Love this child as she is, introduce her to anything that feeds her interests in art and in books--and any new interests that come along-- and she will bring joy to you always.

Speaking of parenting at all ages, I was shocked when I learned of a few college students who admitted their parents still spanked them. I am against spanking children of any age, yet, for those who do, shouldn't there be some age cutoff well before 18 or 19?

Gosh, I never heard of such a thing.  I'm surprised that these kids hung around for 18 or 19 years.

We are expecting our second child this summer and are wondering how to best prepare our first for this arrival. No. 1 will have just turned 3 years old when the baby is born and will be going through two big transitions of his own at that time as well, potty training and moving to the 3's room at school. Any advice about handling this as smoothly as possible is appreciated. Thanks!

Be sure to have the new baby bring the old baby a present when he comes home from the hospital, like a little rubber baby doll with a bottle, so she can feed her baby while you're feeding yours.  Three-year-olds don't understand biology enough to be surprised at this gift. 

Give the older child responsibilities, like bringing a fresh diaper to you, and spend some time every day with the child--a tea party for the two of you--while the baby is sleeping.  Expect a bigger problem at 3 months, when the baby starts to coo, friends make a big fuss over him and the presents stop coming.  That's when you want to make a real big fuss over your baby because she'll probably suggest that it's time to take him back where he came from, but that's nothing to worry about.

How critical is it that a child be enrolled in preschool at 3 years old? Will we be dooming our child to be behind if we enroll at 4 years old? He has a very late Sept birthday. We're applying to schools, but they are all by lottery and based on the open houses' overwhelming attendance (and few number of 3 YO slots) we have no confidence we will get in anywhere. And we're not in a position to pay $18K for private pre-school.

It isn't critical at all. 
What is critical is that your 3-year-old has playdates with other children her age, so she can learn the give and take of friendship. 

It's also smart to postpone school for a child with a late birthday, especially a boy, because boys develop about six months later than girls.

What are your thoughts on communicating with children away at college? My 18-year-old is at school about two hours away. Thanks to today's technology, I could e-mail, call, or text her daily if I wanted to, and some of my peers think that if the urge strikes, why not? On the other hand, I think about what college is for and somehow it doesn't seem like I'm helping my child grow more independent if there's daily communication. I e-mail my daughter twice a week. I would love to hear from her more but I don't want to smother her and I don't want her to feel obligated. Thank you!

I think emails are almost a perfect way to communicate with a college kid because it's casual, quick and can be done 'when the spirt moves you.'  Emails take away the rigidity of letters, and they usually make the student feel terrific because they're so undemanding and they remind her that she is missed at home.  It can be so lonely in college sometimes.

Due to my "advanced maternal age" of 39 we're considering getting pregnant with our 3rd child (1st is 2 1/2, 2nd is 1 year) because it is now/soon or never. Do you have any recommendations for books, Web sites, or other guidance on making this decision of going from 2 to 3 kids? Are we crazy for considering this?

When you have two kids, you tend to focus on them with a laser-like intensity, but you don't have that kind of time when you have three kids, so you give all of them what they need a little of every day:  benign neglect.  You also become more efficient, because you have to be; you lower your expectations--0f yourself and of them--because you have no choice which lets you enjoy them even more than you ever enjoyed your  two kids.  Go for it!

Our 13 and 11 year old sons are engaging in some pretty nasty and persistent sibling rivalry. We go between trying to judge each squabble on its merits from telling them that they have to sort it out themselves. Nothing, however, seems to prevent their conflicts from affecting the whole family (there are three younger children). Is there some method of conflict resolution you would recommend that could keep them from fighting with each other over every. . .little. . .thing?!?! Also know that they often get along quite well so I'm not too worried about a more serious type of disaffection. Your thoughts?

Little boys are like puppies.  They scramble and wrestle and snap at each other until you can hardly bear it--but you'll bear it much better if you remember that they do some of this scuffling to get your attention.   One mother of five sons told me that she told her squabbling boys to settle it outside but they never got past the front door because they lived in Wisconsin and it was plenty cold out there.  Another told her sons to walk around the block, each going in a different direction.  By the time they met they were friends again.  Or you can separate your children from each other and from you--giving one of them the job of washing the bathroom tiles, and the other of washing fingerprints from the front door.  Squabblers often squabble to get rid of excess energy (as well as to get your attention) so you may as well use it.

My husband of 26 years left me, moved to NY, and is marrying a 35-year-old woman. My kids, who are both in college, currently have little relationship with him as he believes that once kids are "adults" they don't need any parental support other than financial, which he is happy to provide. I have tried to fill the gap, but I need some advice as to how I can continue doing this. I have no contact with him either. He basically cut everyone off after his midlife crisis. My kids both have sexuality and trust issues. Help, please!

The pain that you and the children feel must be incredible but it's time to pamper yourself with massages (massage students are really affordable); order in your life; a journal so you can look back three months later and see that you're doing a little bit better; some psychotherapy; some acupuncture if possible, because it mellows the head first of all; and an open discussions with your children about how much you hurt and asking them how you can help them and telling them how they can help you.  Also Erik Erikson is pretty impenetrable but his account of the eight stages of life may soothe your savaged soul and help to explain your ex's decision.  Take care, stay warm.  Grief has a way of chilling the soul and the body too.

Hi Ms. Kelly -- I so admire your writing. My daughter, who is turning 10 next month, really has no friends. We adopted her from Russia at age 3 yrs, 9 mos, and while we started her in the public kindergarten at age 5, she has always had an IEP and been in special education classes. Academically, she has made tremendous progress and now reads near grade level. But socially she remains immature compared with her peers. She is very sweet and enjoys physical play but easily slighted and complains bitterly of other kids who bump into her, or squash her backpack or interrupt her or are "mean" in an unspecified way. She has improved some in the 4th grade, but for years her sensitivity drove her to being a tattletale, and now she has pretty much been branded as unpopular. However, the girls in her class are unfailingly polite. They will attend her birthday parties and playdates, are polite at Girl Scout meetings, but never reciprocate (and parent-arranged playdates are starting to fade out anyway). My daughter mistakenly thinks that these girls are her friends when in fact, they just tolerate her. She will be with the same childdren for two more years in elementary school. My heart breaks when she is alone all weekend, and she wants to get into e-mails and texting but with whom? I just do not know how to help her -- my husband and I work full time and tending to her academic needs is fairly burdensome. She does Girl Scouts, gymnastics, and religious ed but has not made any friends in these venues. She has made friends at summer camp where she has not already been labeled. How do we break her out of this situation? Must we wait for another chance in middle school?

Whenever a child hates to be bumped--or often bumps into others or gets into their personal space--look for sensory processing disorder, a problem caused by children who don't quite know where their bodies are in space and the problem is treated by an occupational therapist.  The best book on the subject:  Growing an In-Sync Child.  A tester to see if this could be one of her problems:  Lynn Balzer-Martin in Bethesda.  If it is, she'll need to see Wendy Israel in D.C.  or another occupational therapist because treatment could make a world of difference to her.  That's one more job for you, but such is the path that parents of a special needs child must walk.

Ha! Sure it's easy for you to say. You're not the one who will have to deal with the consequences if Junior doesn't graduate and can't get a job. What will your advice be then? Tough love? Kick him out of the house? Yeah, right.

I don't think this this will happen if he is allowed to pay the consequences himself.

Sorry, Marguerite Kelly had to run but says thank you for all the thoughtful questions. She'll be back next month.

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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 her latest column on attention deficit disorder, and click here for previous columns.
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