Parenting advice: Help for raising children of all ages

Mar 14, 2013

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

Hi everyone and thanks for joining us today. Marguerite is here and we have lots of great questions, so let's get started.

Dear Ms. Kelly, Our family has been hit hard by the recession. We had to explain to our younger children that there is no Santa and to our older ones that we can't buy them expensive electronics or designer clothes. Other than lawnmowing or other odd jobs, they are too young to earn their own money. Things are getting a little better but we have mountains of debt and badly need a new car. We have to be thrifty and try to be creative but this is very hard.

Parents can either talk down to their children as if they were the king and queen, or they can talk with them, which is better, because the family is a team and you want them to be team players. 

Ask them to weekly meetings, tell them that you're going to get out of debt--no doubt about it--and then ask them if they have any ideas that could get the family out of debt a little sooner.  Some ideas may be silly but not all and even some of the silly ones should be tried, if only to show the kids how much you value their ideas.

Having hired teenagers for more than 30 years, may I suggest that they offer their services in unusual ways because young people have so much more to offer than lawnmowing and baby sitters.

They might post a sign in a adult recreation center, offering to scan pictures into a computer and put them on a disc; mend china; shine silver; straighten out someone's basement; feed the roses--and tell their customers that they get $6 an hour if they're between 10 and 12; $8 an hour if they're 13 to 18.  Parents shouldn't pay their own children for the work they do but other people certainly should pay them.

My 11-year-old has suddenly become moody, angry, teary-eyed and critical of everything -- but only toward me. She still cuddles up to her stepdad (whom she used to "hate" because he's strict). Is this the beginning of teenage-hood (this early??) or is it something more serious?

Hormones, honey, and lots of them.  It takes a couple of years for young people to adjust to them--just aas it takes a couple of years for some mothers to adjust to the lack of hormones in menopause--so you just have to suck it up now and realize that your daughter is weepy with you because she feels safe with you--safer than anyone else in the whole world.  Just be sure to keep treating her with respect for there is nothing a child needs more between 11 and 20 than the respect of her mind and her ideas.  A teenager who feels respected almost never rebels.

My husband and I have a 13 year old, a 16 year old and a 19 year old - all girls. Our issues have been with our youngest daughter lately. She has been raised in the age of cell phones and iPods, much earlier than her sisters were and recently we discovered that with this technology, she has been having on-line involvement with others, particularly those who appear to be males. This involvement has led to us discovering that it has gone as far as "sexting" along with a problem of lying, which led us to place her with a counselor. The counselor also identified some slight problems with depression and is working with her on these issues. Do you have any words of wisdom? It seems like parenting is getting harder and harder with all of the outside technological influences.

I think it's always a good idea to take away a child's cellphone at night, but with this child I'd takeher electronics away at all times, but do it gently.  Tell her that you didn't remember that she got her cell when she was younger than her sisters, and that you don't think she's ready for it yet because she doesn't realize how dangerous it can be, especially sexting.  And when she does get it back--maybe next year--see that her emails run through the family account and do let the family computer sit in the kitchen or some room where you can see what's on the screen when you pass by.

Dear Ms. Kelly, My daughter graduated from UVA with honors 4 years ago and signed up with Teach for America., She was assigned to one of the poorest districts in DC. She managed to serve out her year but it turned her into a terrible racist and her boyfriend is even worse. He says "Black on Black crime is fine as long as they're only killing each other." My husband and I are appalled and heartbroken over this.  It goes against everything we believe and tried to teach her. We want to be supportive of all our children but this is just unacceptable. She says if we knew what she knows, we would feel the same way. This doesn't seem to be a passing phase. What can we do?

Teach for America has some learning problems because they often don't prepare their young teachers well enough for the sights that they will see and they don't mentor them well enough. Your daughter may also have become a racist because her boyfriend has that problem too. 

Rather than clash with them repeatedly, you might ask her if she would like to volunteer with you at St. Anne's, the orphanage in, I think, Hyattsville, or at Children's Hospital--two places where children are respected, whatever their race, and also suggest that she write about the things she saw and heard at her school.  Maybe someday she can turn it into an article, but for now it would be a journal, just for her and just for now.   Journaling, as it's called, is a great therapeutic tool and it can be quite effective, perhaps because your daughter will be her own therapist.

Hello, My daughter turned 13 six months ago and it seems like a switch was flipped. I understand that kids go through all sorts of changes, but it feels like she has done a 180 on so many of the things that used to be important to her (reading, Girl Scouts, spending time w/family). Her grades have gone from A's to B's and she's completely unreliable. She regularly "forgets" when I ask her to do things around the house, even chores that she's had for years! All she really wants to do is facetime and text. While I want to give her a certain amount of freedom, I feel like it's a slippery slope. I don't want her to dig a hole that she can't get out of (i.e. B's going to C's or worse), but at the same time, I don't want to micromanage her. Any advice is welcome! Thanks!

Just because your daughter can type doesn't mean that she's a grown-up; it just means that she can type.

As I wrote in an earlier answer, it's hormones, all the time and that usually means texting, often long after you think your child has gone to sleep.  While a certain amount of texting and facebooking helps a child learn how to socialize, you really should have her turn in her cell after supper and only give it back to her after breakfast.   There's really no point in teasing her by letting her take her cell with her when she's doing her homework or going to sleep and then telling her not to use it when she's working or sleeping.  Won't happen.

I'm confused about the relevance and importance of grades, especially in grade school, from both the parent's and child's perspectives. My extroverted daughter and oldest child is in 5th grade at a Catholic school. She seems to be a solid B student and content with that. With such an aggressive grading scale nowadays, where an A is 93 percent and a B is 85, I feel silly writing, as if I am complaining. Yet, I'm a little surprised she's almost oblivious or maybe indifferent, at best, to the results of her efforts. She gets her homework done and on time, often with reminders from mom and dad. So, she's not "obsessing" about her work, which I guess is good, but not sure I see any pride in it either. Do we encourage her that working a little harder to get the A isn't necessarily a bad thing, or do we let her do her thing and wait for self-discovery, either way? She's good at math, but far from an advanced reader. From what I hear, the 'rules change' in 6th grade. I want her to be prepared for a more demanding year next year. Any thoughts.

Yes, 6th grade really does get harder, but a child should have the right to try--and the right to fail.  She'll shape up when a subject turns her on and she gets a great teacher--hopefully in the same year--but in the meantime, read Frames of Mind by Howard Gardner, who explains that the brain has seven (now at least eight) discrete abilities and that no one is equally good in all of them.  It's something all parents should remember, because they're not equally good in everything either.

Hi Marguerite, I really enjoy your column. I am expecting a baby girl this summer, who will share a room with my spunky 2 1/2 year old daughter. We live in a small but affordable house in a great neighborhood and don't have a strong desire to move. Our daughter has always been a great sleeper and loves her bed (we have already converted her crib to a daybed) - so we would consider buying a new crib if it is too much to ask my daughter to give up her bed and move to a regular toddler bed. But they would be sharing a pretty small room for possibly several years. What is the best way to manage this huge transition and disruption in my daughter's life? We know it will be hard, but we want her to love being a big sister.

A family is one long lesson in sharing but sharing one's beloved bed may be too much for your little girl and too soon.  Just take her to Salvation Army with you to buy a crib then pick up a new mattress.  And will they be crowded in their room?  Of course! Will they mind?  Not really, because that is all they know.  Just remember to have your new  baby bring a dolly or some other present to your daughter and give her lots of attention and inexpensive toys when the baby s about three months old and gets so enchanting that the old baby may get pretty jealous--particularly since she's not getting any more presents from friends and relatives who used to bring presents to her when they came to see the baby.

Thank you for taking my question. I am dating a wonderful man with two girls who are 8 and 10 years old. I have no children of my own. Our relationship is getting more serious and I am looking for information about being a stepmom. Either recommended books, or even stepmom groups/counselors in Northern Virginia. Thanks!!

The stepfamily association is a pretty good source and the Parent Encouragement Program should have some good parenting classes to help you, even if they don't call them stepmother classes.

Just remember though, that you'll never be their mother, no matter how much they learn to love you, and that they probably won't tell you that they love you either, especially if their mother is still around and is carrying a lot of anger in her heart.  That, you must remember, is her problem, not yours, and that you mustn't let it infect you.

Dear Ms. Kelly: Our daughter graduated from college last year (yea!) and has always been a thoughtful, thrifty young woman. But as she's making her way into the world on her own, she seems to be making rash and reckless decisions -- getting engaged to a man she has only known for a month, spending thousands to fly to see him (they are in a long-distance relationship). How do parents navigate such situations with older "kids"? We don't want to drive her away from us by criticizing her too much, but she is behaving so atypically, we don't know what to do. Help!

Ma'am, your daughter is a grown-up.  She may be on her way to a starter marriage or to a marriage that lasts her whole life, but it's really none of your business any more.  What your daughter needs now is the same thing she has always needed:  encouragement and respect.  As long as her activities are legal and fairly safe, she has the right to pursue them.

How much responsibility should we expect from a 14 year old when it comes to her scheduling? My husband and I share custody of his 14 year old daughter with his ex-wife. We'll often ask the daughter what time she is getting dropped off or picked up the next day or arrangements about her soccer games, and she'll respond she doesn't know and to ask her mother. At what age, should we want/expect her to become active and involved in her schedule? Thank you!

She should be writing her schedule on the family calendar already, just as you do, and keeping the schedule herself.  When she tells you to ask her mother about drop-offs and pick-ups, simply tell her that this is her job, not yours, and that you're sure her mom would rather get these questions from her. 

You know that is more than minimum wage. I would never pay a 13 yr old that much.

I always go a little above the minimum wage because I want these kids to know that I value their work and their time.  No one is as busy as a teenager and I think they should compensated for giving me their time, even if I have to cut back on something else.

My very sweet 10 1/2 year old boy lies about things. Usually these are things of no consequence and occasionally about important things. I can understand lying to avoid being in trouble or to make himself look better, but why lie about what he had for a snack or whether he played outside after school? Pointing out the lie just makes him dig in even more, but I hate to just let them go either. We have talked about the importance of trust and being truthful, but it still happens -- more about the stupid stuff than about the important stuff.

The problem isn't that your son lies, but why he lies.  Is he afraid of getting punishments that are too stiff?  Of being ashamed for getting caught, again?  Or is he lying because he's close to 11--an age when children are more likely to lie, to smoke, to shoplift, to read Playboy and hide the copies--to spread their wings.  Try to find out what makes him act that way by talking to him in his room at night, after lights out, after catching him in a lie.   Start the conversation by saying, "I'm sorry you needed to lie to me today.  Do you know why?"  And then let him talk around the subject, wandering all over the place, until he gets to the heart of the subject, which it will if you don't say a word, you don't sound angry, but if you don't understand, repeat what you think he has said, in your own words, and ask him "Is that what you meant?"

No one ever said that parenthood was easy.

Those are extremely dangerous. Cribs should always be purchased new. Please amend your response.

Not if you know how close the spindles must be to keep an infant's tiny body from slipping between them, which is only a problem in the early months. 

Marguerite, your response to the stepmom "Just remember though, that you'll never be their mother" is a slap in the face. Of course she knows she will never be their mother. She sounds like a wonderful, loving woman who just wanted to know how to be the best step mom she can be. Sometimes your answers really get my goat. To the step mom. Here is my advice... love the girls. Do things with them that they enjoy. Make sure they have time with just their dad, without you. Listen to what they have to say. DON'T discipline them. NEVER speak badly of their mother. Good luck.

I like your answer, espeically to give the girls time alone with their dad,  and let him do the disciplining too because somebody has to do it.

I shared a room with my younger brother. However, my parents kept him in their room while he was a baby until he was a toddler. A toddler and a baby together in one room seems like a nightmare scenario of being awake all night.

It wasn't a nightmare for me, even when it turned into a zoo at bedtime.  Apparently, if the  baby is used to noise, she sleeps right through it.

In preparing for an IEP eligibility (related to sensory issues), he scored very high on the IQ test (at gifted levels) (1st grade). With about 7 months of OT therapy for sensory issues, he has done quite well behaviorally and academically - reading & writing at above grade level. He is very enthusastic about school and is very self-motivated (he does his homework without prompting) and in school he is a very focused student. Should I pursue putting in a gifted program in 3rd grade, or just allow him to continue in the regular classroom.

I wouldn't worry about third grade yet.  Right now your boy is happy, he's doing great, he's probably king of his kingdom.  The time to move a happy boy is when he gets unhappy.

Thanks so much for joining the Family Almanac today. Great questions!

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 recent columns on limiting children's use of electronics or click here for previous columns.
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