The Washington Post

Parenting advice: Help for raising children of all ages

Apr 11, 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 and thanks for stopping by.

My 58 year old husband is a good, hard-working guy who is the "odd person out" in his family. His older brother is a brilliant college professor and his much younger (15 years) sister, as the youngest and the only girl, was always the family princess. She's been married and divorced twice with no children, and lives with her parents. She has a good job but runs through money because she's never been required to support herself. Both her parents and her other brother routinely pay all her bills. My husband is smart but was never academically oriented. He served 30 years in the Navy and now manages an auto parts shop where I work part time. We traveled the world for his career and moved back to our home town when he retired 10 years ago. We always visited and sent cards and gifts when we were away. But no one seems to care. Maybe if we had had children it would be dfferent, but we didn't. (There are no grandchildren in te family.) We visit in each other's homes and attend family functions but there is no warmth. My family is warm and welcoming but it's not the same thing. The kicker is, he has now been diagnosed with kidney cancer. It's in the early stages so the prognosis is good, and as a veteran he gets excellent care. But still the conceern just isn't there. I would like to approach his parents and brother but I'm sure they would just deny this. I assure you I am not imagining things and this relly hurts him. What can I do?

I'm so sorry that you and your husband have to deal with this pain as well as the kidney diagnosis.

Unfortunately, some parents behave like children and so do their own children, even though they're grown.  As my aunt used to say, "God gave us our family; thank God we can choose our friends."

As mature people, you and your husband can only accept them as they are, go through the familial motions but depend on your friends for the warmth and kindness you deserve and give at least as much as you get by visiting the sick, spending time with the old lady down the street and doing for others as best you can.  It is in giving that we get our greatest satisfaction.

While I agree with your advice to the mother whose child's teacher humiliated some of his classmates, the child should not "blow up like a blowfish" when this happens. He needs to be taught some other coping mechanisms.

I wish it were that simple!  Children have such a hard time expressing themselves when they're hurting deep inside.

I was at a family restaurant with a game room. There was a family that appeared to have two boys and a girl. When a child asked if the "girl" wanted to play, the parents corrected everyone by saying he was a boy. I know that kids can have a strong will when it comes to their appearances. For what ever reason, this boy had long hair that made it easy for others to think he was a girl. Sometimes kids understand that their decisions about their appearances could cause other to make a mistake, but other times they may not. Where should parents draw the line? On the opposite side, I have a friend whose daughter wanted to get a crewcut because she was tired of her hair getting all tangled and knotted. Sometimes, I think that a parent can only go so far by explaining to a child how others may respond and then let the child change their appearance as long as it doesn't cause any harm.

It's too bad the parents stepped in and told the other children that their long-haired child was a boy, not a girl.  They would have found out on their own and then acted on this information.   Children police each other which can be quite effective because children want to conform so much.  When a child wears long hair, without any embarrassment, you know that he's either telling the world that he's unique or he's saying, "Pay attention to me!"  It;s only when one of them doesn't conform enough--by wearing babyish clothes or lisping or being diffeent  in some way and then acting vulnerable about it that the policing can turn to bullying which can't, of course, be accepted. 

My wonderful four-year-old is starting to run into occasional situations in which two or more other girls exclude her on the playground. It has happened at school and at large playdates. The idea of guiding her through social issues like this fills me with bad playground memories of my own, and with anxiety.

It's hard to do, but try not to see your daughter's experience through the lens of your own memories.  If your daughter learns to deal with other children now she will know how to deal with society when she's grown

You can make it easier for her however, by inviting one of your daughter's friends to join you when you go to the playground, because three children or five children seldom play as well as two, four or six children.

My son was ready to potty train shortly before his 2nd birthday, but because there were no spaces in the classroom that had facilities, we had to wait; it also coincided with the disruption of our household with selling our house and moving. Once we moved and were settled, we tried reintroducing potty training at multiple intervals to no avail. He is now three and a half. For awhile the daycare kept him in the two year old room, hoping that he would potty train before transitioning him, and because the three year old room has a bathroom but no diapering facilities. He tends to be resistant to change, so we thought that might be contributing, and the daycare moved him to see if that would take care of the problem. It has been about three months, and still no progress. Sticker charts don't seem to help; food treats don't help either. There seems to be little if any interest in doing it "like Daddy or big brother." I'm in the last few months of a degree program, and am very pressed for time, as I work full time in addition to school and family. He is small for his age and I figured that when he is ready he'll do it. But, it's getting harder and harder to wait for that time. What would you advise?

I'd wait until a few months are passed and you would have your degree and more to the point, he would be less recalcitrant.  If your son is on the same schedule as most children, he is at his most mature around his birthday and then falls apart around six months later--in this case, about 3 1/2, because children have to break the old mold before they can grow--much like a crab has to shed his shell before he gets bigger. 

Thanks for taking questions. I'm the mother of a four-year old boy who is very aggressive with me. He's always kicking, hitting, whapping me with his stuffed animals, head-butting, etc. When he does this, I usually give him a warning; if it persists, he loses privileges. He's really energetic and we make sure that he spends a good part of each day running around and being physical. He's in preschool half-days four days a week, and we get good reports on him from his teachers. He eats a wide variety of foods; the behavior doesn't seem linked to any of that. Sometimes he's physically affectionate with me--hugs and kisses and he tells me he loves me. We monitor his tv/screen time and he's not really behavorially aggressive; all in all, he seems pretty well adjusted. The only thing I can think of is that last year I had breast cancer and he had to be careful of me during my surgeries and treatments (I've got more surgeries scheduled for later this year). Think he might be reacting to all that? Any thoughts? We're at a loss to explain this behavior and I'm hoping he just grows out of it. I do spend lots of time with him reading, playing, cooking and such.

A child will do anything to get his parent's attention and if he gets more attention--more notice--for being so physical then, guess what?, he's going to be more physical.  The trick is to pay attention to him before he starts bopping you with his stuffed animals and to look much more pleased when he's being good than when he bops you.  Ignoring bad behavior can corret a child much beter than fussing at him for it because you are ignoring the child.

My son is in third grade and taking his first big state exams next month. I'm somewhat horrified at the emphasis the school is placing on these tests, to the point where they're no longer really introducing new material, just reviewing for these tests. How do I help my son prepare for the tests without letting him get stressed out about them? I think it's too much pressure for an 8-year-old, and that the tests are not a great reflection of student learning. Thanks.

It all depends on the principal.  If she insists on high scores, she'll demand countless reviews but that' is goofy.  A good teacher should spend a couple of days showing her class what these kind of tests are like but she shouldn't have to review the work, over and over, to see that the children score well. 

Hi Marguerite-- I have a 13 yr old, 7th grader who does his work but fails to submit it on time, or fails to write his name on his work and spends more time 'making up' for the work that was marked 'incomplete'. Do you have any suggestions on how to keep him organized. I know puberty is here, and he's not distracted, has no electronics/video games as most kids have....  I'm lost on how to motivate him to be accountable for his actions and become more organized. In this recent (3rd Quarter) report card.. his teachers indicate he'd be on the honor roll if he turned in his work on time. He knows the material. Is it laziness? Is it puberty? What can I do?

A child has so much to learn and math is almost the least of it.

You can help his organizational skills by having him show you his homework every night so you can be sure that his name is on each page--even if you have to give him a rubber stamp, which is irresistable to most children.

And then give him a bright red folder and see that he puts his homework--and only his homework--into it and that he puts the folder in his bookbag.  Organization depends on visual tricks as much as anything else.

My husband and I just started teaching our five-year-old about money. We're encouraging him to save some, tithe, etc. But when it comes to "his" money, how can we (if we can at all) encourage him to use it wisely and not on, say, candy? Thanks!

Please wait.  A 5-year-old might swipe some change to buy an eraser he's pining for--fives do steal sometimes--but your son is too young to spend money wisely.  That's why most parents wait until their children are about 8 to give allowances, because 8-year-olds are usually passionate about money and are most eceptive to its many uses, and to the good the power that comes from saving and giving at least ten  percent of the whole..

Hi there, my 4 year old was influenced by his older 13 year old brother who has a Nintendo DS. He let the 4yo play, and now the 4yo wants one. I know we're living in the digital age, but I remember going outside and playing, and I am having a hard time adjusting to allowing children under 16 to have all these electronics (cell phones, flat screens, etc) I still believe reading is the most important thing you can teach your child to do. Do you have any suggestions on how I can curb his increasing love for electronics?

You probably would like to own a Porsche but that doesn't mean you should get it.

You're in charge of your children.  If you rear them in a child-centric atmosphere they will think that the world will revolve around them, which will set them up for a big disappointment.

Say no to a Nintendo for your 4-year-old and  limit screeen-time for both of your boys.  If they have nothing to do they'll either read or play outside.

You also should  have your 13-year-old hand over his electronics before he goes to bed.  If you don't, he'll keep playing when you'll think he's asleep.

Accept the family as they are. And for what they *have* done for your husband. Most of us have family members who would say that they are 'close' to them, when in reality, they really are not in any way. But many want the illusion that things are 'good' rather than actually doing the hard work to make it good. It's the way it is - you aren't going to change anyone. They show they care in ways that you may not like, but it doesn't sound like they do not care - they just don't know how to show it. Take care in this difficult time.

You've added an interesting insight.  We can't expect the people we love to show their own love in the same way that they do.

I am also married to an ignored brother. My husband of 34 years is a wonderful man. He retired a few years ago after contracting Hep C through his job. He now has end stage liver disease. His last hospitalization was heartbreaking as his 2 brothers, sister and mother did not even try to visit him. My own family and our friends are a wonderful source of support but it is hard to see him treated so badly. I did speak directly to them and appealed to them to reach out for their own sakes as time is precious and passing quickly. One brother has responded and they are rekindling a relationship after so many wasted years. And I am grateful for that. One thing that I pray for is the grace to be kind and respectful when the worst happens and they show up after so many years when it is too late to reach out. I want to do that to honor my husband's memory and preserve dignity for my son and his family. Thanks Mrs. Kelly for the years of advice and mentoring. I read your book 30 years ago when my son was small and am happy to say he has become my rock and support to both of us through this time.

It sounds like you already have the grace you need to be kind and respectful to your in-laws; you surely will have it later.

Some people are simply too self-focused to notice that time is passing by and then when faced with the loss of a relative, they don't know what to say or do and so--they say nothing and they do nothing.  They just can't deal with death, and the prospect of death, but they will be diminished by your loss for more than you.

My daughter is 20 months. She has wonderful fine motor skills, but is just barely meeting the mark verbally. She has about 10 words that she only sometimes uses. This leads to a lot of screaming and sometimes hitting. At meal time if she is too disruptive, she is removed from her chair (she screams even more), and when she is calm, we try to eat again. During play time, I've started 20 second time outs where I sit with her to make sure she stays, but I don't make eye contact. Then we hug and go back to playing. Is there anything else I can do? I feel like there is constant screaming in my house.

Yes, there is more you can do and none of them call for punishments. 

Call the American Assn. of speech-Language or some such, in Maryland, and ask them to recommend a speech-language therapist to evaluate your child's speech and probably to put her in a program.  Your little girl only screams and hits because she can't get the words ouot of her mouth and this is frustrating her.  The sooner  you find out the cause of her problem, the sooner you can correct it and the happier she will be.

My almost-five-year-old is in a stage where he is constantly whining. Whining for for milk, whining for toys, whining because he wants something different for dinner. I'm so tired of the whining. I've put him in time-out, I've praised him for stopping the whining, I've threatened the loss of some of his toys. Any suggestions before I go bonkers?

Do you have to give him the milk? the toys? the food he requests?  There's no reason to give a child something unless he asks for it nicely, unless it's convenient for you and unless you can afford it.  Saying no--and ignoring the whines--will make him change his ways, as long as you don't keep nattering on about it.

I was in a similar situation. While my son would go #1 in his third year, he would *not* poop, no matter what I did. I finally "gave in" and gave up worrying about it. I swear part of it was that the more I made it an issue, the more he was going to hold out. Finally, a few months before his 5th birthday, I started prepping him..."when you turn 5, buddy, you'll need to use the toilet...". Darn if on his birthday he didn't sit down on the toilet and go, without a single issue. So while I know it's tough, esp. when *all* (!) the other kids are "going", hang in there!

Good response!

The kids in the small town we moved to 2 years ago are just mean. This year in 5th grade, a group of the "cool" boys started referrng themselves as the "The Circle," and walk around at recess. If you aren't in the circle you are ignored or maybe called names -- usually "gay." Some girls flit around this circle of boys. These kids actually date -- go to movies, etc. The boys already talk like high schoolers -- talking about having sex with girlfriends and condoms, etc. -- although I doubt anything is really going on. My son, who had so many friends in our old town, is not cool and is regularily called "gay" by some of these guys. I try to talk to him about the "big picture," and not being a follower especially when the ones leading seem to be making very bad choices. But it is still very hard. BTW -- this is a upper middle class school. When these social issues are brought up with the principal and teachers, they express frustration but say "it is just a unusually competitive group of boys," in this particular year. Any advice to help my son weather this social storm? He is on a club soccer team, getting ready to start scouts next year, and is planning on joining the middle school basketball team next year. He is smart and doing well in school this year. FWIW, his 6th grader brother has had his own social issues but to be honest is more of his own man and doesn't care about being "cool."

Every spring I get letters from the parents of second and fifth and seventh grade children, complaining about the bullies, the cliques, the mean girls--or boys.  It's the curse of the age, the boredom that comes with it and the way your son's school is run.  A good school has groups of children who are friends, but it doesn't have cliques or in-groups or 'circles'.  This is the result of principals and teachers who do nothing and then say, "Well, what can you do?" instead of hauling those boys to the office and breaking up their connection by separating them and having them do after-school community service.  Not easy, but it's essential. 


A much-loved great aunt passed away last week. As she usually attended family holidays, her absence will definitely be noticed by our pre-schooler. So, after reading parenting books, we explained to our son at a very macro level that she had died, and that it was okay to feel sad because we won't be seeing her any more. He has since come to us with some small questions, which we've answered as age-appropriately as possible. Did we do the right thing? Our parents have since expressed disapproval that we told him of her passing at all. To us, the truth seemed better than telling him than telling him that she moved to Paris or an ashram, LOL.

You did exactly the right thing.  Honesty wins every time, even with a pre-schooler. 

You might want to read a great book that my daughter-in-law, Madelyn Kelly, wrote with Phyllis Weaherman, the guru of children's grief, who discovered that children have different ways of dealing with grief, depending on their age.  It's got an impossible title--something like "A Guide to Helping Children Deal with Death" and it's published by Oxford Press.

Hi Marguerite- I have a toddler son who is almost 2 (June) and who thinks time out is a game. If he's jumping on in his chair we ask him to stop, sit him down, remind him that we don't jump and chairs. As soon as we walk away he pops up and starts the bunny rabbit antics again. The same is true for throwing toys, climbing on the stairs and any other behavior that he shouldn't be doing. Diaper changes are a spectacle with wiggling and multiple attempts to get away. My husband and I don't know what else to do since we're consistent. The kicker is that he doesn't do these things at daycare. When his provider tells him to stop he stops. Any suggestions on what we can do?

He thinks he's playing a game and he's proud that you play it so well.  If you want him to quit, you have to quit playing yourself.  And as for changing his diaper, you don't need to lay him down on a changing table unless he's had a bowel movement.  For a wet diaper, just stand him up on a straight chair, facing the back of it, and he'll  hang on tight.

Thanks for joining the Family Almanac today and for submitting such great questions.

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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 a child getting upset over being teased by a teacher or click here for previous columns.
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