Parenting advice: Help for raising children of all ages

Apr 21, 2011

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

Our soon-to-be college student is unsure of where to attend now that the first choices were not as generous with financial aid. In-state is out of the question because it's too close to home, too big, too many friends attending. My husband and I are at the point of suggesting attending the in-state college for one year and then transferring since child is so unsure of where to go and changes his mind every day. Child, typically levelheaded and mature, is truly at a lost of  what to do.

It sounds like he 'd really do well if he took a gap year -- working in retail or on a construction job, living at home and getting settled, mentally, but that's not the only option.  He could go to a community college and take a couple of subjects that he doesn't enjoy that much but at least he'd be done with them.  Or you might treat him to a semester at a NOLS program -- a truly fine experience for college and pre-college students where they learn to live independently and they learn leadership too.  I think you'll find it at

He doesn't have to start college this fall, just because his friends are going.  It's much better to wait until he's ready for it and knows what he wants to study.

My son and his wife bought a condo at the hight of the real-estate frenzy -- their mortgage is under water, and the condo is worth half of what they paid for it. They are negotiating a short sale but want out to start over. After discussions, we've all decided to renovate our large home to accommodate the three of them (baby is 9 mos old). How do we blend these three generations? And are other empty-nesters blending generations like this? BTW, they both have f/t jobs and will be paying rent to offset the expenses; I, of course, will help with the baby.

They'd be wise to rent their condo -- if they could get enough to cover their mortgage -- because real estate is still a good investment and the rents rise with the market.  Either way, it will be lovely for the baby if all three generations live together, as long as you respect each other's privacy; keep your mouth shut instead of telling your daughter-in-law what to do -- each family, and indeed each parent -- rears their child in their own way -- and if all of you set boundaries and keep them.  You need to be able to invite your friends over (and so do they) without always asking your son and his wife to join you; you need to go out with your husband once a week and you need to be frank and say 'watch it!'  if they overstep their boundaries and also tell them if they hurt your feelings, just as you would want them to be frank with you.  And you need to congratulate them a lot and tell them, over and over, that they're doing a good job with their baby, if only to remind yourself that this is their child, not yours, and they have the right to handle her as they see fit, as long as they don't abuse or neglect her.

I'm in a relationship after a two-year break following my divorce. I'm anxious about what and when I should tell my 6-year-old. I'm not ready to introduce them yet, especially since my ex just got engaged. He does say he's sad that his dad and I aren't together, and that his dad doesn't see him a lot (his dad's choice, not mine). I'm taking everything extremely slowly and cautiously on my end, but it's getting to a natural progression that the two should meet.  I'm very anxious about it.

You're smart to go slow, not because he is in charge of your dating life, but because the divorce is still making him sad.  You also don't want to invite your friend to spend the night or to move in with you because it would be hard on your son.  And if he's visiting and you want to slip away to your bedroom, wait until the boy is asleep and even then, stick a rubber doorstop  under the door so he doesn't wake up and walk into your room.  You'd  just be asking for his heart to hurt -- and causing trouble for you, too.

My 2.5-year-old up until a few weeks ago would sleep from 9 p.m. to 8 a.m. Now we are getting daily wake-ups at 6:30 a.m. and utter refusal to go back to bed. This started after we moved him from a toddler bed. We have purchased a "tot clock" that should arrive next week. What is a reasonable time to expect a toddler to stay in their bed/bedroom? Putting a gate at his door is not an option (there is one at the top of the stairs). Thanks!!

Actually, you might like to invite him into your bed at 6:30 to give him an early morning cuddle, and even set that tot clock to wake him up when it's time to climb into your bed.  The nice part of that:  You can set the alarm a few minutes later every morning, so you can sleep longer and cuddle a little less each week.  Just don't let your son pay midnight visits; they can be wearing.

I have two daughters, 6 and 9, who do well at school, have good manners when reminded, help with chores without too much grumbling and get along with each other most of the time. However, they both complain frequently that they are bored. They would happily watch TV or play computer games for hours but I limit their screen time. When they are not engaged with a screen they mope about the house and start picking fights with me and their dad and with each other. When I suggest activities, they reject all of them with a "But that's boring!" How can I get them interested in something beyond screens and able to entertain themselves a little more indepedently? I don't want to sign them up for more classes, or let them have unlimited screen time, but they are driving me crazy with their complaints and requests for more computer and TV.

That would drive anyone crazy.  Just tell them they get get a half-hour of screen time each afternoon, period.  And if they're bored after that, have one of them scrub the  bathroom tiles while the other one washes a couple of windows or polishes a pair of shoes -- and have them work in different rooms.  This isn't because it is a punishment, but because they need to know that some things in life are boring but they still have to stick with it because sometimes life is not a bowl of cherries.  It's a bowl of oatmeal.


Hi. My 3-year-old recently began waking in the middle of the night and coming downstairs to my bed. He's been a through-the-night sleeper since very early and my husband and I are NOT excited about this new stage. He says that he's afraid of things (monsters or lights or ants or other things). How can we get him to stay in his room and reassure him that he's okay? Thanks.

This often happens when a child gets out of his crib and it needs an imaginative solution. He needs to know that he can take care of himself, no matter what happens.  And he's much more likely to do that if you leave a flashlight next to his bed so he can point it at any crack he sees; if you put a bell beside his bed, so he can call you if he's scared; if you immediately go to him when he calls, tell him he's fine, and you're fine,  and leave him be.  And when he cries again, go to him without letting him get up and without making him stay in bed longer and longer to "break your habit."  You might have to do this 6-8 times for a whole week, but be patient and he'll break the habit.


Our son has ADD and has struggled with motivation and schoolwork, particularly long-term projects, since middle school. We have tried everything to help him. Therapy, medication, short-term rewards, staying out of it entirely, etc. Nothing seems to help. He is now a junior with a 2.23 GPA. He does not get into any trouble, really, with drugs, alcohol, girls, etc. (at least that we know of!) He admits that the work is hard for him, even though he scores highly on standardized tests, and he just tends to avoid it -- until it is too late to really do a solid job. How do we help him? Should we just accept that maybe he's a community college kid, at least for now, and hope his executive function skills improve as he matures? We're just at a loss for what to do.

Help your son concentrate on the things that he enjoys and does well and ignore, as best you can, the things that he dislikes. And yes, definitely a community college until his executive skills improve.  His executive skills should improve as he gets a little older, but he'll probabyalways have ADD.  And he'll probably always be more creative and more imaginative too.  That's not a bad trade-off.

My sister-in-law is about to have a baby. Money is tight for them. I have three teenagers and would really like them to help out (babysitting, walks, etc.) What are the best ways to help out a young family and how can I get my teenagers on board?

Can everyone give them hand-drawn tickets for things such as "dinner for two" or "'baby sitting: 4 hours."  They can make up a big jar of salad dressing for the mom; clean the car for the dad; show up three afternoons in a row to take the baby out for a stroll from 5 to 6 so the mother can put dinner together; cook a meal for them once a week.  This young couple needs to know that their baby is treasured -- and so are they.

How do you decide which preschool/school for your child to attend? Our 1-year old child is in a great daycare, but that won't be a good solution for her at age 3 for a variety of reasons. We're starting to look at preschools for her but have no idea how to choose. $$ isn't really an issue for us but we want to make sure that we choose the right place. I also want to make sure I'm doing what's best for her and not what may be best for us. Any suggestions?

A preschool doesn't have to be chic; it just has to be good.  And a good preschool has certain characteristics.  It usually pays the teachers a little more than the other schools so they tend to stay; it is run by a head who is sure of herself and sees each child as an individual, not as a clump of interchangeable parts; who knows the value of outdoor play and doesn't push the alphabet at 3 and who encourages a child's curiosity and the originality of his mind and who gives the children high-protein snacks, instead of cookies.  If you live in the D.C. area, take a look at Outdoor Nursery School in Chevy Chase and at the National Child Research Center in Cleveland Park.

My middle child, who is 8, is starting to slack off on homework and enrichment education in the home. While he is a worker bee at school, he often wants to just play at home and frankly just relax. I realize that his day is very stressful but these days with the competition, we have to continually push our children to do more and better and then do even more and even better. How do we balance all this?

You let your child push himself and at hisown  pace. If you don't, he's going to burn out. 

He relaxes at home because he needs to relax, to play, to imagine, to think.  Children recover from stress with they get REM sleep at night and playtime in the day--at least an hour of playtime--and no more than a half-hour at the computer and the television.  Altogether, only a half-hour a day.  And no TV on school nights.  The child is more important than the competition.

Son is engaged to a woman with 3-yr-old boy; fine, happy, and we are told they will marry next year. Son and fiance are expecting a baby this summer, and the question is ... what should the older child call us? No paternal grandparents, nor father in the picture; our other grandchildren call us grandma/grandpa. Currently, everyone says, "John's" mom and dad gave this present to you etc. Should he be calling us "Mary and Joe" or grandma/ grandpa once the new baby arrives?

Why not ask this little boy what he'd like to call you?  Or give him a half-dozen suggestions for each of you and ask him which name he'd like to call you, but be sure to mention that your other grandchildren call you Grandma and Grandpa and that he might like to do the same. 

My HS senior son, who has split his time 50/50 between my house and his dad's since our divorce 10 yrs ago, decided last month that when he turned 18 he no longer wanted to live with his dad (due to control issues going on in that household), and is now with me FT. Dad is angry and has refused all contact and support of child, but still maintains contact and sees his older son (who is in college). Older son was invited to spend Easter w/Dad's family, younger son not. I'm frustrated and angry at my ex at his lack of maturity, but am trying to figure out if I try to push them to reconnect with each other or just back off, butt out, and hope that one day they'll mend fences?

Your son has the right to decide if he wants to visit his dad or not -- and to know that his dad has the right to impose consequences, immature though it may be.  It's between the two of them.

My husband and I are thinking about becoming foster parents (and perhaps even adopting down the road). We're really drawn to the older kids who are tough to place. We understand all the implications that come along with taking in an older child who has been bounced around they system. What worries me in particular is the age difference. We're in our early 30s -- do you think that a 14-year old would ever really see us as a parent? Or just an older sibling? Or at that age, does everyone over 18 seem "old" to them?

That's great that you would do this, but don't do it if you think you might turn him back in one day.  A child is not a toy.

Even though you'll be young for the role, he'll see you as an adult and an authority figure.  Be sure to line up support for yourselves, however, because rearing a foster child can be a lesson in humility for you because a hard-to-place child is terrified that he will be rejected again, as he has been so many times before and he will probably do his best to reject you, at least at first.  Foster children, like all children, need love, they need responsibilities, they need structure, they need supervision, but they need a whole lot more of it than most children.

My daughter had ADD and is at a very high-pressure, "elite" Washington private high school. She's in 9th grade and is not doing any extracurriculars (she used to play sports and act in plays). She's just studying, and making only mediocre grades. We're worried about her growth, emotionally and in areas other than academic. We'd like to transfer her to a lower-pressure environment, but she is furious every time we bring it up -- she is very popular and has lots of friends at her current school. We're looking down the road, though, and don't like what we see. I'm really at a loss, although my gut tells me to just move her and she'll thank us later.

Mediocre grades aren't good enough.  Your daughter is learning how to study and clearly wants to improve.  Let her try.  But have a conference with her and the principal and ask if there is anything you can do to help her, such as getting one-on-one lessons for her so she can learn better study skills or better organization.  

My son is getting read to graduate from high school. I have tried to encourage him to find a job but he is not looking at all even though I know there are opportunities out there. He is planning to go to community college. How can I motivate him to look for a job?

There are so many questions today but I have to run.  I hope you won't mind if I save some of them for my column.


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 a mean, self-centered mother, and click here for previous columns.
Recent Chats
  • Next: