Parenting advice: Help for raising children of all ages

Apr 26, 2012

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

We need to teach adults to be good parents just as we teach children in school. Parents must learn that being a parent is the most important and satisfying job they can have in life. They need to realize that their baby must feel loved from the day it's born by making the baby happy that it has loving parents who encourage it and give positive reinforcement. To do this, we need classes for newlyweds and parents-to-be. Attendance could be encouraged by giving a certificate to a parent-to-be who completes the series of classes. This certificate could be filed with the parents' income tax when their baby is born, to give the parents a tax credit. This tax credit is an investment in America's future. Classes on mental and spiritual development of their baby are going to produce high standards of excellence in the child and the will for it to do the job well. We need to instill this in children if we want to improve society. What is your opinion?

Wow!  Great idea.  My books and my column are the closest I can get to this idea but we have a much longer way to go.


My long-distance (3,000 miles) ex married a woman who will not allow our daughters into "her" house. One is in a dorm and one lives with me (17). The teen is crushed that she is no longer welcome at her dad's. She sees him once a year when stepmom goes away. Ideas on helping these girls cope with shunning? The ex and his bride will not speak to me or my relatives.

That's a heartbreaker but there are other ways to visit.  Emails are great and letters (as old-fashioned as they are) are good too but nothing beats Skype.  It's free and they can see each other and hear each other in real time.  And if the dad won't cooperate?  Explain to the girls that he loves them so much that he probably can't bear to be reminded of all that he is missing.  Divorce often affects people this way, although it may take years for your girls to believe it.

Over the past few chats, I have noticed that when a parent seeks advice about a defiant toddler/preschooler, you recommend a dietary change. But it could also be as simple as sticking to the rules. We have noticed that when we relax our rules, our nearly 3-year-old acts up more. Why do you never raise this possibility?

I really do think that rules are important but the longer I've written this column, the more I find that a child's diet is vitally connected to his behavior.  If the mast cells in his central nervous system are sensitized to a particular food or smell, the child is going to act up or be down in the dumps no matter what the parents do.  And if he can't process the  gluten in his grains; the lactose in his dairy or the dyes and preservatives in his processed foods, he might also be hard to handle.  Making the matter worse, most pediatricians aren't taught much about the causes of these behavioral problems in medical schools so I'm just trying to get out the word as best I can.  But I promise, I'll try to mention discipline more often too.

Marguerite, our daughter is right on the cut off (literally the day before) to go into kindergarten. She is in pre-k at a preschool now and does well. We had her tested the other day and the tester said based on how she did she never would have guessed her birthdate. My mother, an educator, is pushing for us to put her in kindergarten. Her preschool teacher, however, is a big proponent of redshirting and is pushing for pre-k. I have researched and researched and can find no great benefit to redshirting in the long run. What is your opinion? Thanks!

I think it depends on the self-confidence of your child.  If she is very, very self-confident--and the teacher will let her in the kindergarten--she'll do fine.  But if she is a more tentative, sensitive child, she may feel increasingly uncertain about her abilities and as she gets older she may be more immature than her classmates and start sliding behind them, socially and even academically and may have to repeat a grade eventually. 

Personally, I've never seen a child benefit by being pushed ahead but I have seen them do less well than they might have done if they had slowed down.

I have a 1-year-old and am trying to practice good communication skills. I have been reading "How to Listen So Your Kids will Talk" but am running into a problem with saying no all the time. I try and correct myself and say "no, not a toy" but am surprised by how much my default is "no, i've told you that a million times..." Any tips on managing good communication "in the moment"?

The closer a one-year-old gets to 15 months, the more likelyshe is to say "No", to say, "I do it meself!" and to rebel because that's her job.  Independence is the goal of every child, all over the world, when they are between 15 months and 28 months--26 months is usually the peak--and you should encourage it by helping your child do everything he can do to be self-sufficient and contain him when he can't. 

If you like toddlers as much as I do, you'll be crazy about teenagers too.  As I am.

Hi, Marguerite. We have day-time potty trained our son, now 3 years old. How do I go about night-time potty training? How do I know when he's ready? Should I just throw out the pull-ups? Thanks!

If he's dry when he wakes up, I think he's ready for you to throw out the pull-ups.

Tying tax credits to a parent completing a course that is someone ELSE'S idea of perfect parenting is the nanny state at its finest. How about you parent your way and I parent mine?

Any advice on how and when to tell a 3-year-old about a sibling on the way? I am 11 weeks pregnant and we are trying to figure out the best way to introduce the concept to our son. He is overall very well behaved and is truly the light of my life, but I'm worried about how he will react to sharing his mommy.

I'd tell him, because he's part of the family and he has a right to know the good news.  Get a copy of Lennart Nielson's book--the one which shows pictures of the baby in utero--and let him see how the baby is growing and when you come home from the hospital, bring a rubber dolly to himand tell him that the baby brought it to him.  He'll believe.  Look, however, for a dolly that comes with a bottle so he can feed his baby while you feed the new baby and give him jobs to do, like fetching clean diapers or another blanket.  And do keep a stash of cheap toys or books so you can pull one out for him when the baby is three months old, cooing and looking adorable and your friends have forgotten to bring your son presents any more.  That's when sibling rivalry usually shows up.

No one is perfect, but my 8-year-old son's extreme behavior whenever he realizes he's not perfect is destroying the family. If he doesn't understand a math problem immediately or is told he missed crumbs when he is vacuuming he will throw a major fit, quite often to the point of being physically violent with adults. He eats healthy organic food, gets plenty of physical activity and we are careful to be respectful toward him. Still, anything that makes him realize he isn't perfect leads to attitude, defiance and violence. What are your suggestions for helping him accept that he's not perfect and doesn't need to be?

Perfectionistic children can be their own undoing--and yours.  I'd get some books on the subject and a few sessions with a child psychologist but because of the violence, I'd also ask the the Mensah Clinic in Naperville, Ill., to check his blood chemistry to find out if he might have a malabsorption problem.  Some children--and some adults--have a genetic inability to take in a particular vitamin or mineral or amino acid or essential fatty acid and this can affect behavior.  If your son can't take in zinc, for instance, his copper will soar and this can make him violent but a compensatory dose of zinc will bring the copper down and calm the behavior--as long as he takes it. 

We are having issues with our 5 1/2-year-old son, and now our 2 1/2-year-old son is starting to fall into the same dynamic. How can we break out of the power struggles? Unfortunately, it seems to be on a whole host of issues, from climbing on my car, to pulling the kitten's tails/legs so they cry out. Things the boys used to do fairly well, such as clearing their plates after meals, they now sometimes say, "you do it."

It sounds like it's time to take a PEP class.  Parent Encouragement Program, based in Kensington, Md., but taught in other areas too, can teach you how to change their behavior by changing your own, and quickly.

How does one do this? My husband and I are serious about getting a will this year mostly for the sake of our two sons. But how do you choose? Each of us has a great sister with whom we believe the boys would do well. But are there other factors that we should think about?

You're making a smart move, but ask your sisters if they're on board with your plan before you do anything.  Not all friends and relatives are.

You also might keep it fluid.  If they are both happy to accept the responsibility of rearing two boys--for you would want to keep them together--you might let them decide who would do it after you die, rather than make that decision now.  You wouldn't want to make one sister do the rearing if her health or some other circumstance changed radically after you had made your will. 
Also, if both sisters are well at the time of your deaths, you'll want to stipulate that one sister will do the caring most of the time, but the boys will be invited to visit the other sister whenever possible.

What do you think of this parenting program? There are parts I like but many things that really concern me.

If the name of it is Love and Logic--I don't know diddlysquat about it.  Please tell me.

My son is miserable. Last summer we moved to the D.C. area from the home we had lived in since he was born. He has not been happy since and seems to be getting uphappier. There are no children in our area of the neighborhood and he is having trouble making "good friends" (his words) at school though he's got lots of kids to play with there. Unfortunately, he's attracted to the kids who get into trouble and are teaching him a vocabulary that we don't find acceptable. He said he likes it when they are nice to him. (Does that mean as opposed to them picking on him?) He is playing sports and enjoys that but we are really at our wit's end about his misery. He's started waking in the middle of the night and getting clingy in the morning before school. We've talked to his teacher and the administrators who don't seem too concerned. When we ask, he says he hates school. I really don't want him to hate school but don't know what else to do. Thoughts?

I'd look for a new school, fast, because school should not be a prison and this one sounds like it is.

I'd also look for supplemental activities that might bring out his talents; I'd ask the parents of his best friend from back home if you could send their boy a ticket to visit your son and I'd make friends with parents who have boys the age of your son and invite these families over for a visit.  If he's still miserable at 8, I'd take him to a child psychologist.  And the reason to wait until he's 8?  Because the first week hormones of puberty come around 7 and many children go through a certain amount of misery at this age until they're used to them.

I wrote in for advice on potty training my 3-year old a couple of weeks ago (I'd just had a mastectomy and will start chemo next week). I really appreciated your advice to just not worry about the potty training right at the moment, given everything else on my plate. Honestly, that never would have occurred to me, but I'm grateful that you gave me permission to quit worrying about it and focus on my health. And it's been a lot easier, so thank you.

And you're welcome.  Now take care of yourself, okay?

I was surprised to find how I was phrasing things with my toddler "No, don't do that..." etc. I really worked to say things in a positive way. Instead of saying, "No, don't take the [insert your precious heirloom here] off the counter," I try to say, "Jane, please leave the glass on the table," or "I could really use your help in putting that away." It works really well.

Great responses!

To make this as short as possible: How do I keep my older daughter from being mean to her little brother? They are ages 11 and 6.5. I'm an only so I have no clue how much is normal or how to manage it. We've tried immediately separating them/sending to their rooms/etc., ignoring/diverting and providing a lot of positive reinforcement when we see the good behavior, etc. Nothing seems to work -- and preteen hormones aren't helping! I know better than to single her out for criticism, but the reality is that she instigates probably 80 percent or more of the time. Help!

It sounds like it's time to sit down with Sibling Rivalry, or How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids will Talk (a great charades title!), both books by Mazlisch and Faber. 

It's also time, I think, to visit your daughter after bedtime and in the dark, to ask her how she thinks her brother felt when she said or did something mean to him that day and then leave a lot of silence for her to fill.  You'll be surprised to hear what she really thinks and feels and how much she needs to know that you love her completely and that you always will. 

And when the children squabble, always have them kiss and make up so they can move on emotionally.

My friend has a 16-year-old girl who is very smart and sweet but has been spoiled and coddled her whole life. She has been getting poor grades all year, but went to Paris for spring break and has not gone back to school upon returning. Like I said, she is a good person and very smart, but has no motivation from within or without. Any advice for her mom, who has no spine when it comes to her daughter?

I'd suggest a little family therapy with a psychologist who is good with teens--Brad Sachs in Columbia, Md., comes to mind--because this duo needs help.  And I'd invite the 16-year-old to supperevery week or so to become her friendand her confidante, or hire her to do office work for you and in time, I'd tell her that she can either work hard or get by on the con.  She needs to know that she is making a choice by what she does, or doesn't do, in her life.

As described, a waste of money. Education only changes behavior when students want to change and respect the opinion of the teacher. That's why sex education, drug and alcohol education, nutrition education, etc. have limited effectiveness. Why would parenting classes be any different?

Perhaps because it is so very well taught.

I agree with the commenter who pointed out that you tend to fall back on speculating that a child has a food-related problem that is causing a behavorial problem. I would respectfully ask if you have any medical background that leads you to your belief in this causal relationship and if not, what sources are you relying on? Thank you.

I have absolutely no credentials, unless you count 241 years of being a parent (I add them up) and a tremendous amount of research, week after week, with teachers, doctors, shrinks, clergy and experts from every discipline imaginable--and then I run it through my own filter and my own experience and give an answer that makes the most sense to me.  I guess basically I think it's more sensible to rule out possibilities before turning to therapy or drugs or whatever is the fad of the moment.

Maybe reaching out to the new wife's parents may be another avenue. Sometimes "grandparents" are open to more children in their lives. A relative with previous children married and had another child. Her new mother-in-law was happy to have "more" grandchildren compared to saying she had only one grandchild.

That's a nice idea.  Thank you.

Can you try to ask a question of your child when the situation allows it? For example, if your child is trying to play with something "grown up," can you take it away gently and ask why s/he likes it? It might be a way to get your child to speak up a bit, and can help your "no" be more powerful.

I think it's best to put any heirlooms or breakable treasures out of reach of a child--and the child's friends--rather than keep temptation around.  The impulse control center is pretty weak in young children and invites arguments and breakage.

This fall, my older son will be 4.5. My husband and I have talked about getting him into one class or sport, but I wonder what's appropriate. Are team sports too much for a 4-year-old? Would he even get anything out of it? What do you recommend? Thanks!

I don't think kids get much out of team sports at 4 except a chance to run--they certainly don't understand the rules of the game and I've had soccer coaches tell me that children shouldn't be in this sport until they're 8.  By then it's often too late to join a team however so you're caught in a conundrum.  

If you do let your son join however, don't take his playing too seriously or even talk about it that much.  It's for your son to decide how important the team is to him, not you. 

Pick a new school, how? We are in Arlington county school which is supposed to be among the best. Not being snarky, just really don't know how. We are new here and don't really know anyone whose opinion we can trust without reservation. Working on friendships with like-families; just feel like we've thrown him to the wolves at this point. Thank you.

I'd look at charter schools, if you have any, and small private schools.  Even though private schools are expensive, they have some scholarships and some possibilities, such as offering to give your expertise to the school in some way, or with some service, or some class.  I also think you and your husband should demand a meeting with the teacher and the principal and lay out your concerns and your disappointment andif they're not helpful, I'd go to see the head of elementary schools and ask them to assign your son to a different smaller elementary school where the principal and the teachers are more imaginative and more caaring.

I'm running late, but I do thank you for joining me today and I'll 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 potty training a 3-year-old, and click here for previous columns.
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