Parenting advice: Help for raising children of all ages

May 19, 2011

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

My son is turning 18 months old in a few weeks, and I'm not sure how to handle this behavior from my normally sweet boy. He does not like doing what I tell him to do. If he hands me trash, and I tell him to put it in the trash can, he always refuses. I'm 100 percent sure he understands me. If I push it, it will result in a huge temper tantrum. A few days ago, he pushed all of his fridge magnets to the floor, I asked him to pick them up before we went out to play. He got increasingly upset until it was full-on tears and thrashing on the floor. I ended up holding him while he was screaming to "help" him pick those up. Today, a similar situation erupted when I asked him to bring me his empty snack bowl. Am I expecting too much from an 18-month-old? I try distractions which sometimes work, but usually by the time he's gotten so upset, he's begging to nurse; if I let him, it makes me feel like I'm giving in and letting him win. How should I handle these situations?

You're not expecting too much; you're simply not expecting your little boy to grow up.  Around 15 months, a baby realizes that he is an independent person and he tries to show his independence more and more until he's nearly 3.  You can either demand that he does everything you say -- and get absolutely nowhere -- or you can make jokes, make nice and make changes. If you say, "Where do you think the trash should go?  On my head?  In your toy box?  In the trash can?"  He'll laugh and he'll try to put the trash in all sorts of goofy places and you'll laugh.  And then he'll put it in the trash can, for which you'll dance a happy dance and have a much better day.  Laughter is always better than tears.

My son just turned 2, and it is time for him to give up his bottle -- he currently has one before his nap and one before bed. Our doctor says we should go "cold turkey" and I tend to think she's right -- but man, is that going to be hard! Any tips or suggestions?

I'm uncomfortable with that approach and more to the point, you are, too.  Go with your gut feelings.  Some children need more sensory stimulation than others and need a bottle longer than others.  You don't want him to collect a lot of milk in his mouth though, because the sugar in milk is bad for the teeth, so you could water down the milk and gradually switch to water entirely, starting at naptime. 

I am a retired college professor who married for the first time 10 years ago at age 57. My wife has four grown children and now eight grandchildren. While I knew this would be a big adjustment, for a time everything went well. However, the economic downturn has hit them hard, and they are increasingly coming to us for help. Now one daughter, the unemployed single mother of the rambunctious young children, wants to move into our modest home. I love my wife, but this is simply unacceptable to me. The house is paid for and I could afford to move out and rent my own apartment, but this isn't why I got married. Can you help?

It would be a whole lot better if you rented an apartment for your stepdaughter or helped her pay for her day care needs so she could stay where she is.  As tempting as it is for her to go home when times are tough, it simply keeps her from facing reality -- and growing up.

My husband and I have three children, ages 22, 19 and 17, and a late in life "caboose," our darling 4-year-old daughter. I recognize that we are indulgent, but she is such a delight, and we are so much better off financially than when our older children were small, that we just can't help it. However, in recent months several friends, family members and even strangers have commented that our daughter is really spoiled. Is it even possible to spoil a 4-year-old? If so, how can we tell if we are doing so, and how should we set about changing, if in fact we decide we want to change? Thanks!

Parents can spoil the most delightful children if they do things for their children that they can do for themselves -- and for others.  By 4, your child should be helping you cook supper (and yes, making a mess), passing hors d'oeuvres to company but not too well, setting the table according to the picture you've drawn on a paper placemat.  Just don't expect her to do these jobs well, or to be interested in doing them for more than 10 minutes; and don't give her the same regular chore for more than two weeks at a time.  She'll get bored and sassy.  And please, rotate  a third of her toys every six weeks and give away the outgrown toys and the duplicates to a homeless shelter.  A child needs love and respect and the chance to do for others far more than she needs toys.

Our first-grader has just been diagnosed with dyslexia. This school year has been a struggle, and before he was diagnosed his teachers felt he was not applying himself. As a result, he often feels like he is "dumb" and "bad" at school. How can we explain his diagnosis to him and help to rebuild his self esteem? Thank you.

It's probably time to look for a new school or a tutor who is trained in teaching dyslexic children how to compensate for their neurological differences.  If you live in the Washington area, the Lab School is a great resource and it even offers supplemental classes to children at a nearby school.

After years of infertility and a heartbreaking miscarriage, I now am a mother to beautiful twin sons. Here is the problem -- although their pediatrician insists they are healthy and fine, I am constantly worried that they are not. I know that all babies are different, but it is hard to not worry why one has reached a milestone that the other hasn't, or why one does odd little movements that the other does not, etc. I have horrible anxiety about them having a disability or disease. I do not call their doctor constantly or anything like that, but I do count down the days until their next scheduled visit and come with a long list of questions in hand. In the meantime, I often find myself looking up "symptoms" on the Internet and worrying that they are suffering from this or that. I am trying to get professional help for my constant worrying, but I wonder if others are in the same boat. Don't all moms fret over their children's well-being? How do we know when we are out of line?

Of course you worry, because you've had a history of things going wrong when it comes to babies.  To soothe your soul, consider a consult with a developmental pediatrician who is probably more knowledgeable about your children's developmental milestones than your own pediatrician.  And don't let your pediatrician give more than one vaccine at a time and never when they're sick.  Vaccines are important but 10 at a time can be devastating to a small child and some doctors think that they are such an assault on the body that they can cause autism in children who are genetically predisposed to develop this condition.  IF your doctor objects, remind him that babies aren't allowed to be vaccinated in Japan until they're 2 yeas old.

My wife works 80 hours a week and I'm alone most of the time raising our two sons, 5- and 6-year-olds. Most of the time they don't respond to my verbal callings or requests; they just ignore me. I usually have to raise my voice to get their attention and motivate them. What can I do? It's especially provoking when I pick them up from school and have to call them five or six times to come along. Please advise.

It sounds like you and your boys are mighty tired of each other and of your wife's work schedule, too.  Is there any way she can do some of her work at home, at night, so she could relieve you during the day? If you live in the D.C. area, is there any way the two of you can take a parenting course from PEP -- the Parent Encouragement Program -- to learn better ways to communicate with your children?  Or could you hire someone to pick up the kids from school -- or accept the fact that most kids don't come when they're called after school because they've been doing that all day long and they love the freedom of being free at 3 o'clock. 
A little help at slump times during the day will help, and so will a family meeting to ask the kids what they'd like you to do so they would obey you sooner.  This request, lovingly asked and listened to, will bring out unexpected ideas from the two people who are most affected by your efforts:  your kids.

I have bipolar disorder, type 2, the milder version that actress Catherine Zeta-Jones was recently hospitalized for. My two grown daughters seem to take this part of my personality in stride; it's a condition that I have, it's not what I am. However, my 19-year-old son is terribly embarrassed by the fact that I have this mood disorder. On several occasions, he has "reassured me" that he's never told his friends about it. While I can understand his reluctant to divulge this (there is still a huge stigma regarding bipolar disorder and mental health issues in general), I would actually be more reassured if he were able to confide in his best friend if and when he felt the need to do so. How can I get him to open up to me about how he feels about me having bipolar disorder? But, more importantly, how can I let him understand that this is something that he can certainly share with someone he trusts, such as his best friend, or with a psychologist, if necessary? Thank you!

Why don't you take him to see your mental health doctor so the three of you can talk about your condition and the doctor can tell him that he needn't keep it a secret; that this disorder is bothersome sometimes, distressing at other times, but like cancer or arthritis, it's just another of life's little zingers and that the more we talk about them, the less it will affect us.  It's the bottling  up that can cause problems down the line.

I'm a single mother of four. My 8-year-old daughter has been playing the piano since she was 3. She loves it and is thought to be very talented. However, lessons are a real financial drain. We have an old clunker of a piano and she badly needs a better one, although a neighbor lets her practice on hers and she has some access to a piano at her school. I could possibly swing this, with difficulty, if she were an only child, but I'm uncomfortable focusing on her if I can't do the same for my other children. Short of winning the lottery or marrying a wealthy husband (not in the works), do you have any other suggestions?

I'd make this a family project.  Talk with the other children about this dilemma, and how you don't want to single out your 8-year-old for special attention, but you also don't want to deny the child who has this special talent.  They need to know that you want to be equally generous with all of your children.  Then go on Craig's List religiously to see if anyone is giving away a piano; write to the music schools in your area, tell them your plight and ask if they ever have a piano you could afford.  Put your pride in your pocket for the sake of your child.  You'll never know until you ask.

My husband and I have a 3-year-old and I am pregnant, and we're trying to decide what to do for childcare once the baby is born. We both work full-time, although my husband works an unconventional, changing schedule and is home with our daughter two weekdays. The 3-y.o. goes to daycare/preschool three days a week, and she loves it. I don't want the baby to be in daycare (although it is a nice, nurturing place) for 8+ hours a day, three days a week, but we can't afford to send our daughter to daycare and also have a nanny for the baby. We tried a nanny share before and I found it to be too complicated given my husband's changing schedule. Another option is to have both my daughter and the baby with a nanny, and then send my daughter to a part-time, cheaper preschool next fall. However, that would mean she's not in preschool for about 8 months, just home with the nanny and her new sibling. I feel terrible taking her out of a situation she's happy in, especially when there will be so much change already with the new baby. Is it better to have the baby and my daughter both in daycare, or both home with a nanny? I'm torn.

Have you thought about family day care--having both children stay with a mother who has one or two children of her own?  It's an old-fashioned idea but children are like puppies; they like to be in a pack. Think of it as a pre-school of a different sort.

My husband and are losing our home and have no choice but to move cross country to live with my parents, who are not thrilled with the idea but we have no choice. Is there any way we can make things easier for our devastated 9-, 8- and 6-year-old daughters (who, among other things, will be moving from a large urban school they love to a small school in a rural community) when we are equally devastated ourselves?

Can you talk about this move, and think about it, as a long visit, rather than a permanent move?  Can you turn a necessity into an adventure?  Can you talk with the kids about all the things they'll learn and do in this rural community, and all that they'll learn from their grandparents and how good it will be to do for them?  Life's slings and arrows are much more acceptable if you can consider the positive more than the negative, even in this painful time.

While this may not be a parenting question, I was wondering if you're familiar with any D.C. or Virginia organizations that offer classes on caring for a baby. My husband and I are expecting our first in November and are interested in learning as much from "experts" as possible. Thanks!

The very best parenting classes are taught by the same Parenting Encouragement Program I mentioned earlier.  It's based in Kensington but has classes in Reston and in other suburbs too.

My 18-year-old son is addicted to texting his GF! They literally were texting ALL Day/night until I told him I'd cut off his phone if he didn't stop during school hours. He has been able to do that, but it still drives me nuts that he texts all other hours of the day/night. I know I'm not the only parent dealing with this, so I'd love suggestions on how to handle this.

Passion is not a good enough reason to text day and night.  Therefore, your son should turn in his cellphone to you when it's time to do his homework and turn it in again at 11 p.m. when it's time for him to go to sleep.  And yes, you'll be an ogre but say you're sorry and moderation in all things and I love you.  And stick to your guns. 

My grandson has hit his mother in the face more than once because he didn't get his way. She struggled to get pregnant so he is her joy in life and I think she worships him. His pediatrician gives her literature that says no spanking of any kind ever so when she gets frustrated, she yells at him and he doesn't react to that at all. Any suggestions?

The  pediatrician is right.  No spanking.  And no hitting mom either.  When that happens she should look extremely disappointed and walk away alone.  No arguing.  No explanation.  A 20-month-old hits because he doesn't know that it hurts to be hit, but he won't keep hitting if he knows that he will lose the one thing that every child wants most:  the attention of his parents.

Re: today's column. How rambunctious is too rambunctious? My 3- and 4-year-old grandsons are never still a minute and literally destroy my house when they visit, even though I take steps to child-proof it. It's reached the point where I do not want to have them in my home. I raised three boys and two girls and none ever came close to this kind of behavior. I know kids today are subject to "sensory overload" and similar phenomena, but their mother's comment that "boys will be boys" is starting to wear thin.

Boys will be boys, but you should tell their mom that they don't have to be so boyish in your house.  Therefore, you'd love to see them, but you'd rather meet them in the playground so they can run around without your fussing at them.  And please, give them a great new book by the nutritionist, Kelly Dorfman, called "What's Eating Your Child?" Your grandsons may be so wild because of the food they eat, as more and more is learned about the effect of food on behavior.

Our oldest daughter is 9 and dealing with a bully in her class. We have always taught her that if people are treating you mean just steer clear of them. It's always worked up until this point. This girl in her class made up a game at recess whereby all the other girls would earn "points" to be friends with her. The nicer you were to her and the more things you did for her the more points you earned! Most all of the other girls took part in it (it's a small school) but my daughter refused, which I am so proud of her for doing. Well, now that girl has targeted her and is constantly picking on her. She has revised the "game" to see how many points you can earn by being mean to my daughter. I am amazed how mean girls can be to each other! Our school has a VERY progressive no-bullying program so as soon as we let the teacher and counselor know, it set into motion a series of meetings and exercises to get this girl and my daughter to better communicate with each other and resolve differences. We are trusting the school for now and hope that it works, but my daughter just does not like this girl (can you blame her?). What should our approach be at home?

Your little girl deserves congratulations and a fancy dinner for being so mature!  She needs to hear you brag about her to your family and friends for handling the situation so well.  And she needs you to monitor the situation at school and to keep checking in with the counselor to make sure the problem has resolved and that the bully is also congratulated when she begins to behave.  It wouldn't do to isolate her as she tried to isolate your daughter.

What is the best way to get a 2.5-year-old boy to consistently go in the potty. He has gone number one many times, but he is currently rebelling and sometimes goes on the floor. He has gone number two a few times in the potty, but most of the time he will go off somewhere on his own and a surprise will be waiting for us. He needs to be potty-trained by June 4 in order to attend summer camp. They take them every hour and I am hoping he will go along with what the other kids are doing. I'm going to take three days to do nothing but potty-training right before he starts summer camp. What should I make sure to do during this potty-training boot camp at home? Thanks!

If your son isn't ready -- or thinks he isn't ready -- the boot camp probably won't work.  Since he's more or less trained to pee in a pot, I'd congratulate him for being trained, don't rush him to the pot (and invite rebellion) and let the camp handle his accidents -- and hope for the best.  He probably won't rebel at camp because he'll be trying to act like the other kids.  And, please, remember -- boys are usually a little slower than girls, about many, many things.  Including toilet training.

This is what i want to say to my 3-year-old almost every night. She wakes up almost nightly at the lovely hour of 2:15 a.m., asking me to come to her room and lie down next to her. My husband and I have tried to take turns, but she really wants me. I walk her back and intend to sit on the side of her bed till she falls asleep and then go back to my own room. Inevitably, I fall asleep, too, and my husband wakes me in the morning to get up and get ready for work. I'm exhausted. Even though I'm not up for long, the disruption in sleep is really affecting me. This has been going on for a couple of months now. Any suggestions or advice? We've tried to tire her out before bed. She takes a nap at daycare (about one hour), and we put her to bed around 8 p.m. (though she frequently doesn't fall asleep till 9:30 or 10:00. Help!

Habits take a few weeks to break sometimes but it can be done--even this one.  Begin by putting her down to sleep at 9:30, because she may be so tired she'll stay asleep but if she doesn't she should know that you're exhausted and that her dad will be taking her back to bed quickly and quietly every time she gets up.  It will be hard to listen to her wails but stuff cotton in your ears and bless your husband for taking over.

I cannot BELIEVE your response to the mom who is preoccupied with fears that her twins are ill. All you did was stoke this fear. If someone is terrified that their kids will be abducted do you have their windows nailed shut and install cameras outside their home? Or to better understand the statistics and how unlikely this is. If someone is prone to anxiety, the issue is to address the anxiety. And, your vaccine/autism comment is completely out of line - you are giving her something NEW to worry about, something that has been discredited again and again.

The mercury-vaccine-autism connection has been tossed, but leading scientists -- including some at Harvard -- believe that epigenetics causes autism and with 1 in 110 children succumbing to the condition -- instead of the 1 in 2,500 rate 30 years ago -- it should be considered.  In this theory, some children have a genetic predisposition to autism, which can be triggered by an environmental assaults such as too many vaccines at once or even one vaccine if the child is sick.  Waiting until a child is 2 to get most of his vaccines and only giving one of them at a time isn't silly; it's preventive medicine. 

And yes, you're right.  I should have addressed the mother's anxiety.  Pregnancy and breastfeeding too can screw up her hormones greatly and cause various emotional reactions including anxiety.  A good o.b. will put her on supplements to relieve it.


Got to run.  See you next month. And thanks for tuning in.


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 raising rambunctious boys, and click here for previous columns.
Recent Chats
  • Next: