Parenting advice: Help for raising children of all ages

Jun 14, 2012

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

We had a few technical problems, but Marguerite is answering questions now.

I have five children and 13 grandchildren, so I know kids develop very differently. However, I 'm concerned about one of my 3-year-old grandsons.

I recently visited two families on the opposite coast that I had not seen in over a year. Each has a just-turned 3-year-old boy, born five days apart. There are two older children in each family, ages 9 and 5/6.

One is a happy-go-lucky little fellow. He has a large vocabulary and is a whiz with Legos and Tinker Toys (or their modern-day equivalent). He's pretty even-tempered and interacts well with both adults and other children.

The other has a much smaller vocabulary, and his motor skills are less advanced. He still says "No!" to everything and gets frustrated very easily. When this happens, he cries, screams and thrashes the house. One house is pretty peaceful, while the other is in turmoil.

Is there anything I can do from 3,000 miles away to help improve things? Another concern is that I don't want to make it look like I'm favoring my daughter (who has the peaceful house) over my daughter-in-law.

Grandmothers are in quandries that daughters -- and daughters-in-law -- never know about, and this is one of them. If you follow my work, you know that I think dietary issues can wreck a child's behavior -- a surprising conclusion I reached after 40 years of research and seeing an awful lot of changes in children whose parents have changed a child's diet.  Some of the best scientific studies on this poblem can be found at , which believes that some children shouldn't eat foods containing dyes, preservatives and salycilates.  Also check the dairy sites and the gluten sites, because dairy and gluten can both affect a child' s behavior, and so can allergies if a particular food or inhalant is sensitized on the central nervous system. 

You might explore this avenue and send pertinent studies to your daughter-in-law -- and your daughter -- and say that you thought they were so interesting and might interest them.  Also the new book by Kelly Dorfman ( and "Growing an In-Sync Child" ( by Carol Kranowitz and Joye Newman on helping a child develop well -- but always send any advice to both mothers.

You recently had a question from someone who scared a young child by telling him he would blow away in a strong wind. I have a faux giraffe tote bag. Among other things, it's purple! I met a friend for lunch in a food court last week. When she saw me, she exclaimed, "You shot a giraffe!" I replied, "Yes, those purple ones are pretty tricky." At which point a maybe 4- or 5-year-old girl at the next table started screaming and shouting, "You shot a giraffe! You shot a giraffe!" After her mother calmed her down we explained it was not a real giraffe, it was plastic not fur, and there are no real purple giraffes. But the episode sort of shook me.

Of course it shook you, but it was just another reminder that children draw conclusions about everything they see or hear and they only do that based on the things they know--a good reason to explain what you're doing and why to any child.  The more they know, the better their conclusions will be.

I am older, disabled and use a walker. At a recent minor league baseball game, the first 1,000 adults were given a free bobblehead doll. As I was leaving the stadium, an approx. 8-year-old boy grabbed mine off the seat of the walker and darted away.

I yelled, and people grabbed him. He yelled for his mother, who took his side! She said he "didn't mean no harm" (really?) and "bobbleheads are for kids."

A security officer gave him  a strong talking-to while he shifted his weight from foot to foot and his mom rolled her eyes. As they were walking away, he waggled his fingers in his ears and stuck his tongue out at me!

I've never struck a child, or anyone, in my life, but I could have spanked that kid with a board. As a man standing nearby said, if he were mine, he wouldn't sit for a week. How would you have handled this?

There really isn't much you can do for a child whose mother doesn't make him pay the consequence of his own actions.  While I wouldn't have spanked him, I would perhaps have asked him what he'd do if he wanted someone's bike, his dog, his money.  Would he steal them too?  And what would happen if he did? If you can get a child to consider the consequences of his actions, whatever they are, you will be doing him a great favor.

My ex's new wife, who is childless, has banned our teen girls from "her" house. (He moved in with her.) They can only visit him there when she is out of town on business. They live across the country. This leaves them with one long weekend a year. My lawyer says there is nothing to do; he is free to do this despite our parent plan. I have never met her. I called her once, and she laughed and hung up on me. I am tired and burned out. His parents can't get through to him. The kids are heartbroken, especially No. 2 (17). Help.

What a loss for the girls--and what a huge loss for their dad.  Looking for a brighter side, the girls are probably lucky that they can't visit when she's there.  But perhaps he could visit them?  With an ex who has trouble standing up for himself, you'll probably have to contact him and then do the arranging yourself.  One possibility:  Ask an old friend if she could lend to him f her cabin in the woods for a week.  He'd have to pay for his air fare and a rental car but the girls could bring food from home--your food--and do the cooking.  Whatever you suggest should be lowkey however and the solution will probably have to be out of the box.  And if he won't go for a cabin in the woods (or anything else), ask your friend if you and the girls could use it.  You need a  break.

I have 14-month-old twin boys. And I know you can't compare the two of them because they have their own personalities. But I have one baby who is pretty calm except when he doesn't get his way, and then he throws a pretty brutal temper tantrum. I am surprised that this is happening so early. Do I need to start discipline this early? What would that entail, and would he even understand at this age? Could this be a sign of something more?

When a 14-motnh-old  throws a tantrum, it's a sign that he needs more freedom, more choices, less control--and he needs it before he gets so wound up that he flips out.  Remember, 14-15 months is the age when a child wants to be independent, needs to be independent--a need that will grow and grow for the next 15 months.  The best discipline is to lower your standards and your expectations, and introduce new games and books and activities before he screams for them.

Recently, my spouse -- perusing the scrawlings in our teenager's yearbook -- learned about some past behavior of our teenager that is of great concern to us. I feel we need to confront our teenager about this directly, but my spouse is concerned about doing so because the information was gained in a way that, perhaps was illicit. How do we balance the concerns of trust and our concern over the behavior we learned about?

Your husband has to tell his daughter what he did, apologize to her for reading her yearbook and then tell her how much those scrawlings worried him because he loves her so much, and how much they surprised him, because it seems like she's a different person than he thought she was and could she talk to him about that.  If he's gentle and loving and apologetic, she'll respond in kind but it may take a while for her to calm down when she first hears what he did.

I would like to talk to my 7-year-old son about the dangers from child sexual predators. Can you recommend a book or give some advice on what to say?

I'd tell your boy that the world is full of splendid people but that there are a few who are mean or weird or peculiar and some of the weirdest ones even want to take advantage of children.  And that's why he never should go into someone's house or car without you; he should never let anyone touch his body in any place that it usually covered by clothes. Tell him that he should always tell you about a disturbing encounter, especially if he was warned to keep silent about it, for any reason, and that you'll never get mad at him if he tells you.

Our 3-year-old son will urinate on the potty but adamently refuses to have a BM on either his potty seat or the toilet. We have been stuck in this state of partial potty training for nearly six months. We've resorted to using Pull-Ups because we just can't clean anymore "accidents" out of underwear. We have tried various incentives, but none have worked to get him to do his business on the potty more than once or twice. Should we just stop worrying about it and assume he will take the next step when he is ready?

Personally, I'd promise him a tricycle or whatever new and grand toy he's been longing for, because bribery has its place in parenthood, and this is one of them.  But first, I'd have a talk with him--in the dark, after a good day--and ask him what bothers him about having a b.m. in the toilet. Children have a reason for everything they say or do, and he has a reason for refusing to defacate in the potty too.  Some children feel that he is flushing away a part of himself unless they know that the body has taken out all of the nutrients of his food, and this is how it throws away the trash. 

And some children want to know exactly where his bowel movement goes when he throws it away, which may involve a search for books about the sewer systems or even a visit to the water treatment plant.  And if none of that works?  I'd wait as patiently as possible because one day he's going to surprise you, and himself, by using the potty.  You can bet:  he won't be wearing pull-ups to kindergarten.

Thanks so much for joining me today.  As usual, the questions were interesting and had me on my toes!

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 most recent columns on helping a college freshman do well at school, and click here for previous columns.
Recent Chats
  • Next: