Parenting advice: Help for raising children of all ages

Sep 20, 2012

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

Hi, and thanks for joing us today. Marguerite is here and ready to take your questions, so let's get started!

My wife and I have a one month old boy- he's doing well except he has some pretty bad reflux. While we work with his pediatrician to nail this down (we've already tried Zantac and are switching to Prevacid, using Enfamil AR formula, plenty of burping/keeping upright) we still find ourselves stuck with an inconsolable infant at 2 a.m. I need to get a few hours of sleep before I go to work, but that leaves my wife with him from about 2 a.m. until I get home about 5:30 at night. We don't have family in the area and most of our friends are in the same situation we are- young children and working. Any tips for somehow maintaining our sanity over the next few weeks/months until our son can sleep, eat, and go back to sleep without a 3-hour intervention?

Those first six weeks can be quite wicked, can't they?  Only the doctor can deal with reflux, but for the rest of your baby's sleep,  I think I'd follow the French technique.  Their babies actually sleep 10-12 hours a night by the time they're four months old, because the Dr. Spock of France has advised the parents to observe their baby quietly when he wakes up, looks at the ceiling and gives a yell or two, but not to pick him up unless he's really awake.  This, she said, is because everyone sleeps in two-hour cycles and they sort of wake up at the end of it and fall right back to sleep. 

Babies will do that too as soon as their synapses connect, and that happens in the first four months.  It's explained much better in a book whose title ends in 'Bebe' but I've lent my copy and can't find the title now.

Your baby may keep you awake at night but there's no reason for both of you to be awake in the middle of the night.  Take turns.  You and your wife should also sleep every chance you get, and have a 12-year-old give your son a walk every afternoon so she can sleep.  This really won't go on forever.

My 7 1/2 year old daughter recently began sniffing almost constantly. I think it's a bit of a habit/tic, less a medical condition (though we have an appt with her doc to be sure). If it is more of an unconscious habit, do you have any advice for dealing with it? Ignore it? Help her break the habit in some way? Unfortunately, she's already a bit self-conscious about it, since we already pointed it out when it first started happening by innocently asking if she had a cold, etc. I want to tread carefully! (also, a google search reveals this is pretty common, either sniffing or throat clearing)

It also might be a seasonal allergy, which is more likely since this is the time for mold allergies to appear and other allergies as well.  Doris Rapp's book, Is This Your Child? explains them best.

My husband got me through many rough patches with the children with one simple line:  Don't count your calamities before they're hatched.  Why not ignore the sniffing until you get a diagnosis?

Hi Marguerite: Thank you so much for your always-wise advice. My 8-year-old is really struggling right now and I am desperate to figure out how to help him. He has always been very very bright, but is easily distracted in school and has been reprimanded by his new teacher for forgetting things/not paying attention/needing to have instructions repeated. He readily tells anyone he hates school and getting him to do homework is like pulling teeth. At home it seems like every other task or activity is simply a matter of biding time until it is time to play video games. His very best friend is a young boy who is largely unregulated at home and is constantly introducing my son to videos, games, or apps that push the limits of what we find acceptable for an 8-year-old. Although we try to have structure in the house about screen time, it is always a source of conflict. He has decided not to play a sport this fall, although he participates in karate. However, his energy level seems to be low. He is an extremely picky eater. He will eat fruits and veggies but refuses meats, cheeses, chicken, fish, beans - any sort of protein, with the exception of bacon or the occasional egg. Yesterday he had an especially rough day and did not eat his dinner (a turkey burger) and I later discovered he hadn't eaten his lunch (a ham sandwich) either! How can I start figuring out how to help him?

There's something you should know about 8-year-olds.  They're flittergibbets.  They're flighty.  They're so  interested in everything that they don't dig as deep as they did last year or will dig next year.  And then there is his friend who has few limits.  And the video games.  And the energy.

Why not keep the games in your possession, set a time limit for how much time he can use them, and let him check them out, like a book at the library.  The best friend makes it trickier, unless you have them play at your house, but it's his energy level that troubles me most.  I'd have him get a full work=up at the pediatrician's and also take him to a nutritionist so she can tell him why protein is so important and how he can get it if he doesn't like meat.  Kelly Dorfman, based in Potomac,  is terrific and she has also published a very good book.  He needs to eat better so he has more energy and won't need to depend on video games so much.

My middle school girl is bright, pretty, witty and friendly, but quiet and has trouble speaking up for herself. She has lots of friends but says she doesn't feel close to any of them - some of them blow hot and cold, nice one day and blowing her off the next. She says she wants a real friend. I know she needs to experience this adversity and overcome it, but I worry about her self-esteem. What can I do to support her without helicopering (which I see many other moms doing)?

She sounds like a  great kid but she may not find that friend in middle school which is so tough on young teens.  Look at her interests instead, and then look for an after-school class where she can expand it and meet other kids who like the same things that she likes.  It may be a cartooning class at the Smithsonian, a rowing team on the Potomac or an improv class sponsored by a school or a theatre but there's bound to be something that interests her and where she can find that true best friend.

I'm concerned about my 25-year-old son. I'm a single parent and he's my only child. I've given him a great deal of financial assistance recently and it never seems to be enough. He's run through a lot of money in a short period of time. I told him last week that I was very worried about him and asked him what he was doing with his money. I think he may be gambling, something I know he's done in the past. He denied gambling but he didn't tell me where his money is going. He's very angry now and giving me the silent treatment. I guess I have to quit enabling him and just let him face the consequences of his actions but I'm finding that very hard to do. How to other parents deal with this sort of thing?

Letting go is every parent's hardest job and unfortunately you haven't had much practice.

It doesn't matter whether  he is gambling your money away or using it on drugs, you can't give him any more of it.  And if you can't bear the silent treatment, see a therapist or go to an Al-Anon meeting and get strength from them because all addictions are basically the same.  You do your son no favor by giving in to him--and it will only get worse if you do.

I would advise the parents of the chronic sniffer to check the humidity levels in their home. You can get a cheap hygrometer at a place like Radio Shack or Home Depot. Out of whack humidity levels, due to cold weather or even the A/C, can lead to runny noses, thus the chronic sniffing. A comfortable home humidity level is usually 40-60 percent.

What a great idea.  I never heard of such a thing.

My four-year-old son just will NOT go to sleep. His bedtime is 7:30 and we have a routine (though we do allow him to play on the iPad or watch TV between dinner and bedtime, so maybe that's the problem?), but he stays up until at least 9:30 or 10. He's good about staying in his room and he gets up pretty easily around 7, but doesn't he need more sleep than that? If not, should we move his bedtime back? Keep things as they are? Is this even a problem?

You might do all of those things.  Limit his iPad and TV time to a half-hour, let him stay up till 8, and tuck him in bed with some books.  If he's still getting up easily at 7, he probably will be getting enough sleep.

My 17-year-old is finishing up the high school circuit with a GPA of 2.85. He's had reading comprehension problems since middle school, and while we have worked with him (two years of private tutoring) we haven't seen a great deal of improvement. He does poorly at standardized tests. We're planning to send him to community college for two years before transferring to a four-year college, and he is fine with that. But I wonder if we are overlooking something--some learning disability or dyslexia or something. At this point, I have no idea where to go to get him tested--or even for what. He has never been a motivated student and very little excites his imagination beyond YouTube, no matter what we try to encourage him to do or expose him to. Thanks.

It costs a bundle, but the best place to get your son tested is the Lab School on Reservoir Rd. in DC--and you should get him tested.  You can't solve a problem unless you know what it is, and if it is a learning disability, there are classes for adults at night at Lab, so he can get up to speed.

Also, please remember that college isn't for everyone--there are all kinds of jobs in the trades and the crafts that don't require it.  And remember, too, that most millionaires are plumbers and electricians.  

I just want to say that I have no children (or plans for any) and I still very much enjoy reading your chat. Your advice is always so thoughtful and filled with such a sense of peace. I can only imagine how much comfort you are bringing to parents that write in with what must seem like huge problems to them. Kind of reminds me of my own wonderful mom :)

Oh wow, you've set me up for the whole day!

I am a single parent with a three-year-old who is often such a joy and pleasure to be around. But, like most kids his age, he whines, demands, and just plain doesn't listen to try to get his way. I think I am very good at NOT giving in, but on some occasions it is just too stressful, and I lose it and just scream! This, of course, makes him cry, which makes me feel terrible and just ruins my day. I hate when this happens, and know some tactics to avoid letting it get to that point (like walking away and asking him to come find me when he's ready to behave, and praising him when his behavior is good), but what can I do to avoid the whining and demanding in the first place, and get through to him that he cannot talk to me like that because it is not nice and makes me frustrated? Thanks for any additional help you can give to get us through this phase of toddlerhood. (PS we have fairly clean vegetarian diets and I am willing to try dietary changes if you suggest that, but I am looking for coping mechanisms for me as well.)

Don't wait for your child to fall apart.  Go to her when she's playing contentedly and suggest that you read a book or dance or straighten out the pots and pans cupboard (children like to put their parent's toys away better than their own).  Ten or 15 minutes of preventive discipline, as it were, can work wonders for your day.  And when she has a tantrum anyway--and she willl--tell her that you need a timeout because you just don't want to hear her yelling.  Then go to your room, read a book and in ten minutes or so she'll come looking for you, sweet as pie.  Children have tantrums to get attention, and if they don't get it they'll try something else.

Is he still taking a nap? Our 3.3 year old son does this too, and we would love to drop his nap except he clearly still needs it based on the severity of melt-downs on days he skips the nap. We occasionally test the waters by skipping the nap, and when he consistently does fine without it, we'll drop the nap and hope he goes back to his old schedule of promptly going to sleep.

Another good idea.  Thanks for it.

My three-month-old usually gets to sleep around 11pm. We'd like to change that, but any time we start the nighttime routine earlier (last night was 8:30 PM), he just shrieks like a banshee when we swaddle him and try to get him sleepy. Last night he was showing all signs of tiredness -- rubbing eyes, yawning, etc -- but as soon as we swaddled him and sat down, he was wide-eyed and screaming. Unswaddle, and he's sleepy again. Lather, rinse, repeat. Is he now too old to swaddle? How can we best work to adjust his bedtime earlier?

I think he is too old to be swaddled because he sure doesn't like it anymore. Do it his way and I'll bet he goes right to sleep.

It's hard for parents to accept, but you don't get to tell your  child what to do, your child is the one who tells you what to do.  This is because he is constantly growing and with every small change he makes, your discipline, your rules and your plans have to change a little bit too.  Once you accept that basic truth, you'll find that parenthood is a whole lot easier.

What to do with a 3-year-old who has tantrums when she doesn't get her way? Not just small tantrums but screaming, hitting, mean words, for a VERY LONG time when she doesn't get her way.

Don't give your child a time-out, give it to yourself instead.  Instead of fussing, just quietly go into your room and stay there.  She's looking for attention when she has a tantrum, but you should give it when she's good instead because a child will do whatever it takes to get the most attention.

Are there medically justified minimum requirements for how much a kid should sleep? Maybe the OP's son simply doesn't need as much sleep as other kids. Even when I was a baby, my parents would put me in my crib at bedtime (8 maybe?) and when they came to check on me as they went to bed at 10 or 11, I'd be wide awake, having been rearranging the stuffed animals, or pulling the sheets off the mattress, or taking apart the mobile, happily 'playing' quietly. To this day (in my 40s) I never, ever sleep more than 5 or 6 hours a night. So perhaps that's the story with this child?

Yes, that well may be.  And it seems to me that the people who are really smart, and who accomplish the most, don't need much sleep.  I'm not one of those people.

This absolutely worked for me. My son at around 3, which I felt was the right age for time-outs to begin, would never stay put in the assigned time-out spot. At first I would just quietly plunk him back there, but he would just get up again and again and we would both get more and more agitated. Finally I changed tactics and said you are not listening to me, so now I need a time-out from you, and I would go in my room and shut the door. He would wail and thrash around outside the door for a while, then simmer down, regroup on his own and come in to show me a toy or ask me a question as if nothing had happened.

my 3 year old daughter seems to have a hard time transitioning to daycare every morning. We have tired a few different things, but they don't seem to work. She usually gets upset in the last few minutes before leaving home which is when my stress level seems to rise (as I always have to ask 3-5 times for her to put on her shoes). The car ride is short and goes ok, but she clings to me and cries when I leave her in her preschool classroom. I've tried sticking around for a few minutes to get her playing with someone/something but it doesn't seem to help. She is in Montessori (been there 7 months) which is a little less structured and there is typically only 1 teacher there with about 8 kids, probably 15 mins after I leave the 2nd teacher arrives... as do more kids. The program has about 24 kids and they split in 2-3 groups for different activities through the day. Any advice? I'm wondering if this setting just is not ideal for her/too many kids in one classroom? She seems happy but still clingy at pickup

A child should be happy to get to day care or to school and a little reluctant to leave it.  And your child doesn't seem all that happy. 

I'd probably change schools if I were you, but first, I'd take an hour off of work and  watch her--preferably when she doesn't know you're there--and see whether she's more content and I'd also ask her if she'd like to try another school and if so, or if you don't know, I'd

make an adventure out of trying 1-2 other schools for a day, to see how she likes them.  If only there was an aptitude test that children could take to find the right school and the right day care because children are so different and so are their needs. 


A lot of parents just feel it is wrong for a small child to have a late bedtime. Don't we all remember having to go to bed when it was still light out? Yes, but that was when you were five at the height of summer, not three and taking naps. If they're napping and getting enough sleep, it's OK if they go to bed at 8 or 9 instead of 7:30.

Get him a video camera and encourage him to make his own funny videos. Send him to computer classes so he can learn to edit them. Take that interest and go with it.

My kids are 12, 9 and 8. They are smart, fun, active and are generally great except for fighting with each other. My 9 year old teases the other 2, knowing just how to push their buttons, and the older and younger can be quite unkind in their words to him and to each other. Lots of screaming ensues. They used to be best friends and very loving as small children. Any suggestions on how to change this dynamic and bring back some of the love?

A certain amount of teasing is fine, but not when it hurts their feelings or their bodies.  Interrupt them at the first sign of that--before the screaming ensues--and tell them that this is against the family tradition and then they have to apologize and give each other a hug,  It will just get worse if you don't.

Thanks for being with me today. And have a great week!

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 a lonely freshman or click here for previous columns.
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