Parenting advice: Help for raising children of all ages

Aug 23, 2012

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

Hi, everyone and thanks for joining us today for a chat with Family Almanac author Marguerite Kelly. Let's get started!

I was having breakfast at a family restaurant next to a family with 5 well-behaved small children. As I was leaving, I said to the parents, you have a lovely family. To which the father replied, that's because we spank t hem! Startled, I said, excuse me? He went on a rant about permissive parents, spare the rod and the like. Two nearby children were acting up a bit, and he said if those were mine, they wouldn't sit for a week -- and they'd never misbehave in a restaurant again. I managed to say, we have to agree to disagree; I think hitting chldren is wrong. I realize I can't change his mind. But I feel so sorry for t hose poor little kids, who will probably grow up to hit their own kids. I hope someone close to the family will intervene.

My daughter gives up new endeavors too easily, because she's always comparing herself to her siblings and to other people. If she sees someone, say, hit a home run, she believes she should be able to do that the first time she tries it. She doesn't seem to grasp that such things require practice and training, no matter how we explain this. What's saddening is that I can remember having the same belief at that age, and I dread the possibility that this may be genetic. What do you suggest?

Be sure to point out how long it took you to make a decent omelet or the time when you mixed the colored and white clothes together and everything turned pink--but don't do this when she has just missed the ball she batted at or lost in the spelling bee when it had hardly begun.  Instead, tell her these things when you're cooking together in the kitchen or doing the laundry, a propos of nothing at all.  Children feel so much better when they know that their parents are fallible too.

I currently live with my 3 year old and his father and we are thinking about living separately. We are not and have never been married but I assume the change will be similar to a divorce. We argue occasionally but we mostly we have separate lives and just live together. I struggle with balancing my needs with what is best for our child, but my priority is always my son. My partner and I could continue living together as roommates or we could separate and possibly have the opportunity to find spouses, which is what I would prefer. Neither of us are very young and my opportunity to possibly have more children is winding down, and I will only have additional children within a marriage, so that is one thing I consider. I grew up in an upper-middle class family, 2 adults + 2 kids and my parents have been together almost 40 years, so of course I want the same for my child. Should we just stay together for our son's sake? I value your advice and would like your opinion. Thanks.

Children need two parents above all else, so I think staying together for your son's sake would make more sense, but don't stay together as roommates. Parents have to have some love, some passion, in their relationship to endure the inevitable bouts of boredom, anxiety, stress and the occasional crisis too.   Leaving now will be painful, both for you, your child and the father too, but the longer you wait, the more painful it will be, especially for your child.

I have two 15-year-old girls (10th grade) and a 12-year-old son (7th grade). They do very well in school, all have regular outside jobs (baby/dog sitting and yard work) of about 8-10 hours a week and play sports. I am a single parent and their dad is rarely in the picture. Each of my children has 2 days/week for which they are responsible for the dog and anything I may need. I never have a problem with this. But one of my 15-year-old girls is a pig. I mean, she is disgusting. I spent two full days over the summer cleaning her room so she would have space and places to put things. She was very grateful. It is slightly messy now, but I have said if it's not clean by noon on Saturday, she loses her fun privileges for the following week. Her bathroom is so inutterably disgusting I cannot tell you. Black with grime. Towels and clothes everywhere, trash on the floor and makeup on everything. She cleans it thoroughly every 2 weeks and within 24 hours it's disgusting again. Getting her to clean her room wipes me out for the week. I remain calm, but I have to point out the obvious to her numerous times before she's done (clothes on the floor, bowls, plates etc.) She gets angry and frustrated and Saturdays are just ugly in our house. We have discussed this when she's calm and she doesn't understand why I care. I can say anything and she doesn't get it. She is supposed to share a bathroom, but the other two are so repulsed they won't use the bathroom (and use mine!), so she has "won" the bathroom. She has about 3-4 hours of homework a night and it always gets done, but I don't know how much I should put my foot down. How much is this fight worth? The other two are no problem at all and this poor girl feels stuck in the middle, I know, but oh my heavens! How much filth must we all endure? Am I expecting too much with all she's doing? She does have a lot of down time, I think, but I am worn out with the arguing on her part.

Most teenagers are messy--beyond messy--and parents can only look the other way and say, with hope, "This too shall pass."  Filth however, can't be excused especially when it impinges on her sibs so much that they can't use the bathroom.  Fortunately, however, your daughter works and has the money to hire someone to come in for two hours a week to clean her bedroom and her bathroom.

Tell her, not in anger but in a straightforward way, "I'm sorry it  is too hard for you to keep these two rooms clean, so let's figure out how you can hire someone to do the work for you." 

You'll be surprised, I think, how quickly she will learn to clean up after herself, especially if you go into her room each night and lie down on her bed and advise her onhow to  pick up her things, but don't say something overwhelming like, "It's time to clean your room" but "First clean off your night table.  Now your desk.  Now your bureau top"  And then, when the surfaces are clean, take the one item that should be in every teenager's closet:  a leaf rake.  Ask her to rake everything on the floor and under the bed into a heap and then sit down with her in the middle of that heap and together put away the clean clothes; the dirty clothes; the books and the hair clips before she goes to bed--after she's squared off the bathroom.  It's really a matter of practice and of breaking a big job into small ones.

Actually, not everything. But I have a 5-year-old son who for the last several months just wants to do what he wants to do. It seems much worse than when he was in his twos or threes. I am a single parent, and I need him to move faster! We have to leave for school on time so I can get to work on time. On the weekends, if he does not want to go to the store with me, for example, we will stay home. And when he decides he wants to go to the playground or pool, well, then he knows that I mean business and I say no and the reason is that he wasn't on time for the store. But most of the time we really do have to be somewhere at a particular time (school/work/doctor appointment). Other than getting up an hour earlier, and sitting in the car for half an hour at the destination (which I don't always have time for with a mid-day appointment where I am picking him up early from school), what can I do to get him to the car/metro/school on time? If I wait until the end of the day to say "you need to go to your room" or "you don't get to watch your show after dinner" because of what he did that morning, I think it is waiting too long for him to connect the dots.

Your little boy keeps pushing because he wants--and needs--firmer boundaries.  It's unfair to let a 5-year-old decide when or if you're going to the store.  There are times when you just have to pick up a child and carry him to the car, but don't wait until one of you is angry.  If you think he'll say no, pick him up before you say anything and walk out to the car.  That's time enough to tell him where you're going.

It may take a few weeks--and some serious push-back from him--but your son will learn that you're serious about the things you have to be serious about.  And he'll laern it better if you remember this: a child takes twice as long to do half as much as you want him to do.

My 2.5 y/o son has a tendency to bite. Specifically, this is in response to a toy/book/thing being taken away or not being able to have that object (e.g. another child is playing with it). He's in daycare every day, and his school contacted me regarding the incidences of biting (which started slightly before the age of 2). What's the best way to address this behavior? When he does it at home, I remind him to be gentle and that biting "makes boo-boos." None of his teachers think it is unchecked aggression. He's a sweet kid. I tend to believe its prompted by frustration and an inability to share and communicate his feelings. Any thoughts? Thank you!

Actually, I think he bites because he doesn't really know that it hurts, even though you tell him it 'makes boo-boos.'   A psychiatrist might disagree, but the next time he bites somebody, or you hear that he does, put his own little hand in his own little mouth and gently push up his chin.  He'll find out that it does hurt and then you can ask him if he wants to hurt his friends or his family?  I'll bet he won't do it again but if he does, look sad and put his hand in his mouth again, and move his chin up enough to bite it and say, "Remember?  It hurts?"  He'll learn.

So, my oldest child was dropped off at school on Saturday. We are trying to let him dictate the conversations with us rather than us reaching out to him all the time. In the 6 days he has been gone, we have found that he tends to text and mostly to mom...never to dad. Well, dad is feeling hurt. Is it ok to remind the our adult child that texting only mom isn't the same as talking to mom and dad? And, assuming that is ok, should the reminder come from mom or dad? We are worried that if dad says something it might sound like a guilt trip. We are trying our best to figure out this new living arrangement and would appreciate any guidance you could offer.

By all means tell him to write his dad, or to write at least some of his messages to 'mom and dad', because he needs someone to tell him these things and you're the best person to do it, just as you told him that he needed a shower  when he was 11 and he had begun to smell like a goat. 

That's what mothers are for.


My parents only intended to have one child but she died of cancer when she was 6. I, another girl, was born 2 years later. I wish I hadn't been! My parents and everyone else agrees that my sister was, or would have bveen, smarter, prettier, more athletic and more talented. I am now 17 and she would be 27. By now she undoubtedly would have cured cancer while solving the world's economic crisis and ending global warming and also having been crowned Miss Universe and winning a bunch of Olympic medals. I plan to attend college on the opposite coast, where no one will know I'm a replacement child, but what do I do in the meantime?

What a tough spot you're been put in and I'll bet your parents, your aunts and uncles--none of them--know how much you hurt.

And they never will unless you tell them, honey, but do it kindly. be as thoughtful as you'll be on your college essays and use your best stationery because you don't want to text this message; it's too important for that.  And once it's done, hold that letter for  three days to make sure that you haven't included any unnecessary zingers. 

When you think it's just about perfect, leave the letter with your parents at a time when they aren't too busy, and you've been given permission to spend the night with a friend, because they'll need time to absorb what you've said and to begin dealing with their guilt.  In time, it should get better--so much better that you may even decide to go to school on the east coast, so you can be near to them and they to you.

I have a healthy, sweet toddler who never used to fuss or complain about anything. I mean never. We were and are remarkably lucky (and people did remark about his cheerful nature). Recently, however, he has become whiny and cries easily. Some of this I attribute to separation anxiety, but I'm wondering if there may be an underlying health reason. Specifically, he cries almost every day when we feed him dinner but he doesn't cry at lunch at his daycare. We are transitioning him to more solid foods, but how can we tell if his protests are due to taste/newness, some kind of anxiety associated with us or something more, like food that upsets his system? As an infant, he had gas, etc., but he seemed to have grown out of it. And he does eat just fine at daycare. Thanks for the help.

I'd bet it was something that he's eating and that he has a tummy ache so I'd look at his dinner and what he's eating.   Milk, for instance, could make him cry because the body begins to lose the  enzyme called lactase, which processes lactose, and this happens around weaning time. 
And it's not unusual.  Many, if not most Asians, American Indians, Africans, Jews, and peoplewho come  from the Mediterranean area can't tolerate milk unless they use lactaid milk and some can't tolerate that. 

An allergy may not cause gas and bloating, as milk can do, but it can cause other problems and so can gluten. You and your husband just have to be detectives, as well as being parents, so your baby will fel good again.

I think my four-year-old son is in need of some attention. What's the best way, in your opinion, to do this? Is it the small things (playing on the floor for 15 minutes) or big (day trips downtown) that are more likely to make a difference?

Every child needs at least ten minutes a day of each parent's complete attention--no stopping to answer the phone, stir a pot or keep an ear cocked to the TV--just your complete attention.  It's harder to do than you realize, for parents have learned to be  multi-taskers.

It's also a good idea to watch your child at play and to offer a new activity--like helping you make the salad dressing or asking him to scrub a pot for you--while he's still content with what he's doing.  It will leave him with two pleasant activities and should keep him from being bored.

We are not God. I was conceived in hopes that I could provide a life-waving blood transfusion for an older sister, but it did not work out. Of course this was not my fault, and (unlike that poor teenager) my parents and others went out of their way to say, we're so sorry to have lost X, but we are so happy to have you. But it's still very sad. After years of therapy, I still feel guilty but am reasonably at peace. There are so many things beyond our control and we just have to make the best of it.

I am beginning to really dislike my stepdaughter. Everything is a fight. From getting up in the morning to brushing her hair, changing her clothes, eating breakfast, bathing, you name it. She is disrespectful and just not pleasant to be around. She lives most of the time with her mother out of state. Can you give me some advice on how to survive the next week until she leaves for the summer? Right now I am counting down the days.

Stop thinking about yourself and think about her.  How would you feel if you were walking in her shoes?  Wouldn't you resent being with your stepmother when it was your dad you really wanted to see.

You can make it easier for her, and for you, if you tell her that you're going to back off a bit so she can spend time with her dad, and then make a lovely picnic supper for them one day; reserve two tickets for them to see the movie she wants to see and let him take her to the mall so he can buy something for her that she really, really wants, but have him give her a price limit first so she doesn't expect more than you can afford.

And what will you be doing all this time?  reading a book; getting a massage.  taking a bubble bath not doing housework, running errands or going to the car wash.  If you have some playtime, you may resent your stepchild less and learn to give this child the love she needs.

I have to laugh, and I sympathize with this poster. My wife and I have this same "problem" with our 2 kids who are 14 months apart (6 & 7). It is somewhat comical but on the other hand, when something needs to get done or we need to go somewhere, it does get frustrating to say "Can you please do XYZ" three or four times and not be listened to until either my wife or I has to yell loudly. Frankly, while we probably were all the same way at points with our own parents, I doubt it was this bad when we were the same ages because we were always wanting to please our parents A LOT (and, maybe, because I grew up in NYC where it was much easier to find people to play with during the summer because you just had to walk down the street, and not call around for play dates and drive everywhere).

My nephew has been seeing a counselor. My sister and brother-in-law took him because he was having various issues with adapting to new environments. A 7-year-old only child, he is very bright, but behind socially, according to the counselor. The counselor identified his strive for perfectionism and discomfort with ambiguity as issues so they are supposed to prepare him for new situations. This has caused my sister to say that my nephew is not "normal." She's prone to saying things like, "We'd like to treat him like a normal kid, but he's not. We have to do things differently." To me, this seems awfully harmful and will only exacerbate some of his issues with anxiety, etc. Is there anything I, as a loving sister and aunt, can do?

You might tell your sister what neither she nor the counselor seem to know:

Seven is a changing age--a time when he's getting a mild does of the same hormones he'll get at 13, and it's making him act in much the same way.  Suddenly he's shyer with other kids, he says they don't like him, the eteacher hates him and he can't do anything right.  And he doesn't know that all the other 7-=year-olds are saying the same thing.

His perfectionism may not go away when he turns 8 but it should get better if his parents don't let him know how much they care about his achievements and if you can spend some time alone with him every week--just hanging out and letting him talk.  Sometimes a child is just exploding with ideas and no one is listening to them, and sometimes he just has to have some practice so he knows how people conduct a conversation.  Social skills are a bit like penmanship and math.  They take practice.

I have a 3 1/2-year old son (an only child) who seems fairly well adjusted. He has a balanced diet and gets lots of play time outside and is reaching all his learning and physical milestones. He's very bright (his doctor told us that we'll have a challenging time with his education to keep him motivated and engaged in school) and is generally a fun and loving child. However, he's been going through a phase with me (his mother) over the last few months where he hits and kicks me a lot. He only does this with me, not his father or grandparents. I'm getting very tired of being his personal punching bag. I've done time outs and a couple of spankings (although it seems counter-intuitive to say, "We don't hit" and then spank so I've stopped doing that). Basically the only thing that seems to have any effect is to revoke his TV watching, so I've been doing that. He starts preschool next week so perhaps he's anxious about that. And I've been going through chemo this summer; he knows that I'm ill so there he might be acting out because of that, too (although he's handled it pretty well on the whole). We've had talks about all the hitting; the other day he told me that he was angry, although he couldn't articulate why. Any thoughts on what to do about all this? Or is this just a phase that we just need to work through? When he's old enough, we plan to get him into judo so that he can channel this energy in a positive manner.

I'd bet that your illness is the cause of his anger; a child doesn't like to think that his parents could have a problem that he couldn't fix and not to know how to express it would only add to his anger.

Tell him that you know he doesn't want to hit you or hurt you so the next time he starts doing that, you'll just give yourself a timeout and go to your room and that you'll be very glad to see him when he feels better.


Why not just have the dad text his son directly? Something as simple as "How r things" could open the door to a conversation (via text, of course).

Thanks for joining me todya.  I'm sorry I didn't get to answer all the questions today but maybe I can answer them in my column.


Perhaps he has asperger's syndrome in which case he's not normal but is also an interesting individual like all the rest of us and all of our children. The most important thing we can do as parents is study our children so we can help them grow into the best adults that they can be so they can be most fulfilled.

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 touchy preteen or click here for previous columns.
John Spooner
Recent Chats
  • Next: