Parenting advice: Help for raising children of all ages

Sep 22, 2011

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

I have a super shy 2 1/2-year-old. I stay home with him two days a week and he is at day care the other three. While at home, he is very outgoing, but at day care and other places outside of our home, he barely talks and is pretty closed off. For example, I take him to our library storytime every week and while the other children are up singing and moving, he sits on my lap and flat out refuses to do anything. At day care, he will only answer direct questions and will not initiate conversation (he has been with the same lady and group of children since he was 5 months old). Should I push him, or just accept that he is shy?

You'll be pleased to know that one out of ten children are born shy (and many monkeys too) and that nine out of ten shy children (and shy monkeys) get over their shyness by the time they're grown.  Cherish your child as he is; he'll be fine even if he never gets over it.  He is what he is, and there's nothing to worry about.  Every child has a few differences, and you just have to accept them, just as your child accepts your differences. 

Any tips for getting a 3 1/2-year-old moving in the morning? We're getting him up earlier than he would naturally wake up on his own (6 a.m. vs. 7 or 7:30 a.m. on the weekends). We've tried to account for that, but it still takes 30 minutes to get him out of bed, then we battle over using the potty, getting dressed and getting breakfast (not necessarily in that order). Once we get him to the breakfast table, he usually eats well. He's generally a good kid, but this daily battle (and the one at dinnertime) is wearing thin.

It may seem ridiculously early to do this, but if you buy him his own alarm clock (preferably one that's amusing to look at), then set it at night, put it across the room from his bed, and tell him that you don't like all that fussing in the morning so you'll depend on him to get himself out of bed, and to get going.  And if he doesn't?  Have a sitter lined up--promising to pay her for two hours at least--and call her to come over and babysit, but without waking him up, and when he does, tell her to feed him, but no TV, no walk to the park--just the most boring day imaginable.  After a day or two of this treatment he'll think day care looks pretty good. 

The more you expect your little boy to pay his own consequences, the happier he'll be--and the happier you'll be too.

My just-turned-3-year-old has the worst sleeping habits and I don't know how to change them. She has yet to sleep a whole night through in her life, she eventually falls asleep at midnight, and then takes three-hour-long naps during the day. Even if we keep her awake during the day, she still won't go to bed early. How can you change bad sleeping habits?

It's been said that any habit can be set--or broken--in 21 days, but the sleep habit can be changed in a week.

Let her nap for an hour in the afternoon, because she's only 3, but put her to bed at 8, go through the nighttime routine, and leave four or five picture books in her bed, so she can decide when she's ready to fall asleep.  If she cries for you, go to her within five minutes -- putting her back to bed if she's rambling around -- but talk very little and be quite businesslike with your goodnights.  And do this again and again and again.  She should gradually start falling asleep earlier in a week or so unless she's had soda or chocolate or something else that contains caffeine.

My beautiful, smart, compassionate 10-year-old girl has always struggled to make friends. She joins the activities, but she loves to do her own thing (even if she has to do it by herself). She just started fourth grade and she is complaining that some girls are purposefully excluding her -- especially at lunch. We have talked about what she can do, but what can I do? I feel so useless . . . I know a degree of this is just kids growing up and she will work through it . . .but what am I looking for to show me that has gone too far?

Actually, the mean girls start even earlier than fourth grade unless the school is very well run.  Usually they start targeting a few children in the second half of second grade, pick up in the second half of fifth grade and reach a crescendo in seventh grade, particularly if these children are more independent.

Don't put up with it, and don't let the school put up with it, either.  First, get permission to observe the classroom and the playground quietly for a morning, to make sure your daughter is right, then ask for a meeting with the principal and the teacher to tell them what's going on because you know that they wouldn't want to permit any behavior that reflects so badly on them and on the school, and also because it hurts your daughter's feelings.

You also should encourage your daughter to wear clothes that don't invite teasing (i.e., the same kind of clothes that everyone else wears) and to be friendly with them and to every child at school, but never to grovel.  Bullies don't pick on strong children.


Our oldest will be entering kindergarten next year, so the quality of schools is a big factor as we search for a house that we can afford on our soon-to-be-reduced income. How do we figure out what is going to be most important for our kids: seeing us more because we have a shorter commute, attending a better school (and how do we judge the quality of the schools, anyway?), and/or living in an area with more open spaces,  more organized activities,  etc.? Are the poorly rated schools in Fairfax and Loudoun that serve communities where we feel comfortable and safe truly bad schools, or are they perfectly fine, just not as exceptional as the highly rated ones?

If only someone would invent an aptitude test for schools as well as children.

Each school has a personality of its own and what is right for one child is wrong for another.  You can judge the schools pretty quickly if you go to a PTA meeting and also observe at the school for a morning or even hang around the playground. 

Children need to go to a pretty good school but mostly they need to see their parents as much as possible.  One team a season, and one extra class is enough for a grade school child; your children don't need to start the ratrace early or ever.

I can second the advice to the parent of the shy 2 yo. My younger child didn't speak to anyone during her entire first year of preschool (age 2 1/2-3 1/2). Now she's a first-grader, and she's a complete social butterfly. It was a gradual process, but that process seems to be what has made her so social.

Don't you love the way each child solves problems in her own unique way?

Hello. My sister recently passed away after a long illness, leaving behind her husband and their 6-year-old daughter. I live in another state and at best can visit four times a year. I worry that now that I'm looking for work, I will see them even less. What can I do to help and support my niece from a distance? I was never super-close to my brother-in-law, but want to help him as well; I want to maintain a relationship with them both. I'm not really the motherly type and am struggling through the grieving process myself, so I don't feel like I'd be very helpful in consoling my niece. Also, I don't want my interactions to be discussions or constant reminders of her mother, which might hurt. I'd appreciate any advice.

There's no reason to talk about the death of their mother; they just want to know that you're someone they can count on, because they're bound to be thinking, "What if something happens to my daddy?"

Skype is just about the best answer, and it's free.  Set up a regular time each week that you can talk to them on the computer, even for just a few minutes.  E-mail is good, too, because they can take their time to answer your questions, and you can also send pictures by email, choosing ones of their mom when she was their age, and adding little stories about these pictures.

You also should read  "A Parent's Guide to Raising Greiving Children" by Phyllis Silverman and Madelyn Kelly.  Even though Madelyn is my daughter-in-law -- and therefore I'm not supposed to recommend it in my column -- I'm recommending it here because it is the best book I've read on children's grief, and how it changes from age to age.  Another good one is by Suzy Yehl Marta.  Both also recommend having these grieving children attend a 'children's room' or a 'rainbow room' where they can meet other children in their situation and realize that their loss will always be with them but it will be bearable.

We have 6.5-year-old twin boys, and I think that my wife and I treat them pretty equally. Son No. 2 has been put into remedial reading at his first-grade class. Son No. 1 loves to read and can even be seen looking at/reading by himself. We worked with Son 2 over the summer. But getting him to sit down and read with Mom or Dad is a battle. Tantrums. Name-calling. Etc. I suspect that much of this is his self-esteem over not being able to read as well as his brother. What else can we do besides let the school help him with the reading problem? How can I determine if he has vision troubles? I had glasses at an early age.

You've made some great points.  First, take him to a developmental optometrist -- not an opthamologist -- because he will give special tests to make sure that his eyes register images at the same nanosecond and that the muscles in the back of their eyes are at the same developmental level as the ones at the front of his eyes.  Even if his vision is 20/20, these discrepancies can keep a child from reading and even make him feel carsick and headachy, but using  glasses with special prisms for a half-hour a day can correct problems and so can eye exercises.

I'd also give your son the first box of Bob Books by Lynn Maslen (Scholastic), and just leave them in his room.  These simple little books -- one sound per book -- have taught many children to read.  And I'd check out an audiobook and the same picture book from the library and let your son look at the pictures while listening to the text.  But I wouldn't make your boy sit down and read with you.  Just read to his brother every night and let him join you if he'd like.  Finally, don't fret about it.  Albert Galaburda -- the big reading expert at Harvard -- told me that a child who goes to school fairly regularly and has even a mediocre teacher will learn to read by third grade, because it really isn't that hard.  If not, he probably has some learning disabilities and will need special help.

Maybe he's nervous if you're watching and judging his every move. The pressure! He's more likely to open up when you aren't watching.

Another good point...

Hi there, I have a 3-year-old with a very vivid imagination who loves to tell stories. While most of them are harmless, he sometimes says things that could get other people in trouble (someone hit me, etc.). I told him how important it is to tell the truth, etc., but how do you teach that?

Just keep congratulating him for his imagination and for telling such interesting stories, but don't take any of them seriously because, as you'll tell him, 'You make up so many wonderful stories that I always think that you've made up your real stories too".  The ball is in his court, not yours.

My 23-year-old is working 50 hours a week at a job that doesn't pay much. He's over his head in debt. Should I allow him to move back home?

Having an adult child move home can be a great experience for both of you, as long as you treat him like an adult--that is, he keeps his room fairly neat and makes his bed in the morning; does his own laundry and changes his own sheets every week and cooks supper for you once or twice a week.  If you can't do that, you're not ready to help him out.

The quality of a school is somewhat based on leadership. Meet the principal. Over the years, my kids have had a variety of prinicipals and in every case the more compentent the principal, the better the school.

I couldn't agree more.  A good principal has a strong philosophy for her school and she insists that her teachers follow it.

I hope you can help. Our house flooded after Hurricane Irene hit. Fortunately the damage is confined to our finished basement and we are still able to live in the house while we repair it. In the meantime, the basement is a jumble of cut-up walls, dirty floors, furniture and other belongings in one big pile. Our almost-4-year-old has started having nightmares and refuses to sleep in his room unless one of us lays down on the floor next to his bed. We've been doing this to soothe him to sleep, but during the night he wakes up and we repeat, sometimes multiple times during the night. We've finally given up and let him sleep in our bed but, given that it will be months before the house is repaired, we're not sure if this is the best thing to do. And if it is, how do we get him back to sleeping in his own bed once the house is fixed? Thank you from two tired parents!

Is there any way that you -- and your son -- can toss out the ruined stuff together?  If you treat the wretched experience like an adventure and ask each other, including your little boy, what you should do with this or that item, the trauma of Irene will be lessened.

After a few of these sessions -- and having him draw pictures of Irene and telling you his memories of the storm --  tell him that you're ready for him to sleep in his own bed but that you'll go to him if he calls you so he'll know that everything is alright.  Just don't keep him waiting more than five minutes even if you have to go back a dozen times a night. 

I don't know what you mean by a "wimpy philosophy". Would you clarify?

I didn't know that I had said wimpy.  A principal (and a parent) should have a strong philosophy; she should know who she is and what she stands for, and she should walk the walk, even if it makes a child cry.

How does a parent motivate a young person (age 22-24) to go back to college to be able to earn more money to become self-sufficient?

A child between 22 and 24 is old enough to decide whether he's going back to college or not and he's old enough to be self-sufficient, too.  If you treat an adult like a child he will act like a child, down all the days.

My son and his wife are getting a divorce. I'm concerned about their 12-year-old son. It seems to me that he has no one to speak up for him. He's not really capable of doing it himself because of his Asperger's syndrome. He's very compliant and introverted. How can be helped? His guidance counselor at school is his other grandmother, and I think someone outside the families should help him express his needs.

Everyone needs a little talk therapy eventually, especially a 12-year-old who has Asperger's and is compliant and introverted, too.  And he needs group therapy, too, as long as the group is made up of other grieving childing.  Check out that book I recommended earlier -- the one by Suzy Yehl Marta -- because it has a great deal about divorce and how it affects children.

I have three adult daughters from a previous marriage. They seem to be quite immature in many ways. Their stepmother and I have a loving home, but my daughters never visit. They expect us to visit with them. One does the same thing to her husband's parents, so it may not be just about us. I do not think it is much of a draw for them and their children. I suspect that in this age of parents allowing their children to make their own decisions, the children simply say they don't want to visit. We only live one hour from one family of four (two parents and two children), and two hours from another family of a single mother and a 10-year-old child. We maintain a policy of open hearts and home, and patiently await the change in their behavior.

Sometimes you just have to make things happen, by opening your hearts and your doors a little wider.  Call occasionally and ask if you can drop by, giving them 2-3 possible times and when the grandchildren are comfortable with you, ask the parents if you can borrow the children to take them to the zoo or for a picnic in their park.  And when the, and you, are really comfortable with each other, ask if you can have them stay at your house for a weekend.  This is the way to your daughter's hearts.

We have recently moved, and our previously happy -- though very chatty -- second-grade son now tells us quite frequently that he hates school. We've gotten notes home and have gone in to speak with the teacher. She tells us that our son is too chatty and doesn't sit still. He completes his work and tests well, above average sometimes. We are utilizing the Feingold diet (thanks to you!), thinking perhaps it was food-related, but the chatter and distraction continues. He tells me that he gets bored when he's finished his work so he talks to his friends. I've told him to take out a book (says he does) or write down what he wants to say to remind him when he is allowed. And yet it continues. I dread email from the teacher who keeps asking what we recommend . . .  I don't know. I don't have this problem with him because we've got different circumstances at home, of course. He can sit through church. He can sit and read quietly. He can sit and watch an entire movie . . . do you have any suggestions? We are in contact with his teacher but she seems to be pushing this off on us -- recommendations, discipline, etc. I'd hate to have him hate school forever, but we are at a total loss about what to do. Thanks for any thoughts.

If your child is lucky, he'll have one great teacher in his first four years of school, one terrible teacher and two who are so mediocre that he won't remember their names in a few years.

It sounds like you may have a mediocre teacher -- and a bored little boy.  Ask the teacher to assign an interesting assignment for him to do when he's finished his classwork -- something that isn't out of a workbook but that capitalizes on his strengths.  You are your son's defender.  If your requests  baffle the teacher, go to the principal.  If she's good, she'll redirect the teacher.  If she's not, you'll need to see that your son has an interesting class on the weekend so the year won't be a waste.

Hi -- my 5-year-old is highly emotional. She gets hysterical at the slightest problem -- usually when she is told no, or with even the slightest injury. She also uses whining and passive aggression as her standard modes of communication ("Why don't I get to"? "Am I never going to get to"? "No fair"). The transition to kindergarten has not been easy, but we are at least able to do dropoff now without tears (we have made a "great dropoff" chart with stickers, and she gets to plan a fun outing when she gets five). But, while dropoff has improved, her behavior at home has not. Can you offer any strategies for turning this around? Thanks.

As parents, you can't abdicate your responsibility and that's what you're doing when you let your child run the house. 

If you're pleasant, cheerful and give her more attention when she's good, she'll be good more often.  But if you give her more attention when she's being a pain, she will be a pain more often.  You're the only one who can break this logjam, and you can do it without charts and without rewards. It's much better if you surprise her when she's been good for a while, and then to have her arrange her own treats.

You suggest she "hang around the playground". These days, that's not tolerated in most public schools due to safety issues. You wouldn't want some unknown, unidentified adult hanging around your kids playground, would you? When something like that happens, the teachers immediately contact the office and the principal is sent out to investigate and escort the person off school grounds - as they should! I would suggest calling the school and asking for an appointment with the principal of the school. They can better explain the policies and procedures at that school, answer any questions regarding class size, disciplinary issues, etc. Attending a PTA meeting is a great suggestion as you would be able to talk to other parents about the school and what they may like or dislike about it.

I had assumed that this parent would have asked if she could visit the playground first or volunteer to monitor it; I'm sorry I didn't say so because strangers should, of course, be escorted from the playground.  As for asking the principal to explain the policies and procedures -- very nice, but a lot of principals don't dish the whole story, just what they think a parent wants to hear.  I prefer that a parent tell the principal what's going on and ask her what she's going to do about it.

Do you give him good examples to model? I was very shy with withdrawn most of my live. I learned to communicate by watching my freinds and work peers! I never saw my parents socialize so I never learned basics like walking up to a stranger at a meeting and saying, "Hello, I'm Betsy Ross, nice to meet you." I make a point of doing that sort of thing now so my nephews can learn by observing me. Sometimes you have to learn the steps and just DO them before you get comfortable.

I suspect that you always have to do them before you get comfortable.  And then suddenly you realize, "Hey, this lady I want to meet isn't thinking about me!  She's thinking about herself, and wondering if she's wearing the right outfit."  It's a liberating moment.

My daughter was the same as your toddler. She was so outgoing and NOT shy with us at home and around family that it shocked me to see her shyness around other kids at day care. Fast-forward to age 3 1/2 and the teachers tell me she is one of the most outgoing and talkative kids in her class.

Timing is everything, isn't it?

Hi, My 9 month old son is happy and alert but doesn't babble much. He seems to understand some words, and all of his motor skills are good. He has met all the other language milestones up till now. I am getting a little worried but everyone tells me he is fine.

You might call the American Speech-Language something or other outfit in suburban Maryland and tell a speech pathologist your concerns, but I suspect she'll tell you not to worry yet and that boys often talk less than girls.  Although early intervention is important for a child with a speech problem, your son may simply be more introverted than other children and not all that ready to share his babble with you.  

That's all for today and I hope I'll hear from you again 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 a child's complaints about school, and click here for previous columns.
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