Parenting advice: Help for raising children of all ages

Oct 24, 2013

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

Welcome to the Family Almanac today. I hope we get a ton of questions!

I was an abused child and neither my mother nor close relatives sought to stop it. What could have been their reasoning not to come to my aid?

Your mother and your relatives probably couldn't bear to think what would happen next if they stepped in.  Would someone they loved go to jail?  Would your mom be declared unfit as a parent?  Would you be taken away from the family for your own protection?  Change is hard, and the tougher the change the harder it is.

That however, is in the past.  The question is:  what are you going to do about it?  Are you going to let those memories control you?  Or are you going to march forth and do what you can to help others? 

How best is to respond to a 17-year foster child with attachment disorder (new to a home) who lies quite a bit; and, what are some ways to let them know that it is best to tell the truth without them shutting down?

I hear that there is a three-week camp, somewhere in Texas, that is able to teach children how to bond, but I've never checked it out.  The best that I can  suggest takes much longer but it can work pretty well.

Try congratulating the child every time she tells the truth.  Tell her you know how hard it is to be honest, but that she will never get in trouble with you for telling the truth, but that you will be very disappointed if she lies.  No punishment for a lie, just disappointment, which can be much more effective. 

Disrespectful teen--what's new? Son can some times be pleasant and courteous at home (he is apparently pleasant to others outside the home). But usually at home is extremely critical, rude ("you're breathing too loud"). He does well academically, is involved in sports, has friends, and has few chores (which he only does after being "reminded" many times). There seems to be backtalk/criticism/insult/unnecessary comments on everything said or done by parents at home. And then the intentionally obnoxious burping .... The cell phone is sometimes taken away as a consequence for rude behavior. Try to limit TV time too, but to do that, constant, direct supervision is required, because he will go to it when he can. We remind him to be respectful, try to respond calmly to prevent arguments, but many occur. Intensity of the rude behavior began almost a year ago. Dont see a direct connection to something else, but I know that parents do not know all in the electronic age. Have asked him to see a counselor, but he will not go, as he says there is nothing wrong with him.

There is a three-year stretch when puberty takes over and teens are not at that best, but if they feel respected by adults, and there opinions are sought on everything from war and abortion to suggestions for dinner, most teens are pretty dandy--in fact, 4 out of 5 teenagers don't rebel at all.  But this boy is rebelling and it needs to stop.

Therapy is the best solution, but make it family therapy, rather than therapy just for him.  And to get him there--and to change the family interaction--tell him that you and his dad are going to therapy to see what you're doing wrong so he won't need to challenge you so much and you'd like him to go with you to tell his side of the story.  And if he won't go?  Then go without him, because everyone can change a little bit.  If you can change just five percent, so will he.  Nature likes its circle to be complete.

Two possibilities:  Neil Schiff in DC is a good family therapist, and maybe Brad Sachs in Columbia, Md., if he takes families.  His real specialty is teenagers but he may not see the parents too.

The other possible cause of your son's problems might be  drugs.  If his collection of friends has changed, or if he has one or two dominating new friends, he may have started using them.  Ask his doctor to give him a thorough physical and to check for that possibility.

2 friends and I, all in our 30s, have ne'er do well siblings whom our parents adore. None has ever held a steady job or accomplished much of anything. One flunked out of junior college, which is almost impossible. Two have children they don't support and the other has never been married but has 2 children. My parents bought my sister a car "for the sake of the children." She totaled it while driving on a suspended license so they now drive her everywhere and am upset I won't do the same. One friend only takes her parents out for special occasions because they insist she include her brother, who has never done a thing for them in his life. The other and her responsible sibs had to convince their parents to accept an Alaskan cruise for their 40th anniversary because "Johnny will miss us so much" (they refused to pay for Johnny). What the heck is going on here? None of them has a physical or mental impairment that would prevent them from working. My kids probably have too much stuff, but I m trying to raise responsible citizens, not lifelong moochers. My kids have started to pick up on this, asking "Why doesn't Aunt Sally work?" (my husband and I both work) and why their grandparents prefer their cousins. I have no idea how to answer them.

What a pity that your parents couldn't bear to let their children go--and that's the root of their problem. 

Letting go is the hardest job a parent ever has and honey, your parents aren't going to change.  The best thing you can do is keep in touch with your parents but find that  you have things to do when they natter on about your lazy sibs and simply dont engage in experiences or conversations when they want you to participate.  you don't have to engage!

Initially was going to send this to Hax, but I think you and readers can give me better insight. I am a childless woman in her early forties dating a 50 year old man who has primary custody of two children ages 7 and 10. While we have been dating for almost a year, I can only see him every other weekend when his wife has the children. To date, I have not been introduced to his children. When is the right time? Is it wrong for me to ask to meet them? How to do this? I know that one should be careful when introducing children to significant others, and whle I've known him for almost a year, we have literally only gone on about 20-25 dates which I guess equals 4 months in a "normal" relationhsip. Maybe it is too soon. Tips on what to do next?

Maybe he's waiting for an invitation from you.  Why don't you ask him and the kids to some event like Cirque de Soleil or a play put on by a university, where the tickets will be much cheaper.  This would give everybody a chance to concentrate on the action, rather than on each other, and afterwards you could take them out for ice cream and you could talk about whatever you just saw.  Meeting the kids isn'teasy for you, but it's a lot harder for them to meet you.

A recent challenge that has come up in our family of 4 (kids are 3.5 and 5 yrs old), that our 5 yr old doesn't always want to do something that we've planned as a family. Splitting up to do two different things is not always an option. They dig their heels in by being uncooperative/stalling in getting ready and there are tears. Or if they acquiesce, we end up hearing complaining until we get to the destination (which they then love) and then complain after that they still didn't get to do what they wanted. We try to get the kids to talk it out, to get to the root desire that spawned the negativity & tears. We talk though all the rational things about understanding we don't always get what we ant, we can do X on another day, etc, etc. It seems to happen about once a week. Any other awesome (magic) strategies to this type of issue?

Excuse me, but who pays the mortgage in your family?  If the kids are paying it, they have the right to decide where you go.  But if you're paying it, you decide.  And if they don't like it, then  have a sitter on standby and call her to come over and sit for the child who would rather stay home, but don't tell the children that you are going to do that and don't reason with them--they won't reach the age of reason until the age of reason until they're 7.  And if the child changes her mind and says that she wants to go after all, tell her that you're sorry; you can't disappoint the sitter who is looking forward to her company.  And be nice as pie about this but if the child doesn't put up a fuss, give the sitter a tenner and thank her for being on standby.

This behavior, by the way, is what happens when you have a child-centered household.   After a while, it just doesn't work.  You need to respect your children, and to ask them what they want to do before you make plans, but don't give the plan-making to them.

Our kind, gentle, headstrong & stubborn little girl, 3.5 yrs old, knows what she wants, and doesn't much like being told what to do. We heard the same observations at our parent/teacher conference. Suffice to say, she is JUST LIKE MOMMY. My husband & son are very easy going. No problems yet. Are there any books or blogs on this? I'm soooo getting back what I gave my mother...

Yes, there is a great book and every parenting expert steals from the advice she steals from.  Your Three Year Old, it's called, by the granddaughter of one of the founders of the Gesell Institute which has been doing 15-year longitudinal studies on children for nearly 100 years.  In it you'll learn that children are usually great around their birthdays and fall apart six months later--sort of the way a cerab molts or a snake sheds its skin.  They are growing emotionally and mentally, as well as physically, and they're usually at the soft-shell stage once a year for a few months, although some of course are fine at that time and fall apart around the time of their birthdays.  It's more the age of the child than the temperament but that plays a part too.  Please Understand Me io a good book for that.

I have two children. One has special needs (the older one). Obviously, we have different expectations for our two kids and different ways of handling them. But the typical child is smart enough to call us on what she perceives as hypocrisy. How do we support her and help her understand the situation better? She is 7.

You don't.  You demand at least as much of her as she can do because she needs the satisfaction of succeeding just as much as her sibs, especially if she is between 6 and 12---the age of industry as Erik Erikson called it.  Remember, reaading and writing is only a few hundred years old for most people, but the skills of survival have gone on forever and every time a child masters one of these skills--every time he shells the peas for supper or polishes the silver bowl for the dining room table, he feels marvelous.  Industry is the basis of a strong self-esteem, not academics.

I have a millennial living at home who doesn't make much money. Should I still charge him rent? We really don't need the money. I have some friends who charge and put the money in a savings account to give to the kid later. My kid really doesn't have much income at all because he is doing internships that hopefully will lead to something else.

No, don't charge him rent.  He's working, he's doing the best he can and he's giving you the grand chance of knowing him as a young adult.  Having him as your son was a privilege.  Having him live with you as an equal is a privilege too, for both of you.  Just see that he pays his rent in other ways--by lugging in the groceries for you, doing his own laundry, cooking a meal once a week, taking out the trash.  There are many ways to pay for one's room and board.

Should you make your child make his own lunch? Kids already have so much to do - I'm talking high school here.

Yes, of course, but make sure it's a healthy lunch by having lots of  fruit around, maybe some slices of chicken or beef in the fridge and keep very little junk food around.

No one is quite as busy as a high school student, but that doesn't mean you wait on him.  He needs to learn how to tend for himself and still do his work because there will come a time when he won't have anyone around to take care of him.  A mother is not a concierge.

How much allowance should you give an 8--year-old? He does help with chores.

A pediatrician--the mother of nine!--told me that she started giving an allowance to her children when they were eight.  They each got a quarter to start and every birthday they got a 25-cent raise, but I'm not sure what the amount should be in 2013.  Ask your friends and then give your child a little more than the least allowance that is given and much less than the biggest allowance.  Why?  Because my high school freshman once told me that she knew which kids in her class were going to get into drugs.  "It's the kids with the biggest allowance," she said.

What if your 12 -year-old loses their coat? Should you make them help pay for a new one?

Yes, I would, which may make him start loooking for the coat that he lost.  The lost and found basket at school is always awash with clothes and other possessions that  children say that they've checked but if they do, they don't check it very well. 

I'm not a parent, but I read your chat and your columns because they're often so interesting and insightful. But wow, what a different reading I got from the note about the disrespectful teenage boy! I read that and thought, "huh, sounds about normal." Never thought you'd suggest therapy ... Sounds to me like he's just testing the boundaries like a toddler; he knows he's leaving home soon so he's seeing if he's loved enough -- "if I'm rude and obnoxious will they still love me when I'm gone?" Parents to the rude boy: Good luck with him! My thought was, oh, he'll be so much better in 10 years or so, and you'll all laugh/cringe about how awful he was once.

Generally I'd agree with you but I'm afraid I thought this teenager was much ruder than most teens, even when their passage is pretty rough.

My 9-year-old son will not stop talking back. We can say the sky is blue and he will argue that it's not, why it's not, that we are wrong, and that we always pick on him for his opinions and love his sibling more ... this can go on for any subject. He'll make an excellent lawyer sometimes but holy cow it's trying right now! On a recommendation, I've ordered the book "Between Parent and Child." Any other recommendations greatly appreciated.

It sounds like it's time for a little humor and a lot less notice.  When he complains that you love his sib more, exaggerate what he says and  get more and more goofy in your exaggerations until he has to laugh about it too.  

A child--even at 9--will act in whatever way that gets him the most attention and if he gets more attention for being argumentative than he gets for other conversation, he's going to be more argumentative.  Much more.  You don't have to fight back just because he lays down the gauntlet.

I remember reading African-American poet Maya Angelou's autobiography, where she said that she started lying quite a lot. A teacher told her to write those lies down as stories. She started doing that and the compulsion to lie stopped--might be worth suggesting. Also, you can point out that it's easier to tell the truth because then you don't have to remember exactly what you lied about. :)

Both great suggestions.  And wasn't Angelou's autobiography wonderful!

We have a 3.5 year old son who has his own big boy room after a couple years of co-sleeping. While he's excited to be in his big boy room, that apparently changes after 9 PM or so, when he wakes up in there. He calls for us, and one of us has to stay with him until he's asleep again. My husband thinks he's afraid of the dark because he often finds him hiding under the desk in his room. What can we do to help him overcome this and learn to get himself back to sleep without parental help?

A flashlight is magic but take it shut or he'll take it apart and it won't light any more.

Explain to your son that darkness makes melatonin turn on and melatonin makes him sleep, so the room is dark, but you can give him a nightlight and also this magic flashlight so he can shine it wherever he thinks a monster might be hiding, because monsters always turn out to be sutffed rabbits or dustballs or towers of blocks.  A talisman works too--some treasured object you can hang over his bed to make him safe.  For every idea that a child comes up with, a parent can always match it with an idea of her own--and when you hit the right one, you will prevail.

We've had some of this, too, with our almost-five year old. One way I've dealt with it is to have two choices: A and B (say, children's museum or park). I then tell him that we we're going to do either A or B, but that he can choose. I don't do this all the time, but sometimes he needs to be able to make a choice about what we do.

Anoher great answer and one that nearly always works!

Get your toddler a nightlight with a cool design on it. Tell it's a special anti-monster/thunder/whatever device. Worked with our kids...

Thanks for taking my question! We have a shy 18 month old who is is very affectionate with people she knows, as well as people she has been given time to warm up to. We see one set of her grandparents a few times per year. They always want her to give them hugs and start playing immediately; however she finds this overwhelming and scary. My wife and I do not believe in forcing a child to hug someone they don't want to or guilting them into giving physical affection they don't feel, but lately visits with these grandparents have dissolved into the grandmother crying because the toddler won't hug her. How can we be sensitive to our daughter's disposition while also managing the grandparents expectations and their tendency to let a toddler control their emotional state?

Talk several times with these grandparents and tell her that your toddler is going through a shy phase and that the pediatrician says that she has to have time to warm up with people (always blame the pediatrician; he'll never know).  And hang a montage of pictures of the parent as a baby with these grandparents on the child's wall and say goodnight to them each night and good morning to them each day.  This will make them seem more familiar when they arrive and so will Skype conversations and phone calls and postcards from the grandparents.

I have a picky eater (he's five) and I'm running out of ideas for his lunches (and it's only October!). Oftentimes, most of the lunch comes back home, even though it's all things he likes to eat. (This drives me crazy, but as my husband has pointed out, I've done my job by providing a balanced lunch, it's my son's job to eat it.) Anyhoo, do you or the chatters know of any good websites with lunch ideas? Or any recommendations?

I don't know of any but I do know that Kelly Dorfman's book on nutrition--I've forgotten the name--is terrific and easy to find.  But for me, I'd drop any treats from the lunch because they might be enough to kill his appetite for healthy foods.  The more you cater to your  son's pickiness, the pickier he's going to be.

I'm told that my time is up. I'm sorry I couldn't get to all the questions today.

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 recent columns on how to stop a toddler's television tantrums or click here for previous columns.
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