Parenting advice: Help for raising children of all ages

Nov 17, 2011

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

What are your top five things that a parent should/should not do when raising elementary school aged kids (boys) when it comes to school and freedom.

Boys and girls need to have their ideas respected, just the way you would respect the ideas of your partner, your boss and your own parents.

And boys and girls need to return that respect, especially to those children who are shy, or who are targeted by the class bully and they must also be required to respect their family members and anyone who works for the family in any capacity.  The trashman can't talk back to your child; the parents can't divorce him.  If he wants to be rude let him be rude to his teacher, his principal, his Scout leader or his boss.  And pay the consequences.

Encourage your child to pursue his interests, not yours.  He knows himself better than you do.

If he wants to drop one of those interests, let him do that.  It's his business.

Give your child the right to try anything that's safe, legal and non-addictive.  He will learn by his failures as well as his successes.

My 20-year-old daughter dropped out of college to seek in-patient treatment for bipolar disorder. A good move. Her dad pays for it on the other side of the country. My younger girl and I are barred from info. My ex told the younger girl just a few deets, and she is wild with worry. How do I handle this? It is ruining her upcoming birthday. The ex is bitter and has tried to alienate the older daughter from the rest of the family, and it is apparently working.

I'd tell your younger daughter as much as you know but be positive about it and tell her that you are sure that her sister will be fine.  Don't however, malign your ex.  Your girls will find out his true character soon enough.

Our 22-year old son will be graduating from college next year and my wife and I are anticipating that he will want to move back in with us. We've had communications problems with him, as he seems to be going through a rebellious phase right now. He stayed with us last summer, and that was a borderline disaster (disrespectfulness, extreme sloppiness, etc.). At this point we don't know what his plans are after he graduates and want to engage with him on this when he's home for the holidays. What advice would you give us for doing this? There are multiple issues here, and we want to hear him out on his. If his plans involve moving back in, we want to be prepared with a plan for discussing this calmly and rationally. Thanks.

When adult children move back home it can be a wonderful experience--a time when you see that they may make a few foolish decisions, just as you did at that age, but they are adults now and fun to have around the house.

That only happens however if you set boundaries.  They do their own laundry.  They fix their own breakfasts and lunches and leave the kitchen clean.  And they tell you which nights they are going to be out and which nights they are going to cook dinner for the family.  And, of course, they pick up their own things.  Anything left is stacked up neatly, by you, on a chair: their clean clothes; their jacket; their old sandwich;  their tennis racket; their bottle of water.  If they don't pick  up their things and put them away in two days you'll take them to Salvation Army.  But you don't nag them about it, you don't fuss; you don't let anyone hear you say that your children are acting dreadfully.  Instead you find everything you can to be positive about.  The 20's are scary times for the young and they need all the encouragement they can get.

Before you say anything though, ask your son where he's going to stay when he gets out of college and if he's coming home, ask him how he'd like home to be.  No curfews of course--he's a grownup now--and no waking him up and telling him to get out of bed like you did when he was in  high school.  Again, he's a grown-up; treat him like one.  Also tell himat the start of the monththat you will expect him to leave at the end of the month if he can't meet your expectations.  There must be a follow-through as well as boundaries in any relationship.

I'd like advice for keeping up a relationship with my niece on the other coast. We've been close despite the distance, but I'm worried that she's turning into a bored teen and I'll have nothing to say to her.

Skype, which is free, is the answer to your prayers.  A couple of set dates and times a week will keep you in touch.  Send her interesting books that you enjoytoo  and then talk about them with her; play a game of online Scrabble with her, with each of you making your moves when you have time: the joy of the internet.  Send her a subscription to a magazine that interests her too, and always choose books and magazines at a level that is accessible but slightly higher than she's usually has.  And surprise her, if you can, with a trip east so you can give her a whirl in your town.  You have no idea how much your attentions will mean to your niece until she's old enough to have nieces of her own.

How do I connect with a daughter who wanted to move to her grandmother's house three states away, makes expletive-laden posts on Twitter, and doesn't much want to talk to me? I've been there for her, after my husband left three years ago, to raise her and her brother (now 18).

Endure.  Keep away from her verbal attacks.  Don't read her Twitter messages.  Don't nag, don't fuss, you'll only be rewarding her for her bad behavior because children will act in whatever way that can get them the most attention, even if it's negative.

When she behaves well, be quick to praise her for it.  Notice the good that she does and ignore as much of the bad as you can.  And keep a journal in which to explode; it's better than exploding at her.

Some children get a really heavy dose of hormones between 13 and 15 and they just can't handle it, especially when they're also trying to handle their parents' divorce.  If it gets worse, do some family therapy, for her sake as much as yours.

Our 25-month-old daughter was a potty training champ for about two months, 22-24 months. In the last month she's basically lost interest. Is that typical? Any hints on how to get her back on? Thanks.

Yes, it is pretty typical.  Once a toddler acquires a skill and masters it, she's ready to try to master a new one. 

Let her be for a few weeks and then buy her some beautiful panties, with ruffles on them, and lay them on top of her bureau, look admiringly at them every day, and then tell her that she can wear them whenever she's ready to use the potty again.  There is a place for bribery and this is one of them. 

Our 6-year-old gets highly upset with himself when he can't do something perfectly or when he does something wrong. He will get so angry at times that he pulls his own hair or grits his teeth very hard and sayS "I'm so stupid!" (which is emphatically NOT the case!) Can you recommend some ways we can help him through this stage/reaction?

A perfectionist is his own worst enemy.  I can't put my hands on it and type at the same time, but a nifty little children's book just came out about a child who is a perfectionist and I'm sure your bookseller will know which one it is.

Also, be quick to notice your own mistakes and mishaps, and then say, "Now how can I fix this mistake" or "I learned something this time!" or "It wasn't really important; it doesn't matter".  This should defuse the situation, but your son will probably always want to do things well and his standards will always be high.

At what age should a child have a choice on whether or not to visit the other parent? My ex-wife is allowing our 10-year-old to refuse to come for visitation. It further complicates an already stressed relationship. They live six hours away so our scheduled monthly visits are my only chance to bond with my child. I feel this is shifting the power from adult to child and under minds my authority as her parent.

It seems to me that you need to encourage your child to come by Skyping with her several times a week and asking her questions because children like to talk about themselves more than anything else.  Don't ask, 'how was your day?" however, but, "What was the most interesting thing that happened to you all day?  What was the best thing?  The worst thing?"  And if you hit a conversational wall, tell her about the weird trip you had on the subway or some difficulty you had at the grocery store and then ask her what she thinks you should have done about it. 

If you want your child to want your company, you have to make yourself as interesting as possible and you have to be gentle too.  Divorce is much, much harder on children than most parents realize because  it makes them so sad; it leaves children awash with feelings of guilt (did I make them get a divorce because I was being difficult?) and it makes them feel disloyal no matter which parent they're with.  

Thanks for the chat! I have a 5-year-old who can be quite stubborn and does not listen or follow directions. In particular, getting ready for school in the morning can be difficult. We've tried choosing clothes the night before, timers or making it a game to get dressed. And the consequences -- going to school without breakfast or missing the bus -- seem to affect more her teacher (who has to deal with a hungry kid) or me (who would have to drive her to school and be late to work). What else can I do to encourage her to get ready on her own?

Rudoph Dreikurs says that you should take the dawdler to school in her jammies.  Certainly you'd only have to do it once which is a lot better than sending her off without any protein in her belly to get her through the morning.

Frankly, I'd put the burden on her.  Take out the clothes the night before, set her alarm, and tell her that it's all up to her to get up, get dressed, brush her teeth and be at the kitchen table when you ring a bell.  And if she doesn't?  Have a trusty sitter--a grumpy, trusty sitter--on standby, to come over and supervise a child who's bored because she's not at school, she won't be allowed to watch TV or have a story read to her; she'll just have to entertain herself.  Knowing the consequences in advance, your daughter may shape up when you're about to call the sitter, but pay the lady for a couple of hours anyway.  It's only fair.

Also, please read "Your Five Year Old" by Louise Bates Ames:  the best book written on that age.

It's possible that my son's soon to be ex-wife is going to accuse him of abuse of the children using as justification a Christian book that seems to say anything that upsets a spouse is abuse by the offending party. How do you deal with untruths in a court room?

You might have a minister testify on his behalf, to deny that intepretation and be prepared to make this accusation a major part of his defense.

So many questions about divorce today!

I was recently shopping at a large mall and came across a mother who was severely spanking a very young child, maybe 3 years old. Not just a swat on a padded rear, but very hard on his bare bottom. It was bright red and I'm sure he had bruises. He was screamoing, as was a younger child in a stroller. I and several other women talked to the mother and eventually calmed her down, but I feel I should have done more. I'm Swedish, and in Sweden this woman would have gone to jail. It still haunts me that these two young children were going back to what I believe is a seriously abusive home.

I still dream about a similar situation I saw--and that was 30 years ago.

Ever since I wished that I had given her contact information for Parents Anonymous, which helps parents who abuse, or are tempted to abuse, their children.  It's online. 

If I were you, I'd do that the next time and I'd also give the parent your name and phone number and ask her to call you if she is ever tempted to do that again.

How can you understand the reason behind extreme truancy (missing two to three months a year)? I know a child who simply refuses to go to school. Is this a sign of a more serious problem?

He should get a full physical workup of course, to see if he has a physical problem, and the school should get a checkup too.  Sometimes children can't bear to go because the teacher is quite dreadful, or some students bully him.  As a bystander, however, you probably can't do anything but make these suggestions to the parent or to the school counselor.

My 25-year-old son has always been extremely bright, successful and sociable. He graduated from an Ivy League law school and landed a great job right off the bat. Two years later his firm is downsizing, and he's been told he will likely be laid off by the month's end. He has been sending out tons of resumes for a new job, to no avail. He had three great interviews and then ended up not getting the jobs. He is understandably frustrated and seems depressed, especially since his father and I are barely making it and he took out lots of student loans which he has a substantial monthly payment for. How can I remain supportive , but at the same time "cut the cord" enough to not be overbearing?

Suggest that he do something for somebody else--become a public defender for instance or take a big pay cutwith an n.g.o or become a substitute teacher.  He'll develop other interests, learn about other careers; keep up with his loans and push depression away.

Our 5-year-old is spending a fair amount of time "on yellow" or "on red" at his daycare J-K class, for either not listening, or playing too rough with the other kids. He started the new classroom in September and was doing well, although last year he had a similar tendency to not listen and get on yellow or red. A new concern is that he recently made a comment which makes me wonder if he is starting to get teased by the other children. How can I best find out what is going on? How can we encourage him to listen, play nice and "stay on green"?

Some kids are so daring that they're on red or yellow way too much--and some schools use red and yellow (or dunce caps and timeouts) far more than they should.

Take time off of work to observe his class for a morning, because the teacher, the classmates and the child will revert to their true behavior within 10-15 minutes.  Only then will you know what's really going on.

When my daughter turned 3 I thought, thank goodness we are done with the terrible 2s. Only to find out that 3 is proving to be even more difficult. Lots of whining, crying over minor things, not listening to requests. I'm plugging away with my formerly tried and true methods: calmly telling her to listen, walking away and telling her we'll try again when she's ready, taking away a privilege like dessert. Nothing is working.

When a child is cranky, year in and year out, look at her diet.  Is she eating foods with dyes or preservatives?  They can send some children around the bend.  The Center forScience and the Public Interest still has nifty posters, I think, to tell you which foods are safe and which are not.

Allergies can also affect a child's behavior if the mast cells in the central nervous system have been sensitized to a certain food or inhalant that she's eating or smelling.  Read Is This Your Child? for a full explanation.

Finally, dairy products--milk, ice cream, cheeses--can affect some children and so can gluten which is in wheat, barley and various other grains.  And all of these things have websites.  Although there is no good test for these problems, a diary of her food intake and a good hard look at your house and your pets may show you what may be bothering her, and then take her off of those foods for maybe five or six days, then add them back into her diet, one at a time, every 24 hours.  It's a bother, but not nearly as much as bad behavior.

My husband is a wonderful man and we have a great partnership. We love each other very much and have been together for 10 years. There's just one thing I can't figure out: Everytime he gets sick, even if it's a simple cold, he changes from a take-charge accomplished man into a baby. He's convinced I think that no one has ever been as sick as he is, ever. I take care of him and bring him tissues and meds and snacks, and try to minimize attending to the histrionics. Yet they continue. How can I help him put things into perspective so that I won't want to lovingly smother him with a pillow next time he's sick?

You can't.  Some men just like to be mothered when they're sick the way you like to buy shoes or new make-up when you're bored.  Just attend him lovingly and tell him that you know he wants to rest, so you'll just close the door and say night-night.

I'm having difficulty determining what's the right amount of freedom for my 9-year-old daughter when it comes to being alone in public places. For example, I let her walk our dog down our neighborhood lane (.5 mile from our house to main street), but it made me nervous for her to be out of sight that long. I just this year started letting her go to the restroom in a restaurant by herself. When I was a kid, we ran around the neighborhood all afternoon without parents knowing where we were. What's a good rule of thumb for this kind of gradual expansion of freedom?

Have your child buy a few things for you at the supermarket, while you wait outside in the car, to build up her confidence, and have her walk the dog with a friend but not after 6 p.m. or dark, whichever comes first, because she'll probably be the only child outside at that time and a predator may think no one cares about her.

That's about all the questions I can take today but thanks for joining me!


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 9-year-old who cries too much, and click here for previous columns.
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