Parenting advice: Help for raising children of all ages

Dec 13, 2012

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 and thank you in advance for your questions.  They teach me as much as all those books I read about parenthood.

Please tell me how to deal with a 2.5 year old daughter who STRONGLY prefers her father? We're both working parents. My husband's great at playing with the kids on the floor and devoting every single minute of his time when he's home to them (he finishes chores after they are in bed). I on the other hand am better at reading books and doing puzzles with them and I don't devote every single minute of my time at home to them because I also have to do all of the cooking, laundry and every kid-related chore (from doctor's appointments to clothes buying). I think as a result of this my kids have a strong preference for their dad. Which really hurts my feelings although I try very hard not to show it. My son went through this phase from the ages of 2-4 and now my daughter's going through it. I hear parents who say their kids switch between them but I'm too embarrassed to tell them my kids have never done that. They just prefer dad. End of story. What am I doing wrong? Or what can I do to deal with this? (for what it's worth, I'm the one who spends more actual time with them because my job is more flexible--so I'm the one who's always there). Thank you.

Almost every child has a favorite parent, depending upon the age of the child, and what her interests are, but these preferences change from time to time.  Instead of taking your daughter's delight as a rejection of you, feel blessed that your husband is willing to take the time to play with the children.  They will still enjoy your company and as they get older they will confide in you and seek you out when they have problems.  Every parent has particular strengths and children instinctively know what they are and goes to whichever parent can fill that need the best.  At this age, they want to play.  At other ages they will want to learn how to cook or garden and they'll go to you.  But never forget, your children love both of you equally and completely, just as you love them.

I know it's going to vary with child's sleep habits and possibly height of the bed, but when is a good age to start looking at removing the bed rail from a child's twin bed? My son's mattress top is less than 2 feet from the floor and I never noticed him lying against the railing while sleeping, but have no idea when might be a good time. Thanks

You'll know when it's time to move the railing when he starts climbing over it.  Until then, I'd leave it in place if only as a reminder that he's supposed to stay in bed rather than get out and prowl around the house.

For the past 6 months, my just turned 5 year old son and one of his 2 year old twin sisters have been fighting a lot. When they're not fighting, they are the best of siblings, laughing, running, copying each other. It seems at times that they purposefully tease each other, trying to get the other to engage. It's driving me bonkers!! Besides separating them, what can I do to curb the madness? Thanks for any suggestions!

Young children are a lot like puppies.  They tease each other, they chase each other and sometimes they fight with each other, which can be quite bothersome. 

There are, however, some rules that you should insist upon:  No hitting.  No biting.  No mean words.  And never, ever say, "You can't play with me" or "with my toy or my friend".  A family is a child's first lesson in cooperative living and they need to learn the rules early so they will live by them later.  But when they break one of these rules--and they certainly will--insist that they give each other a hug and say that they're sorry because children have to learn to apologize too.

RE: The same clothes every day That 4-year old girl possibly has hypersensitive skin. Some thoughts from lots of experience with this follow. Clue #1: Her parent is already removing most clothing tags so they don't scratch her.  Clue #2: The favorite outfit includes hand-me-down jeans, which may be 100% (or almost 100%) cotton. Synthetic fabrics are more likely to chafe and to cause static electricity (on both skin and hair) than cotton. Cotton also gets softer with age.  Clue #3: The child helped pick out new clothes, but then said she doesn't like them. Clothing made from synthetic fabric is more likely to have brighter colors/patterns and trendier designs than 100% cotton clothing, and to be more enticing to a 4-year old. The child is too young to understand that what attracts the eye on the hanger and looks nice on in the dressing room may be painful to wear all day. Suggestions: -Pay attention to fabric contents. -Avoid glitter, decorations, beadwork, embroidery, iron-ons, etc. They can rub delicate skin. -Pay attention to brands. Look for classic kids clothes from name brands. Good quality used clothes from a thrift store might be better than new and flashy but el cheapo clothes. Exercise outfits or dance outfits might be more comfortable. -Check out cut. Clothes should allow freedom of movement and not constrict or bind. -Check color. Neon orange may look cool to a kid in the store, but hurt her eyes and give her a headache when worn all day. -Wash new clothes before wearing. -Use hypoallergenic detergent on clothes and bed linens. -Use hypoallergenic products on skin and hair. -Give new outfits a 2-hour trial run. Maybe while you wash and dry the favorite outfit, have her wear a new outfit. Engage in favorite activities to distract her from the new clothes. Be both physically active and sedentary. Observe closely, especially toward the end of the 2 hours. Does she squirm or constantly adjust the new clothes? -Try replacing only half of the favorite outfit at a time. New shirt with old jeans today, old shirt with new pants tomorrow. -When you find clothes that work, buy multiples. Can you get more (or similar) copies of the pieces in the favorite outfit? -Give your daughter (genuine) compliments when her clothes look especially nice on her. It will give her confidence and also help her shop as she gets older to know which colors flatter her eyes/skin/hair and which styles flatter her body type. -Find fun clothes. Ballerina tutu anyone? -Comment (pro and con) on clothes that others wear. Talk about different clothes for different situations. -Hug. Often.

What great advice you've given us today, particularly for a child with sensory processing disorder.   A couple of additional ideas:  Boden clothes, new or used, are particularly comfortable for children who are sensitive to tags and seams and so are leg warmers, rather than tights, but don't ever put a scented sheet of Bounce in the dryer because it can make children jumpy and even hyperactive.

Although some children do have SPD and want to wear te kind of clothes you recommend, remember that there are those children who think of themselves as fashion divas.  I even knew a little boy who decided, in second grade, that he would only wear jeans to school--green jeans.  That fashion fad lasted a whole year.

Could you please repost your response to "Videos for a 13 month old"?

Producer Mari-Jane here. I'm sorry, our system had a hiccup. I have resubmitted that question for Marguerite.

How can we rein in our kids' wish lists for the holidays? I don't want to spoil the magic of Santa, but whenever we tell them something is expensive, they say "That's OK, I'll just ask Santa for it." Help!

Don't ask them what they want for Christmas--they'll tell you anyway--but do ask them what they're going to give.  Will they write a poem for Uncle Mike or will they bake some cookies for him instead?  Will they go to Salvation Army to find a frame for the pictures they drew for their daddy or should he pick out his own frames?  You want your children to come away from this holiday feeling good about themselves and generous about themselves too.  And they will if you and their dad write thank you notes to them for their presents, just as they should write thank you notes to everyone--except Santa--who gave presents to them.  And if they won't?  Let it be known before Christmas that they can play with the presents they get from family and friends for the first two days after Christmas and then they have to write all their notes (or draw pictures instead) before they can play with them again and before they can spend any money they 've received for Christmas.  It's amazing how fast these letters get written and how much it means to the people who get them. 

After his 1st birthday, I started letting my son watch some Sesame Street music videos--mostly alphabet and counting songs--for about 20 minutes per day, always in my presence. I still read to him, and he still plays with his toys. But ever since I started showing him the music, the first thing he does when he gets home is to run to the computer, point to the screen, and make noises that sound like his favorite song. Our rule is that he only gets to watch the videos after dinner, and he stops pointing to the screen after a minute or so. I know the AMA said not to start videos until age 2; should I stop playing the songs for him now?

Obviously, those doctors in the AMA never had to fix dinner, feed the cat, answer the phone and deal with a squalling child at the same time, or they'd know that sometimes it's better to give young children a little screen time if their moms need a little peace.   It's one of life's little trade-offs but  don't tell the AMA.

My 8 year old daughter has ADD, fortunately not ADHD. She's very bright but her inability to focus makes school very difficult. She goes to a small Catholic school and from what I can tell gets good support and is not teased or bullied. But she has to work so hard to get Cs when others, including her older sibs, got As and Bs with much less effort. We point out she has other talents and possibly overpraise her. Is there anything else we can or should do? We would provide private tutoring but her school is already expensive and we're not sure how much it would help.

I've just written a column about a first grader who sounded like she had ADD, but when I began my research I learned that the symptoms for ADD and for eye function problems are pretty much the same and many doctors now want children tested for eye problems before they're tested for ADD.  This isn't done by ophthalmologists however, who assess a child's ability to see, but by developmental or behavioral optometrists who test the way a child's eyes function, even taking 3-D pictures of their eyeballs to make sure that the muscles on the back of the eye are at the same age level as the muscles on the front of the eye.  If they're not, the child won't see well and he may see in a blur and even get headachy or queasy when he tries to read.

Therefore, if your daughter was my child I'd have one of these optometrists do eye function tests on her, if only to rule out that possibility.  If she has problems, she'll either need glasses or eye exercises to retrain her eyesight but if she doesn't, then ask your county's school administration to have her tested for ADD.  And read Driven to Distraction too.  It's a great book.

My almost 2.5-year-old boy is very sweet until he doesn't get his way. The tantrums are much worse than his older sister's were at the same age. Part of the problem is that he can't communicate what's bothering him; he has some words but his speech isn't very developed. He won't stay in timeout and just screams and screams; lately, every bedtime is like this too. We don't give in but it's tiresome for all of us. What can we do?

If your son has a speech problem, please consider speech therapy ASAP.  The sooner this problem is addressed, the better he'll behave.

You also should talk to him when he's happy and say the same word to him over and over again with your faces about 6-8 inches apart.  He needs to see how your mouth moves when you make a certain sound and where you put your tongue.

Your little boy is probably so frustrated because he can't tell you why he's unhappy, but additives and preservatives could be making his problems worse and being overtired at night could be making him too revved at bedtime.  But when he falls apart, skip the time-outs, which only work if they're given every week or two, and give him some loving instead, which is how parents take care of tantrums in Scandinaviaq.  That's what you'd want and need if you were sobbing, not a time-out chair.

My 16 and 12 year girls old adore their father. He is one of the most involved dads I have ever met and most of the time a wonderful person. However maybe 4 or so times a year he loses his temper and calls them terrible names. Apologizes to all of us afterwards, promises it won't happen again. But it always does. He refuses to get counseling even though we both know anger issues come from the way he was raised. He says a few mistakes make him human. I am seriously contemplating divorce even though we have been married 20 years to show my girls verbal abuse is not okay. Is this unfair and an over-reaction as he claims? He used to shout at me occasionally too but no longer does after I went to counseling on my own and learned how to set appropriate boundaries. This has me stumped.

If counselling worked for you, couldn't it work for your children too?  Wouldn't it teach them to set boundaries with him--and with anyone in their future who treated them this way?  It seems to me that he would begin to learn that he can't treat his girls this way if they simply walked out of the room the minute he called them a bad name, and it would be infinitely easier than getting a divorce.  The problem with divorce is this:  when you have children, you are basically still married because you will be seeing each other at graduations, weddings, emergency rooms and funerals for the rest of your lives, and it will hurt all of you every blessed time.  Your husand has to learn to behave, but there are better ways to teach him than to get a divorce.

I'm having trouble getting my 7 year old too sleep. She is full of energy at night and struggles to get settled. Her bedtime is 8:30. She is usually tired in the morning. Any suggestions?

If camomile tea doesn't work, you might try the solution that a psychiatrist once told me.  He said that his children never had sleep problems because he let them take a few books to bed and told them they could read until they got sleepy. 

Personally, I think I'd just give my little girl a kiss and let her be while she learned to put herself to sleep.  The less you engage, the less she's going to struggle.

My son is 95 percent of the time a really well-behaved kid but occasionally he will simply refuse to do something. Such as go to the bus for school, leave our house to meet someone. Can you suggest some techniques we can use as I don't want to bribe him (we have in the past) or physically put him the car.

Children always have a reason for everything they do--or don't do--but they may not know what it is or they may not want to tell their parents.  Try asking your son if he knows why he didn't want to go to the bus or to meet someone, but ask him at night, after he's gone to bed and the room is dark, because children are much more likely to confide if they don't have to make eye contact.  You may find out that there is a child on the bus who teases him or an adult who's overly friendly.  Children instinctively know that something is wrong with someone's behavior so they hide because they don't know what to do about it or even think about it.

I don't yet know what Marguerite's answer will be regarding the videos for the young child, but it sounds to me as if the child just likes singing! Perhaps instead of the videos, the mother can just sing the alphabet and counting songs to her child. If she has any musical talent, accompanying herself on a guitar or autoharp will thrill her child to no end.

If you daughter likes to read and your goal is lights out at 8:30, get your child in bed at 7:30 or 7:45 to give her time to read and wind down.

Or, if you're busy cooking dinner get some CDs or load the songs on your iPod and play those while he sings. We do that sometimes while I'm making dinner.

My husband is a good dad who helps tremendously and loves to play with our daughter, age 1. But he doesn't have a good grasp of developmental stages - at least I think this is where it comes from - and is not particularly patient with her. He doesn't seem to get that she doesn't understand what he wants and she can't control her emotions and actions the way we can. Or, he just wasn't built to be a particularly patient person. I don't want to constantly nag him about this but I do feel the need to step in if he's complaining about how she's acting. For what it's worth, in life and our marriage, he tends to go with his gut/experiences, while I look at research and seek out advice from other experienced individuals (parents in this case), in addition to trusting my gut. Any advice on this matter or reconciling our different parenting styles in general?

Why not give him a copy of "Your One-Year-Old"?  I'ts part of a year-by-year series of books based on 80 years of research by the Gesell Institute and it's probablya favorite source of information for every good parenting writer.  Each book describes the child at that age--as he is, what he can do and how he is developing--but these books always are positive and remind you that every child is a miracle.

I don't mean to make light, but your kids don't prefer you because Dad does all the fun stuff with them. You're kids appear to be very young, but you come across as expecting them to be more mature and understanding of you by "liking you" the same as they like their Dad. I don't think that is a fair expectation to have of chilldren. You also mention it hurts your feelings although you try very hard not to show it. Children are very perceptive.. I hope you are successful at hiding your hurt feelings, so you kids aren't thinking "we made mommy feel bad."

Thanks everyone, for joining us today. Sorry we couldn't get to all of your questions!

We have a 7 year old child on the autism spectrum. He's strong academically and we have a good support system. The problem has been school this year. He has a relatively strict teacher and has struggled with classroom rules. He's gone from virtually all green for good behavior from last year to yellow at least once a week. He also seems much more anxious in general. I think the teacher is good at her job, but struggles to fit this square peg into the round holes of her classroom. Any thoughts?

Would it be possible to switch to another teacher next semester?  And could you get him tested?  Richard Layton, a Towson, Md., allergist, is great with children on the autism spectrum--children go to him from all over the country since so many ASD children are allergic.  I'd also recommend taking him for blood chemistry tests given by the Mensah Clinic, which comes to Maryland from Illinois a couple of times a year.  As I recall, they give 80-150 blood and urine tests for under $700 I think, and their track record is very good both with ASD kids and with anxiety too.  Also, I'd consider doing  meditation with him and yoga as well and I'd also think about acupuncture, since it relieves mental stress before it sarts helping the body.

Our 2 yr 4 month son has started telling me to "Be Nice" when I ask him not to do something. Some times it progresses to shouting No when I redirect etc. What's the best way to address other than scolding further. Want him to understand that being nice doesn't always me he gets his way.

Your son is undoubtedly repeating what you, or someone, says to him when he's not being all that nice.  Childhood, you see, is just one long lesson when children learn how to act so they can be as nice as their parents.  Next year, he'll have found out that his "Be Nice!" lectures don't work all that well, and he'll be saying something else.

My daughter prefers my husband so much over me that she tells me about it. My feelings were seriously hurt at first, but I would try to ignore it. A few times I told her it's fine to have a favorite but it's best not to tell people you don't like them as much as someone else. Now when she expresses this preference openly I just respond with "I love Daddy too! Isn't he great?" It's easier.

What a splendid reply!

My 15-year-old son won't do his schoolwork any more. Until 9th grade, he was a solid A student--with very little effort. He was disorganized, but he did enough to keep up. Now, in 10th grade, he has stopped working at all. He is getting D's in 3 classes and C's in others. We took him to the doctor, who prescribed ADD medication, but it just makes him stay up all night; it can't make it want towork. We took him to a counselor, but he refused to go into the office. He seems to have realized that academic success is important to his parents, and so by failing in school he will maximine his power over us. What do we do so he doesn't just flunk out?

First I'd have your internist give him a full medical workup including a check for drugs, since marijuana can make people lassitudinal and lose interest in their work and often change their friends and their interests.  If he's clear I'd then tell him that the three of you will have to go to family therapy because if one person in the family has a problem, the whole fmaily has one.

Thanks for joining me 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 a 3-year-old's bedtime issues or click here for previous columns.
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