Parenting advice: Help for raising children of all ages

Dec 19, 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!

Hi Marguerite. It's that time of year where we want to make it magical for our kids, but we also need to keep it reined in. How do you 1. not overdo the holidays but keep it special 2. encourage them/show them how to WANT to give to others. Thank you.

When you talk about Christmas, don't ask your child what he wants from Santa (he'll tell you whether you ask or not).  Instead, ask him what he's going to give to Aunt Matilda, to Uncle Harry, to his daddy, his sister.  The emphasis is always on giving, not getting.  Another suggestion:  My mother had five kids and each of us--even a pre-K--chose a candy recipe and the rest of the family were his sous chefs for the evening.  Thesse candies were combined, boxed up and given away to the intense pleasure of the children.

My child with special needs (high-functioning autism) has become paralyzed by anxiety lately, and it's showing itself in controlling behavior, especially related to me (mom). He is seeing a therapist, but doesn't use any of the techniques she gives him (deep breathing, etc) when the situations arise, so the therapy isn't really helping. It's starting to really affect our family life. Any suggestions for helping him cope with anxiety, particularly when his language abilities are somewhat limited?

I'm particularly impressed by the work done by the Mensah Clinic in Illinois, because I've seen the results and they were great.  This clinic uses the work of William Walsh and it analyzes the child's blood and urine and orders specific vitamins, minerals or amino acids to balance his blood chemistry, much as thyroid pills do when a person's endocrine system is out of whack.  Your child's pediatrician can fedex the samples to the clinic overnight if you don't want to take him there, or you can wait until the doctor and nurse go to Annapolis, which they do three times a year as part of the clinic's outreach program.  As I remember, it costs between $500-700 for the tests and there are around 80 of them, maybe more, maybe less.

What are your favorite gifts for kids? Things that aren't trendy but will stick around and be meaningful for a while?

Anything that's been around for decades, if not centuries and anything that you think he'd save and even pass on to his own kids one day--which gives us a ball, a bat of some sort, a doll (or a g.i. joe or a teddy bear), a hula hoop, some kind of blocks if the child likes to build, anything that has wheels.  And please, books and more books--especially one about Melonhead, a series that my daughter, Katy Kelly writes!

At what age should kids be expected to write thank-you notes for Christmas gifts? Should they always write a note, or is a thank you in person (or by phone) sufficient?

A child should write a thank you note as soon as she can hold a crayon, even though she can't spell and can't draw worth a hoot, to be accompanied by a short note of appreciation from the parent.  If that seems like too much trouble, then consider the trouble the gift giver had--buying the gift, wrapping it, shipping it; this deserves a thank you.  Let your kids play with their presents for 2-3 days--including any money they get--then put them out of reach until they've written all--not some--of their thank you notes, whether they liked them or not.  When that's done, they get their presents again and they can then spend or save their money.  It's amazing how fast notes get written when you do them this way.

It became a tradition that our daughter goes shopping with Daddy to pick out Xmas presents for the family. What started as the dollar store and a cookie for a toddler has turned into a Saturday shopping date including lunch with a pre-teen. Not only does she love picking out gifts for others, she loves that special time with Dad. In fact, the lunch has a become an almost-monthly ritual for the two of them.

What a terrific idea!  May I steal it?


How can we make Christmas about more than just gifts for our children? Should we volunteer in a soup kitchen or something like that to let them see how fortunate they are? Or is that meaningless to kids?

Now is the time to have your children go through their toys and give up the ones that they've outgrown and for each child to buy one present for a poorer child, using some of his own money to do it because altruism, which is in all children, can also be expanded.  And during the year, take the children into a really poor neighborhood to do your grocery shopping.  You won't have to say, "Look, poor people!"  They'll see how hard people have to struggle without your saying a single word and when Christmas comes next year, they'll know who you're talking about.  It's better than serving at a soup kitchen, don't you think?

I'm not the OP, but wondered what you'd tell people whose kids are more than one-year-old, and therefore likely already have those wonderful, open-ended toys? My son is five, but by the time he was three, we had more than enough blocks, balls, cars. So what now? Thanks.

A suitcase filled with cast-offs from his dad or your favorite thrift shop.  A child loves to put on a vest and a cap, grab a tattered briefcase and go to work because a child is always working, even though it looks like play to us. 

A silkie is also great--a piece of silk that Chinaberry sells, which children use in a zillion ways. 

A little broom and a mop for his housekeeping corner and his own omelet pan.  A child likes to cook if you're patient with him, but use good ingredients so you'll like what he makes. 

A pet, if he's not allergic and if the family has time to care for it and enjoy it. 

You can also hang a thick, knotted rope from a tree so he can climb up a few feet or hang a ladder from the ceiling studs--level to the floor--so he can reach up and go hand to hand from one rung to the next. 

My ten-month old and 3 year-old share a bedroom. The baby generally wakes between 4-5 to nurse and, though I try to get to him quickly, sometimes wakes his older brother. But while the baby will go back to sleep quickly, once the older one wakes up, he's up and ready for breakfast. I've taught him to get his own cereal, but any ideas to either encourage him to go back to sleep, or at least wait to get up until 5? I really don't mind him being up past five -- he's really good at amusing himself and keeping himself safe. But 4 just seems ridiculously early, and I know he's not getting enough sleep. We've tried a high protein snack right before bed, like yogurt or peanut butter toast, but that hasn't seemed to help.

Buy him a clock and tell him he can get up when the little hand is at 5 or 6 or 7--whenever he will have gotten ten hours of sleep--and tell him to read books if he wakes up any earlier than that.  This should help him transition back to sleep.

My son was diagnosed with SPD at age 7.5 years old. He began weekly therapy for 6 months shortly after the diagnoses. He is a very outgoing, very confident A student, with some behavioral problems. My son has been taking weekly Level I boys gymnastics class (which he loves), however at certain points (when he is unable to accomplish a particular routine), he stops and then chokes up with tears, and he won't move on to the next routine. (This has happened with swimming lesson and karate). I'm not sure how to solve this problem - take him to a pschologist? behavioral analyst? Thanks

Sensory processing disorder--which was only discovered in the early 70's--is tricky but as you're learning, it can be overcome.  Usually it takes longer than six months though, as his choking up probably tells you--he can't go forward because he just hasn't overcome that particular problem yet.  Look for the book on home exercises written by Carol Kranowitz and Joye Newman for SPD kids; it's excellent.  If you have your son do them every day, and if you brush him lightly twice a day, it should speed his progress along.

Help! I feel like I am in new territory with my often gregarious, polite, kind 11-year old. Since entering middle school, he is seems like he is 11 going on 15. Much more moody, pushing limits on bedtime/electronic use, more quarrels with younger siblings, and definitely more talking back. How much of this is normal? I want him to start taking those steps toward greater independence, but is it possible to do so in a respectful way?

When educators didn't know what to do with 7th and 8th graders they said, "I know!  We'll put them in a special place called Middle School--and we'll throw the key away". 

Transitions are hard on most children, especially at this age because some are growing so fast, and others are growing so slow.  Moreover, they're growing four ways at once-- physically, mentally, emotionally and morally--and they often walk these paths at different speeds so they're as out of whack with themselves as they are with their families.

Make some simple rules first and for each of your children: 

no TV at night from Monday through Thursday, which also means no TV in his bedroom

No cell phone use during homework hour and no cell phone use at night, which means that he checks it with you. 

No Internet use unless it's in an open space, which means that you can see his sites while you're cooking dinner.

These may sound strict but these three rules will wipe out most of the quarrels.

To avoid the backchat, ask your boy for his opinion on anything and everything--the war in the mid-east; abortion; poverty.  If he were in any of these situations, what would he do?  This tells a child that you respect his mind and if he feels intellectually respected, he will respect you and respect your rules much better.


No. Poor people are not interested in serving as zoo animals for your children's tourist experience. This is so offensive. Please don't do this. Poor people are human beings living their own lives; they don't exist to give rich folks' kids an object lesson.

That answer was not meant to turn the poor into zoo animals, but to remind parents that they should expose their children to other ways of life, to give them, if you will, culture-shocks.  The middle-class should see how the poor live and how the rich live too.  The more we understand other cultures, the better we'll get along with them and the quicker we'll find ways to help each other.  And you know what?  We all need a little help and sometimes we need a lot of it.

Hi Marguerite. This time of year can get tricky for those of us whose children are being raised Christian (ie: Christmas/Santa folks), but who have friends who are not. In fact, my young son was told by his buddy that Santa is just a fairy tale. How do we explain Santa comes to some kids houses, but not others? It just seems so cruel to say only some kids get this attention/presents, others don't. Can't really figure out how to explain it in a satisfying way.

I think you avoid the subject as best you can. 

Thanks so much for joining the Family Almanac today!

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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 wandering husband who left his wife with a schizophrenic son or click here for previous columns.
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