Early Playtime

Q: Our two older children, ages 4 and 3, share a bedroom. In the mornings, they like to get up very early (5 a.m.!) and play together. My husband and I usually get up multiple times to tell them to stay in bed quietly until it’s time to get up. We have a special clock that turns green at 6:45 a.m. to tell them it’s okay to get up. This is our biggest battle with them right now.

We don’t really know what to do anymore as it’s an every morning battle to get them to stay in bed. They go to bed at 7 p.m. and go right to sleep without issue and do not get up during the night. When they get up early, they stay in their room except for one bathroom trip.

Should we keep trying to enforce the rule of them staying in bed? Should we tell them they can play as long as they’re quiet and don’t break safety rules (like not getting in the closet and the younger one not getting on the older one’s loft bed)? Thank you for your help!

A: This is one battle you’re not going to win, so my advice is to stop trying. From your question, the preschoolers stay in their room except for one bathroom trip, and they sleep through the night, giving you and your husband lovely adult time from 7 p.m. onward.

So give up the stay-in-their-bed battle. Tell them that they must stay in their rooms with one bathroom trip each and they should play quietly, remembering the rules, until the clock turns green. Then leave them be. And enjoy the blessing of having 4 and 3 year olds who go to bed without fuss and stay in their rooms come morning.

This really isn’t worth parental angst, and these two will eventually start sleeping in more as they grow.

For more information on how much sleep preschoolers, elementary school-age kids and teens should get, read my article, “Why you need to pay attention to older kids’ sleep habits” in the Washington Post.

Reforming a Picky Eater

Q: My 17-month-old son is very uninterested in eating most of the time. I am still nursing but I would like to start weening in the next month. However, I’m concerned because he doesn’t seem to be eating much. He will eat a certain type of chicken nuggets, boiled eggs, cheese, most fruits and snacks that I try to avoid as much as possible. Sometimes he will eat pizza. 

I can’t tell if he chooses what to eat by the way it looks or if it’s because he wants to be able to pick it up himself or if it’s based on familiarity. I tried to give him a different type of chicken the other day and he would have none of it. I resorted back to his normal chicken and he ate it all. Dinner typically ends up all over the floor with virtually nothing in his mouth. When he was younger, we had a weight gaining issue, so I’m super aware of his eating habits. He does not seem to have a weight gaining issue at the moment. Thank you for your advice.

A: Your son is a picky eater because you’ve allowed him to become one. I don’t mean to sound harsh, but that appears to be what happened based on your question. Your son had weight-gaining issues when he was younger, but you’re still operating as if he still does and that is hampering your ability to teach him to eat a wide variety of foods, including healthy fruits and vegetables.

Let me put it this way: Do you want your son to grow up eating only pizza, chicken nuggets, eggs, cheese, fruit and snacks? That’s a very limiting diet, but because you fear that if he refuses to eat something at one meal, he will stop gaining weight, you’ve allowed him—instead of you you as the mom—to dictate what he eats.

Of course he’s going to go for the easy foods, the ones that taste better to him, and refuse the unfamiliar. All kids would eat his diet if they could because it does taste good, but one of our jobs as parents is to give our kids an expansive palate by introducing them over and over to different foods, including fruits and vegetables, cooked a variety of ways.

Here are a few suggestions to get your toddler eating better. First, stop worrying that he’s not going to get enough. Toddlers go through eating stages. When they’re not growing, they tend to eat less. So if he happens to refuse what you’ve made for dinner, don’t sweat it. When he’s hungry, he will eat. And skipping a few meals won’t make his weight dive bomb.

Second, stop fixing him special meals at dinner time. You can serve him what he likes for breakfast and lunch, but at dinner, he gets what everyone else does. Give him a tiny teaspoon of everything on the table. Then allow him seconds of what he wants (from the foods on the table) after he’s finished those little bites.

Third, remember that he will fuss and fidget and refuse and throw the food. You’ve given him complete control over his eating for his entire (short) life, so wresting it back will take a little effort because he’s not going to give up without a fight.

Fourth, for the nursing, wean him with the step-down method (dropping one nursing at a time, then a few days later, another nursing). Replace those nursings with milk in a sippy or other cup (skip the bottle—in my opinion, it’s easier not to have to wean off the bottle later).

Fifth, keep in mind that you’re not just feeding a toddler—you’re training a budding adult on how to eat for life. Taking the long view by focusing on having a child willing to try all foods, eat the ones he doesn’t like, and know what makes a balanced meal will help keep you on track.

Should a Preschooler Have Chores?

Q: What chores are appropriate for a four-year-old to start doing on a regular basis?

A: This is a great question because it shows that you realize your four-year-old can—and should—contribute to the family’s upkeep. Too many times, we adults forget that young children, even toddlers, can do chores and help out around the house. Sure, a preschooler isn’t going to cook a four-course meal for us, but there’s lots he or she can do to contribute to the household and learn essential skills to boot.

Chores are as essential to a child as regular sleep and food because it solidifies his place in your home. A child who doesn’t help out around the house on a regular basis can acquire a sort of “guest” mentality. Chores, both daily, weekly and occasionally, ground a child in his proper place in the family.

And four year olds can do a lot! Some suggestions for weekly chores:

  • Helping to collect trash
  • Sorting/matching socks after laundry
  • Changing bathroom towels
  • Washing kitchen or bathroom floor with rag/bucket
  • Dusting baseboards

Some suggestions for daily chores:

  • Setting the table for dinner
  • Clearing own dishes after meals
  • Picking up/taking care of own toys/things
  • Making bed
  • Making own breakfast or lunch

Other occasional chores could include picking up sticks, watering plants, weeding gardens, helping with mulch, etc.

For more on how to implement chores and suggestions for how to teach kids how to do chores, I recommend my ebook Chores for Kids ($2.99).

For what every child should learn while living at home, read my article, “The key life skills parents should be teaching their children” in the Washington Post.

Walking the Fine Line With Play-Fighting Boys

Q: We have four year old and three year old boys. They wrestle, fight, hit each other, push each other, etc., half of the time happily and the other half angrily. We know this is very normal behavior. But where do you draw the line? 

Our oldest is currently on the chart system (see the Discipline tab on this site for a description of how Charts work) for disobedience and tantrums. If he hits, kicks, threatens us, calls us names or throws things at anyone, he goes straight to his room. Also, if he hits anyone with an object he goes straight to his room. 

But with the boys tussling, we’re not sure how much to interfere with their hitting and being mean to each other. It’s very equal, one is not worse than the other. Our friends and family all smile and say things like, “They’re typical siblings,” and “They’re just being boys.” We want them to be boys, not girls, but how much is too much?

A: Ah, boys! So energic! So fighting with each other 24/7! At least, that’s been much of my experience, especially when my two boys were preschoolers (they are close in age as well, now 9 and 11). On the one hand, you want to encourage wrestling and play fighting because they do love to do it. But on the other hand, you don’t want it to devolve into something nasty and hurt their relationship with each other.

The line between “everyone’s having fun” to “he hurt me” is razor thin. So how do we guide our boys to have fun but not cross that line? Here are some things that worked for us.

Banish the name calling. We absolutely forbid any derogatory names at all—no stupid, dummy, moron, etc. When we hear one child call another one such a name, we immediately call him or her on it and put a stop to it. Now, this doesn’t eliminate the name calling entirely, but it does keep it to a minimum and lets all the kids know it’s unacceptable.

Separate when necessary. Sometimes, the boys will want to play together more than they should because too much togetherness can trigger more rough play. But at 3 and 4, your boys aren’t able to voluntarily take themselves out of the playtime when things start to head down that pathway. So enforce time apart a couple of times a day (like for half an hour in the morning, and again in the afternoon). This will help calm things down.

Remind them how brothers treat each other. We often say, “Brothers love each other,” “Brothers treat each other with kindness,” “Brothers aren’t mean to each other” to our boys. We also talk one-on-one on occasion when we see one being meaner than the other on how to make allowances for differences, how to adjust their own expectations, and how they wouldn’t like someone to treat them the same way (Golden Rule).

Give them separate activities when possible. It’s tempting to always lump the boys together for activities at this age, but occasionally having one do something the other isn’t can help their playtime. Don’t insist that both go to the same parties or playdates.

Above all, give them space and time to be noisy, loud and boisterous in their play with each other. All too often, we shush and hush and constrict our kids when it’s not necessary. So yes, let them be boys but also guide them to be kind to each other.

A Toddler Who Hits

Q: Our 27-month-old son who goes to a child care center in a Bible study once per week is hitting and pushing other babies in the class. He specifically hits the younger kids either with a toy or pushes them over unprovoked. He has done this two times at a park, and when I am there, we immediately leave the park. How do we handle this situation especially when I am not with him in the Bible study?

Sometimes, toddlers tussle with each other like felines.

A: I often compare toddlers to cats—both can be intractable and both generally won’t do what you want them to do! And trying to keep toddlers from tussling with each other is like trying to keep cats from play fighting. It’s impossible!

This is generally a phase many children go through at this uncivilized age. Toddlers are easily frustrated, want their own way, and lash out at the closest object when things don’t go their way. Hitting and pushing are common outflows of toddler frustration. But a 2-year-old doesn’t have the long-term memory to receive a punishment later nor the self-control to simply stop.

So leaving immediately when an incident occurs is a good way to handle it. So is separating him from the other children, which is unlikely to happen in a childcare center setting.

There’s a couple of ways to handle this during Bible study. Tell the workers to immediately let you know when he hits or pushes another child, and have them isolate him from the other children. Then you come and get him and go home. Yes, this means you will frequently be leaving study early, or sometimes have to turn around and leave right away.

Or you could simply stay home for a couple of months to give him time to mature, continuing the leaving immediately if he hits/pushes during play dates or park outings, etc.

I understand this will be an inconvenience and that you want that time with other adults. But remember, this isn’t forever—it’s temporary—and sometimes, being a parent means we have to miss out on things because our child needs time to grow up so that he can play appropriately with other children.

How to Handle Disrespectful Teenager?

For a video version of this blog, visit https://youtu.be/7wpAZWok4Sc.

Q: I am a mom of 4 kids: 15-year-old girl, 13-year-old boy, 10-year-old girl and 8-year-old boy. My oldest, at around age 9, stared eye rolling and disrespectful behaviors that has only gotten worse. I limit electronics/TV/social media while my husband historically has not. He prefers them quiet even if they are watching TV for hours. If I took away TV or electronics privileges, he often undermines my decision and allows the kids to do what has been taken away or go to their friend’s house even if they are being punished for something.  (Does not like confrontation.) He is either doing nothing (completely ignoring them even if they are misbehaving) or screaming.

Recently, my oldest used my credit card without permission and spent $700 online and had it shipped to her friend’s house so I wouldn’t notice. She did this two years ago ($100 of Victoria’s Secret stuff we returned and she was punished). She often calls me names and swears at me/disrespects me (I took her to counseling because of this because I am a 4-year breast cancer survivor and wasn’t sure if she was having issues with this).

I have taken away her phone, social media, told her she is paying me and giving me the clothes, no profanity, no sports, and on house arrest until further notice. My husband is now “feeling bad” and being overly sweet to her even though she did this to herself! Our marriage is suffering because I resent him for not being on the same page on parenting. How long do I punish her for? Am I doing this right? I do not want a criminal for a daughter or my other kids to think this is okay. Thank you so much!

A: I know it’s hard not to be on the same parenting page as your husband, as it can cause distress and problems, much like you’ve outlined in your question. But I would encourage you to sit down with your husband not to tell him what he needs to do, but to talk sincerely how he feels things are going in relation to your kids. What does he think about what happened with your oldest? What are his thoughts on consequences/punishments? Does he feel there are things that could be done differently? And listen, really listen, without judgment, without adding your two cents’ worth, without jumping in and trying to fix things. That will be difficult, but until you can start having honest conversations with your husband, things won’t get better.

You also have to let go that you know the best, only way to raise these kids. You married this man, and had four kids with him—there must be something about him that you love and admire. See if in your conversations with him you can draw out those qualities that made you fall in love with him. See if he can use those qualities to interact with your kids because kids need parents who have different perspectives.

And you can have different ways of parenting that reach the same goal—so that’s why I’m urging you to talk with your husband to find out his thoughts. How would he handle these situations? It doesn’t sound like he wants your kids to run amok entirely.

Also talk about the purpose of punishment—to make a child feel bad about what happened and to help the child’s conscious to pipe up at the beginning of the next time, to check the child before the child misbehaves. Kids often don’t feel bad on their own—they need outside influences to make them uncomfortable so that they will self-correct the next time (because there’s always a next time). I think if your husband has a better understanding of why consequences are necessary, he might be more in tune with giving them. If a consequence doesn’t hit a child where it hurts, then the child won’t be motivated to change her behavior.

Finally, it’s okay to show your child love even while punishing them! You can love and punish at the same time—that’s not mitigating the consequences, that’s showing mercy and grace to a child who’s suffering from her own choices. As for how long to punish her, let her attitude be your guide. But while she’s under house arrest, be kind to her, and show her that you love her dearly.

Mom Says Kids Exhaust Me!

For a video version of this blog, visit https://youtu.be/YuPOFPMNYeE.

Q: I am a homeschooling mother of three girls ages 9, 7 and 3. I frequently feel so exhausted around my kids. I know there is a better way, and I keep trying to get there, but I never quite make it. Let me explain what today felt like, and how I just feel I am not doing this job right.

We went to the bank to open a bank account. The process was lengthy and took about 30 minutes. My kids were not listening to me and being loud. I tried to get them to play telephone games and such, but it was to no avail. So trying to focus on opening the account, then all of them making noise was not fun. A lady finally brought out some crayons but that activity lasted for about 5 minutes before my youngest was tired of that and started running around. I had one stand against the wall (the little one) for a while. Then had one stand at the opposite wall to just separate them.

I feel I should be able to do something like open a bank account and have the girls be well-behaved. Are my expectations far from the truth? Is what I experienced how it should be? I feel broken that I am not attaining this. And I have been struggling with this concept for 9 years.

Also, now that this has happened, what is my next step after the bank incident? Should I take away all their belongings? I have spoken about respect and taken plenty of things away ( this whole week they missed out on karate because they would not pick up their things). I guess I am just feeling powerless and broken (this is not my usual self)!

I would be so happy to hear your expert advice!

A: Please know that you are not alone in your feelings of exhaustion when it comes to raising kids. You are homeschooling and have three active kids, so that means you have a lot of time with them.

First of all, please make time for you a priority. I’m serious—you are running on empty and that’s not good for anyone. If you need to cut back on expectations in regard to schooling, do that to find at least half an hour a day when you are just you, not a mom or a wife or a teacher, just plain old you. Use that time not to do housework or run errands, but to rest however that looks like for you. It might be a job or walk, it might be sitting in your car by yourself just to regroup or reading a book or browsing Facebook. But make time for you happen daily. For example, when my kids were younger, I used to slip outside for 15 minutes each day when my kids were resting or napping—just to sit in the sunshine and let my mind rest.

Second, use some of your homeschooling time to teach and train your kids how to behave. We often simply expect kids will know what to do when out in public, so make sure you go over scenarios of how to entertain themselves appropriately when out. We have our kids bring something to do, like their church bags, which have “quiet” activities, such as coloring books/pencils/crayons, lace-ups, activity books with mazes or word searches, books, etc. Get your own go-bags, one for each child, then start having practice runs of short duration (5 minutes of sitting quietly, working up to 30 minutes or more). If you’re unsure of the wait time, bring snacks to help as well.

As for your expectations, yes, you should be able to have your kids wait quietly, but again, this takes training and teaching and preparation ahead of time. Some kids can just sit, but others need to know “how” to sit still—that’s where training comes in, as I’ve outlined above.

I would let the bank incident go for now and start fresh. You’re not powerless and you’re not broken. You can start 2018 on the right path to calm, confident parenting.

The Friend Question

For a video version of this question, go to https://youtu.be/C0EsCSnbCwg.

Q: My daughter is in third grade and is very different from her peers. She loves to play by herself at school and plays imaginatively in her room at home after school. I embrace her unique qualities, as does she. I assure her that God made her exactly the way she is supposed to be and she doesn’t need to change to fit in.

However, she is sad because she does not have any friends. There are none nearby for her to play with, and I have considered moving. I know she needs some down time after school, so I don’t schedule many playdates, maybe one a month. She’s so awkward around other kids that it is harder on me to have the playdate but I keep trying. She is in Brownies, which helps a little. She and I have been through a friendship devotional series and have read the American Girl book, Friends: Making Them and Keeping Them. When she has playdates, they are never reciprocated. She has never been invited to anyone’s home, even after multiple playdates at our house.

So I’m not sure what my question is exactly, other than do you mind telling me what you would do in this situation? I am struggling between just leaving her to make her own friends and working hard myself to try and find her a friend. Maybe I should invite friends from church over instead of school…I just don’t know what to do!

A: It’s always hard on the parent when we see our child ostracized or seemingly alone in the world, isn’t it? My second daughter (Second) was much like yours at that age—more comfortable being by herself than with others, making up stories in her head and spending time by herself. Now my daughter did have an older sister to pal around with, but Second did a lot by herself most of the time. I well remember several teary conversations with Second around third grade/fourth grade about her not having any friends.

A couple of things come to mind to help your situation, which I did with Second. It’s great that you’re talking with her and encouraging her on how to be a good friend. That’s important, even when there’s no one with which to practice.

I would sit down with Daughter and ask her what she wants to do about this friend thing. So far, it sounds like you’ve made all the efforts—arranging playdates, reading books together, etc. And that’s good because we have to take the initial lead in these things. But since it’s your daughter’s life, she ought to have a say in how to go about it. Ask her if she wants to continue with the once-a-month play dates or try something else.

One thing our family enjoys doing to help with the friend thing is to have “just because” parties. For example, one year, Second daughter invited six or seven girls from her class to come over after school to make chocolate-dipped pretzels for the holidays. That took the pressure off to invite just one girl, provided something fun to do, and allowed Second to shine in a different situation than a normal playdate.

I also gave Second permission to not do anything for a while. Trying too hard can be exhausting and discouraging, so sometimes just letting life flow by naturally without making playdates, etc., could be a welcome break.

It could just be that she hasn’t clicked with anyone in her class, and in third grade, she pretty much spends time with the same group of kids all the time, rather than switching classrooms like upper elementary classes start to do. I encouraged Second to seek out other kids who looked lonely or that they needed a friend—compassion is never wasted, and sometimes, thinking of how to help someone else can be the best antidote to overcoming one’s own problem or circumstance.

There’s not a magic bullet to get our kids to have friends (or even one friend), but helping them to see that there are options, that their current status isn’t permanent, and that they can decide what to do about it can help them navigate these friendship waters. And Second? She’s an eighth grader now who has started to spread her wings…and she has friends. Not a lot, but just enough.

A “Soft” Grandmother

Q: Our children are very close with their grandparents. We do not live in the same city as them but they are only an hour away and they see them very regularly. We expect our children to use manners and behave according to the standards we set in our own home when they are staying with grandparents. Grandfather is on board but grandmother can be soft, mainly with the way she allows them to boss her around. I want to trust that they would tell us if our children misbehave or there is a problem.

Our children love and respect their grandparents but we want this to last and for them to have a good relationship with them into adulthood. What is the best way to deal with this and what is the proper way to handle this expectation?

A: Ah, the conundrum of grandparents reminds me of Goldilocks and the Three Bears—either the grandparents are too strict or too soft…it’s hard to find ones that are just right in terms of expectations and child behavior/correction.

Let’s recap why grandparents exist: to spoil grandchildren. That’s their reward for doing the hard work of raising their own kids by correcting, loving and staying consistent (at least most did the right thing with their own children). Now that they have grandkids—grandchildren!!—they are ready to relax and let some things slid.

So let them. Let grandmother allow her grandchildren to be bossy sometimes. Let her enjoy them to her heart’s content. That doesn’t mean you throw up your hands and not expect your children to behave. You do expect good manners, and you practice/role play at home how to act when visiting grandma/grandpa. You also tell the grandparents to let you know if something goes array. Then trust that they will.

One caveat: if you see that one of your kids is taking advantage of grandma and is being mean to her, etc., then you’ll have to step in to deal with that situation. But if it’s just a matter of grandma allowing the kids to dictate what they’ll do or eat or go, then you let her decide how she wants to handle the consequences of her allowing the kids to make those decisions.

I know it seems counter-intuitive to let things be as they are, but I think you’ll find it works best when you allow a little indulgence by the grandparents. After all, one day in the distant future, you’ll have all the privileges and joy of spoiling your own grandchildren!

Letting Teen Make Own Decisions

Q: I feel like I am in a quandary of sorts. My youngest child, who will be 17 next month, wants desperately to go with her best friend to a haunted castle. My oldest went to this when he turned 18 because we felt he should start making those decisions on his own. What is your opinion on this regarding older teens?

I hate anything remotely dark or evil and have always despised anything like it, but I also don’t want to be one of those over-the-top helicopter moms who shelter their child so much that they rebel when they are on their own. Can you give any advice for us teen parents on this topic? Is it time for me to let go and just start letting her make these decisions?

A: This fall, we allowed our 15-year-old 9th grader go to a haunted walk with a friend (and the friend’s dad). Not something I ever wanted to do (and her younger sister—who’s the same age as the friend—didn’t want to go either), but sometimes, it is time to let them make those decisions as teens. What we ended up doing with my daughter was to tell her that she had to pay for half the ticket price herself. That meant if she really wanted to go, she’d part with some of her cash.

What we did was talk about it ahead of time, making sure they understood what they were getting into. And we regularly discuss evil/good, what we should watch, what God says we should or shouldn’t do, pray together, etc. It’s our job as parents to impart our family values to them as they grow up so that when they reach the teen years, they have a firm foundation upon which to make their own decisions.

When kids are teens, it’s time to start letting them make these low-impact decisions. It’s a haunted castle, so things will be gory and scary and, well, kind of fun if you like to be scared (which some kids do), but in a controlled environment.

I also find that my husband is a good counterpoint to my own inclinations, because I’m with you on avoiding that sort of stuff because of how it impacts me. But it doesn’t affect my husband nearly as much, nor does it my oldest daughter. It’s important to offer guidance but to let them make their own decisions in these types of things.

Yes, it’s hard sometimes to let go and let them experience the joys and trials of making their own decisions, but for teens to be ready to make those decisions in the real world, they need practice in situations like these. Will they make bad decisions? Of course they will (didn’t you as a teen? I know I did), but from the safety of the family, we’re there to help them recover and move on.