A Boy’s Early Curiosity Alarms Parents

Q: When my son was 5, he tried to search for “girl’s pee pee” and other related terms on his tablet, which luckily was on the child setting. We talked to him the best we could even though he denied it happened. We put extra tight restrictions on his already very limited tablet use. When he was 7, we discovered that he tried searching for much more explicit content (sex, sex with kids) on my husband’s computer, knowing he’s not allowed to use the Internet without an adult around. He was swiftly and severely punished for breaking that rule.

I was an utter mess about what he may have seen, and why and even how my little boy was so interested in this topic. I probably did too much talking, and he said nothing but “I know” in response. We are always reminding him that he can come to me or his dad with questions. But, he doesn’t ask us questions or come to us ever. And he is smart and sneaky about getting what he wants.

We bought an age-appropriate book about boys growing up/body changes, and my husband read it to him and our 10-year-old son (who has never been found to be involved in anything related to this.) Now, at age 8, I saw that my son wrote the word “sex” all over our shower door, while showering. He mostly plays with one other 8-year-old boy in our neighborhood, and sometimes is around other 10- to 11-year-olds, with his brother. Our boys have very limited screen time and no Internet access on their tablets, and only use it in a shared room with permission. He has no history of abuse. I’m sure the kids “talk” on the school bus, and it’s a curious topic for boys, but being that it started so young and he already has some graphic thoughts in his head, I’m worried about where it came from and how to stay ahead of things from here on out. Should I be worried?

A: I don’t mean to alarm you, but yes, you should be worried. You say “he has no history of abuse,” but I’m not sure that’s true. It’s rare that a 5-year-old would search out something like that on his own initiative. My initial, gut reaction is that someone older than him—a boy on the bus, a teenager or an adult—said something or showed him something that triggered that search.

If you’re absolutely, positively sure that he’s had no unsupervised time with an adult man (even a family member other than your husband), then my guess is that he’s viewed pornography. Either he stumbled upon it on his own or someone showed him something at school or the neighborhood. Even at his tender age, the fact remains that pornography is frighteningly easy to come into contact with—even without meaning to. Kids as young as your son who have seen pornography often don’t realize exactly what they saw, and that sparks curiosity, confusion and shame (hence, his not wanting to talk to you about the incident or incidents).

As you’ve seen, your son will deny viewing whatever it is he saw. He’s 8 years old—he barely knows what it is he’s seen, but he’s curious or intrigued. He’s been leaving you clues—sex written on the shower door, searching for “sex” on the computer he’s not supposed to touch—so act on those clues now. And by act, I don’t mean further punishment for your son.

What to do going forward? Eliminate all electronic device usage—no tablets, no computer time, no video games—for both boys. Just stop cold turkey. Lock up your own devices to help him avoid temptation.

Wait a few weeks before broaching the subject again. During that time, rebuild your connection with your son. So often our kids don’t want to share things with us because we’ve let the connection with them dissolve or fray. Spend time with him without bugging him about this topic, etc.

You will need to talk with him again, but do more listening than talking. Maybe your husband could take the lead and talk about his own foibles into sex (crushes on girls, other boys who talked about sex, etc.). Nothing graphic, but sharing more how hard it is to say no or “un-see” something. He shouldn’t push your son to share, but a series of conversations will likely get your son to open up about what he saw or someone showed him, etc.

Finally, if, after reading this answer and reflecting on the past few years, you have doubts about whether your son has been abused or could have been in a situation where abuse could have occurred, then please, please, please act immediately. There are professionals out there—medical, psychological/counselors, law enforcement—who will help, who are trained to assist and protect kids in these situations.

Early Riser Plagued by Fears

Q: Our 6-year-old son is an early riser. He is to stay in his room until 6 a.m., then allowed to come downstairs to play quietly. Lately he has been waking up mom and dad because he’s scared. We try not to talk to him about this because it’s probably more about him being lonely or wanting attention. We tell him to go find something quiet to do, but he comes back. Going to his room after dinner and to bed early on days when he bothers us this way has worked in the past, but is there a better fix for these tired parents, so we can get off this roller-coaster?

A: Ah, the joys and challenges of an early riser! There’s nothing more frustrating than kids who get up early when you want to sleep. Having boys myself who rose well before I wanted to get up, I understand your tiredness, but since there were two of them in my house, at least they had each other to play with, so I didn’t get the “scared” aspect.

I recommend a two-pronged approach to solving this dilemma. First, I would move his bedtime up earlier because 6-year-olds need more sleep than you think, and that might help alleviate some of his fears—when you’re tired, everything is scarier.

Second, when he leaves his room to play downstairs in the mornings, have a CD player he can pop in a CD, like his favorite music or audio book. That will “keep him company” while he plays by himself. Sometimes, just having a little background noise can help chase away feelings of uneasiness.

Finally, be sure you have touch point connections throughout the day with him. It might be that he’s not getting enough of those interactions, which don’t have to be long, but more speak to him directly. Some kids like snuggle time while reading a short book. Other kids like having mom or dad listen as they tell about the newest dinosaur they like. Still other kids enjoy sharing jokes or sitting in the sun singing a silly song. If you fill up that bucket during the day/evening, your son will be more likely to feel content—and less likely to let his fears run away with him.

Teaching Kindness

Q: How can I teach my 10-year-old daughter to have a kind heart? Her 7-year-old sister is always doing sweet things for her without prompting, and she sees it modeled between her dad and I doing selfless things for each other. We are just out of ideas to get her to think of others without being told.

A: I love that you’re asking this question because it’s important for us to teach our kids how to be kind and generous, tenderhearted toward one another, whether siblings or friends or classmates. As you’ve noticed yourself, some kids are born with a more generous, outgoing personality that spills over into little acts of kindness. This is how your 7 year old is (Younger), and that’s a wonderful thing.

However, I’m wondering if your 10 year old (Older) senses that you approve of her younger sister’s actions more than you do of her. In your question, you’re comparing the two—Younger is “always doing sweet things” while Older is not. I suspect that you’re probably either commenting about that in Older’s hearing or using nonverbal cues (smiles/fawning over Younger’s “sweet things,” while subtly judging Older for not doing spontaneous acts of kindness).

So first, please check your own heart and actions to ensure you’re not judging your girls the same. It also sounds like you and your husband are naturally good at these types of expressions, which can color how you look at Older and her seeming lack of kindnesses.

Second, remember that your children are different and have different personalities that express themselves in different ways. I encourage you to write down five things you see Older excel at and struggle with, then do the same for Younger. It’s important to realize Older has her own strengths and weaknesses just like Younger does. You might find that Older has other ways she shows kindnesses or a helpful spirit that you haven’t really noticed because it’s not as visible as Younger’s “sweet things.”

Now for teaching kindness, focus on both tangible and intangible expressions. For tangible, it can be helping kids to notice opportunities to be kind, such as picking up toys without being asked, volunteering to help with a chore or task, or helping to pick up something someone spilled or dropped. For intangible, it can be talking to the new kid during lunch, making sure to include everyone in the game at recess and being aware when someone’s upset and trying to comfort them.

Books help too, like Horton Hears a Who, The Invisible Boy, many of the Berenstain Bears books, The Giving Tree, and Anne of Green Gables. Reading and discussing characters who are kind and ones who aren’t can assist children in learning what kindness looks like and how to be kind themselves.

One thing we’ve done from time to time is ask each family member questions at dinner that touch on little kindnesses throughout the day, like

  • What did you do today that made you smile?
  • What did you do today that was kind to someone else?

Overall, it’s more about focusing on building character in both of your girls than in teaching only Older to be kind.

An Anxious Third Grader, Follow Up

Q: You suggested that I stop the regimented schedule and give him 90 minutes of playtime. There is just over 90 minutes between when he arrives home from school (3:45) and when we eat dinner (5:30). After dinner, we have our family devotional time/Scripture memorization, and then the bedtime routine begins.

I love for him to play outside in our very small backyard but he’s out there alone a lot. Does that matter? I try to play with him for 20 or 30 minutes a day. He has an incredible imagination and can occupy himself very well but I am sure he gets lonely. My daughter often doesn’t want to play the same things that he plays. There aren’t any kids who live nearby and his few friends from school are all booked solid with after-school activities. 

We don’t currently have a regimented schedule for the morning. The kids know what they need to do to get out the door on time. If I give him the whole after-school time (4:00 – 5:30) to play, I feel I’ll need to either give him a checklist or some sort of schedule to help him manage his morning hour and evening hours. He would need to add his assigned chore to the morning routine. He would also have to do all his homework in one long chunk right before bed. Unfortunately, much of his assigned homework is on the computer. Doing that work right before bed makes him wired, then it’s difficult for him to fall asleep.

He has a tendency to get distracted and lost in a book when he is supposed to be doing his chore or homework. What’s the best way to keep a kid like him on track without stressing him out more? He often says he likes the schedule because it’s mindless. He knows that if he just follows the time allotments for everything and uses a timer for the different chunks of time, that he’ll get it all done.

What do you think is a reasonable amount of homework for a third grader? The teachers says it shouldn’t take more than 45 minutes but just the reading alone is 20 minutes. Additionally, he struggles with spelling, so I try and do mini-lessons with him to bring him up to grade level. He really excels in other subjects but does poorly in spelling and writing. I actually homeschooled him in 1st grade. They weren’t teaching phonics in school and since I am a former reading teacher, I decided to homeschool him. His reading improved dramatically, to say the least. Nevertheless, the things we both didn’t like about homeschooling far outweighed the things we did like. 

We don’t like all the homework that his 3rd grade teacher assigns, but the teacher and the school are now quite helpful/compliant with the allergy situation. Even though our school district is the most allergy-friendly district around, it has taken me four years to train the staff about food allergies and to make changes that allow my son safely participate in school activities. I hesitate to have him move schools and have to start from scratch. I will talk with the teacher and see what can be done about the excessive homework. Most people don’t see the value in chores or a sit-down family dinner time, and they expect us to eliminate those in order to allow more time for homework.

If he has a dedicated 90 minutes to play but dawdles in the morning or while doing his homework, should he miss out on some of that time? How do we get him to stay on task and not waste time that could be spent playing without a strict schedule?

Please let me know your thoughts. I am grateful for your help.

A: You’re so welcome! As for him playing outside most of the time by himself, that’s perfectly fine. I get why we’re so focused (parents, teachers, etc.) on making sure our kids have friends, but he’s been around others all day long that all he needs is fresh air and his imagination after school. Seriously, this isn’t a big deal at all. I think he’ll appreciate the down time to recharge without anyone bothering him.

As for checklists, have him come up with a list of things he has to do in the morning before school and in the evening before bed. Go over it with you to make sure he hasn’t left off anything, then let him manage the order and time. Perhaps he plays outside for half an hour, then does some homework, then back out for another half hour, etc. He can still use a timer, but let him come up with the schedule. And my kids often “lose” themselves in a book at the expense of chores and bedtime. Timers work well for that too, such as setting a timer to read for 20 minutes, then do chores.

I think reading for 20 minutes each night is all a third grader needs in the way of regular homework assignments. Seriously. And frankly, reading is the best way for him to improve his spelling too. 45 minutes of homework for a third grader is ridiculous in my opinion. I get that your finally comfortable with school and his allergies—that must be a huge weight off your and your son’s shoulders to know he has a safe environment.

I advocate having a friendly talk with his teacher and simply share that you feel your family’s priorities have gotten out of whack and that your son will be pulling back from nearly all homework except for reading nightly and studying for tests or special projects. Say you appreciate her working with you on this, but that you’ve noticed an uptick in your son’s stress level and anxiety, and have spoken with an expert (ha, that’s me:) about the need for more downtime for his well-being. Then stick with it.

You can break up the 90 minutes of play, but I wouldn’t take it away as a punishment–he needs it like he needs water and food and sleep. Use timers, give him ownership of his schedule, and relax about getting it all done every day. He’s 9, and needs to have time to be a kid.

Anxiety and Anger: A Deadly Combination

Q: My nine-year-old son is experiencing anxiety and anger. My husband and I follow a traditional style of parenting—we are firm, have high standards for behavior, and are very loving. I believe our son ‘s anxiety is primarily due to two factors: health (his severe peanut allergy and allergies to dogs/cats that exclude or limit his freedom) and time management (the stress of lot of homework and regular daily chores). He is frustrated because even after working really hard all day before school, at school, and after school, he has only about 30 minutes of free time each day. He does not participate in any after-school activities but comes straight home, empties his backpack, eats a snack, and gets started on homework.

I’ve made him an after-school/evening schedule to help him stay on track without me hovering over him. When he dawdles, he gets very overwhelmed and angry with himself. We have purchased a punching bag for him to hit when he gets this way.

He is a very perceptive boy with a tremendous desire to learn. He loves to read the Bible and is developing a close relationship with the Lord. Several weeks ago, he was extra upset and told me something that stopped me in my tracks. He said that Satan is telling him to do really bad things to himself, like kill himself. I was very alarmed but I did my best to not show it. I want him to feel that he can tell me what is on his mind. The very next day we started to have nightly family devotional time. We also began memorizing Scripture as a family in an effort to fill his mind with God’s Word.

At this point, we are not sure what to do. I don ‘t want to overreact to my son’s comment about Satan but I don’t want to ignore a cry for help either. I am becoming hesitant to discipline him out of fear that he’ll get mad at himself, then hurt himself badly. He has allergy testing each year and knows that even eating 1/200th of a peanut (so small you can hardly see it) could cause life-threatening anaphylaxis. That is a lot of stress for a third-grader. I am concerned that he might get so angry one day and do something horrible….like eat part of a peanut (they are all over the place at school lunchtime). He is very responsible with his allergy and knows not to eat anything that I don’t provide for him but he is still a nine-year-old boy and could easily have flawed judgment.

I would sincerely appreciate your thoughts.

A: Thank you for sharing your heart with us. I can tell from your letter that you love him very much. He’s blessed to have such a caring mother, one who wants the best for her son. I think it’s wonderful that his comment spurred you to start having regular family devotions. That’s such an important part of his growing faith—and yours, too. Memorizing Scripture can be key to keeping negative thoughts at bay as well, so keep pressing on with that as well.

You have a couple of issues going on here, so let’s tackle the one that spooked you the most: his comment about Satan telling him to do bad things. He’s 9, he’s a third grader, and he’s super-stressed—those are your words. He’s probably saying Satan “told him” because he doesn’t fully understand how thoughts work. He didn’t want to think those things—they probably just popped into his head, like they do you and I at odd times. But he’s young and stressed, so he’s not able to realize that random thoughts happen to everyone.

So here’s what I suggest. Have a series of short conversations (don’t want to overwhelm the kid with a long-drawn out one that won’t make as much of an impact as several short ones will) in which you talk about random thoughts, how they pop into your mind and what to do about them. Then remind him, using Scripture, that Satan can’t reside in the same body as someone who loves Jesus. That’s not possible. Finally, wrap up with encouraging him to quote Bible verses and pray whenever thoughts that like come into his mind again. He can tell you and you can pray together.

Now as to his schedule. He has a lot on his plate, and frankly, I’m a little alarmed that a third grader has so much homework every night, that he can only have half an hour of free time. No wonder he’s stressed to the max. Last year, my third grader had NO homework most nights, and my fourth grader (same kid, a year older), rarely has homework either.

Your son has a very important job at this age—and that’s to play. Play is essential to keeping his stress very low, and it builds his immunity, gives him an outlet for his anxiety and also helps him solve problems through role playing and social interactions. He needs less schoolwork and more play time. Seriously, I’d stop with the regimented homework routine and implement free form play time every single day for at least 90 minutes, outside for much of that if possible. Have a conversation with his teacher about his not doing homework for the rest of the year. And if this is par for the course at this school, I’d move him or homeschool if possible for the rest of the year. He’s in third grade and it appears he has more homework than my ninth grader (who has more than half an hour of free time each night, even taking into account a later bedtime).

If you implement more free time and less structure, I think you can safely discipline him without worrying about self-harm, as long as you see no other signs (such as depression, not being himself, etc.).

The Defiant

Q: We have an 11-yr-old son who is disobedient and defiant. He simply won’t do what he is told. He is chronically late getting ready for school, often telling us he isn’t going (6th grade private school), as well as many other things. He has had all privileges taken away (extracurricular activities, computer, time with friends). Do you have any suggestions regarding his getting ready for school? My husband has to take him and his sister to school before going to work. It often puts him in a position of being late for work.

A: The wonderful, wacky world of tweens. One minute, they’re little kids, the other, they’re acting like teenagers. It can be infuriating to have a kid who can’t get moving in the morning, can’t it? And tweens start wanting to sleep in more, which can make waking them up harder.

You don’t say how much sleep he gets, but I would move his bedtime to no later than 8:45 p.m. He might want to stay up later, but he still needs at least 8 to 10 hours of sleep a night.

For the morning, have him make a list of everything he has to do to get ready for school. Examples include: get dressed, eat breakfast, brush teeth, get shoes/coat on, get backpack ready, and any morning chores (feed an animal, make a bed, wash dishes, make lunch, etc.). Now look at that list and see what he can do the night before. If he has trouble getting dressed, perhaps he lays out his clothes before bed. If he gets bogged down making breakfast, he can get the bowl, spoon, glass and cereal out on the counter before bed. That sort of thing.

Then use a kitchen timer set at 10 minute increments to prod him along. Give him the list so he can check off his morning duties, and tell him he has 10 minutes for each or something like that. Then instead of telling him what to do, simply set the timer. When it goes off, he needs to be on to the next task.

This will take some training and patience on your part, but you need to shift the responsibility onto your son’s shoulders. If he makes your husband late to work, then he should have a consequence, like directly to bed after supper that day.

One final thing: instead of saying to your son, “It’s time to do X,” simply tell him that he needs to do the next thing on his list. That helps you to step back from micromanaging and helps him learn to manage his own tasks.

Teen Chaos

Q: I have a 17 year old, a 15 year old and a 13 year old all whom believe life completely and utterly revolves around them. The oldest (boy) refuses to look for work and has let his learners license expire, so he could not finish his driver’s education class nor ask us to allow him to drive. We even offered and he refused. Has to be reminded to do his laundry and his chores on a daily basis. He gets angry over anything especially when he is corrected.

The 15 year old does not want to come out of her room unless she is made to, only puts partial effort into doing her chores or does very little. The 13 year old is starting to show disrespect as well as only half an effort in the chores.

We are not the parents that run our kids to all kind of extracurricular activities, so they are not involved in any. I don’t let friends come over very often (I have 3 teenagers I don’t like at times—why would I want to add someone else’s teenager??).

For restrictions, I’ve kicked them out of the garden (for an explanation of how this works, visit the discipline methods section of my website). However, short of clothes, none of these kids have anything to take away. We have even gave them a limited personal supply of towel (2) and wash cloth (3) with the kids having their own color so I know who has left the mess in the bathroom. I’m not sure what to do from here. These kids don’t have cell phones, tablets, video games etc. I threw the last video game in the trash a year ago. And no electronics. Any advice is welcome!

A: Ah, teenagers! They can be vexing creatures, can’t they? I see a couple of things to address in your question.

First, why on earth would you not want to have your teen’s friends over? To me, this is a golden opportunity to gauge just who your teen is hanging out with and also to see how your teen interacts with his or her friends. Is she a leader? A follower? Is he trying too hard to be liked? these interactions viewed from afar can provide a parent with important clues as to your teen’s emotional and mental health. Yes, I know that’s more teens in your house, but you have them such a short time as teens that I think you’ll miss them when they’ve flown the coop. So I implore you to reconsider your stance and start encouraging your teens to have friends over.

Second, by your description, I see that you’ve basically stripped down their lives to the bare minimum…and it sounds like this has been going on for a while. Since you haven’t seen a corresponding lift in attitude, I’m going to surmise that your teens have given up on pleasing you. My gut reaction is that you’re expecting too much from them and they can’t deliver, so they’ve stopped trying.

We never want our kids to feel like they have no hope, no way to get better. If we nitpick on their attitude all the time, then we can create an atmosphere of hopelessness that leads to despair and not caring. That’s the most likely reason for them not “improving” despite your restrictions.

While I applaud your not giving them electronics/screen time, I think things have gone too far in the other direction. I also sense from your tone that you’ve lost a connection with your teens, that you’re so focused on correcting their attitude/behavior, you’ve let slide your relationship with them as their mom.

We have to love our kids, show that love in tangible ways that speak to their particular love language. When we skip that and focus only on the correction, our kids start to not care about straightening up. So here’s what I think you should do.

Return all their stuff. Have a family meeting. Tell them you’ve been too focused on outward compliance and you want to hit the restart button. Ask them to come up with a chore chart for the family, for example. Then start showing them love. Cook their favorite meals. listen more than you talk to them. Show up with a smile at their events or games or concerts. Ask about their friends. Rebuild that connection.

And if they’re doing their chores, let their attitude slide for now. You have some repair work to do, but I think you’ll find it worth it.

Figuring Out Screen Time Limits

Q: My husband and I disagree on how much video time the children can have. I don’t think it’s appropriate on school nights, even if they get their chores/homework done. My husband thinks it has been a good motivator, but I worry that will wear off eventually. How can I present my case to my husband?

A: This is a question that comes up quite frequently. Often, too, like your own household, the husband and wife disagree about how much screen time a child should have. Even when the parents are on the same page, finding a way to enforce set screen time rules can drive them crazy.

Let’s first talk about why screen time should be limited at all. You don’t mention the ages of your kids, so I’m guessing they’re in elementary school since you didn’t mention having smartphones. I think this quote from The Big Disconnect says it best: “For every minute or hour your child spends on screens or other digital diversions, he or she is not engaged in healthful, unstructured, creative play. When they’re engaged on screens, as social as it may be in one sense, they are not outside with other kids, taking in the day, relaxing and chatting, inventing games, and interacting directly—or arguing face-to-face, debating fairness directly, not via a game or headset. They are not running around, shooting hoops, and skateboarding, developing coordination and physical strength. Yes, they may be learning some computer skills and online etiquette (such as it is), but the issue is what they are not learning, the loss of which undermines healthy development. They are not learning how to deal with the frustration of real forts crumbling and block towers falling, of having to rethink and start over again. They are not alone with themselves, learning to be comfortable with solitude, with their own thoughts, with no alternative but to let their mind wander and drift, explore, discover, feel.”

Screen time in and of itself isn’t necessarily bad, but screen time does limit your child’s ability to think, be bored (which often spurs creativity) and to entertain themselves. (Note: looking at a screen is not the same thing as entertaining oneself!) These are essential to any child’s well-being, but especially in the elementary years where playing helps kids learn social cues, interactions and how the world works. Video games don’t do any of that.

Now we’ll tackle why screen time (or any “reward”) is a good motivator for behavior. You hit on this yourself with your worry that it will eventually stop working. That’s just it—rewards can appear to work because the child excitedly does his homework and is rewarded with 20 minutes of video game time as a result. But what happens when the child gets tired of playing for only 20 minutes? He’ll want more game time. Or you get tired of checking if his homework is done. Or you don’t have a good system for monitoring how long he’s been playing. Or he might decide he’d rather skip the video gaming because he doesn’t want to do his homework.

Rewards tied specifically to a certain behavior or chore work in the short term, but the parent is always upping the ante (giving bigger rewards to achieve the same result) or the child perceives he has a choice to NOT do the chore or behave because he doesn’t want the reward. That’s an external motivator that has little impact on the child’s internal motivator (conscience).

So what to do about video games in your household? I’d recommend an easier approach, one that allows for some game time but eliminates a rewards system. This is one that we practice in our own home to good results. Talk with your husband about how many minutes of screen time per week he things your kids should be allowed—no conditions, just a number of minutes.

But don’t simply tell the kids, “You have 90 minutes of screen time a week” and let them pick which days. That just sets you up to be the time police. Believe me, you don’t want to go there! Here’s what we do instead. We have a sign displayed right next to the computers that lists each child’s name and the screen time allotment. I’ve posted it below to give you an idea as to what I mean. For our two teenagers, we’ve simply noted the times the computer will be available to them, which has made life much simpler.

S age 9/M age 11

  • 20 minutes a week when school’s in session
  • 20 minutes twice a week during vacation or school breaks
  • Must ask Mom or Dad to use the time and must use a timer to mark the time.

L age 13/8th grade

  • After school until 5 p.m.
    • 7:00 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.
    • Friday evening: 7:00 p.m. to 9 p.m.
  • Weekends/School Break Days/Summer
    • 2 p.m. to 4 p.m.
    • 7:30 p.m. to 9 p.m.

N age 15/9th grade

  • After school until 5 p.m.
    • 7:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.
    • Friday evening: 7:00 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.
  • Weekends/School Break Days/Summer
    • 2 p.m. to 4 p.m.
    • 7:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.

One final thought—it’s much easier to add more time than it is to subtract time, so start out with about half of what you think they should have each week.

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.