Sassiness and the Toddler

Q: My 16-month-old shook her finger and said, “No, no” in a sassy way after my husband told her “no” when touching something she shouldn’t. How do I correct the sass back at this age appropriately?

A: My first response to your questions was, “Good luck with that,” but then I realized the written words couldn’t convey the twinkle in my eye and my sympathetic expression. I wouldn’t want you to think I was making light of your question, because I know how disturbing it can be to have a child so blatantly—and without remorse!—challenge our authority.

Because make no mistake about it—that’s exactly what your charming sasspot is doing. But in a toddler way that limits your response. If she were a teenager, my answer would be different. For a toddler, you have limitations due to her tender years and her immaturity.

She’s just over a year old, still growing, still exploring her universe. Her brain is developing at a rapid rate—her body can hardly keep up with all the new things her brain wants to do! This is one major reason why toddlers throw such massive temper tantrums. Their bodies aren’t coordinated enough to accomplish what their racing minds want to do. Everything’s new and exciting because everything is literally new and that’s exciting to them. There are worlds out there that need exploring, but a toddler brain doesn’t have the maturity to realize the hidden—and not-so-hidden—dangers lurking about in this wide new world.

All of which means she will look you in the eye and respond to your “nos,” with a wicked, little smile…then do exactly what you just told her not to do. Is she being willful? Yes. Is she being deliberately sassy? Not in exactly the same way as a child of four, ten or fourteen is being sassy. A toddler doesn’t consciously know her tone is sassy—she’s blissfully unaware of such nuances.

Therefore, a wise parent doesn’t correct a toddler’s tone of voice, just like that parent doesn’t correct a toddler’s eyerolls, shoulder shrugs or other nonverbal communication of disrespect or sass.

But a wise parent also doesn’t allow a toddler to do the thing the toddler was told not to do. In other words, the wise parent corrects a toddler’s actions, not a toddler’s outward display of inner rebellion.

What can you do when a toddler says no and does the forbidden thing? You take away the item (if there is an item) or you remove the child from the situation. At this age, it’s restrain and removal—those are the toddler’s parents’ go-to for effective discipline.

Eating in Peace

Q: We adopted two girls (ages 8 and 10 at the time) almost 5 years ago from an African country. They were incredibly picky eaters and refused to try new foods. I have been customizing our meals to accommodate them but lately have gotten fed up with their rude, entitled attitude towards my meals. They are also negatively influencing two younger children, who we recently adopted from the same country, but who are willing to eat everything.

I have uninvited them from dinner, which means they have to make their own meals and eat them on their own. Our relationship is already strained and not eating dinner together is distancing us even further. I don’t think that I can train them to eat new foods at this point in their lives as teenagers. Any suggestions?

A: Oh, dear. This has become a mealtime battle, hasn’t it? And it’s impacting your relationship with your precious girls. Adopted or not, this kind of daily friction can so easily erode the parent-child bond, but all is not lost! There is hope for a stronger bond between you and your daughters and to have mealtimes stop being full of anxiety—all without your cooking special meals!

But it will take work on your part, but I think you’re up for the challenge because on the other side is family meals and a closer bond with your older girls. You’re the adult, so you’re going to have to take the bigger steps toward reconciliation. This doesn’t mean you cater to them, but it does mean that you will smooth the way back into the family fold. Here’s how.

First, welcome them back to the table. The first couple of meals, make things you know they like. Not to cater to them, but to help sooth ruffled feelings.

Second, let each child (even the younger ones) pick one vegetable that they will never have to eat. That’s right—even if it’s served, they can say, “No, thank you” with your blessing. Post the list on the fridge (this is essential to avoid any confusion). My mom did this when I was a kid, and I’ve passed it along to my four kids. For example, my youngest choose potatoes as his veggie to avoid, so whenever we have potatoes, he doesn’t have to eat them. He can eat them (and he does eat French fries!), but he’s not required to eat them. To make this work, the child has to pick one specific vegetable: Not “squash,” but “spaghetti squash.” But the child has to eat everything else that’s served. If the child refuses, the “no, thank you” veggie is back on his or her plate. Then each year, either on a designated day (we do New Year’s Day) or child’s birthday, you allow the child to change or keep the “no, thank you” veggie. Simple, yes?

Third, remind them of the protocol for meals—manners for meals training. Items to be taught (over the course of several meals or weeks) include how to set a table, how to react when something’s served they don’t like (no “yucks,” for example), appropriate topics of conversation, etc. Work on this as a family. We often discuss our days or have a “question of the day” roundtable discussion. Eating together is more than about the food!

Fourth, follow the “one bite” rule. Each child or teen gets one, small teaspoon (literally, a very tiny bite) of everything on the table. Once their plate is clear, they may have seconds of anything on the table. In other words, no going to the snack drawer after eating the first bites!

Fifth, start involving the girls in meal prep. Buy a kids’ cookbook (Rachel Ray has a great one!), and then let each one pick a meal to make each week. Then that girl helps you cook that meal. Food always tastes better when you helped prepare it.

Sixth, consider starting a vegetable garden this summer. Again, let the girls each pick one veggie to plant, tend and pick. The closer your girls get to their food, the more likely they are to eat it! Or sign up for a community supported agriculture share with a local farm and get fresh produce delivered or picked up weekly during the growing season.

I hope this list spurs you to think of other ways you can connect your girls to food and, without their knowing it, expand their palate!

The Question of Spanking

Q: When is spanking appropriate with a 3 year old?

A: When my second child (a daughter) was around 3, we began punishing her for disobedience. As with her older sister, spanking was in our discipline toolbox. However, unlike our eldest child, this daughter was made of sterner stuff—more stubborn and willful. This was the child who, when told not to do something, would march over, do the forbidden thing, then march herself down the hall to the “spanking place” to await her punishment. With such a child, spanking wasn’t going to have the desired effect of determent and conscience-building, so we quickly tossed spanking out of her consequence toolbox and inserted other, more memorable and effective punishments.

Why did I tell you that story? To illustrate why I can’t answer your question with a one-size-fits-all reply. When is spanking appropriate for a 3 year old? The answer depends on the preschooler in question.

So, if you don’t mind, I’ll answer the question I wish you had asked—what is the purpose of [insert punishment method here]? When you can answer that question, you’ll have the answer to your specific question.

The purpose of punishment is twofold: To make a child feel bad about the misbehavior (not about himself, but about what he did) and to develop a child’s internal motivation in order to stop a child from misbehaving in the future. Augustine had a great thought on this: “A conscience cannot be healed if not wounded.” In other words, as a determent for future misbehaviors and as a way to develop a child’s conscience and sense of right and wrong. For more on this, watch my video on “Consequences and Kids.”

Finally, a caution: Be careful that you don’t use spanking or other consequences to bring about an external change only in a child. Just because a child doesn’t outwardly seem to care about getting spanked or sent to her room doesn’t mean the punishment isn’t working. All too often, parents sometimes get carried away and want a child to show with her demeanor that she gets why what she did was wrong, and that doesn’t always happen immediately. Sometimes, the punishment takes a while to work on a child’s heart. Sometimes, a parent needs to figure out a different way to reach the child’s heart. That is one of the biggest dangers of spanking—if a child acts as if spanking doesn’t matter, a parent can be tempted to spank harder or longer to bring about that outward change or remorse. And that’s not healthy for the parent or the child.

Is Your Teen Stressed or Normal?

Q: My 17-year-old daughter claims to be anxious and depressed due to lack of best friends. She was homeschooled until junior year when she enrolled in the local community college full time. She’s getting straight A’s, held down a job, and participates in high school and community theatre. She is still somewhat of an “outsider” with high school kids but tries to initiate social events. Her anxiety and depressed moods usually occur when she’s overly busy or has been ditched by her peers. She’s not an attention-mongering teen by any means, and is an extremely kind and compassionate child.

Isn’t this normal teen angst? How can I tell if it’s serious enough to have her seen by a counselor?

A: Teens are suffering from depression in record numbers, and it’s wise not to ignore cries for help—even when you’re not sure the teen really needs it. A couple of things come to mind that might help you navigate the older teen years with your daughter.

First, don’t belittle her feelings. I can’t tell from your question whether you’ve told her that you don’t think her anxiousness or depression is “real,” so I hope that you’ve kept that to yourself. It’s important for us to listen to our teen’s struggles, and to provide a safe place for them to vent. It’s a fine line between encouraging and listening, so be careful not to provoke prolonged emotional outpourings, but being available and willing to listen without criticizing or offering advice is crucial, especially during the teen years.

Second, teens face real stress in their lives. Pressure from peers, teachers, themselves, and social media can make them feel anxious, stressed and depressed. It’s important for the adults in her life to be supportive, not dismissive, of her and help to mitigate the stress in her life. I recently wrote an article on teen stress you might find helpful.

Also, point out to your daughter during non-stressful periods how she acts and what she says when she’s stressed. Helping her to see the bigger picture will help her navigate the stressful ones better.

So yes, some of what your daughter’s facing is probably typical teen angst. Your best course of action is to listen more than speak, suggest but don’t force, and provide a safe haven for her to vent and make changes. If she does want to talk with a counselor or therapist, then help her find one who specializes in teens. If your daughter is depressed, you want to get her professional help sooner rather than later. Remember, therapists and other medical professionals can assist teens (and adults) in learning how to navigate the stresses life throws at us.

Who Should Set a Teen’s Bedtime?

Q: Is it unreasonable to tell a 16-year-old boy he should have lights out by 10 p.m.? He works hard on school, despite not liking it, but often stays up until 1 or 2 a.m. doing homework or reading. He has plenty of time in late afternoon, evenings and weekends to do it, but has created this odd schedule for himself.

Now he is also doing part-time work, about 7-10 hours per week, and his (very kind) boss has commented about him being crabby. He wants to go on a weekend retreat with our church that always wears out the kids by Sunday evening, so we told him to adhere to this bedtime before we decide if he may go. He is NOT happy with this, ripped up his retreat registration form and is generally hostile about the whole idea.

A: The short answer to your question? It’s not unreasonable, but it might not be enforceable.

Of course he’s hostile—he doesn’t want to be told when to go to bed as if he’s a toddler and not a teenager. The fact of the matter is, even if he complied with lights out at 10 p.m. each evening, that doesn’t mean he would actually get more sleep. You can lead a kid to bed, but you can’t make him sleep, no matter the age.

That doesn’t mean you can’t set guidelines for him to follow that could help him go to bed earlier. For example, he must turn in his electronics by 9 p.m. each evening (central place for charging personal devices, laptops/PCs/tablets shut down, etc.). The TV goes off at a set time as well. The kitchen closes at 9:30 p.m. each evening (no midnight snacks, etc.). Those general restrictions should assist with homework not being done late, since so much of it is done online in high school.

As for his boss saying he’s “crabby,” well, that’s up to his boss to address if son’s attitude is getting in the way of his serving customers. So I’d leave the crabby comment in the workplace arena and allow his boss to take action if necessary. That’s a natural consequence that your son can solve if he wants to—and better coming from an adult with authority over your son than your trying to solve the problem for him with an earlier bedtime.

For the church retreat, even if your son goes to bed at 10 p.m., there’s no guarantee he’ll return from the retreat well rested. He will be tired and out of sorts after the retreat no matter what. Sometimes, teens need to find their own sleep limits before they’ll value sleep. I know my two teenage daughters know when they need to go bed because they’ve had to deal with the consequences of not getting enough sleep. Often, they will put themselves to bed earlier than usual because they’ve realized they need a little more rest ahead of a big test or after a sleepover, for example.

Overall, having in place home policies, like for electronic devices, is better than micromanaging a bedtime for a teenager. Model good sleeping habits yourself, discuss why sleep is important and let natural consequences happen when he doesn’t get enough sleep. I wrote a piece for the Washington Post on “Why you need to pay attention to your older kids’ sleeping habits” that has more info on this topic.

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.).