Q: My young teenage stepson has been helping himself to my mother’s sodas. He’ll stop by her house (right beside ours) on his way home from school, go into her garage and snatch a soft drink from her extra fridge there. His younger brother goes along with it and drinks a soda himself.
To me, this is stealing. My husband’s not as upset as I am because he says grandmother would have given them the soda anyway. Mo mother thinks as I do that it’s not right. How do I handle it?
A: Whether or not your mother would give the boys a can of soda is not at issue here. The fact is, they are taking what isn’t theirs to take. She hasn’t offered the soda to them, nor has she issued a standing invitation for them to stop by and grab a soda on their way home from school.
However, this is an issue that your mother should deal with in her way. After all, it’s her soft drinks they’re drinking. I would tell your mom that you support whatever she wants to do in terms of consequences and going forward.
For the record, if it were my grandsons sneaking into my garage and taking my soda without asking, I would lock the garage and inform them they should not take any more items—food or otherwise—from my house without my permission.
Then I would add up the number of sodas they’ve taken without permission and present them with a “bill” for the drinks. I’d say that if they don’t have the money to pay for the drinks already consumed, then they would be coming over to my house after school to do chores until the debt has been paid in full. I think that will remind them of whose soda it was and to stop them from pilfering the drinks in the future without asking.
Q: What should we do about a snappish teen? What used to be a rare occurrence is now more common than not. We’ll ask a normal question and she will bark back an answer like she can’t be bothered with such interruptions to her all-important teen life. She is dismissive and short even with the most innocuous of questions. When she snaps something back, we’ve said, “Let’s try that again.” To which she replies in an overly sweet, falsetto voice. We used to chalk up her snappishness to occasional hormones, but it’s rearing its ugly head with regularity. What can we do to have a civil conversation with her these days?
A: All too often, we want our children to behave like adults with perfect control over their tone of voice, their expressions, their word choices, etc. To be honest, we adults have learned to put a coat of nice veneer on our short, dismissive attitudes, haven’t we? Teens haven’t learned how to be nice on the outside as well as on the inside. Yes, it’s annoying, but we often have unrealistic expectations that we fall short of ourselves (or have simply mastered ourselves enough to not show our inner reactions in an outward manner).
When they act like, well, kids, it can be very annoying and frustrating, but it also gives us an opportunity to guide them into a better way of acting. Sometimes that results in punishment for wrongdoing. But we want a perfect response all around—obedience to the task requested without expressions of disgust or angst.
However, that’s not going to happen. Even if your children are well-behaved most of the time, they will slip and tell you exactly what they think of something with an eye roll, a snarky comment, a sarcastic quip or an overly sweet false voice.
So to answer your question. I’d ignore your daughter’s tone of voice for the most part IF she answers and/or does what she’s been told to do. This is just part of the “junk” of parenting. Just let it go as long as she is complying with the command. I suspect she’s not addressing other adults in this way, like her teachers, grandparents, etc. So if it’s isolated at home, then you can chalk it up to a teen being safe and secure enough to let it all hang out at home. Not pleasant for Mom and Dad, to be sure, but it’s something she’ll outgrow.
I’m guessing she only responds to something in that manner you’ve told her to do something she doesn’t want to do or you’ve interrupted her navel-gazing/introspection/phone texting. I’ll bet when she wants something—a ride, money, permission—she’s not asking you in a snappish way.
But if you just can’t stand it, you can try staring at her without saying a word when she replies snappishly. If she doesn’t say it again in a nicer tone of voice, then shrug and walk away. She’ll likely soon get the picture and wise up.
The pair of them stood there, giggling, eyes wide with excitement. I half-smiled as I asked what they wanted, thinking their request probably had something to do with a sweet snack since I was standing in the kitchen.
“Mommy, we want to play Cinderella,” my oldest daughter announced with all the enthusiasm of a nearly five-year-old.
I should have known they would bring a princess into it, given that Naomi and her younger sister, Leah, loved all things princess-y. “Okay,” I answered cautiously. “What does that mean?”
The two girls exchanged glances, then Naomi said, “We want to wash the kitchen floor.”
“Yeah,” three-year-old Leah chimed in, nodding her head vigorously, “so we can pretend the evil stepmother made us work hard.”
Smothering a laugh, I reached for a small plastic bowl, filled it with water, added two rags, then let them play Cinderella on their hands and knees on the kitchen floor.
Ah, the power of an active imagination that can turn a “chore” into a fantasy game. Those two washed that kitchen floor more times than I can remember during their princess phase (which also include roping their younger brothers into being princes). Over the years, their pretend play has morphed into cops and robbers, pirates, hopping ball Olympics, great escapes, and a host of other creative and silly storylines. Even now, my four kids (ages 6, 8, 10 and 12) engage in elaborate pretenses involving numerous elements and rules.
While some parents might view such shenanigans as non-productive, recent studies suggest that pretend play benefits a child in more ways than previously thought. For example, one Psychology Today article said that such play enhances cognitive abilities, such as language usage, and the “theory of mind,” which helps us realize others have different thoughts and perspectives than we do. Playing dress up and made-up games provides a safe learning environment where kids pick up social and emotional skills, as well as a better thinking ability.
Many of the studies focus on the preschool and early elementary school years as crucial to the development of pretend play, but I think the benefits of encouraging fantasy in our kids goes beyond age 6. For example, my fifth grader has to write a paper on a family event, which she has tackled with ease given her strong storytelling skills honed by her continued pretend play.
Pretending also helps children manage what-if situations, such as if I was captured by pirates, what would I do? Thinking through improbable situations can assist children in handling real world problems with less frustration and anxiety.
The good news is that you can still help your child reach his imagination potential, no matter how old he is. Here are 6 ways you can encourage his imagination development.
Unplug the electronics. No matter how “educational” a program or app is, watching a screen requires very little in the way of brain power for any child. With the screen doing the work for her, she has no reason to fire up her own imagination. Instead of setting strict screen time limits, try having “screen-free” time zones, such as starting at suppertime and extending until bedtime for young children. For teens, perhaps all electronic devices go into the basket at 8 p.m. The less screen time your child has, the more his imagination will have room to soar.
Get outside. With warm weather on the horizon—and the fresh, clean hint of spring in the air—kicking the kids outside more shouldn’t be too difficult. Nature provides a wonderful way for children and teens to find peace and purpose. As Richard Louv puts it in his excellent book, Last Child in the Woods, “nature inspires creativity in a child by demanding visualization and the full use of the senses.” Fresh air, sunshine, the world waking up with the renewing cycle of spring all conspire to push a child’s inventiveness to fruition.
Read good books. While we often read to our preschoolers, sometimes that drops off as the children age. Even older children and teens enjoy hearing stories, so grab some interesting books and dive in. Pick ones that challenge and invigorate their minds, ones that paint spectacular word pictures and show them a world beyond the four walls of their life. Some suggestions include Little House on the Prairie, Chitty-Chitty Bang-Bang, Because of Winn-Dixie, The Count of Monte Cristo, Tom Sawyer and Jane Eyre. Ask your local librarian for titles that lend themselves well to reading aloud.
Join in the fun. Sometimes, you have to help your child’s imagination along by playing with him. Jump in and wave your magic “wand” to turn everyone into animals, then plan an escape from the zoo to have a tea party with fairies. Or walk the plank and find a new adventure under the sea. One note of caution: after setting up the initial scene, take your cues from the kids and play along with their storylines. After 10 minutes or so, ease back and quietly exit the stage, leaving the play to the kids.
Provide the proper tools. Empty boxes, building supplies (LEGOs, blocks, magnet tiles, etc.), blank paper and pastel chalk, and other non-electronically powered toys that can double or triple as something else are keys to imaginative play. Kids can use a box to build an airplane or a submarine, a rocket or a space ship. Building materials morph into skyscrapers and prisons, while blank paper can be transformed into crowns or scenery. The possibilities are endless with the right tools and a bit of creativity.
Give them time. Organized sports and other activities are great, but not if a child is so involved with after school things he has no time left to play. One of the greatest gifts you can give your child is time of his own. Time that he can spend being a kid, thinking about nothing and everything, playing with friends or by himself. That unstructured time can be a huge blessing—and a surefire way to spur creative thought and play.
Above all, remember that when your children are pretending, they’re not wasting time—they are building strong imagination muscles, solidifying language paths, exploring new territory and forging possible identities. Our role as parents in this exploration is to make sure they have the time and space in which to soar to heights unknown.
Q: I need some guidance on allowance. My 9-year-old has always been Mr. Money. He loves it and will do anything to get it—and then spends it at the first opportunity. Granted, he is very generous and frequently uses it to buy things for other people, and we always encourage giving to church and charity and savings. While we don’t connect chores to allowance, we sometimes let him earn extra money by doing special jobs. However, what usually happens is as soon as he blows his money, he immediately wants to start doing jobs to earn more.
I doubt this cycle of spend-earn-repeat is teaching him good money management. If I let him do more jobs, then he doesn’t see the need to restrain himself from a spending spree because he thinks he can just go home and earn more. We need to set some boundaries here, but I need help!
A: Guiding kids to a life of good money management is usually a top concern among parents. Kudos to you for not connecting chores to allowance, which is a mistake many parents make. Chores are done because children are part of the family, and shouldn’t be rewarded with money.
However, you’re also right in that he needs to develop some good money management foundations. That foundation should be one that emphasizes living within his means, which translates into your not advancing funds to him for any reason. As I tell my children, I am not an ATM or credit card—allowance is paid each Saturday and not before. Overall, showing him how you and your spouse live within your means is the number one way that he’ll learn that concept.
Also watch how you talk about money. Don’t use words like, “We can’t afford that” when not wanting to spend your money on an item or event. Instead, say, “We are not choosing to spend our money that way.” That makes it more about choice instead of how much money you have. We also talk about budgets with our kids. For instance, when shoe shopping recently, I pointed out the high end price I was willing to pay and then let the children look for themselves within that range.
You can help your son manage his money better by setting up three jars labeled Spend, Save and Give. He should divide his allowance each week into those three jars. The only stipulation I would make is that the amount must be larger than a nickel (no single pennies!). The Save and Give jars cannot be emptied to buy things for himself. You can let him decide where to donate the Give amount when it reaches $1 unless you wish him to give that every week in the church offering or something similar. For the Save, it’s merely like a visible bank for him to watch money accumulate.
Allow him to spend the rest as he sees fit. Yes, this means he will likely blow through his money quickly, but that’s okay. It is his money, and you can suggest but I wouldn’t stop him (other than saying you’re not making a special trip to the store for him).
I would also stop the special jobs for payment because he’s using those as his personal ATM—and a sort of cushion against totally being broke. Just say that you’ve decided to eliminate that option.
Finally, don’t forget to talk about money with him on a regular basis. For example, take him grocery shopping with him and talk about how to pick the best produce and figure out what you’ll pay for it. Let him add up coupons to see how much you’ll save. Discuss why buying the store brand can help save more money over a name brand—and taste just as good most of the time. Interacting with the real world about money and what things cost is one of the best lessons we can give our children.
Q: My 4-year-old daughter has an imaginary friend called Buster. She talks to Buster, plays with Buster, insists that Buster sit at the table with her, etc. Sometimes, she expects me to talk to Buster too. I’m not sure having an invisible friend is such a good idea. What should I do about Buster?
A: When my oldest was around 4, she had an imaginary friend who accompanied her everywhere—to the park, outside, the dinner table, etc. She talked about this friend for so long, her younger sister (around 2) started talking to her sister’s imaginary friend too. Those were some interesting times in our household, that’s for sure!
I viewed the imaginary friend as a tangible outcome of a vivid imagination, something that we should treasure in our children. Sure, it’s silly and funny and annoying at times, but imaginary friends serve a couple of important purposes for our kids. First, it gives them an outlet for their creative imaginations. Second, it provides them with a safe place to explore their own feelings. For example, sometimes, my daughter’s imaginary friend would do something bad. She would talk about how that made her imaginary friend feel and work through those feelings in a safe place.
As to how parents should react to such a “friend,” here are some tips.
Don’t overreact. Sure, it can be trying to have your child always talking about someone who isn’t real, but it’s also usually only a sign of a child’s active imagination, not something seriously wrong with the child.
Give the responsibility to the child. This means if the child wants the imaginary friend to sit at the dinner table, that’s fine. However, the child should be responsible for his “guest’s” behavior. In other words, no spilling milk deliberately and blaming it on the imaginary friend. The child is completely accountable for the actions of the imaginary friend.
Don’t overindulge, either. I made it a practice to only say “hello” or “goodbye” to my daughter’s imaginary friend. I would say that it was her friend, not mine, so the bulk of the discussion should be between the child and the imaginary friend, not the parent and the imaginary friend. This keeps the play with the child, where it belongs.
Above all, enjoy the silliness that imaginary friends can be for our children. There’s something rather sweet and innocent about a little kid talking to someone who isn’t there. As adults, we’re sometimes overly grounded in reality that we forget the magic that children see and feel and view all around them. For all too short a time, they can touch and experience the wonder of imaginary friends. Reality will intrude as they grow up, so don’t rush them through the magic of this part of childhood too soon.
Q: Our four-year-old son has started to be disrespectful to other adults in front of me. For example, he snatched something from my friend’s hand that he wanted. When I made him apologize, he first snarled, “I’m not sorry.”
I am appalled, but I’m not sure exactly how to handle the discipline—where, when and what should I do?
A: From one parent to another, thanks for noticing your child’s rudeness to other adults. So many times, we as parents offer excuses for our children’s bad behavior toward other grownups (“She didn’t have a nap today,” “He’s mad that he missed soccer practice to come here,” etc.). So it’s great that you not only notice his rudeness but want to correct it.
Now the best way to accomplish that is to make his rudeness his responsibility. In other words, he needs to want to change his behavior more than continue it.
The next time he’s rude to an adult, correct him in a firm yet gentle tone. You don’t have to yell at him to make an impression. Keep it short and sweet, such as: “No snatching items from adults. Tell Mrs. X you’re sorry for grabbing.” Then maintain eye contact until he does so. Prod him once to apologize, but if he still refuses, don’t cajole or wheedle with him to comply. You simply smile at the adult and apologize on his behalf.
Then take him immediately home if possible. Confine him to his room for the rest of the day with all his favorite toys or books or games removed. Move up his bedtime to immediately after an early supper. At this age, curtailing his freedom is a great way to compel him to own his rudeness.
If you can’t leave right away, curtail his movements right then if possible, such as requiring him to stay by your side and not play with the other children. If that isn’t possible because of the situation, then leave as soon as you can and do the confined outlined above when you get home, reminding him of his rudeness (“You were rude to Mrs. X when you snatched the toy from her hand.”).
Above all, avoid the temptation to lecture. Kids this age don’t need to know why it’s rude to snatch things from adults or to interrupt conversations. They just need to know it IS unacceptable behavior. The why won’t make them any more likely to obey, so save your breath.
Also work on role playing with him on how to relate to adults. Work through questions such as
If an adult has something he wants, how does he ask for it?
How should he address an adult who speaks to him?
What should he do if an adult does something he doesn’t like?
Incorporate that practice into your everyday interactions with him. Let him pretend to be the adult and you’re the child. Then reverse roles so he can practice. Reinforcing the proper behavior helps him to visualize how he should react the next time he’s confronted with a similar situation.
Q: I’m trying very hard to keep my two elementary school age kids (boy and girl) safe online. At home, we have a parental block on our devices, and restrict access to the Internet.
However, with so many kids these days having cellphones, tablets, etc., I’m worried that my kids will come in contact with pornography or other bad stuff when they are with their friends. We talk about the dangers online, and they know to walk away if shown anything of a sexual nature and to tell us immediately.
But as they are getting older, they have more freedom to play and visit friends’ houses. If they have a sleepover, I inform the parents that my kids are not allowed online without adult supervision. I can’t be with them every minute of every day—how do I protect them?
A: When our children are babies, we tuck them into car seats equipped with lots of straps and cushions to protect them from automobile crashes. When our children are toddlers, we remove objects and household products (think drain cleaners, paint thinner, etc.) that could seriously harm them if used in an unsafe manner (which, of course, is what toddlers love to do the most). When our children are preschoolers, we talk with them about the dangers of strangers. When our children enter school, we talk with them about how to say no to drugs and alcohol, etc.
In short, we spend an awful lot of time working hard as parents to protect our children. But the fact of the matter is, we cannot keep our children 100% safe, 100% of the time. It’s simply not possible. That doesn’t mean we throw up our hands and do nothing.
What we should do is equip them to handle those scary situations that will come up when we’re not around—the video they shouldn’t watch, the drink they shouldn’t take, the party they shouldn’t attend. We help them by modeling good behavior when it comes to our electronic devices. We put in boundaries where we can (and enforce those boundaries on a consistent basis).
And we talk with our children, not lecture style but about the world. We watch TV shows with them and discuss clothing choices. We listen to music with them and ask about lyrics. We get to know their friends. We spend time observing so we can pick up when something’s wrong or troubling them.
One of our main jobs as parents is to do all we can to create an environment that allows them to bring their concerns to us immediately, rather than later. We create an environment that has us listening more than talking about the issues that concern them. We offer guidance in those circumstances our children need to address on their own—and step in and take them out of sticky situations when they can’t do so themselves so that we can listen and offer guidance.
Mostly, though, we send them off into the world on a wing and a prayer, as the old saying goes, knowing that sometimes, they will do the right thing, and sometimes they will do the wrong them. Our hope is that when they do the wrong thing, they notice that and take steps on their own to get back on the right path.
Q: What should I do about a nearly 12-year-old girl who wants to go bowling with another female friend and a couple of boys in their grade? Some friends and family members are advising us that once we start allowing boy-girl “outings,” we will be inundated with such requests. But others have said this isn’t really that type of gathering. General guidance on dating would be appreciated too.
A: A few weeks ago, my 12-year-old, sixth grade daughter went bowling with a group of sixth to eighth graders, boy-girl mixed, from our church. She had a wonderful time with the group. Frankly, the thought that this might create something date-like because boys AND girls would be present didn’t even cross my mind (or the minds of the kids at the event, either).
Sometimes, we over-think things as parents and borrow trouble. I recommend letting your daughter guide these types of discussions.
Is she talking about being interested in boys?
What does your daughter think this outing is?
Do her friends talk about boys?
Has she started paying more attention to her appearance or wanting to wear makeup? Those are better barometers as to where she is regarding boys than is an “concern” as to what might or might be meant by a mixed gender gathering.
As to the bowling, it sounds very innocent and fun. If your daughter is eager to go and is excited about being with her friends, then let her have fun. The only thing I would make sure is a grownup your daughter (and you) trusts will be present the entire outing—even at this age, an adult should loosely supervise such gatherings to ensure the safety of all attending.
For general dating, you and your husband should discuss what you think this should look like in your home. I guarantee your husband will have different concerns than you do. After all, he was once a hormonal teenage boy! Questions to consider include:
Do you have a certain age before one-on-one dating can take place?
Will you allow group “dating” before one-on-one dates?
Will you personally meet any young men coming to take your daughter out?
This will probably not be a single conversation, but an organic one as your daughter grows up and expresses her own opinion and interest in boys. Remember that you want to create an atmosphere of openness.
Overall, I wouldn’t recommend a lot of dating rules, per se, but instead cultivate an overall attitude toward the opposite sex that would incorporate your family values. The teenage years can be an exciting time of growth and personal exploration for our children.
Q: A little more than a year ago, our 18-year-old daughter moved to Nashville, Tenn., (completely at our expense) to be a member of a ballet company. After a year of that, she decided to go to school full time, but stay in Nashville at our expense (we pay the rent for her apartment). Then she wanted to move to a more expensive apartment, to which we said no. She ended up going to my brother-in-law for a co-signer (and we don’t have a good relationship with this person, which she well knows).
Topping it off, this past weekend when we were visiting her in Nashville, she said some very hurtful things (and this after we gave her a smartphone!). We ended the visit by giving her the option of coming home and going to school with our financial help or staying in Nashville on her own. She handed us our car keys and walked away. I feel we did the right thing, but it has almost literally broken my heart. How do we proceed?
A: I’m sorry you’re hurting because of her choices and words. Knowing you did the right thing is cold comfort but sometimes, that’s what we have to deal with when making tough parenting decisions. Unfortunately, kids of all ages aren’t known for saying, “Gee, thanks, Mom and Dad. You’re right.”
As to proceeding, she’s made it clear that she’s going to do what she’s going to do–without your assistance. So you’re left with two choices: continue financially supporting her (and taking her attitude as she bites the hand that feeds her) OR cut off financial assistance (and be prepared for her attitude to worsen). Either way, you are not going to change her heart attitude towards you. That’s only something she can do. All you can do is decide what you’re willing to pay (literally) for her choices.
If you do decide to slash the financial apron strings, tell her that you heard her loud and clear and that from now on, you will not be paying her bills. Inform her that she must figure out what to do about her smartphone because in 30 days, you will remove her from your plan and her phone will be due to you (unless she ponies up the cost of the phone. Ditto on car insurance and any other bill you are currently paying. If your brother-in-law chooses to help her out by co-signing her lease, that’s his affair–and you shouldn’t let that influence your relationship with him.
Then simply love her. Call her, text her, write her. Let her know you care without harping on her choices. She’s a grown woman now and wanting to live independently—and that’s a good thing. While you would rather she choose a less difficult path, she has picked her own way. It’s up to you as her parents to be available yet silent (for the most part) as she makes her way alone in the world. To me, that’s the hardest thing a parent does but it also can be the most rewarding at times, especially when we see our children rise to the occasion. She might just surprise you and turn out all right despite a rocky beginning.
Q: My 3½-year-old gets resentful over attention to her 6-month-old brother, especially the attention I give the baby. She doesn’t like that he doesn’t “get into trouble” and that he can “get away” with things she can’t do, like yell, throw food, refuse to sleep, wet her pants, etc. She keeps repeating, “But brother can do it because he’s a baby.”
She’s also started scaring him by yelling “boo!” or sings/talks loudly to him. I’m not sure how to correct her behavior without encouraging sibling rivalry. When he first came home from the hospital, she loved on him so much. But now she’s been acting up, misbehaving and getting into more trouble. Honestly, she’s making it hard to act loving towards her! What can I do to ensure the two of them do not become rivals?
A: Take heart in that her behavior, while annoying, is perfectly normal. She’s been the queen bee in your home for three years, so naturally, she’s going to resent someone taking away your attention. But that doesn’t mean she gets a pass on bad behavior.
So what to do? First, make sure she has chores to do around the house, such as helping with trash, setting the table, wiping up spills, etc. The more things she can do to be a part of the family, the more she’ll feel a part of the family.
Second, guide her in interactions with her baby brother. For example, ask her to help you feed her brother (maybe only a bite or two at the beginning). Ask her to hand him toys or bring you diapers. Say to her frequently, “Oh, look at how Baby smiles at you when you make that silly face!” and “Would you read to Baby one of your favorite books?”
Third, remind her of all the things she can do that Baby cannot, such as stay up later, not take as many naps, walk, read, etc. Mention her favorite things and make it sound as if Baby’s the one missing out (all in your tone of voice!), such as “Isn’t it too bad that Baby can’t do X and you can?” That will help remind her that being 3 has its advantages over being a baby.
Fourth, try not to over-correct her when she’s interacting with Baby. Saying “Boo!” and singing very loudly isn’t going to hurt the Baby, really. Redirect her by asking her to sing to the baby. Make it a game by asking her to sing very loudly, then very softly, and ask her to see which tone she thinks Baby likes better. Teach her how to watch his facial expressions to figure it out.
Fifth, don’t use the baby as an excuse to do or not do things. For example, don’t say, “When Baby wakes up, we’ll go to the park.” Instead, say, “We’ll go to the park at X time.” That helps her not to view Baby as the one who’s spoiling her fun.
Finally, remember that she’s adjusting too. When he was smaller, he didn’t seem quite so threatening but now that he’s bigger and probably beginning to move around more, she’s not so sure how to interact or handle his crying and outbursts, etc.