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.

Should a Preschooler Have Chores?

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

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

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

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

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

Some suggestions for daily chores:

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

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

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

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

Walking the Fine Line With Play-Fighting Boys

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Toddler Who Hits

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

Sometimes, toddlers tussle with each other like felines.

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to Handle Disrespectful Teenager?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mom Says Kids Exhaust Me!

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

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

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

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

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

I would be so happy to hear your expert advice!

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

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

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

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

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