Things You Never Thought You’d Say as a Parent

We all say strange things to our kids! This month’s original cartoon is from K.W. of Tulsa, Okla. She says, “I don’t know why my nearly 5-year-old daughter thought it would be a good idea to sneak off with a piece of raw chicken breast. This is the same child who refuses to eat meat normally.” Her daughter suffered no ill effects from eating the raw meat.

Post your “Things You Never Thought You’d Say as a Parent” comment below—yours might be featured as a cartoon!

Can a Toddler Learn From Consequences?

Q: What is an appropriate way to punish a 17-month-old for being bad, i.e. deliberately disobeying when I tell him not to do something? Is time out appropriate for this age? If it is how do I even get him to stay put in a time out spot?

A: The only way to discipline a toddler is to remove and contain. A toddler doesn’t have long-term memory, so he can’t connect a consequence to the misbehavior. A toddler can know something is wrong, but the “I do this, so this happens” isn’t there.

Time out isn’t an effective tool to change a child’s behavior at all—not for toddlers, not for preschoolers, not for any child, so eliminate that from your consequence toolbox. For toddlers, the most effective way is to remove a toddler from the situation (like a playdate when the toddler starts hitting, for example) and containing him (like putting him in his crib when he’s has a temper tantrum).

My favorite tip for handling toddlers is one that really works. Don’t tell a toddler: “Don’t climb on the table.” Instead say: “No climbing on the table.” For some reason, the “don’t” contraction trips up the toddler, obscuring the message you’re communicating. Using a simply “No” instead is much more effective.

And finally, remember not to negotiate with a toddler—just stick to your guns and deal with the temper tantrum that’s sure to follow when you tell your little tyrant in short pants “no.”

A Bright Son Making Bad Choices

Q: My very bright 10-year-old son simply refuses to obey. He is child #2 out of 4 kids. He seems to take up all of our parenting energy. He spent a lot of time in the office for the first half of grade 5, often aligns himself with the trouble makers in social situations, and doesn’t seem to care about consequences. It seems that the problems occur everywhere—within our own family, at school, at church and with grandparents. I have never been a parent who pays my children a lot of attention, but he seems to crave attention (even if it’s negative) and he definitely thinks he is a “big fish.”

We had one big incident at school last year, after which he was in his room for a month, with nothing to occupy him. His behavior improved marginally for a short time. I have told him he has this year to improve his behavior or he will not be going to junior high next year as I cannot trust him to make good decisions with the freedom he’ll have there. I fully intend to follow through. Any suggestions?

A: Ah, the child who won’t obey is a familiar figure to us all! I know how frustrating this must be for you, especially because you can see the pattern of bad behavior and the looming teen years with all the potential for disaster.

A couple of things come to mind about this situation, but before that, I should remind you that a parent does her job not because she expects the child to straighten up (although that’s her hope), but because it’s the right thing to do. Thinking that you’re going to find a silver bullet that will make your child behave is an exercise in futility, so just don’t go there. You apply pressure (consequences) to negative behavior in the hopes that the pressure will reach a child’s heart and enact change for the better. But sometimes, we apply the correct amount of pressure, and the child refuses to bend. That’s because a child is the only one who can change his behavior—you can’t. Accepting that and still continuing on with your role as one who applies pressure when necessary is what makes parenting a challenge.

Now, let’s talk about consequences. You’ve yet to give this child an offer he can’t refuse. A big incident at school and he’s only in his room for a month? You saw “marginal” improvement in his behavior after that, but nothing long term. You needed to make a big impression (a la The Godfather Principle), and instead you made a medium impression. Think about what your son loves to do.

Here’s a real-life example. A few years ago, my oldest daughter needed a wakeup call (she was around your son’s age at the time), and I had noticed how much she loved to read. So to reorient her behavior, I banned books from her life until she went 30 days in a row without doing the thing she had been doing. Was she upset? You betcha. Did she miss one of the 30 days? Nope. Have I had to do something that drastic again? No, but it’s always hanging out there as a possibility. The beauty is that she won’t know what I’ll assign as a consequence (aka pressure), but she knows she won’t like it one bit. So figure out what that number one and number two things are for your son and proceed accordingly.

Also, threatening something so far in advance as not going to junior high is worthless as motivation for his behavior improvement. He has no reference for such a thing and therefore can’t care about it! So just stop with that threat, even though you’re prepared to follow through. If it’s not something he can visualize and want, then it’s not something he’s going to care about.

Finally, it sounds like overall you’ve lost a connection with your son. If you don’t already, start taking all of the kids out one at a time on a regular basis. My husband and I take turns taking one child at a time out for breakfast. The schedule is posted on the fridge and they all enjoy spending special time with mom or dad. Also, make time each day to connect with your son. If he likes jokes, find one and tell him after school. If he enjoys throwing a football, grab it up after dinner and play catch for 10 minutes. Make sure you greet him in the morning, and when he comes home after school, not to tell him stuff to do, but to let him know you care about him—even when he doesn’t want to talk much.

Emotional Rollercoaster

Q: During many play activities, our 4-year-old daughter becomes quite emotional about anything she perceives she cannot do. This could be creating something out of Play-Doh, trying to draw something or throwing a ball. She oftentimes doesn’t even try, fail, then breaks down. She simply breaks down before even trying, crying and yelling “I can’t do [x].”

Moreover, when we try to come alongside to show her how to do something, she becomes stubborn and obstinate, showing no patience or desire to learn. The overall theme is “If it doesn’t come naturally to me, I don’t want to do it.”

We’re not sure if this is typical 4-year-old behavior, or if this something unusual about her temperament. When I’m around and my daughter acts like this, I often tell her, “In our family, we don’t say ‘I can’t do it.’ We try to do it, and if we have trouble, we ask for help and try again.” How can we help her overcome this giving up and keep trying?

A: I love this question because all too often, we gloss over or ignore or move past this kind of behavior—or get impatient with the child who exhibits it. But we miss many teaching opportunities and bonding times with our kid when we take shortcuts to training.

As to your question about whether this is typical kid behavior—it is. Some kids are more prone to this type of behavior than others. Usually, it’s just a stage, but that doesn’t mean you simply let her get away with it, so to speak. While you can’t argue/reason a child out of her emotional response, you can guide her in learning to overcome that response. For example, one of my daughters cries when she’s frustrated with herself that she can’t do something and has since she was a toddler. We’ve helped her with coping mechanisms to guide her past the unwanted tears and encouragement to press on through the difficult subject or project.

So here’s what I’d do if she were my daughter: Ignore her outbursts of saying “I can’t do X.” She’s responding in the moment, and it’s better to leave her alone to calm down than to try to encourage her to try again. Once she’s calm, you can ask her if she wants to try it again. If she still says no, then leave her be. Telling her your family doesn’t say we can’t do it is great—keep saying that to all your kids—but it’s better to let her figure some things out for herself.

But, and this is key, give her more opportunities to fail and try again by giving her tasks or chores she might not be able to do perfectly, or things she’ll need to try again and again to do. Kids always want the easy way out and not trying is the easy way. Also show her how to break what look like insurmountable tasks into small increments, like getting upset that she can’t make a dog out of clay. Tell her to start with the body, just work on the body, then progress to adding legs, etc. Some kids get overwhelmed by the big picture (can’t see the trees for the forest). When she’s calm after an incident, start to show her how to accomplish what she wants to accomplish, but try not to force her. When she gets discouraged, pause to give her a chance to recover. You can encourage her to calmness by having her take a deep breath, stand on one foot, do jumping jacks, when you see her start to get emotional.

Much of parenting is figuring out how much to push a kid—when to step back and when to step up. You’ll discover that balance as your daughter grows, and as long as you’re giving her plenty of love and a safe environment in which to fail, she’ll figure it out and learn how to move past failure into success.

Appropriate After School Schedule

Q: What is an appropriate afterschool game plan for a first grader and third grader? Can you give me some advice on how to handle homework, chores and bedtime for this age? What type of expectations should we have?

A. I love this question, mostly because so many parents start the school year without even considering what kind of afterschool schedule their kids should have. We get so focused on school, we forget there’s other hours in the day that need our careful consideration as well.

I’m of the firm belief that less is more when it comes to kids and their schedules. As a result, our four kids do very little compared to my kids’ peers–and frankly, they like it that way. Maybe because that’s what they’ve always known, but I think it’s because we give them plenty of time to be kids–carefree and footloose, so to speak.

Here’s how you can come up with a schedule that will work for your entire family. Jot down your priorities as a family. For us, it’s eating dinner together and having time to relax (in other words, free time!) and having a flexible schedule that allows us to visit grandparents frequently and do things together as a family, and keeping Sundays blocked off for church and family. That means we tend to avoid signing up for things that involve dinnertime practices or that have regular Saturday events or games.

Our kids have lots of daily and weekly chores. For first and third graders, such chores might be loading the dishwasher, setting/clearing the table, taking out the trash, making lunches (and making their own breakfast), being responsible for their belongings, sweeping floors, mopping floors, taking care of a family pet’s food/water, etc. I have a chore book that outlines age appropriate chores in my webstore (only $2.99) that also gives instructions on common chores.

Bedtimes for these ages should be between 7 and 8 p.m., leaning toward earlier. They will be more tired at the start of school and kids need lots of sleep! Sleep should be a top priority, over sports and other activities. Kids who don’t get enough sleep don’t do well in school, etc.

Some elementary schools are finally seeing the wisdom of NOT assigning homework or very little homework, especially in the lower grades, but if yours isn’t one of them, then my advice is to stay out of homework as much as possible. I set an end time that homework had to be done (generally a half hour or so before the child’s bedtime), and then let the child decide when to do it. Some kids like to tackle it right away after school, while others need to play in the fresh air before their brains are able to handle more school work. If your child is struggling with homework directly after school, you might need to suggest a break before homework. Give the child space to do it, and don’t hover, etc.

One rule in our house that has served us well is that we never signed any papers or helped with any projects, etc., in the morning—that cut down on the AM chaos and also helped our kids to make sure everything was ready for the next day the night before. Yes, there have been tears when a child realized she’d forgotten to get our signature on something, but when we stood firm on that policy, the child learned not to wait until the last minute on things.

Overall, make sure your kids have plenty of free time. Play is essential to their well-being and academic success. I’d go so far as to say that free time for play is even more important than organized sports. Free play develops your child’s imagination and rejuvenates their mental and physical well-being.

A Child’s Frustration

Q: My 11-year-old son has autism. Recently, he told me that he should not live because he will never be able to achieve his dreams, that he will not be able to have a wife and children because he can’t have friends and he has problem to follow simple rules. He’s also said that he should not belong in this world because he can’t stop doing noise with his mouth even if he tries. He can’t stop putting his fingers in his nose, and everybody finds him disgusting. He can’t stop reading at night when it’s forbidden. He doesn’t want to do chores because it’s boring and he finds it really difficult. He said his sister is always on his back and she is not playing as the rules (he’s right).

In the last year he has changed and become more frustrated. He reacts to everything like it’s the end of the world, where he used to smile and laugh. A lot of people intimidate him at school. Tonight it crushed my heart. Any suggestions?

A: It’s always difficult when a child expresses his fears and anxieties in such a way—kids feel things so keenly and they don’t have the adult experience to know that what’s their reality now doesn’t have to be their reality tomorrow or the next day or the next month, etc. And they lack the skill set to enact change, especially bad habits.

At 11, your son is probably starting to experience puberty in some ways, so his emotions are likely to be all over the map, which means he’s not able to moderate his feelings. Everything’s a crisis!

How can you help as a mom? Along with the following suggestions, I’d also recommend talking with an autism specialist to see what you can do to help him navigate this time as his body starts to change and grow more.

  1. Ask him to identify which habit he wants to change the most, then help him devise a plan to conquer it. Don’t offer suggestions, rather guide him into finding solutions that he can work on.
  2. Share some of your own struggles to change something about yourself—how you tried and failed and keep trying.
  3. Read stories or books about people who overcame hard things by perseverance, etc. Watch movies on the same theme. The more you expose him to other stories of perseverance, the more he’ll absorb that storyline for himself.
  4. Stop trying to talk him out of feeling like he can’t have his dreams. Instead, ask him what he wants to work on to achieve those dreams—show him how to break things into small, tiny steps. He wants to follow simple rules. How does that start? By breaking those rules into steps.
  5. Also tell him that following through with his chores will help him in other areas, like his conquering his bad habits. Show him more clearly the line between cause (do your chores even though their boring) and effect (he develops a stronger ability to keep with something).
  6. Remind him that Rome wasn’t built in a day—that things take time. That he’s been doing these bad habits for a long time, so stopping will take time too.
  7. Above all, remind him in both words and deeds that he’s loved and that he’s exactly who God made him to be, warts and all. If you’re a believer, then reading Bible stories of heroes who fell but God still used them can be of great comfort to kids.

Will He Ever Wake Up Dry?

Q: Our nearly 5-year-old son has been daytime potty trained since 22 months but has never been nighttime dry. He had his tonsils and adenoids out a few months ago, and our pediatrician said that may help with his deep sleep/bedwetting and waking up since he had snoring and sleep apnea. He recovered very well and has stopped snoring.

We put him in undies at night over a month ago, and he didn’t even wake up when he was wet until it got cold. We got a bed alarm almost three weeks ago and have used it nightly since, but we seem to be going backwards with it. It is the kind that clips to his undies. He was waking up a little with the alarm at first (at least sitting up in bed, but not really awake), and we would go in a help him wake up, then walk himself to the bathroom, change his own clothes, cover the wet spot if there was one, and we help get the clip back his undies in the right spot.

The past week, he is completely sleeping through the alarm. we try to nicely but firmly wake him up, turn the lights on, and get him to the bathroom, but he is often so disoriented he just starts crying—sometimes turning into screaming. He is now only wetting about once a night (an improvement from three to four times!), but I am not sure if there is anything else we can do?

The screaming and crying is the part I am really struggling with—hard to keep calm in the middle of the night when he won’t get up! Do we just keep going helping him wake up, sometimes having to drag him out of the bed? Wanted to start potty training my 19 month old in about a month, but don’t know if I can handle both!

A: Let me first dispel some common myths about nighttime training based on my own experience and the experience of many friends, plus some commonsense.

First, wetting the bed is more biology than anything. A child who wets the bed on a regular basis literally can’t help it—he sleeps too soundly to wake up when his body tells him he has to pee.

Second, nighttime training has nothing to do with a child’s daytime potty training. Often, a boy will master daytime well before night time.

Third, bed wetting alarms only work when a child is ready for nighttime training. As you’ve seen yourself, your son is sleeping soundly through the alarm.

It’s obvious that your son isn’t ready biologically to not wet the bed. Some boys (my two sons included) aren’t ready for night time training until age 5 or even 6. Sometimes, family genes can play a part, such as one friend whose sons wet the bed until 8 or 9—her husband and his brothers experienced the same thing.

So I would ditch the undies at night and the bed-wetting alarm, and go back to diapers or a pull up at night. Have him put it on and take it off in the morning, etc.

When will he be ready to transition to undies at night? A good rule of thumb is when he starts waking up dry three or four mornings out of seven. When he does that for a week or two, then you can try underwear again. His body will tell him when he’s ready.

Things You Never Thought You’d Say as a Parent

 

We all say strange things to our kids! This month’s original cartoon is from RH in Tujuana, Calif., who told this story: “We woke up to find ants in our kitchen. My oldest daughter, then maybe 3, was very curious. I talked to her about anteaters and such, then she asked if she could eat one. I said it wouldn’t hurt. To my surprise, she actually did. She said it tasted spicy, like cinnamon. The she lay flat on the floor by the line of ants like she was going to lick them up. And thus the quote!”

Post your “Things You Never Thought You’d Say as a Parent” comment below—yours might be featured as a cartoon!

A Troubled Adult Son

Q: Our 29-year-old son was essentially a model child growing up, a good student with very few behavior issues. He graduated college in 2010, during which time he was charged twice for possession of marijuana. He also was prescribed anti-depressant medication during this time.

Upon graduation, he took a construction job, which he then lost due to a DUI and driving illegally on a restricted license. We had noticed behavioral changes after graduation—he developed an aggressive, sometimes hostile demeanor. He agreed to see a psychiatrist, but stopped after a short time. As his behavior became increasingly hostile and erratic, we suggested that he return to see the psychiatrist which he adamantly refused to do. Finally, after one particularly disturbing episode, during which he came to our home acting very strangely and ultimately became verbally and physically abusive, we, upon the advice of a psychiatrist friend, called the crisis mental health hotline and had him involuntarily committed to the hospital. We repeated that awful experience twice in the following month due to his continued bizarre behavior and his refusal to follow up with the mental health support team, which he had previously agreed to.

He is currently living alone in a house we own, and refuses to get a full-time job, preferring to try and get by doing odd jobs for people. Due to privacy issues, we never got a definitive diagnosis from the hospital, but nurses we spoke with mentioned schizo-affective and bipolar disorders. The psychiatrist he had seen prior to his hospitalization had advised us to stay in contact with him and to make sure he had food and shelter. His behavior continues to be unpredictable, and we are torn between cutting him off financially and telling him he is totally on his own, or continuing to be supportive, not knowing for certain just what his mental status is. Any suggestions would be appreciated.

A: First of all, I want to say how sorry I am that you’re going through this. I know it must be extremely painful and difficult to see your son not seek the professional help he clearly needs. However, as you’ve seen, there are limits to what you can do to help him, and unfortunately, you can’t make him get better–he has to want that for himself. And right now, it doesn’t look like he’s in a place to do that.

So what to do? You don’t mention that he’s doing drugs or other substances (alcohol, for example), so it appears that he does need medical intervention, which he is refusing. You already had him committed twice and that hasn’t worked out. If you can—and he’s not destroying your property or clearly endangering himself or others—then you could continue following the advice of his former psychiatrist.

However, I would caution you against throwing around diagnoses—you can’t know for sure what’s ailing your son, and talking nurses, who can’t tell you because of privacy laws, into speculating will only either give you a false impression or send you down the wrong path. For now, you will have to live with the fact that you might not know what’s exactly wrong with your son.

What you can do is to meet him on his terms (as long as he’s not being abusive to himself or others) and don’t try to change him—just love him and let him know that you do through word and deed.

Compassionate Outpourings

Kids are touched by news or images of natural disasters. Their hearts can be stirred by the site of a homeless person dragging their belongings around town. “Compassion, empathy, and the ability to collaborate with others are fast becoming the most important traits of social and emotional intelligence that contribute to kids’ well-being and their future career success,” said Katherine Ludwig, co-author of Humility Is the New Smart.

I recently wrote an article for the Washington Post on how kids can help after a natural disaster. Here’s some other ways kids can assist that didn’t make it into that piece.

Focus on the good. “It’s a balancing act to help kids understand suffering in the world without making them paranoid or obsessed with the risk that something could happen to them,” says Penny Hunter, mom to human rights activist Zach Hunter. Pointing out how others are helping—and encouraging your kids to do the same—can provide that sense of balance.

Pack meals. This can be done on a large scale with another group or individually, and even young kids can participate. Schools, faith-based organizations or clubs can pack meals or snacks for first responder, homeless shelters or other groups with a way to get the meals to those who need them.

Christina Moreland’s sons helped to sort donations at a church after Hurricane Harvey.

Donate goods. After natural disasters, clothing, toiletry items, blankets, pillows, and other household goods are needed. Go through your closets and let your kids decide which toys and clothes they could give away. “My kids helped us go through our house and make personal donations of our own,” said Christina Moreland, author of Secrets of the Super Mom and a Houston-area resident whose home was spared.

Serve those serving. Kids can bring cold drinks or snacks to first responders or others helping to clean up after a disaster. One Christmas, my kids decided to bake muffins and cookies to take to our local fire station to thank the firefighters for working on December 25.

Thinking of others is a lifelong journey, and the sooner we can put our children on that path, the more likely they will grow into adults with a compassionate heart.