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.

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.).

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.

Things You Never Thought You’d Say as a Parent

We all say strange things to our kids! This month’s original cartoon is inspired by Elizabeth Maddrey of Woodbridge, Va. “The licking is apparently a thing at our house. I don’t know why because neither my husband or I go around licking things or people—so it’s not like this is a learned behavior. The first time I said that was after I had finished a spate of ‘don’t touch your brother,’ ‘don’t hit your brother,’ ‘I don’t care if he’s about to fall to his death, don’t put your hands on your brother,’ and so forth. The smarty kid then decided that licking was not putting his hands on his brother and so therefore might be acceptable. In fact, it is not,” she explained.

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

Parenting Advice That Makes You Go Hmmmm: Giving Homework to Parents?

In the fall, Fairfax County Public Schools included this little gem in its weekly email under the headline: “Tips for Parents: Let Your Elementary-Age Child Give You Homework.”

The short piece read like this: “For many parents, it’s been a long time since they had to do homework. So when their children complain about it, they aren’t always sympathetic. Parents can better understand what their children are going through if they go through it too. Once every week or so, let your child give you an assignment. Even if it’s easy for you, don’t show it. Instead, ask your child to help you. One of the best ways for children to learn something is by teaching it to someone else. It will make your child feel important and a little smarter. It’s a great ego booster.”

To which I scratched my head at the convoluted thought process: I can’t understand my child not wanting to do homework because I don’t have any homework of my own? However, I did go to school, and at that time, I did have homework. But those distant memories aren’t enough for me to emphasize or sympathize with my fourth or fifth grader today.

Furthermore, life is full of things we don’t want to do, like dishes, laundry, grocery shopping, housecleaning, bill paying, taxes, etc. All of us, no matter if we “work” outside the home or not, have busy work (aka, homework) that needs to be done that we don’t particularly like doing. Learning how to summon the internal will to do such work is part of growing up—and the more our youngsters have to deal with unpleasant but necessary tasks, the more used to them they’ll become and the more able to overcome their natural resistance to get ‘er done.

I originally posted a brief comment on Facebook after receiving the email, and I quickly found out I wasn’t the only parent wondering why this was put forth as a good idea. One local reader—who has kids in Fairfax County Public School too—said, “What cracks me up about that argument is that we have experienced it…because we went to school. And we had homework! And my parents just asked if I did it. They didn’t sit over my shoulder to make sure I did it and they certainly didn’t offer to do any assignments with me!”

Another pointed out, “The great thing about being human is that I can imagine what it’s like to have a mouthful of thumbtacks without experiencing it!!!” One poster had a good thought: “If kids can give parent’s homework, then can parents give teachers homework?”

The bottom line is that parents can empathize with our kids without resorting to dumb ideas like allowing them to assign us homework that we pretend to have trouble doing. When I read this out loud to my kids at dinner one night, my high schooler, middle schooler, fifth grader and fourth grader thought it was a pretty funny—and very strange—idea. As my fifth grader said, “Why would I want to give you homework?”

It’s ideas like this that make kids sometimes view adults as, well, not the brightest bulb in the socket.

January Parenting Thought of the Month: Kids Do Weird Things

As we start a fresh year with no mistakes (yet!), it’s good for parents to remember that their children are perfectly capable on any given day to do something totally off the wall, mean or downright illegal. Parents can do everything right and their kids can still choose to do the wrong thing.

For example, one of our kids used to walk down the hallway with tongue out, licking the wall. Another child spit at a classmate in anger during lunch (the classmate then stabbed my child in the hand with a plastic fork—yikes, good thing they were both first graders at the time, so no harm done). This is just a sampling of how strange our kids can be…and how unpredictable their behavior, even when said kids “know” the right thing to do or not to do.

Many times, a child acting in an unpredictable way can trigger a corresponding paralysis in the parent, especially the mother. The parent tries to decipher why the child did what he or she did, often wondering if the behavior was the result of some parenting misstep. More time and energy is spent on trying to figure out the why behind the behavior than addressing the behavior, and confusion often reigns in the wake of such incidents.

Since every parent will encounter something strange, weird, despicable or downright bad behavior in their child at some point along their parenting journey, what should a parent do in these situations? Here’s what I keep in mind when my kids go off the rails—or simply act according to their kid-nature.

  • Ignore the kid stuff. From licking a wall to drawing with spit on a window, we should learn to let go of the weird things kids do without overreacting. Sure, tell them to stop if it’s really annoying you, but if it’s simply that you find it strange that they want to do that (like jumping in mud puddles after a rain or only wanting to wear a princess crown instead of hair bows), you should probably let them enjoy being a kid. After all, there’s enough time for them to adhere to adult conventions.
  • Remind the child that you still love her despite her actions, but that there are consequences for what she did. Be prepared to level appropriate punishments so that there’s hopefully not a repeat of the behavior. In other words, love the child but still punish her if appropriate (or follow through if a school suggests consequences at home in addition to school).
  • Help the child take responsibility. This means the parent doesn’t step in and shield the child from his actions, but step alongside the child and, depending on the age of the kid, show him what he needs to do to make it right. This should include sincere apologies, preferably both written and verbal, and an offer of restitution.
  • Make the child assume full restitution for any damage. For a teenager, this could mean you front the money to pay for the broken window or defaced property, then he works odd jobs or a part-time job until the debt is paid. For a younger child who has little earning potential, this could mean that he pays on a sliding scale and perhaps does extra work for the person or place (such as weeding a garden at school or helping to clean up after an event) until the debt has been paid. In both cases, be clear what it will take to wipe the slate clean, such as a specific dollar amount for older kids or a certain number of extra chores that specifically benefit the person or place that was harmed (such as a school that the child defaced with graffiti, for example).

Five Parenting Hacks

I’m often asked what are some easy ways to make raising kids more enjoyable and less stressful. Here are my top five in no particular order. If you adopt even one of these in the coming year, I think you’ll find yourself more calm and confident as a parent.

  1. Develop a parental vision. How would you describe your child at age 30? How you answer that question tells about your parenting vision for your children. Think about the vision you have for your children, then think about how you are parenting. Do your decisions as a parent reflect the vision you have for your kids? Do the things you encourage your children to accomplish build toward the vision you have for them as adults?
  2. Parent with open hands by encouraging independence. Let the child solve his own problems first before stepping in immediately. Refrain from doing things the child is capable of doing for himself. Recently, I saw a parent take off his second or third grader’s shoes for no other reason than because she demanded it. That parent needed to stop doing for his daughter what she was perfectly able to do for herself. Stop being your child’s social director—let him initiate playdates, especially as the child inches into upper elementary school age. Finally, develop interests of your own apart from your kids, as it gives you perspective and, well, a life of your own.
  3. Disconnect to reconnect. The ability to be “in touch” with others 24/7 has created an environment totally different from that of a mere 20 years ago. An unintentional side effect of being so connected is that parents—and children—have become worn out. We’re warned about what we—and our children—are looking at on our screens, but rarely are we cautioned about what the mere fact that what we’re so linked is doing to our relationships. Have technology free zones (like at dinner, overnight, etc.). Get out and do things as a family without technology.
  4. Stop playing Parent Detective. Don’t spend so much effort worrying about trying to understand why your child does the things she does. It doesn’t make you a better parent if you understand everything about your child—it makes you an ineffective parent because you’re constantly assessing the why and forgetting about the what. The what is what’s most important. We should be more concerned with the what of our children’s behavior than the why. Sure, we need to point out the heart issues, but that doesn’t mean we give them a pass on the misbehaviors because we know the reasons. So many times, parents are so laser-focused on finding out the why that they forget to address the what.
  5. Use Alpha Speech. Moms especially use way too many words when communicating with our children, and this opens up the door for arguments and pushback. Instead of saying, “Mrs. Smith is coming over today and the living room is a mess. I need you to pick up your toys so Mrs. Smith doesn’t step on them, okay?” Alpha Moms say, “Pick up the toys in the living room.” This cuts down on arguments tremendously and it also allows the child to more clearly hear the directive.

What are some of your favorite child-rearing hacks?