A Kid With a Chip on His Shoulder

Q: My 9-year-old son constantly expresses how he feels slighted or cheated out of things. For example, he (not us) is always comparing himself to his 6-year-old brother or 3-year-old sister, talking about the things they get to do or are given by us or others. One example: he’s complained about his brother getting to go to a friend’s house. I counter that he needs to worry only about himself and remind him that he had just done X.

That doesn’t stop him from complaining about unfairness a bit later. I’m wondering if we’ve contributed to the comparison. Our kids have chores, are responsible for certain things around the house, aren’t given much money, etc. I often say to him that fair doesn’t always mean the same thing for everyone, it means that everyone gets what they need (not want!) 

He also recently started grumbling about his daily chores and told my mother that he is the “family slave” and has to do everything around the house. Which, of course, is not true at all. Help! We’re all tired of his attitude.

Image courtesy of Mister GC/FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of Mister GC/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

A: Nothing quite frustrates a parent than an ungrateful and complaining child, especially one to whom every action is interpreted as a slight against him. But rest assured this is quite typical, especially for a 9-year-old.

Don’t worry, that doesn’t mean you have to listen to his unfounded and unrealistic complaints! You have options and which one you pick depends on your personality and how much fun you want to have with this problem. (Seriously, if we can’t enjoy our children, even when they’re being pain in the necks, we miss out on a lot of joy in parenting!).

Option 1: Ignore. Stop reminding him of his blessings and engaging him on this subject. When he says things that compare him to others in or outside of the family, don’t comment. If he says he’s been slighted, smile and shrug and walk away–without a word. Let him stew in his own juices on this one.

Option 2: The Chair of Complaining. When he starts to complain, hold up your hand, grab a kitchen timer, and settle yourself in the chair of complaining (really, any comfortable chair). Set the timer for a minute or two, then tell him, “You’ve got two minutes to tell me your sob story” or something like that. Then listen, nod, commiserate with him as he tells his tale of woe. When the timer goes off, put your hand on his shoulder and say, “Well, sounds like you’ve had a tough time. Buck up, it’ll get better.” Then walk away, leaving behind a very bewildered boy who probably expected you to DO something about his problem.

Option 3: Designate a “Complaining” Room. Make an unused room in the house, like a powder room or guest room, into his own special complaining room. Show him the room when he hasn’t been complaining or comparing and tell him when he feels like the world has done him wrong and wants to say something about it, he needs to go here to do it. You’ll remind him if he forgets. Then simply direct him to go to the complaining room when he starts in.

All of these options have one thing in common: It moves the complaining monkey on your son’s shoulders. He’s more than capable of figuring out how to stop–with a nice push from Mom and Dad.

Overcoming Sibling Rivalry

Overcoming Sibling Rivalry

By Mary L. Hamilton

A favorite family story recalls the torment inflicted on our youngest brother. His white-blonde hair, sparkly blue eyes and wide, toothy smile melted hearts everywhere we went, but of course, the rest of us thought he was spoiled. We took every opportunity to impress on him his lack of status in the family hierarchy.

The school pictures Mother displayed on the fireplace mantel came in gray cardboard frames that were open on three sides, making it easy to slip the pictures in and out. I’d pull out my brother’s picture and slide it back in upside down–or even backwards so only the white showed. It never failed to upset him.

Sibling rivalry was alive and well between us back then, but somewhere along the way, I developed a deep affection and admiration for my youngest brother. Those childish jealousies and ill feelings don’t have to grow with us into adulthood, haunting our relationships forever. With my siblings and my own children, I believe three actions helped promote a sense of camaraderie rather than rivalry.

  1. Laugh together. Keep a sense of humor. Whenever our daughter used the bathroom, our youngest son liked to crouch outside the door and pretend to place a fast food order in the air space beneath the door. It deeply irritated her, but we often explained to her how funny it was to see her little brother on his hands and knees saying, “Cheeseburger!” under the door. Now, the mere utterance of the word sends us all into gales of laughter.
  2. Encourage and recognize thoughtfulness. Whether the kids are sharing a cookie, finding a lost toy or giving a spontaneous hug, the simplest acts of kindness can be used to point out “What a nice brother!” or “See how much your sister loves you!” Such phrases not only help children see what love looks like, they also encourage more such acts of kindness and giving.
  3. Recognize each child’s personal strengths. Rarely are two children equally gifted in the same area, and their interests or gifts are usually identifiable at an early age. At 18 months, our athletic oldest son was bobbing a basketball in the toilet, and our youngest figured out how to get on the Internet in the early days when it was new and required several steps. Our daughter’s servant heart became obvious through her continual pretend game of waitressing. Sometimes, it’s difficult for children to see where they excel, especially when it’s not always in subjects taught at school or on a sports team. Pointing out your children’s unique gifts and strengths dampens the temptation to compete with each other.

In my parents’ home, graduation pictures hung on the wall eventually replaced those school pictures on the mantel. Today, there are few people I’d rather spend time with than my siblings. We still laugh about finding those graduation pictures mysteriously hanging upside down—all except the one showing the teen with the sparkly blue eyes and the wide, toothy grin.

7-21-15   Mary L. Hamilton grew up at a youth camp in southern Wisconsin, much like the setting for her Rustic Knoll Bible Camp series. While raising her own three        children, she was active in her church’s youth ministry, including serving as a camp counselor for a single week (once was enough!). Mary is an award-winning    writer, a graduate of Long Ridge Writer’s Group and a member of ACFW. When not writing, she enjoys knitting, reading and being outdoors. Connect with Mary  on her website: http://www.maryhamiltonbooks.com and on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/maryhamiltonbooks.

Discouragement With Discipline

Q: I am trying to discipline my 8-year-old and 9-year-old girls using the 8-day Strike method as outlined in John Rosemond’s The Well Behaved Child book. Basically, that means the first four strikes are warnings, and there are no consequences. The last four strikes have consequences, with the final strike being confinement to their room.

It’s been working but my issue is my girls seem to only do what they are supposed to do when there is a consequences or if I’m around to make sure they do it. I’m discouraged. I want them to obey because it’s right—not because someone is making them. I’m afraid when they go off to college, they’ll just do whatever they feel like. You know the saying, “While the cat’s away, the mice will play.”

Am I expecting too much of them? Am I being too hard?

—A Discouraged Mama

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici/FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

A: Ah, you’ve expressed one of the biggest concerns parents have today—that their children won’t learn to be obedient simply because it’s the right thing to do. So we get discouraged and feel our discipline efforts are not working, and then we switch to something else because we want to reach down into their hearts and make them want to choose right for its own sake.

But we can’t. In this situation, the only person who can make the choice to do the right thing simply because it’s the right thing to do is the child. We as parents cannot change a child’s heart, no matter how much we want to or how much we can see the path they’ve chosen isn’t a good one.

However, that doesn’t mean we simply throw up our hands in despair and leave off leveling consequences altogether. No, it means we come to grips with why we’re disciplining in the first place—and with the limitations of discipline.

We discipline because we want to guide our children onto the path of righteousness. We discipline to ensure our children know—even if they don’t want to admit it by word or deed—that there is right and wrong, that doing bad things is not okay. We discipline to awaken and strengthen the child’s own fledging conscience into becoming stronger and more robust for the future. We discipline because it’s the right thing for us as parents to do.

We also recognize that consequences, no matter how appropriate, have limitations. Consequences can’t stop a child from destructive behavior in all circumstances. Consequences don’t always deter a child from misbehavior. Consequences can’t change a child’s heart.

It’s that latter truth that has parents tied up in knots. The fact that there is no perfect consequence that will make a child have an obedient heart. The most we can hope for, pray for, is that the discipline will make a child think about his or her behavior, that they will become more thoughtful and less impulsive, that they will behave better overall and not worse.

Consequences show the child that there is a price to be paid for wrongful behavior, and that’s a very important lesson. Some children learn it quickly; some children take the roundabout way and require more discipline along the road. Some children never learn it and are undisciplined even as adults.

So keep on keeping on with your discipline, and don’t worry overmuch about the future. You are laying a foundation upon which your daughters will build their lives. How they choose to use that foundation is up to them, but it’s part of our job to provide for them the firmness possible one.

Playground Fun

My favorite piece of playground equipment at school was a “flying saucer” type metal structure that had a pod of sorts supported in the air and accessed by ladder “feet.” I loved climbing up there and pretending to be all sorts of things. Metal slides, merry-go-rounds, teeter totters (see saws), jungle gyms and of course swings provided the background for make believe and games with friends or solo.

Then parents started getting over involved in their children’s lives and viewed such playground equipment not as fertile ground for imagination and exploration but accidents waiting to happen. Of course, kids had been getting hurt on playgrounds for years—and still do manage to break arms, legs and the occasional head—but the idea that playgrounds could be made, should become, safe blossomed and took root.

Image courtesy of Feelart/FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of Feelart/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Nowadays, you’ll be hard put to find a merry-go-round (I’m very thankful there’s a very active one in a Fairfax City park), and metal anything, from
slides to jungle gyms, have disappeared completely. It’s plastic playgrounds designed for maximum “play value” positioned over mulch or rubberized flooring to cushion any jumps, bumps or falls. We’re spending more than ever to keep our children “safe” on playgrounds ( a recent Washington Post article put it that some localities shell out a million dollars on playground equipment, design and installation).

What I wonder, though, is if we’ve traded something unique to a child in designing ever “safer” outdoor spaces. The article talked about kids wanting more “to do” at a park, as if nature, danger and imagination weren’t enough to spark some serious play action. Of course, part of the problem is that parents don’t know how to let their kids play on their own anymore. They follow their child around the playground, usually with a running commentary on what the child is doing, seeing or experiencing. Which isn’t too terrible when the child in question is a toddler, but it even then, letting the child explore on his own is a good idea.

So my challenge to all parents this summer is to take your kids to a park and/or playground with a good book to occupy yourself—then turn them loose with instructions not to bother you. Bury your head in the book and don’t worry about the what ifs (what if he climbs too high, what if she falls off the swing…). Instead, give your children the gift of a relaxed mom who has complete faith in their ability to navigate the wonderful world God has given us.

What are some of your favorite childhood memories of playing in a park or on a playground? Do you offer your kids the same opportunities you had in that regard?

Until next time,

Teenage Love

Q: Our 17-year-old son has his first girlfriend. He’s always been a respectful and compassionate person, who is the outwardly sensitive. But since he started dating this girl (which we do like), he’s eating, breathing, sleeping, dreaming about this girl. They’ve been dating half a year now and of course have become closer.

During the school year, he’d drive half an hour one way to see her a couple of times a week. But now that school is out, he wants to spend time with her every day. He does yard work for gas and fun money, but now he spends it all on her and their relationship.

We’ve raised our son to know right from wrong, and taught him what God has to say about sexual intimacy. We’re also trying to be understanding of their relationship, but our son also needs to understand he still has curfews and other duties at home. Any advice on navigating this would be appreciated.

A: Ah, “the course of true love never did run smooth!” That Shakespeare sure knew a thing or two about young love (the quote is from A Midsummer’s Night Dream), but for many parents of teens who fall in love for the first time, that relationship can test the bonds of family.

A few things can help you navigate your son’s first serious love relationship. First, remember that his feelings are very strong—and unfamiliar—which gives the relationship a different feel from other crushes. His feelings are as real as your love for your spouse, although you know from experience that he’s in the infatuation stage. You also know that his age means the relationship will likely not last the summer. All that means is that you should tread lightly when discussing his feelings. Try to stay on the balance beam between too harsh or realistic comments and too empathetic ones.

Second, you are still the parent! You can set limits on how often he sees the girl in person, regardless of who’s paying for the gas. Yes, he should have freedom, but all freedom comes with limits. Personally, I would make sure he has plenty of household chores to keep him occupied at home some days, as well as spending time with friends.

Third, get to know the girl. One of your limits could be that he must bring her back to your house at least once a week to spend time hanging out there. Talk to her, find out what makes her tick, have your son and his girlfriend cook dinner for your family one night, etc. Invite her family over for a barbecue. That way, you’ll have develop a relationship with her as well, and provide opportunities to discuss some of your values in the course of natural conversation.

Finally, talk to them about God, but don’t preach. Pray for them both. You could also think about starting a youth Bible study in your home once a week this summer. Ask your pastor for a good book for that, not necessarily one related to relationships, but one that would spark good discussion and consideration about spiritual things. Have your son invite his friends, and she can invite hers. But you should provide the location and the snacks, then let the kids do the study. Be available for questions, but allow them to tackle things on their own.

Remember, ultimately, your son is responsible for his own actions. It sounds like you’ve done a good job guiding him and showing him the path of righteousness. Now it’s time to step back and let him go on his own. Yes, he might make mistakes. Yes, he’s liable to have his heart broken. But that’s all part of growing up.

Healthy Eating

I’m often asked by parents how to get kids to eat their vegetables, especially those beyond the stray carrot or french fry (hey, a potato IS a veggie). Our kids will generally eat their veggies–and often ask for more–but that’s because we’ve made the “one-bite” rule a firm policy and we try to serve a wide variety of vegetables in many different ways. One of the easiest and most enjoyable ways is to get your kids involved in the gathering process. You can take your child to the grocery store and let him pick out the broccoli for Tuesday’s dinner, but it’s a lot more fun to visit a local pick-your-own farm and see the broccoli in its natural habitat–and pick some fresh for dinner or a snack. The ability to interact with nature, to see how veggies look when growing, to pick fruit or veggies at the height of ripeness–those are the things that turn kids from veggie haters to veggie eaters (and possibly veggie lovers!).

For more on why picking your own is important to a child’s eating habits, read my recent blog in the Washington Post’s On Parenting, “Does picking their own produce make kids more likely to eat it?” The answer in my experience is a resounding Yes!

Until next time,

Happy Independence Day!

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness….

Image courtesy of noppasinw/FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of noppasinw/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Thus begins the Declaration of Independence, one of the greatest documents in the history of the world. But a document is only as valid, as living and breathing, as those who uphold its truths, who live its values, who strive to teach their children the rightness of that cause.

We do our children a great disservice when we don’t show love and respect to our nation. Sure, there are things we would like to see different—and we have elections and other ways to change what we don’t like and keep what we do. But that doesn’t mean we allow those things to color our overall respect and admiration for the United States of America.

This Fourth of July, let your patriotism shine. Sing the national anthem and think about the words rather than the music. View a parade and honor our veterans who fought for our freedom and the freedom of those in oppressed countries. See the fireworks and remember the reason they were launched 239 years ago in celebration the throwing off of tyranny and the formation of a nation.

Talk with your kids about what July 4 means to you beyond the picnics and barbecue and fireworks and cotton candy. Ask them what they think about independence. For older kids, read aloud the Declaration of Independence. We often never get past the first two paragraphs and forget all that the founders of our country went through and why independence was the only solution.

How do you teach your children about our country’s independence?

What To Do With Kids in Summer?

Summertime, that magical time and place where kids are released from the fetters of school and tossed out into the wild to while away the lazy, hazy days. We spent many hours exploring our neighborhood, playing with friends, visiting relatives (usually after a long, hot car trip!), and figuring out that you really can’t die from boredom.

These days, kids are more apt to go from one camp to another or one enriching activity after another. Sometimes, that’s by necessity because of work schedules, but more times than not, it’s because parents don’t know what to do with their children when school is out.

Of course, parents don’t need to do anything, not really. I always encourage parents to have as much fun as they want with their children—only as long as it’s as fun for Mom and Dad as it is for the kids. Here are three ways to balance between too much and too little with your kids this summer.

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Figure out your tolerance level. Rather than feel guilty for not doing enough, work on shelving the guilt and enjoying the activities you accomplish instead. If you love to go places all the time, then load up the kiddies and take off for adventures on a weekly basis. But if you don’t? Then pick a few things to scatter throughout your summer and enjoy those outings to the fullest.

Make learning part of everyday. So many times, parents panic when summer rolls around, thinking we have to whip out the math worksheets or Junior will forget everything he’s learned. I suggest using everyday things instead, sort of “stealth” math and science and reading and writing. A trip to the grocery store is great for practicing math (how much will we save with these coupons? what is the lowest price on dried beans?). Encourage science experiments outside (can you really fry an egg on the sidewalk when the temperature is in the upper 90s?). Make the library a frequent stop for new books and participate in summer reading programs.

Build in “down time.” Give kids plenty of opportunity to utter the phrase, “I’m bored.” Boredom leads to all sorts of discoveries, shores up imaginations and allows kids to dream and wonder about a whole host of things. Studies have shown that letting kids have nothing to do for long stretches of time—nothing formal, that is, like organized sports, camps, etc.—reinvigorates their brains and gives them time to grow and stretch.

Until next time


Blending a Family

Q: We will be blending a family, with a brother (11 years old) and sister (9 years old) soon to be siblings with a boy (12 years old). The boys haven’t been getting along, and we are finding ourselves constantly in the middle mediating between the two of them! What are good ways to spend time with the children all together? And will the fighting ever stop?

Image courtesy of amenic181/FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of amenic181/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

A: Blending a family is not unlike making a cake—add the ingredients out of order, whip too hard or forget a crucial component, and things don’t turn out so hot. Above all, don’t expect things to calm down right away. Depending on whether you’re moving to a new house to both of you (highly recommended if at all possible–puts all kids on even ground) or to a house one of you currently lives in, you’ll have to navigate these waters carefully. But it can be done!

Here are a few general tips (I cover blended families and sibling conflict more thoroughly in my book, Ending Sibling Rivalry: Moving Your Kids From War to Peace):

Schedule one-on-one time. Make sure each child spends alone time with his/her parent on a regular basis—and with the step-parent as well. Schedule this time in advance and make it a priority. Seeing it on the family calendar will show each child that this is as important to you as it is to them. It will make the world of difference. On these outings, let the child guide the conversation and try not to bring up the other siblings.

Don’t expect the kids to do everything together. If one boy did soccer, the other one doesn’t have to join his team, for example. Let them have their own area in the home, too, whether it’s their room or a certain part of their room that’s theirs–and help them keep the other siblings away from that place. Having a place of their own, and the time to spend there by themselves, will help smooth ruffled feathers and give each child breathing room.

Spend time together. Let the kids suggest and rotate who gets to pick (let them pick numbers out of a hat to decide the order). Sure, they might grumble about it, but if you ignore most of that, it will soon go away (and allow the kid to start participating without worrying about an “I said you would enjoy it” from a parent). At the beginning, you might have to pick the event or activity, but as long as you make it non-optional to attend, the newly formed sibling group will likely begin to act better.

Treat all kids like yours. You are parents to all three now, so act like it. Don’t play favorites, don’t allow misbehavior in yours and not in “his.” If you go forward like all three kids are “real” siblings and not “step” brothers and sister, that will set the right tone in your home and the kids will likely follow your lead.

May 2015 Practical Parenting: Let’s Ditch Being “Mean” Moms

I had no idea what I was getting into when I became a mother. I’m not talking about the anxious anticipation before the birth, when everything seemed possible and impossible at the same time. I don’t mean the late nights with a screaming baby who refused to nurse or sleep. Nor the tired days when I felt like a zombie. I don’t mean the longing for the baby to pick a schedule—any schedule!—and stick with it please, pretty please, before I go crazy.

What I didn’t have a clue about was the fact that I had to make so many decisions. Not about what outfit to put on my baby, but what ideological camps I would join, such as

  • Breast-is-best or bottle-is-fine?
  • Working mother or a stay-at-home mom?
  • Organic-only or conventional food?
  • Public, private or homeschool?
  • Bubble-wrap or free-range?

I truly had no clue that becoming a mother meant picking sides in battles in which I didn’t want to participate. I might have breast-fed my four kids for 13 or 14 months, but that doesn’t mean I thought everyone who used formula was harming their babies. I choose to stay home but that doesn’t mean I thought working mothers should quit their jobs. I might send my children to public school, but that doesn’t mean I think that’s the right choice for all kids. I might embrace fostering independence in children but that doesn’t mean I think those who don’t are raising milquetoast kids.

But what I’ve noticed is that we certainly act like those who don’t do exactly like we do as mothers are, in fact, certifiable idiots. That they are actually hurting their children by not raising them just like us. That they must get in lock-step so that we can feel justified about our own decisions.

And frankly, that hurts deeply. It hurts every time I read another article about the Mommy Wars. It hurts every time I see another mother look browbeaten for taking out her non-organic snack at the playground. It hurts every time I see a mother in the grocery store struggling with her screaming kids and looking embarrassed by the fuss.

When are we mothers going to stop wanting, no needing, all moms to be in agreement with our parenting choices? We should be supporting each other in child-rearing, not arguing over cloth versus disposable diapers. We should be helping each other, not picking sides and lobbing word grenades at the opposing team.

Here are six ways we can halt this merry-go-round of divisiveness and work together in this calling to raise children. And yes, I’m speaking to myself as I write these, as I’ve been more apt to do the negative, than the positive.

Be helpful, not condemning. How many times do you see a mother struggling with crying kids and walk quickly past? Instead, why don’t we offer a smile and a word of encouragement? Offer to load the groceries in the van while she puts the kids in their seats? Let her go ahead of you in line? It’s the little gestures that mean more than anything when you’re in the throes of the hard parts of raising kids.

Be grateful, not superior. How many times have we seen another mother with unruly kids, for example, and thought, “I would never allow my children to behave like that?” When in reality, every single one of us has had “bad” parenting moments where our children misbehaved in public. Remembering that we are not perfect, that we all have off days, that none of us would like our parenting mishaps to be displayed for all the world to see, can help us cultivate a grateful heart instead of a superior one.

Be kind, not strident. How many times do we simply yell louder when someone doesn’t agree with our parenting position? Instead, let’s try to be kind when others have a different point of view. We’ve lost the ability to debate in a way that doesn’t shred our emotions, that doesn’t browbeat our opponents. We should be able to agree to disagree on some of the hot mommy topics. However, we must be careful not to be condescending to those who hold an opposing view, but treat them as fellow mothers alongside is on this path that is child rearing. Isn’t there room at the mothering table for both breastfed and bottle-fed babies, for instance?

Be open, not secretive. How many times have you felt able to share your worst parenting moment with friends? We should be able to tell of the time when we left our kids at the gym or dropped the baby on the floor. We should nurture an attitude of openness among our friends and families that would allow us to disclose our frustrations and our mistakes, as well as our joys and successes. We all need to unburden ourselves of our fears and our stresses, but if we don’t have a safe place to do so, we will keep those emotions bottled up inside us. That’s not good for us as mothers and it’s certainly not good for our children, either.

Be watchful, not fearful. How many times have you seen a child not your own walking or playing and berated the absent mother to yourself? Fifty years ago, mothers watched out for other children in the neighborhood, at the local playground, walking down the street. Mothers back then didn’t call the police—instead, they kept an eye on the child to make sure nothing happened to him or her. If they left the area, they would often point out the child to another mother, passing along the passive watching that ensured all children were safe. Today, our first thought is to call the police. Let’s work together on ensuring our children are safe by being willing to watch other kids while our own are playing.

Be careful, not careless. How many times have you tossed off a comment in person, on social media, or in an email that denigrated another parent? I’m just as guilty as the next person for making remarks about moms I haven’t met—and those I have. We should have more care in how we talk about other mothers, even if we’re not being overly mean. We never know when a careless comment can find its mark and devastate a mother’s heart. The more careful we are in our speech about mothers and mothering, the more we can build a better environment where all mothers feel safe and secure.

Raising children has its own challenges—let’s not make it harder with our careless speech, our strident tone, our fearful attitude, our secretive nature, our superior outlook or our condemning spirit. If we all strive together to be helpful, kind, grateful, careful, watchful and open, we can change mothering—and mothers—for the better.