Playing School

Q: My 9-year-old son is getting in trouble at school for playing games. He has also started missing assignments. He went to his room at 4 p.m. last Friday and Saturday evening for the remainder of the day. On Sunday, he had to sit in our formal living room for two hours to think about his choices. He has had no electronics of any kind, and still went back to school and played the games again. What more punishment will work?

A: You’ve fallen into the trap most parents stumble into at one point or another: looking for the magic bullet consequence to get a kid to change his behavior. But the fact of the matter is, there is no one perfect punishment that will make your son stop playing games at school when he’s supposed to be doing something else.

That’s because he doesn’t care about stopping that behavior.

Let me put it this way: Until Son cares about not playing games at school, he’s not going to change his behavior.

But that doesn’t mean you stop trying to influence him to change his ways with consequences. Parents should continue to do the right thing even when a child does the wrong thing. This is one of the hardest lessons for moms and dads to learn, because we want to fix the problem immediately. We want Junior to straighten up and fly right. And most of the time, children whose parents are consistent in applying punishments (but inconsistent with what those punishments are) will behave themselves. Not always, not all the time, but most of the time.

Image courtesy of nalinratphi/

Now, back to your son and his game playing at school. You don’t mention what the response of his teacher has been to his playing games, and you don’t mention what kind of games he’s able to play during class without the teacher noticing (which I assume is happening). Without some of these facts, I’m not sure how helpful I can be in addressing this problem.

So here’s a starting point. Use something like the report card method. Each day, your son has to bring home a piece of paper with either a Yes or No written and signed by his primary teacher. A Yes means he can go about his day normally. A No means he’s on lock down—restricted to his room without any of his toys, games, music, etc., and to bed very early (like 6 p.m.).

To get a Yes, he has to complete and turn in all assignments due that day or given in class to do, and to stay on task (no game playing, etc.). If he misses just one assignment or fails to stay on task, he gets a No for the day. He automatically gets a No if he fails to bring home the paper for any reason.

Each day starts new, with no carryovers from the previous day. Furthermore, you are only to ask about the report—not if he has homework, was on task, etc.

Plus, you support whatever the teacher or school wants to do in terms of punishment for his playing games in class. It’s essential to know that you are not going to bail him out for his own mistakes.

This might take a while to resolve itself, but consistence on your part without drama or overreaching to “make him care,” should get through to Son and provide enough of an impetus to change his game-playing ways.

A Kid’s Problem With “Alternative Facts”

Q: We are having honesty issues with our 6-year-old daughter. I’ve heard, “Ask no questions, and they’ll tell you no lies.” However there are times when we really require honesty, but are finding that she can be a bit murky with answers. For example, she will claim she’s hungry to get a snack earlier, claim she did not get out the umbrella to get out of trouble, or say she’s had a nap in order to stay up later in the evening.

It’s gotten the point that we are never sure if it’s the truth or just another lie. When asked a straightforward question, she is unable to give a straight answer, going from yes to no to maybe, or no answer at all, especially when she knows it’s important.

We have removed TV from her schedule, which she loves, and now require that she gets 30 stickers in a row (1 a day) for a day of honesty and straight, clean answers. When she lies, she goes to bed early that day. Have you any opinions on if we should continue the program? Or other suggestions on how else we could handle this problem?

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/

A: Ah, yes, the child with trouble telling the truth isn’t something new—this is an age-old problem! Yes, you should require honesty, but since your daughter has trouble with stating the facts then you need to stop asking her for honesty at this time. Some kids go through a phase where they can’t seem to tell the truth. I suspect she’ll outgrow this with a little assist from mom and dad. Here are my suggestions.

Stop asking her questions—and she will have fewer opportunities to lie. Use statements only with her and don’t let her drag you into arguing that “she didn’t do it” or whatever she might respond to your statement. Make your best reasonable guess as to her role in whatever situation and go with that.

Don’t engage in arguments. Just because a child wants to argue doesn’t mean the adult has to respond. This is key—you are the only one capable of walking away or not saying anything in response to the gauntlet your daughter throws down. For example, you notice the umbrella has been broken and you had told your daughter earlier not to play with it. You reasonable deduce that she has disobeyed. You tell her, “You broke the umbrella.” She responds, “No, I didn’t break it!” You repeat, “You broke the umbrella. Now X will happen.” She responds, “You’re always blaming me for everything!” You walk away.

Decide ahead of the situation what Daughter will be allowed to do. For example, you already know what you’ll do if Daughter asks for a snack or to stay up later, etc., regardless of whether she’s hungry, napped, etc. In other words, don’t let Daughter dictate these things—you already have a plan for the day. For instance, you decide to eat dinner earlier because of evening schedules, so you decide no snacks in the afternoon for the kids. You’ve noticed Daughter seems more tired lately, so you decide no late nights for the week. That sort of thing.

You also read stories about the importance of truthfulness. Stories like the Boy Who Cried Wolf, George Washington and the Cherry Tree and other books or tales provide a safe way for children to explore what it means to be dishonest and what the consequences are for those who lie. Literature is great at helping children realize their own faults.

For now, I’d stop the Honesty chart. Sometimes, when too much attention is paid to a particular problem like lying, it morphs into an even bigger one. Overall, stop talking about honesty and stop asking her for honesty for two to three months, and see if it doesn’t resolve itself.

Unsolicited Advice of the Parenting Kind

Recently, a reader wrote to say that “we are about to start toilet training and are getting so much negative feedback!” She went on to say that she keeps getting sent articles about how starting toilet training too early will be detrimental to her child’s overall well-being. The reader ended with “Maybe I should have kept my potty-training thoughts to myself.”

Her non-question brought up a very real concern in today’s age of over-sharing and an attitude of “I know best for everyone—listen to me.” How do you handle unsolicited child-rearing advice or concerns?

It’s something I struggle with as a mom of four and as a trained parent coach. There have been times when what I’m saying as a speaker to other moms and dads isn’t well received because they disagree with where I’m coming from. There have been times when I’ve given an answer the parent doesn’t want to hear (and I can tell by her expression, isn’t going to take).

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/

I’ve shared what we’ve done in certain situations…and felt the roomful of moms initially recoil but eventually see the truth and freedom that comes from doing the right thing even though society at large might not agree with my decisions.

Because of my training in parenting, I don’t often receive unsolicited advice, but my standard response is: “Thank you for sharing your concerns or information.” Then I smile and change the subject. I find it’s best to not engage, just acknowledge their thoughtfulness (choose to interpret that way instead of intrusiveness and you’ll be able to deflect the person much more easily), and move on to something else. Ask a question about some benign child rearing issue that you don’t care one whit about if you must—redirection is key.

But on the flip side, I’ve also had to bite my tongue to avoid giving advice or solutions to problems friends or relatives haven’t asked to hear. I don’t want to be the one who can’t keep her opinions to herself on matters of raising kids.

That doesn’t mean I’m not true to who I am, but it does mean that I try to be more careful to read the situation to see if my advice would be welcome. Sometimes, I’ll even ask before launching into what I would do. Other times, I catch myself on a tear, and apologize for hijacking the conversation into one of my parenting talks. Still others, I wait to be asked my opinion, and if it’s not solicited, then I move on to something else.

I also try not to criticize how others are raising kids. No one wins that game, and while friends, family, acquaintances might be handling a situation differently than how I would (and could be creating more angst while doing so), it’s not up to me to fix that problem.

We should be supportive, rather than critical; warm and accepting, rather than pointing fingers; listening, rather than speaking. Raising kids has enough challenges without throwing in moms and dads being afraid to open their mouths and share their troubles or concerns.

Until next time,

Mothers and Daughters

As a daughter (and a mother of daughters), I have firsthand knowledge of the complicated relationship between moms and daughters. As one with two sisters (and a brother) more than a decade older than me—and with a brother and sister more than a decade younger than me—I’m in a unique position to see this in a microcosm of our family.

For example, I experienced how my mom related to adult children while I was in my tweens and early teens. At the same time, I saw how my mom related to babies/toddlers while in my middle teens. I also could see patterns in how my mom raised daughters in particular. For example, how my mother communicated with my younger sister when she was a teenager echoed how she did so with me. When my mother told me how my younger sister adversely reacted to certain things, I sometimes gently pointed out that wasn’t surprising because I acted the same way in response to the same situation.

I well remember saying to myself, “I will NEVER do that as a mom with my daughters.” But even as a teenager or young adult, I had enough self-awareness to know that while I might not do that particular thing that drove the teenage me crazy, I would likely do something else entirely that will drive my own teenagers crazy.

But as I get older and my four children grow older, I’ve come to realize that we all do the best we can in the time we live. My mother had her imperfections—and there are some things I wish she had done differently—but in truth, she hit the target center on all the things that mattered most. I always knew she loved me, that there was nothing I could ever do that would negate that love. I always knew she believed in me, that I would make my way into the world on my own. I always knew she would be there for me, to encourage, to listen, to pray for, to comfort, to rejoice.

That’s the kind of mom I hope I am to my kids—one that tells the truth in love, is a shelter for life’s storms, and loves unconditionally. I pray my mistakes are minor but my love is major. And I hope that my own kids find more to appreciate than criticize in my own child-rearing.

Until next time,

Best Mom Ever!
This year, I had the privilege of celebrating my mother with a story in the new Chicken Soup for the Soul: Best Mom Ever! Called “A Mom to Many,” the story gives a small glimpse into this remarkable woman I get to call mom. I will be signing copies of Best Mom Ever! at the Fair Lakes Barnes & Noble in Fairfax, Va., on Saturday, May 6, from 2 to 4 p.m. EST. If you’re in the area, stop by and pick up a copy for the mom in your life! More info here.

Mr. Negativity

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/

Q: My 9-year-old stepson seems increasingly negative and anxious. We thought it was due to our move (still within a half hour of the mother), but his mom mentioned that he complains he has no friends at school since his friends are in different classes/recesses. It coincides with him crying when his father leaves for work (he didn’t do this previously), crying after he comes here because he misses his mom, and crying when he goes there because he misses his dad. 

There is lots of crying for other reasons as well. I don’t know if he cries at school, but I suspect if he does that is increasing his social isolation. The only times he truly lights up is when he describes past injuries or illnesses, or say, the paper cut he got that day. He played goalie for hockey and the first thing he told me was he caught a puck on bare skin. Not that he blocked a bunch of shots and they won the game.

We try to emphasize the good happening and downplay every gripe he gives. From what I know of his other home environment, small injuries are fawned over and all feelings are discussed and parsed/etc. When he’s with other kids, he delights in enforcing rules and lording over people, despite not being particularly good at the games/sports. When I showed my latest ultrasound pics (this behavior came on well before the pregnancy/announcement), his first response was “Wow, he’s ugly!” Granted 4D pictures are not perfectly lifelike and I explained that to him, but I was thinking what a little punk.

I mentioned to his dad that he is really becoming that guy we all avoid at office Christmas parties. He’s a bit shy when it comes to making friends and I am afraid some of these behaviors are going to be off-putting to peers, making his situation worse. 

His mom is pushing for therapy and my husband is inclined to agree with that.  I am not sure he’s to that level. Anyway, that’s a lot of info. What do you suggest we do to redirect him? I had similar friend difficulties as a kid, including a school year in which all friends had a difference recess, so I thought I would approach the topic by talking about that and also explaining what “you reap what you sow” means. However, I’ve been a stepmom for a year and generally didn’t interact with kids prior to now.

A: From your question, I can see how much you care about your stepson and how much you ache for his floundering around in social situations. A couple of things to note before I offer some suggestions for what you and dad can do.

First, it sounds like your son is overwhelmed, whether with his own emotions about the move, his place in the family (you mention your pregnancy and that might worry him), the hard time he’s having making friends, etc. And some kids when they feel frustrated with themselves and with the situation, they cry. Unfortunately, when boys cry, it’s much more misunderstood by peers, by adults/teachers, and by themselves.

Second, I also think that perhaps there’s been too much talking about his crying and lack of friends, and “downplaying” his gripes isn’t the same as ignoring the gripes. You can’t make a child see the good when he’s bound and determined to see the negative.

What to do? For the crying, lack of friends, gripes, I’d go with starving the matter. He gets attention when he complains, when you and dad try to make him see the positive, etc. He’s fallen into a rut that even if he wanted to, he can’t get out of by himself.

Starve the negative beast by keeping your response to his gripes short and sweet. “Interesting.” “I see.” Very noncommittal to whether you’re agreeing with him or trying to jolly him out of the funk. This will take some time—this has been a long time building! But keep with it and you should see some improvements.

Use some the coping techniques to help him control his tears, such as putting his head down on his desk at school, taking deep breathes, counting to 10, etc. Crying when you don’t want to is very frustrating, so giving him some options of how HE can respond should help keep the crying shorter and more manageable.

And I had to laugh at his response to your ultrasound picture—that’s pure boy and pure kid! He was probably not trying to be mean, as kids blurt out the first thing that comes to mind, and seriously, babies (even those already born) aren’t always the most attractive! In other words, don’t take him so seriously.

Finally, play games with him, read books with him, find ways to share little droplets of your life as a child with him (very short!), cook his favorite meals (or better yet, have him cook with you), make sure that you are showing him your love in a million small ways (a touch on the arm, a hug in the morning—despite his protests, he will really love that. Find out his love language—is it touches, snuggle time, spending time with you or his dad? What makes him light up in relation to interactions with you? One of my sons loves to have snuggle time, another one loves it when I listen to him talk about something with my undivided attention.

Remember, you can’t change how his mother parents, but you can change how you respond to him.

More Hosting Tips (With Kids)

I’ve received a lot of wonderful feedback from last month’s Washington Post piece on “Once kids enter the picture, can parents still entertain?” Because of space constraints, not all of my tips made

Image courtesy of nuttakit/

it into the paper. Here are five additional lessons I’ve learned about how to pull off dinners and parties when kids are in the house.

  1. Make it easy. When we host large events, we make a Costco run to make setting out a buffet simple. Pressed for time? Buy prepared foods or order from a restaurant.
  2. Consider your guest list. Thinking about who to invite to what should involve some thought to ensure all are comfortable and have a good time. “Different friends find their way into your lives at different times of life, and if you’re in the kid stage, entertain others who are sympathetic,” says says April Masini, a relationship and etiquette expert.
  3. Think beyond dinner. There are lots of ways you can host successfully, but it might take some trial and error to find the ones that work for you. For example, when our kids were little, we often hosted brunches instead of dinners because our kids were better behaved in the morning than in the evening.
  4. Communicate expectations. Let your guests know that your kids will be there and that theirs are welcome too. Or if it’s a grownup-only night and your kids will be off in their rooms, let them know that too. “Be sure to what ‘kid-friendly’ means for you and your family. If that means wine and beer are okay, but smoking and cursing are not, be clear and share it early,” advises Anitra Durand Allen with Experience Bliss Coaching.
  5. Remember the point. This is the key to any successful gathering—keeping in mind why you’re hosting. Hint: It’s because you want to spend time or get to know your guests, right?

Narcissistic Tendencies in Parent Equals Narcissistic Child?

Q: My husband refuses to make our 8-year-old daughter listen. He frequently undermines my parenting. Because of  marriage stresses, I recently began seeing a counselor. After listening to my situation, this counselor told me, “It sounds like your husband has narcissistic tendencies.”

After doing some research, I believe that she is right about that. After confronting him and giving him an ultimatum, he has agreed to start seeing a psychologist with me who specializes in people with narcissistic tendencies. We begin that counseling at the end of this week .

My question is: Is it possible for a narcissistic parent to cause a child to also become narcissistic? He has been the primary influence in our daughter’s life because he has elbowed me out from using tools to make her behave and respect others for years.

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici/

She has most of the narcissistic qualities that he has. Most children don’t want to play with her, she has very little empathy for others, and when confronted with her behavior throws a tantrum like a two-year-old.

Is it possible for the narcissistic parent to have such influence on the child that she has become completely narcissistic? Can that be reversed? I have done Tickets with her, but nothing seems to phase her. When the punishment is over, she’s right back to it. Thank you for your help in this matter.

A: Because you indicated you’re now under the care of a counselor, I will answer your question more generally. Parents have a role in what kind of child they are raising, but there are numerous examples of kids from terrible homes who turn out well and kids from good homes who turn out badly. As John Rosemond says, “The child produces the child.” Parents have an integral part in that production, but not the only part.

A couple of years ago , I wrote an article for the Washington Post on “7 ways to nip narcissism in the bud” in response to a 2015 study that found parents who overvalue their children (over praise them, for example) are raising narcissistic kids. Basically, the best way to counter narcissistic tendencies in a child are to teach them empathy, to give them lots of chores to do for the family, to encourage and model kindness, and to discipline them consistently

But the good news is that your child is only eight—she has a whole lifetime ahead of her! That means there’s plenty of time to reverse her father’s narcissistic influence with patience and perseverance.

Charting a Course of Discipline

Q: I have twin 6-year old boys and an 8-year old boy. I’ve recently implemented the weekly chart (for two of my boys) and I have one of the twins on the daily chart for school. I’m having trouble getting them to stay in there room when they make it to #6.

Earlier this week, I calmly said, “You must like your room because you are choosing to stay in it,” and he looked at me confused. I said, “Whenever you come out then you are choosing to spend tomorrow in your room as well.” And the next day he goes automatically to his room (even though he may have had an excellent day at school). Do you think this is a good solution?  Do you have another? 

Also, we have sports practice four out of the five days of the school week. They do have some time in their room before we leave, but it’s not always possible to have the 6:30 bedtime. Do you have any suggestions on what to do when it’s not possible to get to bed by 6:30?

A: I’m glad you asked because this is one of the areas that gets parents into trouble more than anything, especially when implementing a new system of discipline. You want to get this right, and you want your kids to get it right too. (For an explanation of Charts, visit the Discipline Methods section of this website.)

First of all, just because a child doesn’t physically stay in his room doesn’t mean you can’t effectively restrict his activities. There are many other ways to handle this—and to encourage a child to stay in his room.

For example, one reaches block Six, but he keeps coming out of his room. Each time he comes out, give him an onerous chore to complete. Say, “Oh, I see you’re ready to do X now. Here you go. You have X minutes to complete this to my satisfaction.” He might not be IN his room, but he’s certainly not enjoying himself. He might keep coming out—you just keep handing out chores (fill a jar with chores written on slips of paper—and your boys can do lots!—and pluck one out each time a child exits his room without permission).

Second, I think you need to revert to a daily chart for each child. This will let each kid start each day with a fresh slate. That gives a kid hope that he can do better the next day. Once they have mastered the daily charts on a consistent basis, then you can move to weekly for maintenance, finally eliminating charts all together. If a child loses hope that tomorrow can be different, he will stop trying. That’s not what we want our kids to learn from discipline. Discipline should be about bringing hope as well as correction.

Third, if a child loses all his boxes, then that child doesn’t play sports that day. Bring him along if you have to, and have him sit on the sidelines while his brothers practice. That will send a stronger message than any room time could ever do.

The sooner a child realizes that bad behavior results in his life stopping as he knows it, the sooner that child should wise up and fly right. Now you will have to be prepared to have coaches or other parents not support that decision but remember: You are not raising child sports star. You are raising an adult. Think about how you want that adult to be and act—develop your own parental vision—and you will have the backbone to follow through on these unpopular decisions.


PS: I’ve created PDF and laminated versions of weekly and daily Charts. Go to the Discipline Methods to order your copy today.

Things You Never Thought You’d Say as a Parent


We all say strange things to our kids! This month’s original cartoon caption is from Claire Meade of Oak Hill, Va. Claire routinely had to say this to her younger son around age 5 “when he was in his big naked stage.” Fortunately, his older brother managed to keep his pants on at the table.

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

Too Much Time Away From Home?

Q: How much time is too much time away from home? Is it one day a week, three times a week? What would be the guidelines for how much time we allow our kids to visit others without us?

A:It depends. I know, not the answer you wanted, right? I can’t give you a hard-and-fast rule—parenting isn’t like that because every child and every situation is different. But I can give you some guidelines or questions to think about when considering such time away from mom and dad.

Image courtesy of vorakorn/

How visits in the past have gone. Is your child cranky every time she comes home from Grandma’s? Is she subdued? Does she cry a lot when you’re not around? How hard is it to re-establish routines when the child returns home?

What do you need? As parents, we’re used to putting our needs last, but sometimes, it’s important to realize that we need a break from our kids as much as they need a break from us. So if you know that by mid-summer, you really could use a long weekend by yourself (or with your spouse), then schedule something ahead of time. We all need mini-breaks, such as a night out or lunch with a friend, so make sure you hire sitters (or swap babysitting with friends) for those smaller chunks of time.

What do they need? Kids learn and grow apart from Mom and Dad. An overnight camp during the summer, weekends with grandparents or other relatives, spending the night at a friend’s house—all of these activities help kids become more independent and resourceful.

Who are they spending time with? You didn’t ask this exactly, but we should be careful with whom who we leave our children. For example, vet summer camps by asking how staff are selected and trained. For the families of your child’s friends that you might not know well, ask questions like who lives in the house, who will be home during the sleepover, what kind of supervision will be given, etc.

You take all of that information and you make a case-by-case decision on away-from-home trips, overnights, etc. Sometimes, a child isn’t ready for an overnight one year, but by the next, she’s ready to go.