Taming the Christmas Gimmees

From the commercials on TV to the displays in stores, everything this time of year is designed to create a green-eyed monster of envy in our kids. Today, with the holiday season starting either before or immediately after Halloween, there is more opportunities for children to get wound up about the December holidays. With so much focus in stores, in commercials, in product catalogs, etc., on getting what you want for Christmas, kids become overly focused on themselves, and thus become more stressed or bratty because of that mindset.

We live in a culture that encourages children to get all they can. Kids are bombarded with the message that they should have—and deserve to have—anything they want. Children compile wish lists that run to pages and pages of often high-priced toys and gadgets, and many kids demand gifts that are not practical (like a pony) or not affordable (like the entire American Girl doll collection).

For parents, helping kids develop a more giving, rather than getting, attitude towards Christmas is to manage holiday Christmas expectations in themselves and their children by thinking and discussing the holidays now. Keep in mind that if you ask adults today what they most remember about Christmas, it’s usually not the presents but the time spent doing something with their family and friends.

How can you guide your child toward more reasonable gift expectations?

Get to the why behind the want. What is it about this present that appeals to your child? Figuring that out will help guide you in what to get your child.

Reign in the wish lists. Set a dollar limit (we do $30 or under for most gifts), plus a number of items. We also didn’t allow kids to send grandparents or relatives a list of items that individually cost more than $20 each.

Think about less costly or more practical alternatives. Maybe instead of a pony, you could offer a child riding lessons or take them to see a horse show.

Quality verses quantity. There’s a time in a child’s life when more gifts is important. One year, I bought lots of little gifts, mostly under $5, for my four kids and wrapped each separately. They will thrilled, it was affordable and fun. But as the kids get older, you can talk about the fact that sometimes the price tag of one gift means that’s basically it.

Experiences versus tangible gifts. Sometimes, you might consider offering a child an experience over a present he could hold. For example, last Christmas, my two girls wanted to see the musical Wicked, which was coming to a local theater near Christmas. Given the price of the performance tickets, we opted to make that their big gift and only gave them a few smaller presents to open on Christmas. Some families opt to go on a special vacation together around the holidays rather than open a lot of gifts.

Communicate expectations ahead of time. If it will be a tighter holiday financially, let them know that but in a way that doesn’t cause additional worry. Instead of saying, “We can’t afford a big Christmas,” try, “This year, we’re scaling back on actual presents, but we’re going to do more family things to celebrate.”

Involve them in giving. This time of year especially, it’s important to direct kids’ outward rather than inward. Adopt a family, Toys for Tots, Operation Christmas Child, and other ways to get a child excited about helping others.

Above all, remember what it is you enjoy as a family around Christmas, and try to make that your focal point, rather than run yourself ragged with piling up gifts.

Freshman Blowing (Vaping) Smoke

Q: My 14-year-old freshman has been telling me how he vapes in the high school bathroom with friends. My husband and I do not smoke or vape, and we have made it very clear that he needs to wait until he no longer lives in our house to do either. However, he keeps talking about it, telling us which vape pen he wants to buy, and today he even showed me a video of him vaping!

Why in the world would he be doing all this when we would never find out otherwise? We are not sure how to handle thing because obviously we cannot keep him home from school (where this is happening.) We can punish him when he tells us—this may stop him from making these confessions but I am not even sure about that. Why would he feel the need to tell us? It is almost like he is showing off! Any suggestions?

A: He’s telling you because he’s a young teen, he needs to confess, and he wants to connect with you. For which you should be grateful on all counts, yes? He’s not showing off to his parents, per se, but vaping is something that excites him, that has captured his interest, and that his crowd is into. And a young teen excited means he has to talk about it…even to his disapproving parents.

What can you do about it? That depends. First, I will point out that many states have laws that prohibit young teens from vaping, so check yours to see if he’s breaking the law by using electronic cigarettes. Regardless of that, I’m fairly certain his high school has rules about use of electronic cigarettes (and regular cigarettes) on campus anywhere, so find out and then inform your son that you will be turning him to the school authorities for breaking the rules. If he thinks he’s old enough to vape, then he’s old enough to face the consequences.

As to what you should do about all his vape talk, have you tried engaging him? What about vaping does he like? Does he think it makes him look cool? Is this what his friends do? See if you can have honest, interested conversations to delve beneath the surface of the vaping talk and get to the heart of the matter.

Then establish house rules. Some that come to mind are no illegal substances in the house, no smoking or vaping in the house, and no underage consumption (tobacco, e-cigarettes, alcohol, etc.). Go over the house rules with him to ensure he understands. But also tell him that these are for the good of the family and for him as well. Remind him that he can call or text you anytime to be picked up and you’ll do it without question (those can come later).

And reconnect with him on a more positive level, such as engaging in his favorite outdoor activity or trying a new one. Find ways to show him how much you care about him. I don’t think we can spend too much time with our teens showing them our love in both word and deed.

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.

Young Teen, Poor Choices

Q: This year, my 14-year-old son started a new, academically-driven private high school. He became friends immediately with his peer group on the football team, and we’ve allowed him some new freedom to hang out at their homes and spend the night a couple of times. We made it clear that this is his opportunity to choose the right friends from the start, because in middle school he had some undesirable friends that we didn’t allow him to socialize with. He has always been an excellent student and athlete, but hasn’t had much of a social life outside of school since we restricted his friendships.

Recently, we discovered that our son was drinking at one of the new friend’s homes, and that several of these new football friends have poor reputations. I am at a loss for how to deal with this latest dilemma. I don’t want to restrict friendships forever, but clearly he is not responsible in this area. I think the drinking itself is an isolated event, but he was bragging about it to some old friends at church, and they expressed concern that this is his new normal (thinking that drinking is cool). I’m concerned that continuing with these new friendships will lead to more undesirable behavior.

A: This is the age-old question that has plagued parents: How to get kids to choose the right friends. From family to family, the definition of “right” friends changes slightly, but for the most part, most parents want their kids to have friends who are positive and adhere to the family’s values in word and deed.

But that desire often conflicts with a teen’s desire to choose his own friends, forge to his identity and live his own life. As a teen tries on different personas to see where he fits into the high school social scene, he will often make mistakes and pick the wrong crowd or the right crowd for the wrong reasons.

While your intentions were good, I think you might have jumped the gun a bit to allow him new freedom without investigating whether or not these new friends were the sort that you wanted him to hang out with. Not that I’m blaming you for his actions—I’m just pointing out that it’s our job as parents to ask questions, hard questions, and to hold off on some of the freedoms (like spending the night, for example) until you get to know the kids in question a bit more.

My answer to questionable friends is to invite them to your house. Open your doors and have the kids in your basement. Check in frequently but not obnoxiously. Have them over for dinner in small groups. Talk to them—not grilling them, but see what they’re interested in. Teenagers respond to genuine interest and concern like anyone else.

For the drinking, I’d sit your son down and have a hard talk about underage drinking. In fact, I’d be grounding him for at least a month—this is serious stuff, and while he might have made a fairly innocent mistake, his bragging shows he’s aware that it wasn’t right for him to drink alcohol. I’d also call the parents of teen whose house they drank in to say this is what your son said. Not to point fingers, but to inform them. Then your son doesn’t go over there again, period.

During your short, but hard, talk, I’d also let him know the stakes—that you’re serious about his obeying the law. He might try to brush it off (“It’s no big deal, Mom!”) but you don’t let that sway you. In fact, even if you or your husband drank as a teen, you don’t tell him that. It’s not important to the conversation.

But you also let him know that you realize mistakes can be made, and that you will pick him up anytime, anywhere with no questions asked at that time. You want him to call or text you when he needs help.

Finally, make sure you are spending time with him, one on one, to talk about what he wants to talk about. We take our kids individually out for breakfast with mom or dad on a regular basis to reconnect and give them that personal time. Do things for him that he likes, make sure he’s contributing to the family with chores, and love him as much as you can.

The Power of Preparation

When we’re expecting a baby, we spend a lot of time preparing for its arrival—decorating the nursery, buying the right equipment and clothes, etc. When the baby comes, we spend a lot of time preparing for outings—do we have a diaper bag? Check. Diapers? Check. Toys? Check. Change of clothes? Check. Something to feed the baby? Check.

When the infant grows up into a preschooler, our bag of tricks gets smaller. Upon entering elementary school, we’re rejoicing that we’re no longer a pack horse weighed down by mounds of child paraphernalia.

Somewhere along the way, we forget that we still need to always be prepared when taking our kids out to a restaurant, on a car ride, to the store, to a friend’s house, to visit grandmother, etc. This can put our kids at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to behaving—kids with nothing to do and no way to occupy their mind (and hands and feet) usually becomes kids misbehaving. Occasionally, even with preparation, kids go off the rails. But spending a little time preparing for a trip to the store or across the country will hedge against misbehavior.

Here are my top 5 tips for helping kids entertain themselves outside of the home.

  1. Encourage reading. We shoved books in our kids’ hands from the time they were little—it was my go-to when a kid needed attention or I needed a few minutes to myself. This practice means my kids take books with them to read in the car, at the store, etc.
  2. Have a “go” or travel bag. When my kids were younger, we made sure they had a small bag filled with stuff they could do on their laps, such as magnetic boards or dolls, lace-ups, coloring books/crayons or colored pencils, small figurines or action figures, etc. We avoided electronics and noisy toys.
  3. Take the bag or book when going out. Our kids used to ask us when we told them to get ready to leave, “Will I need to bring something to do?” We usually erred on the side of “yes,” as there were many times a “quick” errand turned into a long wait at the register or rain meant staying inside without age-appropriate toys to play with. You’ll rarely be sorry you made them take their bag or book.
  4. Guide them in filling the time. For long car trips for the younger set, map out a loose schedule of when to color and when to listen to an audio book. Kids sometimes need our help to occupy themselves—not to entertain them, but to provide a bit of direction—as they have a hard time thinking outside the box when they’re bored or not in a familiar place.
  5. Mind the time. Everyone has their limits, so pushing for too much time in the car or trying to pack in too much time with extended family or not watching the clock while visiting friends can tip kids over into misbehavior land. Often, if we had heeded that inner voice that said it was time to stop or leave instead of lingering another half hour, things wouldn’t have gone south in a hurry.

As our kids have grown, they have continued the practice of being prepared to occupy themselves when not at home. It hasn’t always worked out well, but overall, it’s been a huge blessing for us, one that I hope you will work toward too.

When a Child Reacts Badly to Discipline

For a video answer of this question, visit https://www.facebook.com/parentcoachnova/.

Q: I’ve been using the ticket method* for my fourth grader to tackle some ongoing behavior problems. When she loses all her tickets due to the target misbehaviors, the consequence is to be in her room the rest of the day. Instead of going to her room, she instead throws a major fit and refuses to go. What is the best course of action then?

A: Sometimes, we get hung up on the letter of the law—in this case, that your child isn’t complying with the directive to go to her room. Does that mean the punishment is ineffective? No. Does it mean you should levy different consequences? No. Does it mean you should just ignore the infraction? No.

In this particular case, your child is having a temper tantrum because her behavior choices have resulted in losing her freedom. For the tantrum itself, I’d ignore it. Walk away. When the child has calmed down, reiterate that she should go to her room. Don’t threaten. Don’t plead. Just state and give her The Look (you have one, right?) and stare her down until she complies. This might take a few tantrums before the child realizes that you’re not going to back down.

Even if the child outright refuses to go physically to her room, you can still act like the child is in her room. All other activities stop for the child—no electronics, no friends, etc. So she might be on the floor of the living room, but she’s still “in his room” in all the ways that count.

Remember, what you don’t want to happen is that you get into a battle of the wills with your child—making her go to his room physically, yelling at him to comply, etc. Stay calm, stay cool—you’ve got this!

 

That Annoying, Bothersome Child

Starting when I was 12, my parents took in foster kids of all ages from a variety of backgrounds. When I was a young teen, 9-year-old Trudy (not her real name) arrived on our doorstep with a bag of clothes and head lice hidden by a bowl haircut. Freckles danced across her nose giving her an impish look that belied her rather rough personality. In short, Trudy was a brat, an extremely annoying child who did everything—and I do mean everything!—wrong. She hit, she had a whiny voice, she had no social graces, no ability to make friends. It was almost as if she was bound and determined to push everyone away so that no one could get close to her.

Like most foster kids, she came from a background that would break your heart—abused physically, sexually, mentally. Ignored, unloved. And so she forged her own abhorrent personality to cope with the truly horrible hand she had been dealt by life.

Image courtesy of Supertrooper/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net

But just because she was hard to love didn’t mean she was unloveable, as my parents demonstrated with patience and kindness and discipline and love. Lots and lots of unconditional love. It didn’t matter what Trudy did or didn’t do—my parents loved her. She drove me crazy with her antics, but because of my parents’ example, I loved her too.

I thought about Trudy recently when reading a post on Facebook about a young teenage girl with ADHD (“Milly”) who can be really annoying. The mom posting has a daughter (“Suzy”) who has had some run-ins/incidents with Milly. The mom wasn’t being snarky, and I know she’s probably genuinely concerned about her daughter. I know both parties and do understand both sides of the story.

But still, I wondered…Where is the compassion for Milly? Where is the understanding in the middle of the annoyance? Where is the tolerance for another, even one who does cross the line a time or two in tone or words? Do we just write off these kids and wash our hands because it’s hard? Do we allow our kids to do the same because it’s hard (when there’s no real abuse going on beyond annoyance)?

Loving those love us back, who make it easy by their personalities, isn’t difficult. Most of the time, we don’t even think about it. But loving and accepting those who make it hard, whose personalities repel us at times, that’s when the rubber meets the road.

We have to start by not labeling every annoying kid whose behavior pushes the limits or rubs another kid the wrong way. There’s true bullying and there’s “that kid is hard to be around because of her ineptness with social situations.”

We also need to teach our kids a compassionate response in the face of annoying behavior, and also kind responses. Our kids shouldn’t have to “take” an annoying personality but they should try to handle it in a kind way. Sometimes, that means telling a trusted adult. Sometimes, that means walking away. Sometimes, that means overlooking the other girl’s faults.

Because we never know when our influence or the influence of our kids can be the catalyst to change a child’s life. Remember Trudy? The world was stacked against her, but today, she’s the mother of three boys and by all accounts, a success story. Her upbringing and annoying personality didn’t dictate her future, and I know the positive influence of my parents (and perhaps, to a lesser degree, myself) had a lot to do with putting her on the right path.

Those Fighting Girls

Q: My two girls, ages 2 and 3, constantly fight when together (expect for one to three minutes at the beginning of play). My 3 year old is aggressive to her younger sister in the forms of hitting, scratching, bossing/bully, and making her do her work. The 2 year old has no trust with her sister, and if the 3 year old comes close, the 2 year old will automatically defend herself by hitting, scratching, screaming and biting. I also have a 6-month-old baby and I can’t watch these girls every second, nor should I have to watch them every second.

I feel very paralyzed to accomplish minor tasks around the house because these two can’t be trusted. I try to ignore some of the fighting, but they harm each other pretty good if I don’t intervene after a minute. What are ways to minimize the sibling rivalry and build trust between the two?

Image courtesy of stockimages/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net

A: Believe it or not, they will stop constantly fighting, but that day isn’t going to come soon! My two oldest are similarly close in age and girls as well, so I well remember the battles between them at 2 and 3! So, what’s a mother to do?

Separation is your friend. As much as possible, direct the girls to play in different areas of the house or room with different toys. When you hear the first yelp, intervene to separate the two of them. Don’t pick sides, but remove the toy and redirect. Repeat. This will take some time because the girls have gotten into a bad habit of fighting.

Then in quieter times, work with them on how to play together. Perhaps when the baby naps in the morning, spend 10 or 15 minutes playing alongside the girls, directing them gently but firmly on how to play together. Show them by doing, and they’ll catch on about sharing, etc. This isn’t something kids learn on their own!

Also help the girls do nice things for each other, like bringing toys they like or having the older sister “read” a book to the younger one. This type of interaction—again, directed by you—will help build more positive interactions with each other. My book, Ending Sibling Rivalry: Moving Your Kids From War to Peace, has a lot of other suggestions on building positive sibling relationships and conflict resolution. You can order a copy through my webstore.

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/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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.