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).

Freedom Goes to a Two Year Old’s Head

Q: My 2-year-old recently transitioned from crib to bed. The freedom seems to be more than he can handle, and he has taken to destroying the bedroom he shares with his 3-year-old brother. Of course we’ve childproofed the room but there are clothes in drawers and some books on the shelf, mainly for the older brother. Typically in the mornings, I would make both boys help me pick up the mess before breakfast, but I’m now focusing on just the one boy since he is the perpetrator/instigator( I can see it on the monitor and we did not have this problem with the older one).

Since I’ve singled him out though for correction and sent the other boy down for breakfast without helping to pick up, the behavior has gotten even worse and he’s more mad. He refuses to clean up at all and the day goes downhill right from the beginning with him. He will only clean up if his brother is helping and I stay in the room with them. Left alone with instructions, he refuses. I do not show any frustration but simply let him know he made the mess and now he needs to pick it up or he will spend the day in his room except meals. He then proceeds to have fits, fiddle around in the room and look for other items to pull apart. We’ve stripped the room to bare bones but this is making things difficult. Should I be doing something else or is there a way to get some quicker action on his part?

Image courtesy of num_skyman/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net

A: It’s amazing how different our kids are, isn’t it? Where one is more laid back, another is a spitfire. Where one stays in bed, the other one is a human tornado.

A couple of things to keep in mind with your particular situation. First, a toddler doesn’t have the long-term memory to put two and two together—in this case, that he wrecked his room, therefore he must pick up and stay in his room until it’s done. When you expect a child to do more than a child is capable, that’s when you build frustration—in the child and parent. Of course he doesn’t want to clean up by himself! He hasn’t connected the dots that it’s his mess.

Second, don’t expect quick action from a toddler. They are by their very nature dawdlers. They are learning so much in a short time frame, and everything fascinates and distracts them. This is the beauty and annoyance of twos!

But don’t despair! There is hope to turn things around. You don’t mention when he does this destruction—in the evening going to bed or in the morning when he wakes up. See if you can pinpoint the timing, then you can make your plan. If in the evening, you are likely able to hear him do this (or station yourself outside his door to listen). When you hear drawers opening, you come into the room and stop him in his tracks. Have him immediately pick up the items by the light of the hallway (with you alongside him) and pop him back in bed with minimal talking. If it’s in the morning, gauge when he usually wakes up, wake up a bit earlier, and repeat the halt him in his tracks/pick up routine.

Anytime he needs to pick up, do it alongside him, directing him gently. “You pick up the toy trucks, while I get the trains” type thing. Have him focus on one part of the job, not the entire thing. Clothes all over the floor can be overwhelming for any child, so picking out the shirts, then moving to socks, etc., will help teach him how to manage a larger task and help keep him on task.

Also make sure you have lots of positive touch points throughout the day with him, little interactions that give him your full attention and love. Keeping that close connection will make the discipline times go more smoothly and will help you have a better attitude toward him as well.

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.

Clinginess, Tantrums, Screaming…Welcome to the Twos!

Q: I have boy/girl twins who just turned two years old. We are experiencing an increase in several behavior issues that seem to be compounded by a very recent move and also minor illness, from which they are now recovered. Here are my specific questions:

1) How do I manage my son’s clinginess? Specifically, he wants to be constantly carried (up and down stairs, into school, to the car, etc.). He has always been a very challenging personality, but even more so recently. I have been complying when he asks properly (saying please and without whining), but it is becoming very difficult with him getting bigger. I would prefer he walks most of the time like his sister.

2) Screaming/tantrums are occurring almost constantly by both. They are well-fed and rested, and we have good routines in place. The tantrums are a result of not getting what they want right away, especially not having my husband’s or my full attention.

3) Do we make a temporary exception to any of these issues due to the recent move and illness? And if so, what and for how long? With the move last week their normal routine was totally abandoned, but everything is back to normal this week.

Image courtesy of marin/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

A: First of all, this is normal behavior. Truly it is! Toddlers are volatile creatures, that’s for sure. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde wrapped into a dynamo package. And twins sometimes feed off each other, making the typical toddler challenges doubled. So, to answer your questions…

The son’s clinginess: He might not be getting enough time with you each day, so try to have more touch points. Read him a short book right after breakfast. Give him more unexpected hugs. Hug him when he wants to be carried, then put him down. Hold his hand when walking. That should lesson some of his clinginess, but stop carrying him around.

The tantrums: At this age, I’d stick with containment in a crib if possible or just hold the screaming child tightly (if you can) to calm him or her down. Yes, this is a child who wants what he/she wants when he/she wants it, and no one’s going to tell him or her otherwise. Hence the screaming.

The other factors: 3. You take into consideration the mitigating factors which help you not lose your cool, but you still handle the tantrums the same. It will take a little while for your routine to reassert itself but don’t be surprised if your toddlers want to forge a new one (like dropping a nap). This is the high growth stage mentally and physically, so expect ups and downs in personalities and behavior.

Above all, remember that this is only a stage, and it won’t last forever. Hang in there and keep loving on those little munchkins! Soon this will be all in the past and you’ll have moved on to the threes.

Is the Pen Mightier Than a First Grader’s Attitude?

Q: My 7-year-old first grader received notice that he did not meet district standards for penmanship/writing the past two quarters on his report card. I have printed out worksheets for him to copy what direction pencil strokes should be made, but he just throws a fit and cries rather than try to work through the worksheets. We practice spelling words 15 minutes a day, five days  a week. He seems to have a laissez fair attitude about most things and seems to just not care. He is a left-handed writer. He could put more care into how he holds his pencil. He could put more effort into it. I ask him to leave a space the size of two fingers between words and he doesn’t. How can I get him to care? BTW, his reading level is ahead of his peers.

Image courtesy of kdshutterman/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net

A: I don’t think you’ll like this, but the short answer is you can’t get him to care about something he doesn’t want to care about. This is true of the child who is 7, 10, 15 or 26. You can’t make anyone care about something, so stop trying to make him “care.” He’s not going to, and the more you pressure him to care, the more he will dig in his heels and refuse. Save yourself some angst and quit trying to make the kid care.

Now, about that not meeting district standards. Our school system also has the same “grading” system that you refer to, and I get that you’re concerned about his “failure” to improve his handwriting. But good grief, Mom, he’s seven. He’s left-handed. He’s reading well above his peers. What more do you want from a first grader???

If you want him to begin to hate school and learning, then keep doing what you’re doing. If you want him to love school and learning, I recommend implementing the following changes pronto.

  1. Stop making him practice spelling 15 minutes every day. His time after school would be much better spent playing outside, jumping on a mini trampoline inside, reading for fun, etc. In other words, doing typical boy things (but without electronics) for most of his time at home after school. Don’t think of him as “wasting time”—there have been numerous studies that show the value of free play in a child’s overall mental, social and spatial/motor skills development. This is part of his job as a kid—to decompress, to let off steam, to figure out how the world works, so don’t deny him a good healthy dose of play each day.
  2. Let go of your expectations for “grades” at this age. It sounds like he’s doing very well overall, so please, stop harping about his handwriting! Sure, leave the handwriting worksheets around, but don’t make him do them. Again, at his age, his motor skills have probably not caught up with his brain, so forming proper letters is probably frustrating and hard for him. He’ll outgrow this—but he won’t outgrow the resentment and stress of your standing over him making him do handwriting worksheets.
  3. Get some perspective. He’s not going to fail first grade because he gets consistent low marks in handwriting. My youngest son went through the same thing in first grade and he still gets the occasional low marks related to handwriting in the third grade. While he has improved, we didn’t make it the be-all, end-all of his academic career in first grade (or second grade, or third grade…). We focused instead on helping him to care about doing his work to best of his ability, to follow the teacher’s instructions, etc. In other words, we’re more focused on ensuring he becomes a good student, not that his work receives high marks.
  4. Think of the future. Some people simply don’t have good handwriting. While penmanship is important, it’s not the most important thing your son will learn or accomplish. Think more about the kind of person you want him to be at age 30 than on the fact that he got several low marks in handwriting at the age of 7.
  5. Finally, make it fun. Last summer, I bought my son a handwriting book for boys so that he could practice on his own. Writing things like “Girls are weird” and other boy-things was fun for him. I didn’t hound him about practicing in the book, and I did catch him a time or two doing it on his own. Usually, my kids all participate in a writing club during the summer, where they spend time writing stories together. Those kind of things are low-key and provide practice in a non-academic, low-stakes atmosphere.

Mr. Crostic and Me

When I was a child, we lived next door to a confirmed bachelor. Mr. Crostic was quiet but polite middle-aged man who had a skin disease that covered his face (and probably other parts of his body) with raised, flesh-colored bumps. My mother must have said something to me about not mentioning the disfiguration or staring at the bumps, but I don’t recall ever being afraid or concerned about the way he looked.

To my young eyes, he was our neighbor, Mr. Crostic. I took piano lessons from his sister, who lived with her husband in a smaller house on another street, but she gave the lessons in Mr. Crostic’s front room. I rarely saw Mr. Crostic during those weekly lessons, but he wasn’t a stranger to me.

Image courtesy of sattva/FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of sattva/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The driveway to his house ran alongside one side of our front and back yard, and without much foliage separating the two in the back, I often saw Mr. Crostic working in his yard. Near that boundary, my father had built uneven parallel bars for me to play around on, ostensibly practicing my gymnastics.

I remember vividly practicing some new trick or other, then calling to Mr. Crostic to come watch me perform it. And most of the time, he did. I was rather a shy child, but apparently was quite the chatterbox when talking to Mr. Crostic. Maybe because he seemed to really listen to me. Maybe he enjoyed our interactions too, because I, with a child’s sincerity, simply accepted him, warts and all, so to speak.

I often gave him gifts of artwork, drawings on paper scrapes, sometimes art projects from school. When Mr. Crostic died several years after I’d moved away after college, my mother told me that my former piano teacher had discovered a drawer full of my drawings, which Mr. Crostic had kept all those years.

What makes me tear up to this day is the fact that somehow, those simple, rather badly drawn pieces of artwork meant something to Mr. Crostic, and I’m thankful that my small gestures brought some joy to his life.

I think about Mr. Crostic sometimes when one of my own children wants to give an adult a drawing or something precious to them. And I let them because I know that you can never know when a child’s gift will be just the right bit of brightness for someone’s day.

Until next time,
Sarah

Trouble With Friends

Q: My 4-year-old daughter has a friend the same age who will push/hit/spit on her when they play together. This happens 75% of the time they play together. The parents usually reprimand their daughter and make her apologize but it has not changed the girl’s behavior. My daughter still wants to play with this friend, but I’m having a hard time figuring out how to handle it. This does not happen with any other children my daughter plays with. As of now, I’ve told my daughter to let me know when she gets pushed, etc., and then we leave the playdate. I’m curious if you have other ideas or suggestions. 

Image courtesy of imagerymajestic/FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of imagerymajestic/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net

A: It sounds like this other little girl needs some time to mature. I would simply stop playing with her for a while, say three or four months. Yes, your daughter will whine about this, but it’s for the best for both girls: for your daughter because she’s getting pushed/hit/spit on each time she’s with this girl, and for the friend who can’t seem to stop hitting/pushing/spitting on your daughter. Time apart for both of them could do the trick.

To tell your daughter, simply say something like, “Friend and you are having some trouble playing nicely together, so we’re going to take a break for a while. When it’s time to play together again, I’ll let you know.” For the friend’s parents, I would say the same thing, not pointing fingers at their daughter, but simply relating what you’ve observed: There’s something about the dynamic of these two girls at this particular time in their lives that contribute to not getting along. Tell them that you’d love to revisit this at the start of the new school year in the fall.

It’s always hard when your child has friend troubles, but a period of enforced separation can help smooth things out.

6 Ways to Cultivate Daydreaming

My article “8 Ways to Encourage Your Child’s Daydreaming” on Crosswalk.com showed why daydreaming is important to our children’s well-being. Now here are 6 ways to help your child develop his own daydreaming ability.

  1. Turn off the electronics. A child needs quiet to daydream. If he’s constantly tuned into a computer, tablet, game console or TV, then he won’t have the silence true daydreaming requires.
  2. Reduce the activities. A child also needs time to daydream. If she’s always rushing from school to activity to homework to bed each evening, then she has precious little time in which to ponder life’s mysteries.
  3. Provide space. A child needs to have space to daydream. In nice weather, kick him outside, as nature has a way of spurring the imagination and daydreaming. Make sure his room is comfortable and doesn’t have electronics to distract for inside daydreaming.

    Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici/FreeDigitalPhotos.net
    Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net
  4. Encourage daydreaming. A child needs to know that daydreaming is okay. This means, when you see a child staring off into space, sometimes you let her be for a time.
  5. Talk about how to daydream. For a child who struggles with imagination, discuss the mechanics of daydreaming. Start with asking the child to think of a place he wants to visit, then have him describe what he’d do there. Since one component of daydreaming is thinking about the impossible, don’t correct him if he talks about things he really couldn’t do. Then tell him to continue the fantasy on his own in his own mind.
  6. Daydream yourself. A child needs to know that daydreaming isn’t just for kids, that it can beneficial for grownups too. Modeling daydreaming can be a wonderful way for you as a parent to reconnect with yourself.

As Michael Pollan wrote in A Place of My Own, “Daydreaming is its own reward. For regardless of the result (if any), the very process of daydreaming is pleasurable.” Let’s work together to give our children the time, space, quiet and encouragement to daydream.

Until next time,

Sarah

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,
Sarah

Boys Being Boys—and Why That’s Okay

Q:I have three boys: 3, 7 and 10 years old. The oldest loves to wrestle and play with his siblings, but he’s also much more aggressive than they are—but not to the point of hurting them. For example, he has smothered them with pillows, put a headlock on them, etc. Those actions sometimes leads to crying. I’ve been disciplining the oldest one when that happens. However, I’m not sure that’s the right thing to do. And will it escalate into serious harming?

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

A: A long time ago in America, most parents recognized that boys were, well, boisterous and loud and aggressive, as well as kind and generous and courageous. We’ve forgotten that wrestling, mock-fighting and other rough-and-tumble “games” are part and parcel with the very boyness of most young males (and some older ones, for that matter!).

With our two oldest children as girls, I was a bit unprepared for the fighting—not mean or vindictive, but for fun—that our two younger boys engaged in on a daily basis. But then I remembered their gender and heaved a sigh of relief. They were, after all, just being boys, giving into the rougher nature that God has given the male species.

So today, we have our fair share of incidents where the rough play of pretend choking, smothering, and other wrestling triggers a crying response from the younger sibling. And we gently guide our boys to learn how to play fight in a way that’s fun for both of them (much like we guided our two girls to learn how to get along when things got out of hand).

What’s important to remember is that while your oldest has some responsibility to set the tone of the fighting—not too hard or aggressive, because of his bigger body—the tears from the younger two are not your son’s fault. You describe him as holding back and not allowing himself to be too rough with them to the point that he actually hurts his younger brothers. That shows you right there that he cares for his younger siblings enough to temper his own actions in order to keep them from harm. Because he’s already shown this tendency, there’s no evidence things will escalate into serious harm territory (of course, there’s always the unforeseen accident, but that can happen anytime!).

However, your younger two have gotten off scot-free in these interactions. They were full participants in the game until suddenly it wasn’t fun for them anymore—let’s face it, it’s really not his fault if his younger sibs participate in a game of wrestling only to cry foul when it doesn’t go their way). Tears do not always mean someone’s to blame, so please keep that in mind when comforting the crying kid.

For your oldest son, ask him to walk away when his brothers start crying, that the game needs to end at that moment. Not as a punishment but as a way for him to not get frustrated with his younger brothers.

Overall, Remember, the younger two cry because that’s the weapon most younger sibs employ when they are not getting their way or losing the game or being shown they are the youngest and the oldest is stronger–really typical boy stuff here.