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Barbara F. Meltz writes the Globe's Child Caring column. She is author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes, Understanding How Your Children See the World," and a frequent speaker to parent groups. Join her chat on the first and third Monday of the month at noon.
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October 18, 2007

Stay tuned...

Readers, and The Boston Globe are in the process of revamping the Child Caring blog. We plan to relaunch it shortly featuring new parenting experts. We wish Barbara the best and encourage you to stay tuned for the new Child Caring blog coming within the next several weeks.

Ron Agrella,

Posted by Ronald Agrella, Travel Staff at 08:59 AM
October 17, 2007

Bye bye


Well, I have to draw the line somewhere, so this is it. Thanks to all of you for your emails and wonderful comments about the blog, the column, and the chat. (You all know the blog is ending, but not the chat, right? The first and third Monday of the month, at noon at

Happy parenting!

Posted by Barbara Meltz at 04:17 PM
October 17, 2007

Raising only one child

You know that I have one son, right? He's my only. For years, I never wrote about parenting an only child. The issues it raised were just too raw for me. Once I got over that, I wrote several columns on the good and bad of raising only one child. My favorite of them was published in 2005.

By Barbara F. Meltz

Every parent worries that something awful could happen to a child. Most of us are able to keep our fears in check.

We stop holding our toddler's hand so she can walk across the room on her own, even though we know she could fall. We allow our second-grader to ride his bike to a friend's, even though he has to cross a street. We give our newly licensed driver the keys to the car, even though we know he could get into an accident.

Granting our children age-appropriate doses of independence (ideally, after preparation) is the only way they can become competent, confident, responsible human beings. But some of us are better at it than others. Those who have the hardest time tend to have only one child.

"All parents feel [this fear] to some degree, but when you have only one, you think, `I have to protect this kid. It's everything to me,"' says Carolyn White, editor of "Only Child" magazine ( and author of a new book, "The Seven Common Sins of Parenting an Only Child" (Josey-Bass).

She calls it the sin of overprotection.

"It's an issue more for parents of only children because they have the time and resources to overprotect," says educational psychologist Toni Falbo of the University of Texas at Austin, a leading researcher on only children. Reasoning, "I've only got the one, I can afford it/I've got the time," parents with one child often overprotect in ways that insulate a child from real-world experiences.

It can happen for the best of reasons.

With fewer distractions in the family, the bond between one child and his or her parents tends to be stronger and tighter than in bigger families. "It's a real mutual admiration society," says Austin psychologist Carl E. Pickhardt, author of "Keys to Parenting the Only Child" (Barron's). Because parents and child are so closely aligned, there's likely to be less day-to-day conflict and more shared values, he says.

That's the good news. Here's the bad: The closeness means a parent's criticism is likely to carry more sting ("I disappointed dad. Will he forgive me?"), which means a school-age child may take a setback too hard. In adolescence, it's typically harder for a teen to break away. And at almost every age, parents who treat a child as a pal make it more likely the child will compare herself to them ("If Mom can do that, so can I."), setting herself up for failure.

"I think [that's our] biggest problem," says Duxbury mother Wanda Goldbaum in an e-mail. Her son, Michael, is 16. "We don't have other children with whom we can compare so we compare him to ourselves. We magnify and scrutinize negative behaviors, when in actuality these behaviors are relative to those of peers and age."

Mike Donohue of North Andover, whose only child, Michael, is a junior at Roger Williams College, says his son has benefited from far more "perks" than his peers. "You tend to go the extra mile when you have only one," he says.

White, herself the parent of one child, says she feels the fear that fuels overprotection no less deeply now that her daughter, Alexis, is 25. What's changed is that she owned up to it. "You have to write it down and make a plan," she says: " `I am afraid something will happen to my child. How would I go on?' "

That's what she finally did. "I decided I would honor my daughter by extending my parenting skills and becoming a Big Sister," she says. Until she made that plan, she had been unable to grant Alexis the independence she deserved. In middle school, for instance, while friends rode bikes to school, White drove her daughter.

"I was terrified she wouldn't stay on the sidewalk, that she'd get hit by a car," she says.

In hindsight, White is convinced this was a disservice to her daughter, one she classifies under the sin of overprotection. "I prevented her from having some real-life, problem-solving experience: `I have to wait for this car. I have to wait for the red light. Do I have my helmet?' "

It's easy to blur the line between attentiveness and indulgence, says social psychologist Susan Newman, author of "Parenting an Only Child, The Joys and Challenges of Raising Your One and Only" (Broadway). Her suggestion is to pretend you have more than one.

"If you had four children, would only one always get to make the choice about what TV show to watch? Would the same one always get the extra serving of mashed potatoes? Just because there's only one child in the family doesn't mean there is only one person," Newman says.

Pickhardt says adolescence is often the hardest time: "The only child doesn't want to throw negative feelings into the relationship, doesn't want the disapproval, doesn't want to upset the dynamic." As a result, adolescence can be delayed for as much as two years. When it hits, "Parents . . . tend to find they have a much stronger person on their hands than they anticipated," he says. It stands to reason: The attachment was stronger to begin with, so it takes more effort to push against it.

Sometimes, the college years can be even harder, Pickhardt says. The only child knows she is the center of her parent's world, so a sense of obligation kicks in: "If I leave, will my parents be OK? They've given so much to me, what do I owe them in return?" His recommendation is to talk together about these issues.

While the relationship with any teen will go better if parents are nonjudgmental, it's critical with an only teen. "Your [opinions] are more powerful," even if they don't show it, Pickhardt says. "To say things like, `How could you be so stupid? We raised you to know better' those are crushing statements." Try this instead, he says: "I guess you made a choice you regret."
If fear fuels parents' overprotection, do does pleasure.

"When you have only one, it's so easy to overlook things," says White. She doesn't hang up her clothes? I'll do it for her. She skips her chores? I have time, no big deal. Even when you do it out of kindness or love, a child may not translate it that way, thinking instead, "I always need to be rescued"; "I don't have to take responsibility. Dad will do it for me."

White is sure that's what led to a lack of self-confidence in her daughter.

"She didn't trust herself to make decisions because we always made them for her. Even in her early teens, she came to us all the time [asking], `What do you think?' When I'd say, `What do you think?' she didn't want to make her own choices. We ended up having to push her to take calculated risks."

It starts in really simple ways, too. If you had three children and one couldn't find her favorite pajamas, would you drop what you were doing and go look under her bed and in her closet, or would you send her to her room to look by herself?

"Parents of only children can be real suckers," says White.

Posted by Barbara Meltz at 03:29 PM
October 17, 2007

You don't happen to know a child who procrastinates, do you?

Every kid dawdles at some time or other. This is one of my favorite columns, from 1999, just because.

Dealing with dawdling

As parents, we all know that our patience will be tried. So you may not be surprised to find yourself standing at the bottom of the stairs, with five minutes to go before the school bus arrives, shouting to your third-grader that she will be grounded for life if she doesn't get downstairs this minute. But then it gets worse: When she doesn't answer, you climb the
stairs with your fury barely in check, only to find her quietly playing with her Beanie Babies,
oblivious to time, the school bus, or you.

This is dawdling at its best.

As frustrating as it can be when children don't do what they need to do when they need to do it,
procrastination is a phenomenon of childhood that won't go away. We can't eliminate it, but we
can keep it from getting out of hand. Unfortunately, we often inadvertently make it worse instead
of better.

The first way we get into trouble is expecting children to have the same sense of time as we do.

"When they are engrossed in something, they have no sense of time passing," says psychologist Lenora Yuen of Palo Alto, Calif. That accounts for why a preschooler doesn't put toys away when you tell her to, why a 12-year-old doesn't see what the big deal
is that he hasn't taken the garbage out yet, or why a third-grader gets sidetracked by her Beanie

Most effective, she says, are gentle reminders -- "Five minutes until we leave!" "Dinner is in 20
minutes; did you remember it's your turn to set the table?" "What can do to help you remember . . . ?" -- even though you have to issue them day after day. Yuen is a coauthor of "Procrastination: Why You Do It, What to Do About It" (Addison Wesley).

Some children are more prone to dawdling by nature. "They're kids who move at a slower pace,
are slow to warm up to new people, have a hard time making transitions, and are easily distracted," says pediatrician William Coleman, an associate professor at the University of North Carolina. The more we beg, nag, and threaten, the more they tune us out, he says.

Children of all ages and temperaments also procrastinate for a slew of other reasons, from
practical to psychological:

- He's overwhelmed. When Yuen researched her book, she was surprised to have adults pinpoint when their procrastination started: second grade. That turns out to be typical. "It's in second grade that you have your first assignment to do a report, and it's scary,"
says Yuen. The job is so daunting -- How do I begin? How do I make it good? -- that it's easier
not to start at all. This child needs organizational help. Break the task into small pieces:
"Let's start with one sentence about your favorite person in the book."

Being overwhelmed can also come from having too many activities or too much responsibility, or from parental expectations that are too high.

"For overprogrammed kids, the only way to get downtime is to dawdle," says behavioral
pediatrician David W. Willis of Portland, Ore. If you think this is what's going on, ask: "I wonder if you feel like you don't have enough time to just play?" Willis and Coleman are contributing editors to the American Academy of Pediatrics' book "Caring for Your
School-Age Child, 5 to 12."

Chores and responsibilities can cause dawdling if they are inappropriate. "There's a tendency
today to think the 9-, 10-, or 11-year-old is more independent than he really is," Willis says. "The solution for a child who's stressed and confused from being asked to
do more than he's developmentally capable of is to avoid it by dawdling." He tells
parents to be sure expectations are appropriate; to talk to a child about his responsibilities; and to provide structure, feedback, and praise.

- She doesn't want to fail. This is the most prevalent motive behind procrastination, according to child psychologist Joseph Ferrari of De Paul University in Chicago. "A child would rather have other people look at her as lacking effort than lacking ability," he says. She may turn to dawdling if she perceives herself as always succeeding -- "What if I can't keep it up?" -- or always failing: "If I never do this, no one can see how badly I do it."

Yuen says many procrastinators are perfectionists, even in second grade: "They want every single letter they form to be perfect. That takes a lot of effort; they get frustrated and put off doing it."

She urges parents to be coaches: "The mantra is, `It doesn't have to be perfect,' because the
psychological task for this child is to learn to be forgiving of himself."

- He doesn't want to succeed. In a scenario that's common in fourth grade and above, a child may worry that peers will ostracize him if he's too smart. So he turns a paper in late and gets a B instead of an A. Or he worries about outshining an older, less successful sibling and dawdles as a way to diminish himself. Yuen suggests posing questions to get a conversation going: "I bet some kids who are really smart worry about what their friends think of them."

- She's angry. A child may purposefully procrastinate as a way to get back at you for something, says child psychologist Edward Zigler, Sterling professor of psychology at Yale University. Get to the heart of the issue -- "I can tell you're angry at me; let's talk"-- before you focus on the dawdling. Dawdling that's fueled by resentment may not always be tied
to something specific, however. Ferrari's research shows that a father who is highly
impersonal, cold, and stern is most likely to have a child who dawdles. "It's one of the few ways he can really annoy you," he says.

- He wants to be in control. The reason we so commonly end up in a power struggle over procrastination is because he wants to be in control of when he does what he has to do.

Sometimes it makes the most sense to facilitate that, says Yuen, as long as you establish limits and consequences and follow through with them: "It doesn't matter when you do your chores, as long as they're done before dinner at 6. Otherwise, you won't be able to ride your bike after dinner."

When we don't follow through, we reinforce dawdling: "It doesn't matter if I don't do this now;
Mom doesn't care." No matter what the motive for procrastination, researchers agree, we also
reinforce it when we continually rescue a child. Preschoolers, for instance, says Zigler, engage in a kind of magical thinking: " `If I don't clean up my toys, it will just get done,' as if there's a good fairy. If we do the task, we're the good fairy." He suggests being explicit: "The good fairy won't do this. I'll help you with it today but this is your job."

Yuen, who frequently sees adults who never suffered the consequences of procrastinating until
they got a job, says children need to learn not only that it can hurt them -- a lesser grade, a
reputation for being irresponsible -- but also that it is rude and disrespectful to others. The ultimate goal is for a child to learn how to manage time and meet external expectations in a responsible way. "What parents don't realize," says Willis, "is that this takes years and years to accomplish."

Yuen's favorite strategy is a time-trade, where a child pays you back in time or effort for the
inconvenience he causes: "When you don't take the garbage out in a timely way, the kitchen starts to smell. Every time that happens, it's an inconvenience and annoyance to me. The consequence is for you to owe me 20 minutes of extra chores." Or: "I have to leave the house at 7:30 to drop you at school and get to work on time. For every minute your dawdling makes us leave late, you owe me that minute in extra chore time."

Willis recomends joining a child in the chore as a guide. As you're working side by side, not only can you tell if he's overwhelmed and thus scale the job back, but you can also model how to do it successfully. For instance, if he has to clean his room and doesn't know where to start, you can help him see that everything doesn't have to be done at once: "We'll set the timer for 15 minutes and see what we can do in that time; then we can come back later and
do more."

Although children can dawdle at any time of the day over any responsibility, morning is prime time. "They have a hard time working up the momentum to get moving," says Yuen.

Last year, she found herself struggling with her dawdling 7-year- old, who was late for school
despite her best efforts. What finally worked didn't come from her but from the teacher: The
tardiness was reported on the report card.

Yuen is betting that morning dawdling won't be a problem this year.

SIDEBAR Tips about dillydallying

It's normal for procrastination to be typically sporadic, sometimes occurring at the same time each day (a likely sign of fatigue, hunger, or body rhythm) or around a particular issue (a sign he's overwhelmed).

Consider it a red flag if you're nagging about dawdling all day long about many different things; if you're hearing about it from the teacher and the coach; and if it's also accompanied by moodiness and irritability. These may be signs of depression.

Children with a risk-taking personality may leave things until the last minute for the thrill of completing it under the wire. If the effort is successful, there's a rush: "Whoa, am I good!"
If it fails: "Hey, I didn't have enough time."

Children who procrastinate over social decisions -- "Should I go to the sleepover or not?" -- will blame you if you make the decision for them: "I had a terrible time, and it's your fault!" Help them instead to take ownership: What are the reasons not to go? What are the reasons to go?

The more you battle over dawdling, the more the battle becomes part of the routine. Break the cycle by changing the pattern with either more guidance or more structure. Reward systems such as star charts can help preschoolers and school-age children be more timely.

Teenagers tend to procrastinate most at the beginning of a relationship. Afraid they'll lose the friendship, they put off responsibilities in order to spend more time with the person.

Posted by Barbara Meltz at 02:25 PM
October 17, 2007

For dads of daughters...

A few hours ago, I posted a Golden Oldie about mothers and sons, so a dad emailed asking if I'd written about fathers and daughters. Bien sur! Here it is, from June, 2000. Meanwhile, here's a link to a terrific organization called Dads and Daughters.

By Barbara F. Meltz, Globe Staff

Looking across the dance floor at a friend's child's bar mitzvah party not long ago, Sam Osherson found himself admiring a young woman. He had two thoughts: "Oh, how attractive!" and then "I'm old enough to be her father!"

As the girl turned around, he realized he was her father.

Osherson, a Cambridge psychologist and author whose specialty is parents' development, had reached a milestone he long anticipated as a father, that uh-oh moment when you recognize that your daughter is a sexual being. Despite his years of research, it took Osherson by surprise.

"You're her father," he says, "but you're also a male. It can be very disconcerting."

Even if a father isn't aroused by his daughter's budding sexuality, he is usually at least made uncomfortable by it, says Joe Kelly, executive director of Dads and Daughters, a national nonprofit organization that works to help strengthen father-daughter ties. "It's OK to have the feelings," says Kelly. "They're normal and natural. It's never OK to act on them."

Thankfully, the typical father doesn't. Instead, bewildered by his thoughts and worried he's a bad person for having them, he puts emotional and/or physical distance between himself and his daughter.

The withdrawal couldn't come at a worse time in a girl's development, says psychologist and researcher Elizabeth Debold, a specialist in gender development. "This is a time of transition. A father's distance leaves a daughter fundamentally insecure," she says.

As Osherson and Kelly know first hand (Kelly is the father of 19-year-old twin girls; Osherson's daughter is 14), a girl's demeanor with her dad can have a coquettish edge even at 4 or 5. "When she's sitting on your lap, there are times you'd swear she's flirting with you," says Kelly.

She isn't, but even at 4 or 5, a girl is subconsciously testing out notions of what it means to be female. This is healthy and normal, says Brookline psychologist Lise Motherwell, who has researched fathers and daughters. "It's one way a young girl builds her sense of herself as an appealing person whose femininity is acceptable," she says.

By age 6 or 7, the coyness practically disappears, replaced by a sense of mastery in the world. For the next few years, the father-daughter relationship is at its most comfortable: affectionate, close, and straightforward. But between 9 and 11, conflicts surface. Before, she idolized you. Now she criticizes.

"It's part of the separation process," says Osherson. "She's wondering things like, `Can I be good in math like Dad and still be feminine?' "

Meanwhile, changes in her body can alternately make her shy and modest around you or coy and provocative. Debold says a girl's mixed signals are a sign she's moving back and forth between wanting to be an independent grown-up and wanting to be a protected little girl: One night, she'll recoil at your arm on her shoulder, the next, she'll curl up in your lap; one day she'll flit about the house scantily clad, the next, lash out at you because you saw her wrapped in a towel after her shower.

In a subconscious way, she's asking the same questions as in the preschool years - "Am I worthy of your admiration?" - only now she's provocative, not just cute, and she knows it, too.

"She's testing," says Osherson. "She wants to know what gets the attention of the opposite sex and she's trying it out on the first man in her life." Osherson is the author of "The Hidden Wisdom of Parents" (Adams, 1999).

The daughter whose father removes himself physically by suddenly no longer being available to shoot hoops or help with Spanish may be tactile hungry, says Osherson: Just because a girl eschews standard offerings of affection, she still needs some physical closeness, even if it's just sitting side by side at the table while you look at her homework.

The girl whose father withdraws emotionally may be in bigger trouble. It can feed into her insecurity, perhaps affecting future relationships as well as her sense of efficacy in the larger world, which Dad may represent. "It makes a girl think, `There's something wrong with me. Dad doesn't like what's happening [to my body]; it's shameful/bad/ugly,' " says Debold.

Clearly, fathers don't have much wiggle room.

"On the one hand, you need to stay emotionally close and affectionate," says Motherwell. "On the other hand, you don't want to be intrusive or inappropriate sexually."

The solution is to take your cues from your daughter.

On the physical side, stick to a routine such as a goodnight kiss until she tells you not to. "It's better to err on doing it for too long than to cut it off too soon," Osherson says. Additionally, after stopping a ritual for a while, re-initiate it. "She may not want a goodnight kiss for a year, then, all of a sudden, want it again," she says.

At the other extreme is a daughter who overdoes physical closeness, falling all over you in a way that's arousing. "Create a boundary without making her feel badly," says Motherwell. For instance, if she crawls in bed on a weekend morning and it gives you an erection, rather than throw her out of bed or tell her harshly she's no longer welcome, create a new ritual: get up early and suggest you take a run together, or make pancakes. If she parades around in panties and bra, rather than gruffly sending her to her room or telling her to "put some clothes on!" consider what's going on developmentally:

At 9: "She's likely unaware of her impact," says Motherwell. Either ignore it or, if you're afraid of being aroused, tell her simply, "Why don't you put on a robe?"

At 13 or 14: Now, says Motherwell, "ignoring it doesn't get her need met." In other words, she's asking a question - "Am I attractive?" - and needs an answer. Osherson tells of one father whose daughter's clothes kept getting more and more flimsy. Finally he said to her, "Do you know, you look absolutely beautiful? But these clothes are too grown-up for you," and she stopped wearing them.

"Girls need to hear from their father," says Debold. You can even use the word "sexy," she says, as long as you desexualize your relationship: "You are sexy to other people; to me you are my daughter, and I find you beautiful."

Other ways to ease this passage for your and your daughter:

Be a good listener. Girls 11 to 14 tend to go into great detail about many things, which can drive fathers up a wall. "Instead of jumping in to problem-solve or cutting a girl off - `What's the big deal here?' - learn to just listen," says Debold.

Look for areas of mutual interest to stay engaged. If you're not comfortable with activities that used to work, find new ones. Motherwell tells of a sculptor who invited his daughter and her friends to his studio and helped them weld stilts. "He brought her into his world at her developmental level," she says.

Find appropriate ways to tell her she is beautiful. As she's going to a party, tell her, "You look beautiful," not "I wish I was going to this party!" If she's flirting with you, "That's not the time to say it at all," says Debold.

Once a daughter becomes a young woman, many fathers, of course, are terrified of a girl's vulnerability in a culture that is toxic to women. For Kelly, this means working hard to counteract the cultural messages that tell girls their looks are more important than their values.

"I would tell my daughters they were beautiful, but I was very intentional and out loud about telling each one how unique she was and talking about her internal gifts," he says.

Kelly would also frequently tell stories about his own adolescence. Not only did that give his daughters a window into how boys think but it also helped him stay engaged with them. When Nia announced she was dyeing her hair orange, his first instinct was to say, "Oh no, you're not!" Instead, he remembered a girl who had to cancel a first date with him because her hair had turned green when she bleached it.

"It reminded me how important appearance is at this age," says Kelly. "The next thing I knew, I was helping Nia dye her hair and her sister was taking pictures of us."

Facing the father-daughter dilemma Tips for parents

The typical adolescent daughter may alternately bristle at a childhood endearment or welcome it. When she bristles, apologize and move on; don't take it personally. When it seems as if you can do nothing right, tell your daughter: "I really love you and I want to spend time with you, but it seems like everything I suggest is wrong. I'm just a human being - can you help me out?"

When it's clear that your daughter is pouting and whining in an effort to manipulate you, tell her, "I can't hear you when you do that. Come back when you're ready to talk" or "Give me a list of reasons you think this makes sense."

Be sure your daughter sees you being appropriately romantic with your wife - bring her roses, use endearments - and avoid behaving toward your daughter in ways that could be construed as romantic: For instance, take her to dinner, not on a date, not even when she's 5.

Even when you feel stung by a daughter's criticism, be clear you are still available to her. Don't grumble and take it personally. This is especially important for single fathers.

Even when your daughter is 4 or 5, point out examples of sexism when you see it: "I hate it when a movie makes it seem as if the only important thing about a woman is the size of her breasts."

Girls whose fathers desert them are more likely to act out sexually as a way to get Dad's attention, according to research.

Posted by Barbara Meltz at 01:58 PM
October 17, 2007

Is this in your school's library?

Here's a book that deserves to be in every school library:
"A school like mine, A unique celebration of schools around the world," by UNICEF and DK books.


Posted by Barbara Meltz at 01:22 PM
October 17, 2007

Mothers & Sons & how to keep talking

As the mother of one child who is male, you had to figure that one of the columns on my Golden Oldie List had to be about mothers and sons, right? Here it is. Written in 1997 when my son was 10 -- which turns out to be a critical age for boys in their relationship with mom -- I was feeling extraneous and needed some reassurance that I wasn't in fact. Happily, I got it. And don't worry, the only child column isn't far behind.

By Barbara F. Meltz, Globe Staff


Mothers of sons have long had to tread carefully. Too much closeness and you'll raise a mama's boy; too little and you've got a serial killer. Although some of us find this thinking outmoded, there are still plenty of cultural messages that buy into it and plenty of mothers who do, too, even if unwittingly. Happily, new research on mothers and sons says such thinking is a lot of bunk.

Emotional closeness is not only something our sons want from us but also something they need: They suffer when they don't have it. They lose access to their inner feelings. Down the road, our daughters suffer, too, as they live and work with the boys who turn into men who have what gender researcher and psychiatrist Steven Bergman calls ``relational dread.'' ``When you approach them to open up, to talk about a relationship or feelings, they withdraw,'' he says.

It begins when boys are young, between 3 and 6, and they begin to absorb cultural messages that idealize men as strong, competitive, violent, and unfeeling.

``Mothers tell me they feel like a wall goes up between them and their sons,'' Bergman says. ``He stops telling her things, stops sharing emotionally. His answers to questions are, `I dunno, `nothing,' or, `that's stupid.' '' Bergman is affiliated with Harvard Medical School and the Stone Center at Wellesley College and is also a novelist who writes under the pseudonym Samuel Shem. His most recent book is ``Mount Misery.''

By 10, the typical boy is in the midst of an internal struggle, says psychologist Evelyn Bassoff of Boulder, Colo. ``Closeness to Mom feels like regression to babyhood,'' she says. ``His internal drive to be independent, private, and separate pushes him to wear a mask to cover his real feelings.''

On the other hand, however, ``he feels bad and empty, to have emotional distance from his mother,'' says Bassoff. A specialist in parent-child relations, she is the author of ``Between Mothers and Sons, the Making of Vital and Loving Men.'' (Plume).

The more her son gets caught up in the culture of boys -- teasing, punching, competing, bullying, pretending not to care, taking pride in being disrespectful -- the more a mother doesn't know what to do, says psychologist Catherine Dooley, who is co-director, with Niki Fidele, of the Mother-Son Project at the Jean Baker Miller Institute at Wellesley College.

The typical mother pulls back. Even though that doesn't feel right, it's what she thinks she should do; after all, boys will be boys. So Mom accepts her son's silences, tells him he's too old to be tucked into bed, and generally distances herself.

This is a critical tactical error.

``Without Mom to put feelings in place for him, to label and identify and give meaning and context to them, he doesn't know what to do with his feelings,'' says Dooley. ``He ends up shutting them down. Sealing them away.'' This leads him to lose his way in relationships and contributes to Bergman's relational dread, she says.

That's not all. Mom's disconnection, subtle as it may be, creates a void that ends up being filled by the messages popular culture offers. Dooley, who leads mother-son workshops, offers an example of how this can get played out:

A 13-year-old comes home looking upset. He goes to his room, shuts his door. His mom hears him banging around inside, talking angrily to himself, maybe even crying. She struggles. Should she keep her distance or knock on the door? She doesn't want to be smothering, she doesn't want to infringe on his privacy, she also doesn't want to be rejected. She keeps her distance. That night, he watches TV, commercials with beer-drinking macho men, sitcoms with Tim Allen-types who blunder through relationships with blinders on.

Concludes Dooley, ``A boy gets constant reinforcement that it's not OK to feel vulnerable. Without Mom to help him process feelings, that's the only conclusion he can come to.''

A mother of two sons, Eric, 10, and Nathan, 13, Dooley started early to make sure this didn't happen to them. When they were young, she invented a game she calls Trading Shoes.

``If they were stuck on a position, we would literally swap shoes,'' she says. ``I would stick my toes in their little ones and they would clomp around in my big ones.'' The trick, of course, was that the wearer would have to present the owner's point of view. Dooley says that helped them develop a sense of empathy as well as a familial shorthand: ``Now when they're screaming at each other or we are far apart on an issue, I can just say, `We need to trade shoes on this.' ''

Barney Brawer, a gender researcher at Harvard and Tufts universities, encourages these kind of creative approaches. He says one reason mothers get frustrated in trying to get a son to open up is because their approach is off. Women tend to relate to other people with face-to-face intimacy, he says, while male intimacy, if comes at all, happens after two or three hours (or two or three times) of doing something side by side.

``Mothers need to speak this side-by-side language,'' he says, by crossing gender lines and engaging in activities they otherwise might not consider -- kicking the soccer ball around, getting on the ice, tinkering with a bicycle's gears. Being physical can help, too.

``I know one mother who bangs into her sons with a hip check as a way of saying hello, the same way they do with each other. She talks their language,'' says Brawer. ``She doesn't just expect them to talk hers.''

In fact, getting them to talk our language happens only if we give them an emotional vocabulary, says Bassoff. That starts by labeling a toddler's emotions for him and doing such things as asking a preschooler to tell stories about his drawings, not just the actions but the emotions, too.

It also means not giving up in the middle-school years when he shuts down. Because there's developmental as well as gender reasons for this, Bassoff suggests telling your son, ``It's my job to help you be in touch with your feelings but if there are times when I push too much, tell me and I'll respect that.'' The one exception -- and you should let him know this, too -- is around health and safety. ``Never back off if you think he's at risk,'' she says.

Dooley is constantly thinking of ways to keep her sons emotionally engaged. For instance, when friends play at their house, she intervenes when they are being cruel to each other. ``I'll stop them and say, `That's mean.' They'll say, `Everybody does it, it doesn't mean anything,' and I say, `Yes, it does. The person may not say anything, 'cause that wouldn't be cool, but it hurts inside.' ''

Dooley recalls one recent car ride with Nathan when his silence was really getting to her. She took a gamble and plunged right in. ``I'm trying to connect with you,'' she said, ``and all I'm getting is grunts. A relationship is a two-way street, you know.'' More silence. Then Nathan took a gamble himself: ``You know that math test? I didn't do as good as I thought.''

Perhaps Dooley's favorite tactic is to issue a ``Relational Violation'' to Nathan and Eric when they are being mean to each other. As with an offense in a game, they have to stop what they are doing and take a two-minute cooling-off period. Then the offender must make reparations to the other person, usually by engaging in a joint activity of that person's choice.

``They have to stay at it until they are happy with each other again,'' says Dooley.

Sometimes they even end up talking about how they feel.


- How do you draw the line between smothering your son and comforting him? If he's hurt on the soccer field and comes to you on the sideline, he's looking for comfort, and you should offer it. If you rush out to him on the field, that's smothering, and you should avoid it.

- The more your son reads, the more he increases his emotional vocabulary. Read to him, even as he gets older.

- Throw a conversation into your son's lap: ``What do you think?'' When it's true, tell him, ``I never thought about it from that angle before. I really learned something. Thanks.''

- When you know your school-age son is trying to process something but he's putting you off, tell him, ``When you're ready to talk about this, let me know.'' He'll be more likely to revive the topic if the two of you are doing something he likes.

- Counter media images. If you're silent about violence, materialism, sexism (or any ism), a boy assumes you buy into it.

- Encourage the men in your son's life to share feelings both with you and with him. Especially try to model emotional openness in your relationship with your son's father.

- Sons of single mothers often have better skills for maintaining relationships and expressing feelings.

Posted by Barbara Meltz at 11:34 AM
October 17, 2007

Recycling for kids


I loved recycling long before it was fashionable to shop in consignment shops. Maybe it's because I was brought up to dislike waste. You know, "One person's trash is another person's treasure," and all that kind of stuff. Maybe it's just because recycling is simply good common sense. I'm convinced starting when our kids are young is the best way to effect change and I'm also a firm believer that it has to something we model for them, as a way of life. Edutopia magazine devotes an entire issue this month to recycling in schools., including this article, "From trash to treasure." Seems like a no-brainer, doesn't it? To marry the values of home and school and keep the world from drowning in trash, all at the same time?

Posted by Barbara Meltz at 10:39 AM
October 16, 2007

Internet safety & cyber-bullying


Not many press releases are clever enough to elicit a chuckle. This one, by Ciri Haugh of M/C/C in Dallas is worth sharing:

Top 5 Things You Don't Want to Hear When Your Kid is Surfing the Internet:

Number five: "Hey Mom, what's your credit card number?
Number four: "Spyware 3000? Where did that come from?
Number three: "What does it mean if the computer says, 'insert Windows backup disc now?'
Number two: "Dad, you're always telling me I should be kind to others, so I just helped a Nigerian prince who sent me an e-mail!

And the number one thing you don't want to hear when your kid is surfing the Internet: "Where did this window come from? Whoa! What's he doing to that lady??

She was pitching a story about internet safety. Her client is the Family On-Line Safety Institute which offers a range of materials for parents on internet safety. Which also brings me to another one of my favorite columns, this one on cyber-bullying, from 2004.


Students at Dana Hall School in Wellesley organized an Internet Safety Club this year. They want middle-school students to be more aware of the dangers to be found on the Internet. They also want parents to pay more attention. "Kids are getting trashed online and parents don't even know it," says cofounder Lauren Krone of Westwood, a senior.

Think about this. Teenagers are telling parents to get more involved.

Think about this, too: In a recent national poll of 20,000 students in grades 5 through 12 and their parents, a third of the students said they do not have any rules at home for Internet use, yet 92 percent of parents said they do. The survey was conducted by i-SAFE, a California-based nonprofit that promotes Internet safety education.

It's not that people are lying. More likely, it's a matter of perception.

Perhaps parents aren't addressing the critical online activity, or they think they are done once they've bought parental control software. But even software companies say nothing substitutes for hands-on involvement, from eyeballing what's on the screen to teaching their children how to evaluate a site, from providing netiquette (that's Internet etiquette for the uninitiated) to identifying red-flag behavior they should bring to your attention.

Perhaps the biggest reason parents are so clueless is that even the technology-savvy fail to grasp that children use the Internet differently. "Adults go online to get information. Children go online to socialize," says Jonathan King of i-SAFE (

Being connected to friends is important, and the Internet is a terrific way to do it. That's the first message Krone's club wants parents to know. Increasingly, though, socializing is fraught with danger. They want parents to know that, too.

"Online fighting and bullying are huge," Krone says.

Parents tend to think that chat-room predators are a child's biggest online threat. They are still a danger, but instant messaging has replaced them in popularity, and that has spawned cyberbullying. "The growing threat is no longer from strangers but from people students know classmates who use online venues such as instant message or bulletin boards to embarrass, humiliate, or otherwise harass," says Kathy Merlock Jackson, Batten professor of communication at Virginia Wesleyan College. Her area of specialty is children's culture. Katya Gifford of, an Internet safety organization that offers free, online safety classes for parents, says bullying has developed into a huge problem in the past year.

It often starts innocently, says Dana Hall junior Allie Levy, also an Internet Safety Club member. "You could say in person to someone, `You're so stuck up!' and they would know you're teasing. But when it's in print, you don't know how to read it, so maybe you respond by saying something that's mean."

"The next thing you know," says Krone, "a printout is being passed around: `Look what she said about me.' "

From there, it's a matter of bad luck how far it spreads and how vicious it gets. She notes that boys and girls are just as likely to be bullies as bullied. Content can range from "You're a slut" to "I'm gonna kill u." A student can be "stalked" with nasty instant messages, cellphone text messages, or a webpage of embarrassing photos taken, say, in the locker room.

"Everybody has had it happen," says Ally Carolan, a Dana Hall junior, but it's worse in middle school, she says, because kids are so desperate to fit in. That makes them more likely to divulge personal information online and to be more devastated if details later are used against them. They also tend not to have the tools to cope, "something as simple as putting JK (just kidding) or a smiley face" to a comment that might be misconstrued.

That's where parents should come in. Krone says, "My dad won't let me make a profile," referring to information students post for their IM buddy list. She says students protest limits, but she thinks they are grateful to have them nonetheless.

Students also tend not to realize that personal information can end up in the public domain.

Even away messages, meant to tell buddies why you can't answer them now, can be a hazard. "You're giving up habits and routines," says Jackson.

"In middle school, students think you should answer honestly," says Levy. They need coaching to learn to fudge.

Gifford, the mother of five children ages 11 to 19, has strict rules about Internet use that vary by their age:

No chat rooms. Even moderated chats are no guarantee of safety. In one recent case in Salt Lake City, a 15-year-old was lured to meet offline someone he met in a church-sponsored, moderated chat room that his parents had sanctioned. The only exception Gifford makes is for her oldest son, who is allowed to visit role-play game sites, known as RPGs, and that's only because she has software that gives her a daily log of sites he has visited.

No X-rated sites. The conversation she has with her sons goes something like this: "I know you're exploring issues of sexuality. That's normal. But porn sites are degrading. Not in this house." They know she uses parental-control software, including a program that allows her to see what's currently on the screen of other computers in the house. "It's not spying if they know about it," she says. She also has penalties just as she would for any misbehavior. Miss a curfew? Lose the car for a week. Disregard computer guidelines? Lose the computer for a week.

No IM with strangers. The only people you can talk to online are those you already know offline. She helped her 11-year-old draw up a list of people she can talk to online. Blocking software keeps others out.

No personal information. Tweens understand what this is about when it comes to filling in a form, but what about blogs like,, or Starting at an early age, Gifford gave each child guidelines: "Would this be something you would talk to someone about face to face?"

More than anything, though, what children need is ongoing dialogue. Start as soon as they are interested in the Web by asking them to show you sites they like. Help them compare it with other sites on the same subject. What kind of language does it use? Is it racist or sexist? "They need to learn not to take everything they see at face value," Jackson says.

Belinda Sproston of CyberPatrol, which markets parental-control software, urges parents to view software only as one weapon in their arsenal. "Parents also need to make sure a child has a healthy balance of on- and offline activity," she says. Parents should also gauge the role online activity plays in a middle-school child's life. "In some cliques, kids find the most outrageous, bizarre sites so they can brag about it the next day in school," Sproston says.
What the members of the Internet Safety Club want parents to make sure their child knows is that you're available as a resource. That if something bad happens online, they can come to you and you'll be supportive, not angry.

"It's easy to be frightened," says Krone. "It's a lot worse if you think you can't go to your parents."

Posted by Barbara Meltz at 04:52 PM
October 16, 2007

Who can you turn to in a crisis?

Some days, being a parent is, well, plainly painful. I'm including this column, "How secrecy shuts out vital support," on my golden oldie list because it generated a lot of response at the time from parents who had struggled with feelings of shame or guilt from a teens' behavior. It appeared in 2000.

The Boston Globe


By Barbara F. Meltz, Globe Staff

Chances are that at some point between the time your child enters the teenage years (12, 13, 14, or 15) and comes out the other side (17, 18, 19, or 20), she'll do something that deeply shames you. Judith Warren's turn came in 1996 and '97, when her son was a sophomore and junior in high school. A progression of events that began with him hanging with an older group of boys led to his smoking marijuana and his arrest on drug and weapon charges.

Warren, who lives in a small south-central Massachusetts town, normally thinks of herself as a high-energy, empowered parent. But even as she stood by her son literally, in court, and through his emotional struggle, there were days when she was so ashamed she couldn't pick herself up off the couch to eat or sleep, couldn't control the trembling in her limbs or the paralyzing fear that immobilized her thoughts.

"I felt that I had failed as a parent," she says.

Except for her ex-husband and sister-in-law, Warren told no one of her son's problems and her feelings, partly to protect him, partly out of shame. It became her secret.
"If I went to a community event, I felt that others must know [what he did] and be thinking what a terrible parent I was," she says. "It was isolating. It was horrible."

Warren's experience resonates for psychologist Jodie Kliman, and not just because she's heard it from clients. A parent of teens herself, she says, "There are times when I've felt I'm a failure, too. Knowing I'm not unique is very comforting."

She also understands the instinct to keep things to yourself. "We live in a society that is quick to blame parents," says Kliman, who is coordinator of family therapy training at the Center for Multicultural Training at Boston Medical Center.

When we make our teens' transgressions our secrets, however, even for the sake of family- or self-preservation, we hurt ourselves, losing out on support from others as well as their perspectives or ideas for coping.

What humiliates one parent may not be what disgraces another, of course. But no matter what issue pushes your button, from a failing grade to a wrecked car, "shame is the hardest emotion to cope with. It's when we are most apt to make mistakes," says psychologist Norine Johnson. She is an adolescent specialist at Boston University School of Medicine and president elect of the American Psychological Association.

Shame immobilizes us and undermines our parenting. "It makes you pull away from the relationship and minimize the issues rather than help the person struggle with them. And when that person is a teen who may also feel ashamed of what she's done, it can be a disaster," says Kliman.

A parent's first task, of course, is to deal with whatever fallout the transgression creates. If that's all we do, however - if we don't talk about it again with our child - there's no positive interpretation a teen can spin.

She may conclude either, "My parents don't care," "It's not a big deal," both of which give her permission to do it again, or "What happened is so shameful, they can't even talk about it." The last increases her own sense of shame and failure, says family and child psychologist Sharon Gordetsky of Brookline.

"Most teens know they have done something wrong. They don't want us to blow it out of proportion, but they do want us to deal with it," she says.

There are two ways parents typically find out that a teen is in trouble. The first is to sense something is wrong and go snooping. If the search yields fruit, many parents feel remorseful for spying and ashamed of failing. That double whammy is so powerful it keeps us from confronting our child at the same time that it alters our view of him. That, in turn, affects our relationship: Perhaps we're more distant, quicker to jump on him.

We may or may not sense this change. A teen will for sure, and it's exactly what she doesn't want, says Johnson.

"The reason she keeps something from you in the first place isn't just because she fears punishment, but also because she's afraid it will hurt your relationship," she says. Now her fear is coming true, only it's happening in secret, without any discussion, for reasons she's not entirely sure of.

The second way we learn about trouble is if it stares us in the face: He comes in drunk, leaves a joint around, stays out all night.

A teen who transgresses so blatantly wants you to find out, says Johnson. It's as if he's saying, "Pay attention!" If we notice but keep silent, his only recourse is to escalate the behavior.

Even if we do notice, even if we have constructive, soul-searching conversations, if we keep silent to the rest of the world as if nothing is different or wrong, that makes the behavior a secret. Here's how a teen likely interprets that:

What I've done is too shameful to speak of;

Mom and Dad are hypocrites: They care more about what their friends think than they do about me;

Only perfection is good enough;

Mom and Dad can't face the truth.

Johnson says teens turn these messages on themselves. "They'll see your silence as reflecting on them: 'Underneath, I'm so bad, even they have given up on me.' For girls, that can fuel depression and eating disorders. For boys, it turns into anger and more acting out."

If we consider this a matter of privacy, boundaries, and respect rather than secrecy, which implies shame and failure, the picture changes dramatically. "We all have situations we don't want to share outside the family," says child psychologist Carolyn Newberger of Judge Baker Children's Center. "That's not the same as denying problems exist."

She says the best outcomes occur when we talk with our teen about whether, who, and how anyone not involved in the situation needs to know.

Many teens will say, "I don't want anyone to know," and that's a decision we should respect as far as their friends go, says Newberger. It is not a teen's decision, however, to keep it from the other parent.

Except if that parent has a history of being explosive and could harm a child, keeping the problem from him or her gives a teen a sense of extraordinary power and creates an unhealthy alliance between the two of you. Your agreement to secrecy also endorses that parent's inadequacies, according to Gordetsky.

"It's very destructive," she says. A response she recommends: "Your father needs to know about this too, so we can work together to help you."

As for telling other people, Johnson suggests what she calls participatory parenting: "Once the problem is stated out loud - 'You got arrested for drunk driving' - and there's a plan in place for discipline, prevention and/or reparation, then you can say, 'We need to talk about whom to tell.' For instance, 'Can Grandpa handle this?' "

Talk also about whom you want to tell for your own needs: "I want to tell Aunt Peg. I trust her, and she's a good sounding board for me." Or: "I have feelings about this, too. I need to talk to a few people I trust."

It's OK, indeed healthy, to want to protect your child and to be realistic with him, says psychologist Mary Ann Rafoth, who is chair of educational psychology at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. She suggests saying, "There are some people who will think less of you if they know about this. We know you're not a bad kid, and we don't want other people to jump to conclusions. Whom do you think we can trust with this?"

If the transgression is public knowledge, acknowledge that there may be nasty gossip: "This is hard stuff, what you're going through right now. But we know how hard you're working to undo the damage, and we love you and believe in you."

Gordetsky says that by making these decisions collaborative, there's no room for the insidious, negative messages that secrets spawn. The conversations can even be healing, she says: "They're important statements about your family. That you take things seriously, face things together, and work together."

It is nearly four years since Judith Warren's son's troubles surfaced. In that time, she's worked through her sense of shame, and he's worked through his problems. "He became an Eagle Scout, graduated high school, is self-employed and off drugs," she says proudly.

She speaks today in the hope that other parents won't repeat her mistake. "What I wanted more than anything," she says, "was someone to support the hope inside of me that everything would turn out OK. It was a desperate hope based on my love that the core inside him was good and he could get back to that." She's grateful to her sister-in-law, but one person was not nearly enough: "There is help and support out there, but you have to be trusting enough to look for it."


The compassionate parent

Don't leave a younger sibling in the dark. If the transgression is public, he needs to know what people might say, and how to respond. If it's something that can be kept within the family, tell him, "What your brother did was wrong, and we're taking steps to make sure it never happens again. It's up to him and us to decide whether to tell anyone outside the family." Reassure siblings that a teen is safe: "I know you've learned how bad drugs are. Josh realizes how bad they are now, too, and we're getting him help so he'll never do drugs again." If it's appropriate, be clear that Josh is taking responsibility for his actions: "He's working to pay for what he stole."

If you want to share a secret from your teenage years, along the lines of "I did the same thing once," be clear about why you're sharing: "I'm telling you not because it's OK to do this but because I realized what a bad choice I made." Otherwise, a teen may throw it in your face later on: "Well, you did it!"

Don't blow out of proportion a mistake made by a good kid who learns his lesson. The typical teen will be grateful if you say, "OK, that's done. Let's move on." At the same time, be clear that if there is a repeat, you will need outside help.

The more support parents have before a crisis, the better. School psychologist Mary Ann Raforth encourages schools to set up occasional informal discussion groups so parents can be connected to one another and clued in to peer issues.

Posted by Barbara Meltz at 03:54 PM
October 16, 2007

For parents of children with visual/hearing impairments

If you are the parent of a child 6 to 22 who has a visual or hearing impairment, there's bound to be a workshop of interest for you this Saturday, Oct. 20, at the annual Discover Conference at Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown. Although the website says pre-registration is required, Perkins PR director Marilyn Rea Beyer assures me that anyone who shows up at the door will be welcome.

Posted by Barbara Meltz at 03:30 PM
October 16, 2007

Does your 3-year-old like daddy more than mommy?

Children play favorites, that's a fact. But probably not for the reasons you think.

The Boston Globe

July 17, 2003


As a child psychologist at Children's Hospital, Marcus F. Cherry may be better able than most fathers to shrug it off when his almost-3-year-old son, Alex, insists, "Mommy! Mommy! No Daddy!"

As a father, he admits, "It can be excrutiatingly painful."

Showing preference for one parent is something children do throughout childhood as they struggle to understand more about the complexities of relationships and about themselves. It's normal behavior, but that doesn't make it easy for any parent to live through, even when you are the one in demand.

"It's very flattering," says Cherry's wife, Christine. "It also can be very overwhelming."

For one thing, she says, it can be exhausting to always be the one Alex wants, especially at the end of a long day when baby Alaina, who turns 1 today, also wants Mommy. For another, the tables could turn at any moment.

Whether you are the parent who is "in" or the one who's "out," whether you're feeling pummelled or pumped up with your child's love, your response matters. Children of all ages need to hear that our love is unconditional, says developmental psychologist Pamela Cole of Penn State University.

By preferring one parent to another, at some level a child is asking, "If I'm not paying attention to you right now, if I'm unkind or dismissive or downright mean to you, will you still be there for me?"

Whether they are 3 or 13, the answer they need is yes.

Although it may feel as if a child is playing favorites, the shift from one parent to another rarely is intentional and almost never reflects a true loss of love or serves as a commentary on the quality of your relationship. Shifts most likely reflect emotional and cognitive development:
With babies, you're not imagining it if your infant seems to like Mom more than Dad. This is all about the comfort level that familiarity breeds. "Whatever smell, sound, movement is most familiar and predictable is what a baby will prefer," says Cole.

This doesn't mean the non-preferred parent needs to copy the other parent's every move; babies can tolerate differences. "It means the other parent needs to spend more time with a baby so you become familiar, too," she says.

Toddlers' preferences almost always are fueled by the need to assert independence, exert control over the world, and maintain predictability, all at the same time. Child psychologist Edward Christophersen of Children's Mercy Hospital in Kansas City remembers when his son, Hunter, was 3 and Christophersen was about to wash his hair. "I wanted to do it in the sink, but his mother always did it in the tub," he says. Hunter wanted none of it.

Christophersen could have acquiesced or his wife, hearing the fuss, could have come in and taken over. Once in a while, and especially if a tantrum is extreme, that's OK. A steady habit of it, however, amounts to a rescue in a child's eyes and reinforces the thinking that only Mommy can do this.

With a child's magical thinking, that easily translates to, "Mommy loves me more, so I love Mommy more."

Chistophersen didn't back down. He knew Hunter's protests were his way of saying Daddy's way was different and therefore wrong, not a measure of his love. So how did he convince Hunter to let him wash his hair in the sink? "We got through it because I didn't broadcast my anxiety," Christophersen says. He proceeded gently, matter-of-factly, acknowledging to his son that, yes, Mommy washes hair in the tub, Daddy washes it in the sink, and next time it will be Mom's turn. Christophersen is author of "Parenting that Works, Building Skills that Last A Lifetime" (APA Books).

In the preschool years, a child may prefer the same-sex parent because that parent is a model for what it means to be a boy or girl, says parent educator and consultant Doris Blazer, professor emeritus at Furman University in Greenville, S.C. Similarly, they may ascribe sexist roles to parents and get stuck in a cognitive rut: Only Mom can comfort me when I fall because that's what moms do.

Cole says it's not unusual for a preschooler to blurt out, "I love Daddy more than you." If you can see where this is coming from - you've just set a limit he's unhappy with - a good response might be, "I know you're not happy with me right now. That's OK. I still love you, even when you don't feel like you love me." If the statement seems to come out of nowhere, Cherry might say, "Sometimes it feels like we love one person more than another. You know what? No matter what, I always love you."

As hurt as you may feel, avoid reacting in anger ("Well, I don't want to read to you anyway!") or telling a young child he has hurt your feelings. While it is important for children to learn that words can hurt, this is a message to convey after the fact, when both of you are feeling less vulnerable.

School-age children have long figured out that buttering up one parent sometimes gets them what they can't get from the other. This is usually transparent enough that parents know to stand united in response, says Cherry. What's less obvious and not so intentional is when a child develops a preference based on shared interests or an intangible affinity. That can leave the other parent feeling very left out.

Blazer suggests creating a routine together around some mutually enjoyable activity. At the same time, the favored parent can gently try to include the other parent: "I think Daddy would really like this book. Let's invite him to read with us."

Sometimes what a child may express is not that he loves you more, but that he loves his other parent less. One reader, in a recent e-mail, said her 7 1/2-year-old son told her, "I don't think I have room in my heart to love Daddy as much as you." She wrote, "This would break my husband's heart if he knew."

At any given moment, a child can have a swelling of emotion, an overwhelming, overpowering feeling of love for one parent and then feel guilty for having it, says Cherry. His response would be simply, "I love you very much too, and you know what? So does your dad."

Cole says children this age may not understand that love is not finite or that it is possible to love different people in different ways. She might say, "It's OK to love people differently. I bet you have a different kind of loving feeling for Grandma, too."

Through the middle school years, preferences may flop back and forth, often as a function of which parent a child perceives is more tuned in to him or can teach a skill he wants to master.
Teenagers can be very critical of a parent and are most likely to mean what they say, at least at the moment. They also can be the cruelest, saying things like, "I've never loved you as much as Dad." Cole would take a teen's preference at face value, but she would also ask herself, "Is it said to be cruel for reasons that are obvious, or is he revealing a flaw in the relationship?" It takes patience and conversation, typically not at that time, to figure that out, but the good news, she says, is that it is almost always possible to repair a relationship. Even here, though, an expression of unconditional love is the appropriate answer at the moment.

With any age child, the worst response is to shut down. "Don't take this personally," insists Cole.

Almost always, there is some way to re-gain a foothold. Cherry found it in steak and cheese sandwiches. Sometimes when he and Alex bring them home, Alex won't even share with Mom.

Sidebasr: Bring out-of-favor parent in from the cold

1 While the times when one parent can do no wrong and the other no right can last for long periods of time (up to the toddler years), a preference should never mean that a child can't tolerate the other parent at all. If a child is openly hostile or negative, or can't bounce back when he is with you, seek professional advice.

2 The favored parent can ease the way for the out-of-favor parent by arranging an activity ("Why don't you and Daddy go to the playground?"); taking turns ("It's Mom's turn now; it will be my turn next time."); showing support ("Did you know Mom is just as good a reader as I am?"

3 When you can see that something specific annoys your child about a parent (Daddy isn't fun because he always wins), let your spouse know in a supportive way ("I can see how much this hurts you.") but also talk to your child ("I can see it hurts Daddy's feelings that you don't want to play with him. What would make it more fun for you? Is there a way we can tell Daddy?"). This is also a better way to teach empathy than for the parent who is hurt to say so directly; that can be too threatening.

4 Initially, children generally are not trying to pit one parent against the other, but they will be quick to pick up on that and use it to their advantage if parents allow it to happen.

5 A parent should never force his or her presence on a child. Rather than let it come to that, back off gracefully ("I hope it will be my turn next time.") and try again another time.

6 In the school-age years, a child who has traditionally had more in common with one parent may now prefer the other as a way to buffer herself from the intensity of the relationship.

7 It's OK to comment on a child's preference ("I can see you really enjoy spending time with Daddy these days."), but it's not healthy to blame a child for your hurt feelings or force him to choose between you ("You're making me feel really bad. Don't you love me as much as Mom?"). Go with the flow and know that unless there is some serious relationship problem, children love both their parents.

8 In most circumstances, be careful not to buy into it when your child tells you, "Don't tell mommy! or 'Don't tell daddy!" It can subtly reinforce that it's OK to exclude the other parent. Some possible answers include, "I can't promise that;" "In our family, we don't believe in secrets like that between mommy and daddy."

Posted by Barbara Meltz at 11:49 AM
October 16, 2007

Should you take a child to a funeral?

Should a 7- or 8-year-old attend a grandparent's funeral? What about a 5-year-old, or a 3- or 4-year-old? Is age even the issue? It's the lucky families among us who never have to deal with this issue. But just in case, here's a column from 1998 that's among my oldies but goodies.

In this or any of my columns, you may be surprised at some of the experts' suggestions. For instance, would you ever think to include a child in choosing a grandparent's casket?

This seems like a good point to remind everyone that the driving force for me in writing my columns throughout the years was to help parents understand developmentally what was going on for a child vis a vis a particular issue, and to offer appropriate coping mechanisms. The thinking behind that is that if you know what fuels a child's behavior -- if you know what cognitive, social and emotional equipment they bring to the moment -- you are better able to feed into their strengths rather than their weaknesses. That, in turn, reduces power struggles and helps to establish a loving, trusting relationship which, in my mind, is what good parenting is all about.

There is, however, a big caveat, and this is true not only of my writing, but of any expert you ever come across in your parenting route: Parents -- and parents alone -- know their child best. An expert can provide you with the most up-to-the-minute research, the hot new professionals' thinking. That doesn't make it right for you and your family. My hope has always been that my writing would inform parents but that, in the end, they would weigh the information carefully: "Does this make sense for my child? For my family?"

So, no, you may not want to take your child along to choose his grandfather's casket.

The Boston Globe

When funerals loom, choices give kids a sense of control

Child Caring

By Barbara F. Meltz, Globe Staff

When Lexi Brawer's grandpa died recently, her parents couldn't decide if she should go to the funeral. Lexi had just turned 7. Her father, Jeff, thought she was too young; her mother, Marcie, wasn't so sure. "I worried she'd feel left out of the family if she wasn't included," she says.

Amid grief, especially when a death is sudden, it's not unusual for parents to react as this Brookline father did, instinctively wanting to shield young children from adult mourning.

But what about their mourning?

Although children's grief looks different from ours because it can come and go with seemingly no rhyme or reason, children of all ages, like adults, need to acknowledge the reality of the death, share the pain and loss with others, and remember the person who has died. Keeping them from a funeral inhibits all that from happening, according to children's grief specialists.

The consensus among professionals today is that even a 3-year-old can go to a loved one's funeral.

"If a child is old enough to go to church services, that's old enough to go to a funeral," says Rabbi Earl Grollman of Lexington, a bereavement specialist and chairman of the National Center of Death Education at Mount Ida College in Newton.

Indeed, studies shows that children who have the hardest time after a death are those who either aren't allowed to go to the funeral or are forced to go, says researcher Donna Schuurman, director of the Dougy Center of Portland, Ore., a support program for grieving children.

Children who cope best feel they have choices. "It gives them a sense of control at a time when everything feels so out of control," says psychologist Alan Wolfelt, who also specializes in children's bereavement.

There are more choices to offer than we may realize. Does she want to write or read something for the service? Does he want to put something in the casket? What about helping choose the casket? Even a child as young as 4 can help with that, according to Schuurman. The idea may feel jarring to us, but it makes good developmental sense. "It provides a sense of control and involvement and closure," she says.

That's because a child copes better when he can see and touch and be part of reality. "Otherwise," says Wolfelt, "what he imagines can be far worse than the truth." Director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition in Fort Collins, Colo., he is author of "Healing the Bereaved Child" (Companion Press).

Offering a choice is not a matter of simply asking, "Do you want to . . ." however. Any child who has never been to a funeral, including 8 to 12 year olds who may have read or heard about them, needs considerable advance preparation.

"Keep it simple - 'It's a ceremony to remember the person who died' - but anticipate how concrete children are in their thinking, even older children," says grief specialist Steve Woods of the Caring Place in Pittsburgh. For instance:

Even though you say Grandpa is dead, a child under 6 still thinks death is reversible. Tell him, "His body stopped working. It doesn't eat or talk or breathe anymore." Be prepared to repeat yourself.

If you talk about "the body," kids typically imagine it headless. That alone could be the reason she doesn't want to go to the funeral. Tell her, "Daddy's whole body is in the casket, and it looks like it always did - head, arms, legs, everything."

If you believe Daddy goes to heaven, it's his soul that goes there; the body is in the ground. (Stay away from using the word "spirit"; that conjures up ghosts.)

Explain also why we have funerals. "Tell him one way we remember a person is to tell stories about him, including happy ones," says Wolfelt; that anticipates confusion he may have from being at the funeral home and seeing people laughing. Describe also who will be there: " 'Lots of people we don't know will come because they knew Grandpa and cared about him, too.' That will make him feel good," he says.

Once you have had conversations like this, you can pose "do you want to . . ." questions, with one other caveat, says Schuurman: "Encourage, don't force." For instance, " 'I'd like you to be with us, but if you don't want to, it's OK.' " Most children want to go once they realize the whole family is going.

A young child who doesn't want to go probably has unanswered questions, says Grollman. He urges parents not to shame her by saying things like, "Didn't you love Grandma?" but to be respectful: "OK. Can you tell me why?" It will often be something simple -- "Who will I sit next to?" -- or concrete: "How do they put her in the ground?" Many young children are unable to verbalize their worry, so try to do it for them even if you're repeating yourself: "Some kids worry the body doesn't have a head. You know it does, right?"

If a child 8 or older doesn't want to go, it's likely an egocentric concern. Probe deeper: "Are you worried about your math test? Do you think your teacher would give you a makeup?"

If he still doesn't want to go, Schuurman's advice is to back off. Woods would back off only if a child exhibits extreme anxiety. Otherwise, he would say, "This is something we do as a family." Wolfelt falls somewhere in between: "I'd give more than a choice but without forcing: 'We really want you to come. Can you think about it more?' "

Wolfelt is big on finding ways to involve children in funeral rituals. A strategy he likes is to ask them to use descriptive phases to make an acrostic of a grandparent's name. His favorite comes from Sarah, 6, whose grandmother's name was Tootsie. Her acrostic began with, "T, tells stories," and ended with, "E, eats ribs." During the wake, she proudly displayed it next to the casket.

And what about the burial? "Children should go," says Grollman. "It's the best visual aid in the world. Two weeks later, when the preschooler asks, 'When is Daddy coming back,' you can say: 'Remember how his body was in that special box? And we watched them put the box in the ground?' " Grollman is author of "Talking About Death: A Dialogue Between Parent and Child" (Beacon Press).

Whether it's at the visitation, funeral, burial, or a mourning period afterward, children will say and do things that surprise you. Like play tag at the funeral home, peer into the casket, or examine the gravesite for bugs. "Don't reprimand," says Wolfelt. "No question is inappropriate. Children do not have an innate fear of death. That's a learned response."

If a 5-year-old peers into a half-lidded casket, for instance, it's to make sure the legs weren't cut off. It's natural curiosity, not ghoulishness, that prompts a 7 year old to ask, "Is his blood still in him? (Answer: "After a person dies, there's something called embalming that gets the body ready for burial. One thing it does is take the blood out.")

Not surprisingly, it is the open casket that typically makes parents unsure about a child's attendance. Wolfert says seeing the body can actually help a child and in families where it is not part of the ritual, he tells parents not to refuse a child who asks to see it and to offer it as a choice: "Since you helped me pick the dress Mommy's body is going to be buried in, would you like to see how she looks?"

Lexi Brawer, who did go to her grandfather's funeral, sat on her mom's lap for most of the service. "The only time she stepped away from me was at the burial," says Marcie. "When they lowered the casket, she wanted to see where it was going, and how deep it was, and why they were putting dirt on it."

Later, while they were driving her older sister, Leigh, to camp, there was a moment of closure that even Hollywood couldn't have scripted better. Looking out the car window, Leigh spotted a rainbow.

"It's beaming Grandpa up!" exclaimed Lexi.


Don't wait until a death to discuss funerals. Look for conversation openers, read a book, visit a cemetery.

It should be a child's choice to touch or kiss the body. Tell her in advance it will be cold.

If you expect to be overcome with grief or too distracted to answer questions, assign some other loving adult to be with your child, even though you may also be at his side.

When explaining cremation, the body isn't "burned." It's "put in a room with lots of heat until it turns to ashes."

Expect clergy and the funeral home director to include your children in conversations and/or to answer questions.

Explain that flowers, food, and contributions are symbols of love for the person who has died and for your family.

It's OK to cry or even sob in front of your child as long she sees you are able to gain control and be yourself again.

After a burial, a young child may wonder when you are going to dig Grandpa up. It's just that kids are used to burying things and digging them back up. A simple answer will do: "Once a person's body is buried, that's where it stays."

Posted by Barbara Meltz at 10:17 AM
October 15, 2007

There's more to those squiggles than you think


When your preschooler comes to you for the upteenth time with a drawing he's made and he's, oh so proudly showing it off, what, exactly, are you supposed to say? "Oh honey, this is sooo beautiful!!" Isn't t here a law about how many times a day you can say that? "Oh honey, what a nice..uh, ...." Isn't there a limit to how many times he's going to fill in the blank for you?

Questions like this plagued me when my son was at the early stages of drawing. I wanted to be encouraging without being phoney, helpful without being hokey. What's more, I wanted to know: Do these squiggles have any meaning? Is there something I should know about them? So, like so many issues in my parenting, I did some research and wrote a column. It's below. I suppose this is an odd one to include in my all-time-favorite list but I love it because it is a reminder of a very specific time in my son's life, and also because I learned so much in the process of reporting. I hope you will, too.

Thursday, February 25, 1993
Child Caring
By Barbara F. Meltz


The day a 3-, 4- or 5-year-old puts marker to paper and draws, for the first time, something we can recognize is an exciting time for most parents. It is also a major cognitive and developmental milestone.

This tends to be a time when parents are especially attentive to their children's artwork. But early representational drawings are not the only ones with value. The artwork of any age child, including the scribblings of a toddler, offers us a window into her development, sometimes even a peek at her thinking.

"Children of all ages have a lot of sensations, input, ideas. They need to have a vehicle to give order to them, to make sense of them. Art is that vehicle," says educator Nancy Langstaff, director of the Creative Arts in Learning masters' program at Lesley College in Cambridge.

With children 2, 3, even 4 years old, it's the process, not the product, that counts, says Malcolm Watson, professor of developmental psychology at Brandeis University, who studies what happens in the preteen years when many children stop drawing.

In the early years, he says, parents can learn more from watching their children create than from looking at what they make. What there is to learn, however, may not be what you expect.

A preschooler slapping paint here and there, or stabbing markers on paper, could be venting anger, but most likely, he's not, says early childhood educator Sylvia Feinburg.

"He's experimenting with the medium," she says. Does the paint drip more if you slap it on instead of dab it gently? How wide a mark does the brush make holding it sideways, not flat?

"Young children do not do the same thing over and over again to perfect the outcome. They do it to master the process," says Feinburg, an associate professor at the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study at Tufts University. She is known for her work on children's artistic development.

That's why, when your preschooler proudly shares her handiwork with you, you should mment on what the process appears to have been, not on the product.

Instead of saying, "This looks like a tree!" or even, "This is beautiful!" say such things as: "I love the colors you used." "How hard it must have been to make this color not run into that one!" "This looks like it must have been fun (or hard or tricky) to draw." "What a beautiful shape!" "Wow! You filled up the whole space!"

These kinds of comments are not only more genuine -- "This is beau-ti- ful" gets to sound pretty trite after a while, even to a 3-year-old -- but they also tap into what was really important to the child -- the process -- and are more likely to elicit a response that can lead to a conversation:

"Yeah, this line almost went into this one, but I stopped the drip in time."

"Tell me how you did that!"

Does a 3- or 4-year-old have an idea in mind before he puts marker to paper? Once in a while, says Feinburg. "Mostly," she adds, "the hand just moves."

At some point, this age child does begin to label drawings. "A tree. Our house." They do this because adults keep asking them, 'What is this?' -- not, says Feinburg, because there is a relationship between an idea and what's on paper.

As children's art gets more representational, there is a tendency to look at it as a barometer of emotional well-being. These professionals caution parents against doing that.

For one thing, it's easy to overinterpret the art. A lot of what 5-, 6- and 7-year-olds draw, for instance, says Watson, is wish fulfillment, and not a sign of a problem, as some parents might conclude. "They draw what they like, what they don't have or what they wish they had. Or they draw a scene from a movie over and over, as a way to relive a pleasurable experience."

It's also easy to misinterpret. Many themes in the drawings of 5-to-8-year- olds that are upsetting to parents are simply developmental. "When little girls draw princesses and rainbows -- which they do over and over -- it doesn't mean they want to grow up to be queens," says Feinburg. "They are mastering power within a feminine context."

Likewise, when boys' drawings are predominantly about dinosaurs or superheroes, about fighting or blowing people up, it doesn't mean they are turning into bullies. They, too, are mastering aggression and power, winning and losing.

"They will move on," assures Feinburg.

Watson says parents tupically don't need to do anything about these repeated patterns in artwork. "Art is a chance to work out feelings, experience good ones and work through bad ones," he says. He advises worrying about a specific theme that seems troublesome only if it shows up consistently over time: "He always leaves out the father in drawings of the family, he always makes himself tiny." Or, adds Feinburg, if destructive themes in art -- "He always tears up his work or belittles it, or always draws a boy and says, 'He's bad' " -- coincide with other troublesome behaviors. In such cases, parents should seek professional guidance.

Sometime after age 7, most children begin to be more discriminating in judging their own art. They expect you to be, too. You can begin to say, "I like this picture better than this one," and give them evaluative reasons, even talk about composition, says Feinburg.

But, here, too, there are cautions. Two things are going on for these older children, according to Langstaff and Karen Gallas, a first- and second-teacher at the Lawrence School in Brookline who studies how children use art as a way to understand their world.

First, they begin to compare their work to peers'. "They can be very hard on themselves," says Langstaff, "so they really need your support to be able to continue."

Second, the older they get, the more they want their artwork to be truly representational, almost photographic in its realism. "This becomes a real stumbling block. Kids get frustrated because their drawings aren't 'real,' and they start to drop out of drawing altogether by age 12," says Gallas.

In part, this is because parents and teachers typically aren't as encouraging of a 9-year-old's art as a 4- or 5-year-old's.

Gallas says this is unfortunate: "Art at any age is a form of communication, an outlet. Having to always communicate in the spoken or written word limits a lot of people."

Feinburg says it's not because you might have a potential artist on your hands that you should support a child's interest in art as much at age 9 as you did at 4. "Through art, children gain confidence in themselves and their ability to develop, execute, and express ideas. What parent doesn't want that?"


- Show your preschooler that you value her art by beginning in preschool to keep a portfolio or box of selected artwork. Make your selections together, and begin the process by explaining, "We can't keep everything because it would just be too much, but we can choose ones we want to save." Doing this at a young age will make life easier when your child is older and wants to save everything.

- Have a public place where you display each child's artwork.

- Drawing and painting are not enjoyable to every child, but other forms of creating may be. Have other tools available -- clay, glue, scissors, fabric scraps, stapler, paper punch.

- Young children may get discouraged at being unable to draw as well as older siblings. Comment on the shapes and colors they use and send a message such as this one: "Everybody draws in her own way, that's what's important in our family."

- With older children who get frustrated at their inability to draw as realistically as they want, encourage them to draw designs or fantasy figures and scenes. Also encourage them to try different media, such as clay or collage.

- Don't emphasize accuracy or correct a child's drawing, and don't show him how to draw things. Instead, say, "Everybody draws differently. You draw it your own way. There's no right or wrong way to draw something."

- A child's first representational drawing, typically at about 3 1/2 years, is a "tadpole man": a circle for the head, with eyes, nose and mouth and with arms and legs coming directly from the head. This is true for children in all cultures.

- Between 4 and 6, the tadpole man evolves into figures from geometric forms: triangles for dresses, rectangles for torsos. Objects float all over the page and their size is irrelevant. A "mommy" may have a head, arms, legs and hair, all in good proportion, but an earring may be bigger than the head.

- The next step in representation is to find a baseline: grass or floor at the bottom of the page, with objects lined up on it. Size is becoming more relevant.

- Between 6 and 7, there is greater attention to size relationships: the earring will no longer be out of proportion. But emotional factors influence
size: a 7-year-old taking tennis lessons could draw a girl with a racket that is enormous, because that's how it feels to her.

- Children 8 and older are moving into a literal stage, where they want their drawings to say things, much as words do, and to be as realistic as possible.

Posted by Barbara Meltz at 05:57 PM
October 15, 2007

Parents, keep your helicopters on the ground!

Illustration, Zohar Lazar, Bostonia Magazine

By now, the phrase "helicopter parent" is pretty widely understood as any parent who is hovering, hovering, ever ready -- and able; the able piece is important -- to swoop in out of the sky at a moment's notice to do...whatever. Is this a good or bad thing?

When it comes to our college students, this excerpt in an article in my alma mater's alumni magazine, "Bostonia," really nails it. Jessica Ullian writes:

"Wayne Snyder, the associate dean for students in the College of Arts and Sciences, remembers trying to explain to a concerned father that the University prefers to work with students directly to resolve academic issues. "He kept saying, 'No, no, she's just a child.' Snyder says. A BU junior tells of a friend's mother who rsearched professors' areas of expertise and then created fifteen possible class schedules for her daughter's freshman year."

Can we all agree that this dad and mom are both dead wrong? If you're a parent who gives your freshman a wake-up call every morning, can we agree to wonder, "When is this kid gonna take responsibility for himself?" How about agreeing that disinfecting bathrooms in your child's residence hall is not OK? Full disclosure: I thought really seriously about doing that at my son's fraternity.

The article concludes that collges around the country are adjusting to this helicopter era by building a more collaborative relationship with parents long before move-in day. But what about the next step, when these children become employees? Are parents hovering on the job, too? Uh oh. The article cites one survey that says 41 percent of parents gathered information on prospective employers for their children.

Posted by Barbara Meltz at 03:46 PM
October 15, 2007

If you can't have the patience of a preschool teacher, you can at least have the same strategies


Today is the beginning of my last three days at the Boston Globe, ending 19 years as the Globe's parenting columnist and a 28-year career here. In these last days of blogging, I'd like to reprint some of my favorite columns.

As I mentioned on my chat today, my most requested column ever was called Mini-Magic. In it, I marvel at how preschool teachers cast a kind of spell over children. Did you ever see a preschool teacher raise her voice in anger at a child? Visibly lose patience, shake a finger at a child or throw up her arms in frustration? Do these teachers all have a saint gene the rest of us don't know about?

Child Caring
By Barbara F. Meltz, Globe Staff


Have you ever wished you could hide inside a cubby at your child's preschool and spy for a morning, just to make sure teachers aren't casting spells on the kids? What else, after all, could explain why teachers are able to bring children back into the fold calmly and quietly, without loss of self-esteem or a power struggle, while at home we back ourselves into corners, raise our voices, and say things we regret?

The truth is, preschool teachers do work a kind of magic. First, they create an environment that is totally child-centered: Everything a 3- or 4-year-old can reach is not only safe for her to use but intended to bring her enjoyment. Secondly, they focus entirely on the children: With no dinner to cook or laundry to fold, teachers have no distractions. Unfortunately, even if we could create the same environment at home right down to the red rug for circle time, even if we could free ourselves of other responsibilities, it wouldn't be enough.

``What teachers have that parents tend not to have is a repertoire of strategies to head off power struggles,'' says early childhood educator Ellen Galinsky. Power struggles are anathema to preschool teachers and should be to us, too. ``As soon as you dig your heels in about how something has to happen, you take away what's most important to a preschool-age child: the ability to be autonomous, powerful, and strong, to do things himself,'' says Galinsky. She is president of Families and Work Institute in Manhattan and co-author of ``The Preschool Years'' (Ballantine Books).

It's not that parents don't have coping mechanisms; the problem is we often inadvertently feed into a power struggle. To ensure success, she says, strategies need to be developmentally appropriate, tailored to the 3- and 4-year-old.

Gerry Pedrini, director of the Sunshine Nursery School in Arlington, says, ``You'll never see a good preschool teacher issuing loud commands or scolding, because that doesn't make a child feel good, and feeling good is what leads to autonomy.'' You'll also rarely see a timeout chair in a quality preschool; in a classroom setting, it's shaming.

So what should we do?

We asked directors of some of the area's leading preschools to share their strategies:

Offer choices
This sounds simple but it backfires for parents if we let it drift into negotiation, says Pedrini. Negotiation gives a preschooler too much room to move around in, and too much power. ``It creates anxiety,'' she says.

Offer a preschooler no more than three options; anything more is overwhelming. When choices are contained, a child accepts the boundaries and makes a selection. If he begins to negotiate -- ``How 'bout the cookie before dinner?'' -- stay on track: ``That isn't one of the choices.'' Calmly repeat what they are.

Early childhood educator Janet Zeller, director of the Tufts University Educational Day Care Center, says choices work well because they empower a child and defuse the issue at the same time. ``When you tell him, `You can take the bath before we read a story or after,' he's in control of something desirable, the story, but not about what he doesn't want to do, which is the bath,'' she says. ``It allows him to save face.''

Say what you want, not what you don't want

Sentences that begin, ``If you don't,'' tend to get us in trouble because what follows is typically a threat, says early childhood educator Judith T. Wagner: `` `If you don't pick up your toys, then you can't watch the video.' ''

It's as if a preschooler has a button set to automatically respond negatively to that kind of language. ``Reacting against it is one of the ways they separate,'' says Wagner, who is a professor of education and child development at Whittier College in California and director of Broadoaks Children's School there.

Substitute ``when'' for ``if'' -- ``When you pick up your toys, you can watch the video.'' That detoxifies your request by putting power in her hands, making it more likely she'll comply.

Always tell why

The typical preschooler responds to logic if it's genuine, offered with respect and offered before he is out of control. Keep your reasons simple, accurate, and age appropriate. ``Parents have a tendency to go overboard with this,'' says Zeller. Here are examples she says a preschooler can understand: ``You need to take this medicine so you won't have a fever and feel sick.'' ``The reason I'm asking you not to pick your nose is because it will make it bleed.'' ``It's not OK to swear because grown-ups will tell kids not to play with you.''

Offer praise

If you ask a 3-year-old to pick up the blocks and he puts only two in the bin, a parent is likely to focus on what didn't happen and react angrily: ``You didn't pick up the blocks!'' Before you know it, you're into a power struggle. But something good did happen: ``You put two blocks in the bin. Good job!'' By focusing on that -- ``Let me help you finish cleaning up'' -- you head off a battle and help define your expectations.

``Look for moments of goodness, even microscopic ones,'' says Chris Giguere, director of Lexington Playcare Center, a preschool in Lexington. Praise provides clarification for preschoolers, who aren't always clear about what we expect of them or what makes them good. Be as specific as possible.

Make eye contact

It's easy for a child to disregard what we're saying when we literally speak over her head. Position yourself at her level so she can see your eyes, suggests Pedrini. ``When you look in her eyes in a friendly way, as if to say, `Oh, there you are!' it's much harder for her to ignore you,'' she says.

Address the feeling you think she has

Three- and 4-year-olds have a hard time identifying and naming their emotions. When they have a fear or worry, they act out. What's tricky is that what they're acting out about often has nothing to do with what they are upset about, says Mary Ucci, director of the Child Studies Center at Wellesley College. A recent incident with her 2 1/2-year-old grandson comes to mind.

He was spitting, she asked him to stop. When he didn't, she said, ``I wonder if you're upset about something. You don't usually have spit coming out of your mouth.''

``I'm angry at Aunt Michelle,'' he said. Michelle had just arrived, diverting Grandma's attention.

``If I had just gone after the spitting, I wouldn't have gotten anywhere,'' says Ucci, ``but because I could address the source of the problem, the spitting stopped.''

Giguere says validating feelings is one of the most magical strategies she knows. ``A child can be puffed up with anger, red-faced, ready to lash out, and you utter one sympathetic sentence -- `It's hard to wait your turn for a shovel, isn't it?' -- and it's like you popped a balloon: `You understand me!' They're so grateful. It's very powerful for them,'' she says.

Slow down

Pedrini thinks a big reason we end up in power struggles is because we're always in a hurry. ``Preschoolers move at a slower pace than grown-ups,'' she says. She tells parents to build in extra time so children can function at a pace that meets their needs. When you try to speed a transition, don't just issue a warning -- ``We have to go in five minutes'' -- but provide a definition: ``You have time to read one more book.''

Pick your battles

This is perhaps the most frequently repeated strategy and one most parents know about. Trouble is, says Zeller, we don't take it literally enough.

``For every 10 things you think a child needs to do, only the safety related ones matter,'' she says. ``Battles around food and clothes are almost always unnecessary. Why does it matter if he doesn't sit still at the dinner table?'' Zeller asks. ``Let him stand. Even let him come and go. What's more important: That a 3-year-old acts like an adult or that he gets the nutrition he needs? You're worried about manners? He's only 3! There's time for that.'' To one mother who was in shouting matches every day with her preschool daughter over clothes, Zeller asked, `` `What do you care if she wears the same two outfits all year long?' It had never occurred to her that it didn't matter,'' she says.

Enlist her help in problem-solving

This also empowers a preschooler, but it can easily backfire, says Kathy Roberts, director of the Dandelion School in Cambridge. Don't ask, ``How can we solve this problem,'' until you state the problem clearly: ``Your brother wants to build towers and it seems like you want to knock over towers.''

Timing is critical. ``Problem-solving doesn't work if the situation is too far gone,'' says Roberts. If you catch it early -- you see a child about to knock over a block tower and you can engage him in some other activity before he does -- then you can say, ``Let me know when you aren't going to knock over Josh's tower.'' That tells him what he was doing wasn't good without shaming or humiliating him. It also puts control in his hands: ``When I'm ready, I can play there again. It's up to me.''

A less tricky way to problem-solve is after things have calmed down: ``I wonder what we could do next time Josh wants to build and you don't.'' This won't work if you're angry, cautions Roberts. ``Then it sounds like punishment.''

Use natural consequences

This is another frequently talked about strategy that typically doesn't work with preschoolers unless the consequence is connected to the behavior in an obvious and immediate way. Sending a 4-year-old to her room or depriving her of TV later that day because she's teasing her 2-year-old sister won't make sense to her, says Roberts. But she will get the message if you tell her that you and Molly are going to a different room so Molly can play without being frustrated by her big sister. Then tell her, ``If you want to join us, let us know when you're ready to play in a cooperative way.'' That tells her her behavior is a matter of choice and she has control of it.

Distract him

Most parents know how to distract a child by engaging him in some other activity but few of us think about using humor as a distraction. When you see a power struggle looming because he won't put on his snowsuit, try to put it on yourself. Your mock cries of, ``This doesn't fit me!'' will tickle his funny bone and likely defuse the situation.

Planning ahead

In the spirit of ``an ounce of prevention . . .,'' Ucci tells parents to anticipate a child's needs and reactions. If six cousins are visiting on Christmas, how will your preschooler cope with sharing? Talk about it -- ``I wonder how you'll feel if your cousins want to play with your teddy bears? -- and problem-solve: ``You don't have to share all your toys; we could put the bears in the closet . . .''

Adding these strategies to your repertoire will reduce power struggles but may not eliminate them. When one erupts, Chris Giguere's advice is to end it as fast as possible. ``It's your choice to let it escalate or not. You're the adult,'' she says.

Her favorite strategy for getting out of a power struggle in a way that no one loses face is something she calls ``hand over hand:'' ``We step behind a child, take his hand under ours and do whatever needs to be done together, like pick up a book. `We need to put the book away. Let's do it together.' Although a child may be unhappy, even crying, hand over hand is fast. It puts the incident behind you quickly,'' she says.

``Then it's up to the adult to be able to move on.''

Posted by Barbara Meltz at 02:32 PM
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