Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Potty-Training: The Timer Trick

A friend was visiting the other day. She's the mother of an infant and has no experience with potty-training. My Ami (2 1/4) woke up from his nap, during which he still wears diapers. I took his diaper off and after 20 minutes or so I told him it was time to go to the potty. (He's still at the stage where if I don't remind him, he's likely to have an accident.)

Ami is cranky when he wakes up from his nap. He wasn't having any of it. He refused.

My friend asked "How can you make a kid go to the potty if he doesn't have to [or more likely just doesn't want to] go?"

I went and got the kitchen timer. I set it for two minutes. I said "Ami, when the timer rings, we're going potty."

He was not impressed.

I tried to distract him. I said "Listen, the timer's going tick-tick-tick-tick-tick-tick-tick." (Usually he loves that.)

He said "Timer NOT go tick-tick-tick."

I walked away.

When the timer rang, Ami slid out of his booster seat and dashed to the bathroom!

When we're at the mall, I do the same thing, except I set the alarm on my phone and I let him hold it till it rings.

If for some reason this doesn't work, you can also use the timer trick another way. Set it for one minute and say "Let's just sit on the potty until the timer rings and then we can go play." He might squirm or even cry, but if you can keep him there for a minute, chances are he'll do his business while he's waiting for the timer to ring.

I can't promise this will work with every kid, but it works with mine.

How Kids Think

Kids make the funniest connections in their minds. Sometimes it's a struggle (a hilarious one) to figure out how they jump from one topic of conversation to another. I wish I had written some of these conversations down.

Here's an example, though I have no idea what said child was actually thinking:

My friend was reading a book to his daughter (age three). He pointed to a giraffe and asked her what it was. She said "Microwave."

Clearly this child knows the difference between a giraffe and a microwave. What's going on here?

Probably something like this:

Giraffes are yellow.
So are bananas.
Bananas are food.
We cook food in the microwave.


Monday, December 27, 2010

The Great Pacifier Debate

Q: I am against pacifiers big-time, especially since kids seem to hold on to them until they're 4, 5, 6 or older these days. My husband thinks I'm exaggerating and worried for nothing.
My eldest child, Katie, is 3.5 and has had a pacifier since she was 3 months old. From the age of one we have limited it to bedtime and naps.

We prepared her to get rid of her pacifier when she turned three and would be a "big girl," but when the day came my husband insisted she wasn't ready so we waited. A few months later Katie said "Let's have a party." We collected all the pacifiers, sang bye-bye to them, had cake, an it was finished! Or so I thought.

That night she was hysterical. We tried giving her toys and treats, staying in the room with her, nothing worked. It's been like this for a few weeks and I just don't know what to do.

I'm guessing that part of the problem is that Katie's brother, who is less than a year younger than her, still has a pacifier. The two are joined at the hip an think they are twins. I think he should give up his paci too, but my husband says I'd be "punishing" him by making him give it up at only 2.5!


A: There are two camps when it comes to pacifiers.

1) It's bad for kids' teeth and it looks ridiculous. Pacifiers are for babies.

2) Pacifiers fill an emotional need. If you take it away before they're ready, they're going to react/act out in some other way or just find something else to attach themselves to for comfort instead of the pacifier. Let your kid keep her pacifier for as long as she needs it. Eventually she will give it up on her own.

Until I heard position #2, I was a strong advocate of position #1. I still believe a pacifier should be gotten rid of at around a year, when dentists recommend it. Kids at this age should be able to soothe themselves to sleep and it's much easier to take it away when they're younger than if you wait till they're older. When they're young it's just a tool. When they're older it's almost a part of them.

Of course, this is irrelevant to you because your kid are long past that stage. So let's deal with the here and now.

You are absolutely correct that you're not going to be able to get Katie to give up her paci if her brother still has one. And at 2.5, he is old enough to get rid of his. Anyway it's best to deal with this all in one fell swoop - why have to do it all over again with him in a few months?

Unfortunately the bigger issue here is convincing your husband. Just like in my last post, this is not as much a parenting question as it is a marriage question. It is still partially a parenting question because you're still struggling with exactly how to get rid of Katie's paci, but it's more a marriage question because if you and your husband were both on the same page it would be a whole lot easier to make a plan and stick to it.

In general with questions like these in which the parents are at odds about how to approach a parenting issue, I say you have to pick your battles. But you NEED to get rid of Katie's paci. Dentists say a baby should not have a paci past a year old. Pacifiers can cause speech problems and recurrent ear infections. I suggest you collect some articles outlining these facts and present them to your husband. Tell him "To you it's not a big deal for Katie to keep her pacifier, but that's because you don't know the facts. Here are the facts. We need to do what's best for our kids, and we are starting today. I'm happy to discuss other aspects of parenting with you and come up with compromises, but when it comes to their health, if there is a clear-cut answer about what is better for them, we have to do what the research says."

Now, you're still going to have to deal with Katie's emotional attachment to her pacifier. She might become clingy, or weepy, or obstinate. She is definitely going to need a lot of love, attention, cuddling and understanding. One thing you have on your side is that your two kids have each other. If they're anything like my kids, Katie might be so busy taking care of her little brother and telling him "Don't be sad, it's OK, you can do it" that she'll forget about her own plight!

There's a good possibility that Katie will feel the need to replace her pacifier with a different comfort object. You'll probably be annoyed if she does, but I say let her do it if that's what she needs to feel secure. At least it won't be ruining her teeth. She'll get rid of her comfort object when she's good and ready.

I slept with my blankie until I was ten or so, and I think I turned out OK.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Petel for Babies and Cake for Breakfast

Q: My husband gives my baby "petel" (concentrated fruit-flavored syrup mixed with water to make "bug juice") when I'm not around. Sarah is only 14 months old. How do I get him to understand that it's not good for her? Now she throws her sippy cup when she discovers it's only water!

A: This is not really a parenting question, it's a marriage question. "My husband's not doing what I want, how do I get him to do what I want him to do/to see things my way?" Of course, in a way it's much simpler than this because it's not just something you want, it's actually what's best for your child. Unfortunately, some dads just don't get it. Or it's more likely that they get it but it's easier if they pretend they don't.

I just asked my husband why a dad would give his baby petel. After the first three answers he refused to give me any more because I was laughing so hard he was afraid I'd hurt myself.

1. They give babies sugar water at the bris. It's authorized by a "baby expert."
2. Babies don't have teeth yet anyway. It's not going to give them cavities.
3. He's probably not giving her real petel. It's probably the healthy kind.

When I raised my eyebrows, he explained:
"There are some brands of petel that list all the vitamins and minerals they have. There's even a picture of a dragon on the bottle that says it has calcium" (so it must be true, right? The marketers of this "sugar water" have the gall to call it "Vitamin-chik!")

OMG, I was rolling on the floor.

Then I asked him why a dad SHOULDN'T give his baby petel.
He said all the sugar would make her hyperactive.

That's the difference between hubby and me. He sees the immediate consequences that he's going to have to deal with: a hyperactive child.

I see the whole forest, not just the individual tree.

• You and I know that Sarah is going to fill up on empty calories and not want to eat real food.
• I'm sure she already has some teeth, and even if she doesn't, she'll get them eventually. Your husband's not going to get up one day and say "Oh, you have teeth now, no more petel."
• Of course, too much sugar causes all kinds of health problems, not just tooth decay.
• But you're already seeing a serious problem here. Addiction. No, she's not seriously addicted like, say, I am to coffee, but she's already refusing to drink water because she knows something tastier is out there. (Even though the "tastiness" of petel is up in the air - who actually likes that disgusting swill? Kids who don't know better, I guess. And for some reason our husbands.)

The real issue here is not convincing your husband that you're right and he's wrong. No matter what research you shove in his face (and I do recommend shoving research in his face if you want this to stop), even if you do convince him to stop giving her petel, it's all about your husband's attitude. He sees things differently than you do for all sorts of reasons. He's a man and you're a woman, he's a dad and you're a mom. When it comes down to it, he's him and you're you.

And that's a good thing. Imagine what your life would be like if you'd married someone exactly like you. You can't imagine it because you never would have married someone exactly like you. We married our husbands because "opposites attract." Of course, we have the important things in common, but we have to differ in some ways or we just wouldn't be able to stand each other!

Anyway, as it is to many questions in marriage as well as in parenting (believe me, it's a theme you'll see repeated here often), the answer to your question is that you have to pick your battles. There are going to be a million things your husband and children do that drive you crazy, and you can't bite their heads off for every one. You have to look at the specific scenario and decide if this one is worth fighting for.

In my house, it would be.

When my Eliana was a baby I told Hubby in no uncertain terms that we were going to raise her on healthy food and she was not to get any junk. As far as I know he stuck to that for the first year. Then at her first birthday party she had chocolate cake with delicious sugary pink icing. To you and me it would be obvious that a birthday is a special occasion and that the next day we would return to life as usual. But my husband got up in the morning and served birthday cake to our 12 month + 1 day-old for her breakfast. "Oh, she's one, I thought she could have cake now," was his response when I asked him what in the world he thought he was doing. I was dumbfounded. But looking back, I shouldn't have been. You can't just assume your husband knows what you're thinking. As obvious as it seems to you, sometimes he needs it spelled out for him.

Hubby grew up on cake for breakfast. I don't know if it was a cultural thing or what, but his parents ate cake for breakfast and they let him eat it too. Sure, I love a good donut in the morning, but I know it's not good for me and it's not a nourishing breakfast that will give my kids (or me, for that matter) the energy and brain power they need to make it through the day. They need protein and healthy, whole grain carbs.

Hubby's response? "What's wrong with cake? It has milk. It has eggs. It has flour. It's a great breakfast!"

Three years later my husband gets it. Or claims to. After it being pounded into his head a bazillion times. Because I decided this was a battle that was worth the fight. But there are plenty of times I just shrug my shoulders and walk away. You have to decide now and every time something like this happens if you're going to fight for what's right or let it go and live to fight another day.

And by the way, when my husband thinks I don't know about it, he still gives the kids cake (or Cocoa Pebbles) for breakfast once in awhile. But I know - I can see it on their faces and smell it on their breath. And I let him know that I know. But I don't admonish him. Just the fact that he knows that I know teaches him that he'd better be careful where he treads because WIFEY KNOWS ALL!

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Admitting We're Wrong

I went for a long walk with my kids and my dog today. Ami (2) sat quietly in the stroller while Eliana (4) alternately walked, ran, and skipped beside, in front of or behind me. We talked about many important and philosophical issues that we don't always have the chance to get into during the hustle and bustle of dress-eat-school-home-play-eat-bath-bed on a normal day.

A couple of times as we were walking, our dog growled or barked at other dogs. Then one time a dog passed by and neither paid the other any mind. Eliana asked me why. I said it's probably because this last dog was a girl. The other dogs were boys. Boys like to fight. This was a simplification of the fact that male dogs are territorial. But then I continued with something like, "Did you ever notice that in your school the boys fight more than the girls do?"

Eliana responded "Sarah and Shelly once had a fight at school, but then Shelly wanted to say she was sorry."

Immediately I realized I had made a faux pas. I had perpetuated a gender stereotype, which I am usually very careful not to do. Without a moment's hesitation, I took it back. I said "You know what, you're right Eliana. Maybe boys don't like to fight more than girls do. Sometimes boys fight and sometimes girls fight." And I left it at that.

Everyone makes mistakes. As parents, sometimes our instinct is to defend ourselves as the all-knowing beings our children believe us to be. But I think it's more important to admit to them that we're not perfect and we don't know everything. How else are they going to learn that it's OK to not be perfect and to not know everything? It's more important that we teach them a thirst for learning and for finding out the truth. Spend time with your child reading books, going to museums and exploring the internet. Show them how much fun it is to learn new things, and how many new things there are to learn.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten

Before I went back to work, I used to nap every day. And oh, how I loved my naps. Now that I'm working three (paid) jobs - that doesn't include raising my family, maintaining my household, and oh yeah, this blog - I only have time to nap on the weekends.

When I got home from a long and harrowing excursion with my kids this evening (past their bedtime, mind you), I practically flung them up the stairs for Hubby to deal with. Then I seriously considered taking a nap before sitting down to work. This poster that was hung up in my high school came to mind.

I loved it then and I love it now. There is so much truth to this (an excerpt from Robert Fulghum's book, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten), that it literally brings tears to my eyes.

I know the font on the poster is too small to read, so here it is, in all its humble glory:

All I really need to know about how to live and what to do and how to be I learned in kindergarten. Wisdom was not at the top of the graduate-school mountain, but there in the sandpile at Sunday School. These are the things I learned:

Share everything.

Play fair.

Don't hit people.

Put things back where you found them.

Clean up your own mess.

Don't take things that aren't yours.

Say you're sorry when you hurt somebody.

Wash your hands before you eat.


Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you.

Live a balanced life - learn some and think some and draw and paint and sing and dance and play and work every day some.

Take a nap every afternoon.

When you go out into the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands, and stick together.

Be aware of wonder.
Remember the little seed in the styrofoam cup:
The roots go down and the plant goes up and nobody really knows how or why, but we are all like that.

Goldfish and hamsters and white mice and even the little seed in the Styrofoam cup - they all die. So do we.

And then remember the Dick-and-Jane books and the first word you learned - the biggest word of all - LOOK.

Everything you need to know is in there somewhere.
The Golden Rule and love and basic sanitation.
Ecology and politics and equality and sane living.

Take any of those items and extrapolate it into sophisticated adult terms and apply it to your family life or your work or your government or your world and it holds true and clear and firm.

Think what a better world it would be if we all - the whole world - had cookies and milk about three o'clock every afternoon and then lay down with our blankies for a nap. Or if all governments had a basic policy to always put thing back where they found them and to clean up their own mess.

And it is still true, no matter how old you are - when you go out into the world, it is best to hold hands and stick together.

See how important napping is? It's in there twice!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Every Kid Needs a Dog

I don't expect this kind of crossover will happen often, but I wrote this blog post for another blog I contribute to, Baby Things I Want, and I figured hey, this is some good, constructive parenting advice. :) So I'm posting it here too.

I highly highly highly recommend you get your kids a dog. I think every child should grow up with a dog. I only had one till I was about two years old. I don't really remember her but I see in photographs and old home movies how happy I was to have her around.

We got Coby about a year and a half before Eliana was born. He's a mixed breed. Part German Shepherd, part kitten, we always say. We're not sure he realizes he's a dog. If I sit on the floor he tries to curl up in my lap. He has no idea he weighs almost as much as I do. He'd sleep all day in a patch of sunlight by the window if you'd let him.

Before I had kids, a baby was visiting at our house one day. The baby was napping on my bed, and when he started to cry, Coby charged at me and started barking (Coby NEVER barks) as if to say "The baby's crying! Do something!"

Coby is the gentlest creature. He lets the kids climb all over him and use him as a pillow or a couch. One rainy day we covered him with stickers, and call me evil, but once we even polished his nails (blue, of course. After all, he is a boy). We love to dress him up in costumes too. Sometimes for Purim but sometimes just for the heck of it. And you've gotta see this video of Eliana, age 9 months, trying to pull his ear off.

Dogs are great for kids. Growing up with a dog (or other furry pet) helps boosts your child's immune system and therefore s/he is less likely to develop allergies. It's also so important for kids to not be afraid of dogs. I feel bad for kids who are afraid of dogs - they miss out on so much. I feel worse for the kids whose parents perpetuated their own fear of dogs onto them. We had very sweet neighbors when my kids were younger, and they never let their kids come over once to play because they were terrified of dogs. I tried to explain to them that Coby's really more like a cat, but that was a no-go - they were also afraid of cats!

Coby has actually cured more kids than I can count (and a few parents) of their fear of dogs. Just about two weeks ago a little boy came over to play. He was hiding behind his mother's legs when they walked in, but two hours later he was sitting on the floor, stroking Coby lovingly and complaining that he didn't want to go home.

Coby is a great babysitter. He keeps the kids busy and distracts them so grownups can get things done. And all he charges is a belly rub! We bring him to synagogue every week and tie him up outside. The parents thank us because their kids sit outside with Coby and they are free to sit in the sanctuary and pray (or socialize).

Studies show that kids learn empathy and compassion from having a dog, although mine have mostly learned how to protect their food. Anytime Eliana eats anything she asks "Does Coby like (fill in the blank)?" "Does Coby like macaroni and cheese?" "Does Coby like potato chips?" "Does Coby like green beans?" Kids also get used to a healthy lifestyle by participating in daily walks when they have a dog. Rain or shine, Coby has to be walked. There's no sitting around on our bums all day.

As my kids get older, they will also learn their share of responsibility from taking care of Coby. They already love to fill his food and water bowls and help me hold the leash when we walk him. And they know that when we go away we have to think ahead and find accommodations for Coby. Having a dog prepares kids for going out into the real world and fulfilling their obligations. It can also teach them lessons in cause and effect: Yesterday when we were out, Coby ate a whole bag of sugar off the counter. When we woke up this morning, there was vomit all over the floor. Ask my kids and they will tell you that too much sugar makes you throw up!

It's important to do your research before you get a dog. Rescue one from an animal shelter rather than buying a puppy mill puppy from a pet store. Purebreds are pretty, but mutts are actually smarter and much healthier because they don't have genetic diseases from all that inbreeding. Puppies are cute but they're a lot of work. Coby was 9 months old when we got him and he was fully trained (not to have accidents in the house. He doesn't do much other than that.) I like big dogs because they don't yap incessantly like some small dogs do. (There are plenty of big dogs that bark, but a deep bark is nowhere near as annoying as incessant yapping.) Big dogs have bigger bladders, too, which means you have to walk them less frequently. Some breeds are better than others with children. Coby is a Shepherd in the truest sense of the word; my children are his sheep.

A couple of last words of advice: Know what you're getting into before you take your dog home. There's nothing sadder for a child or for a dog than giving up after a couple of weeks and taking your puppy back to the pound.

And please get your dog spayed or neutered. Not only to help control the pet population. If your dog is not neutered by the time he hits puberty (around age one), chances are he'll start being aggressive with other animals. You can prevent this by neutering him when he's young, but if you wait, nothing can be done. We learned this the hard way. (What can I say? No dog is perfect. Not even Coby the Wonderdog.)

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Potty Training 101

NOTE: This question addresses a very specific situation, but a lot of the elements mentioned in the answer apply to potty-training across the board, so it's worth a read.

Q: My daughter - aged 3.5 - is clean at preschool - She goes by herself without being told. She's there 7am-5pm so she doesn't just hold it in. She goes to the bathroom herself.

At home, she refuses to go, goes on the floor, goes in her pants, etc. Nothing seems to motivate her. We can offer rewards for going each time, but she doesn't seem to understand a sticker chart.

I try to get her to go as soon as she gets home, and then once an hour afterward, but sometimes, even within one hour, she'll have an accident.

She is obviously trying to tell me something. Any idea what?

A: Resistance to potty training can often be a cry for attention. Is there a new baby (or even just a younger child still in diapers) in the house? Maybe your little girl just isn't ready to grow up yet. I know kids as old as 7 or 8 that are perfectly capable of dressing themselves in the morning, but they want their moms to do it. Sometimes kids need a little coddling and extra attention (even if there isn't a particular reason), and that's OK. I suggest these parents take a couple of extra minutes and dress their children. After all, they'll be grown and out of the house before you know it. Now's the time they want you around; cherish it.

Maybe if you lavish positive attention on her at other times and in other ways, she won't feel the need to have you bugging her about the potty and changing her pants all the time. Can you find some alone time or a special activity just the two of you can do when she gets home from school? Even just setting aside 15 minutes for her can make all the difference. Maybe go to the bathroom together as soon as you walk in the door and then have a tea party, read a story, do a quick craft or bake a batch of cookies together.

Of course, I know from experience how annoying it is to have a stubborn pottier at home. My Eliana wasn't trained till 3.5 either, and it drove me nuts because I knew she was perfectly capable. She just didn't want to. With her it was a control thing. She's a bossy - sorry, persistent little thing who knows what she wants, and she does NOT like to be told what to do. It's just her personality. The more I pushed, the more she pushed back. And when it comes to a kid's bladder, there is NO one that can tell her what to do about it. So as hard as it was for me, I had to just sit back and wait. And wait. And wait. Until she got around to it in her own time. (And then potty-training took all of a day.)

But these are just shots in the dark here. I think your daughter would know what the issue is better than I do! Have you tried asking her? I know 3.5 is young and she might not be able to express it, but give her a chance. You might be surprised.

After asking your daughter the next step is to go to the teacher. How exactly did the potty-training happen in school? Find out. Maybe the solution is as simple as emulating the methods that worked for her already.

Part of the reason kids potty-train easily at school is the peer pressure. Everyone around them is doing it and they don't want to be left in the dust. This is also why second (and subsequent) children in a family often potty-train younger and more easily than oldest children. You can use peer pressure to your advantage in this situation.

Is there an older sibling at home? Make a fuss when big sister goes to the potty. If she'll let, make a show out of it and have little sister go with and watch. Even give big sister a treat when she goes to the bathroom (only when little sis is around, of course). Let little sis see how great it is to go to the potty and how happy it makes everyone in the family. We use a chocolate chip every time in my house. Any more than that and by the end of the day we've reached sugar overload.

Also, make a big deal about her panties being dry. Often we make such a big deal about kids going in the potty that we forget a big part of our goal is for them to keep their pants dry! I know some people who actually reward their kids for dry underpants. I think this is a little excessive - how often are you supposed to give them a treat for not doing anything? But sometimes we overlook something because it's simple and obvious to us, while this basic element of potty training is not evident to our children. It just might not have occurred to your daughter to think of it in this way. Don't just make a big deal when she goes in the potty. Periodically ask her if her panties are dry and if they are, shout "Hurray!" It helps some kids to have special underwear with a favorite character on it. They're just devastated if Princess Aurora gets pee-pee on her. This is worth a try too.

If there are no older siblings in the picture, you can use the peer pressure model when you or Dad go to the bathroom, or you can enlist a friend with similar-aged kids to help out during a playdate. Make a big deal when ANYONE has a successful trip to the bathroom, especially when it's your daughter, of course! If attention is what she craves, she'll find that the positive attention she gets when she's successful is infinitely better than the negative attention she gets when she misses. And that's another important point. Never make a big deal out of an accident. Don't say "Oh no, you made in your pants again?" Don't say anything at all. Just silently clean it up and change her clothes. You don't want her getting any attention for this. It's counter-intuitive to us, but to kids, negative attention is still attention.

When all else fails, wait it out. I'm sure you've heard this a million times, but she's not going to go to college in diapers. I know 3.5 feels old and you probably feel like everyone is looking at you, or maybe you're just sick of cleaning up after her. But it's not going to last forever. One day it'll all be behind you and, like I did with Eliana, you'll look back and say "was that all? Why did I make such a big deal out of it?"

Maternal Instinct Trumps All

This is the first time on my blog that I'm touting the wondrous invention that is earplugs, but it will not be the last. I love Mack's but any brand will do in a pinch.

I love earplugs because when I'm off Mommy-duty, they're the only way I can actually get any work (or relaxing) done. Otherwise I'd be running downstairs every time I hear the cats and dogs - I mean kids - fighting, every time someone says "No, not THAT sippy cup, the OTHER one," every time I hear a loud crash... you get the picture.

My husband loves earplugs because they mean I won't be running downstairs second-guessing his every move. (Come on, Moms, you know you do it. Give him a little space to make his own mistakes and learn from experience. He'll thank you for it. Eventually you'll thank yourself for it. And the kids will be OK - really!)

But I've discovered something recently. There is one thing that somehow manages to filter right through even the sturdiest, best fitting of earplugs: maternal instinct.

The kids can scream a million times in the morning (and believe me, they do), and I don't hear a thing. But if someone falls down the stairs or slams his finger in the door, suddenly it's like the earplugs have popped right out of my ears and I'm out of bed like a shot.

I was at my in-laws' for the weekend, sleeping in after a rough night up with a feverish Eliana. I'd brought my trusty earplugs with me, of course. My husband came in, bent right over the bed and said "I'm going now. Get up and help my mom when you can." Of course, I only found out about this hours later, since I didn't hear a word he said.

Five minutes later, though, I heard Ami (2 1/4), clear as a bell saying "Yaya, wanna make! Yaya, wanna make!" Ami is still in the throes of potty training, and my mother-in-law ("Yaya") is hard of hearing. I jumped out of bed at lightning speed, scooped Ami up and ran him to the potty just in time. (Sure enough, my mother-in-law hadn't heard a thing.)

Thank G-d for Mack's earplugs. But thank G-d a hundred times over for maternal instinct!

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Nail Biting

Q: My four-year-old, Becky, has a nail-picking habit. Got any answers?

A: First of all, I think you should sit down and have a chat with Becky. Why is she picking her nails? Is something bothering her, upsetting her, or making her anxious? When you notice your child's behavior change, this can indicate that something is going on behind the scenes. Does she have a new teacher? Did a friend move away? Is somebody picking on her at school? Did Mom just have a new baby or go back to work? New behavior can be an indicator that something's bothering her, so don't just deal with the behavior, make sure you find out if it's stemming from something underneath the surface.

Aside from whether anything is bothering her, I also suggest you ask Becky whether she minds picking her nails. Maybe she only sees the benefits (something to do when she's bored, a way to deal with anxiety) and doesn't even realize this is a negative behavior. Gently explain to her that it's not just about her nails looking pretty: her fingers can get infected and that can hurt.

You can (and should) also ask Becky if she has any ideas about how to kick the habit. She might want to go out and buy a new pair of gloves or she might want you to remind her when she's picking. As I alluded to above, she might just need a little extra special Mommy time. Or she might surprise you and come up with a brilliant idea that's not on my list. Children never cease to amaze me with their cleverness and resourcefulness.

Once you've had your chat with Becky, you have three options in terms of dealing with the behavior itself: Prevention, negative reinforcement, and positive reinforcement.

Prevention: Putting gloves on her hands or band-aids on her fingers. While this might work, it might also make Becky feel self-conscious, or even worse, damage her self-esteem. This might be something she'd consider doing at home while watching TV but she probably wouldn't want to do it in school, for example.

Negative reinforcement: Generally this would be something like scolding her or smacking her hand. I am against negative reinforcement in general and smacking in particular. Not only can these have a negative impact on your child, but they can also backfire. If she is picking her nails because of stress, then your scolding her (or her fear of being scolded) will just cause her more anxiety and potentially make the habit worse. Also, if Becky's looking for attention, negative attention is as much a reward as positive attention. So no matter what method you choose, try not to make to big a deal about the nail picking and don't talk about it all the time.

If Becky was biting her nails, though, I might offer bitter-tasting nail polish as an optional deterrent. I don't think this route would be particularly harmful to her psyche. But since she's picking and not biting, that's a moot point.

One possible negative reinforcement method would be to polish her nails with pretty nail polish and hope she won't want to ruin it. But I don't like this suggestion because a) polishing her nails could be seen as a reward - better to save this as positive reinforcement - and b) there's no way of knowing the odds of this working. If Becky's actually thinking about picking her nails before she does it, then when she looks at them and sees the nail polish it might be enough to deter her. But if she's doing it out of habit then she's probably not even thinking about it and doesn't even realize she's doing it.
Your best bet is positive reinforcement. Tell Becky that if she doesn't pick her nails, she'll get prizes or rewards. When I used to bite my nails, my parents gave me money. 25¢ per hand at the end of the day, and they'd subtract 5¢ for each nail I did bite. But Becky's a little young to appreciate money as an incentive. I recommend a sticker chart or a jar of marbles. You can give her one marble per nail she doesn't bite, or she can start out with 10 marbles in the morning and you can deduct one at the end of the day for every nail she picks. When the jar is full (make sure it's not too big!) she gets a small prize (you and Becky can decide on it together - pretty nail polish is a good one when her nails get long enough). When she kicks the habit altogether, she can get a big prize.

If you decide to go with a sticker chart, there are several ways you can do it. You can fill a sheet of paper with boxes and give her one sticker per nail she hasn't bitten at the end of the day. In the last square at the bottom of the page you can draw a picture of the prize she's going to get when she reaches that square. I wouldn't give her one sticker per day or one sticker per hand because it's unlikely she won't pick her nails at all at least in the beginning. It's too much to expect from her at first, but you can work your way up to this.

Another cute sticker chart idea is making a pair of hands - you can even trace Becky's hands onto the sheet of paper. She can put one sticker on each nail that she hasn't bitten at the end of the day.

I think the best way to go might be to divide the chart into days and periods within the day. One sticker if she doesn't pick her nails before you take her to school, one if she comes home from school without having picked, another if she makes it to dinner time, and a fourth at bed time. Then you can give prizes based on how many stickers she has at the end of the week. I like this method best because a) she's getting fewer stickers (I don't like to waste stickers! And also, 10 stickers a day is a lot, even if you're not thinking about the waste involved. It will make her think she's doing an amazing job even if she's only picking half her nails. Your goal isn't for her to stop picking some of her nails, it's for her to stop picking all of them!) and b) this gives Becky little goals that she can work toward and look forward to throughout the day. The thought of not picking her nails all day might be daunting to her. She might just not know how to go about it. But if you say "make it till dinner and you get a sticker," you'll almost hear a sigh of relief - "Just till dinner? I can do that."

Finally, try to teach Becky some skills to help her deal with the issue, such as finding something else to do with her hands when she's thinking about picking. Give her rubberbands, Koosh balls, Silly Putty, and other things to play with, or suggest she keep crayons nearby and color if she feels like picking her nails. Learning to be aware of what her hands are doing rather than picking mindlessly, and having constructive ideas of what to do instead of picking, are key ingredients in getting her to the point where she's going to get those stickers on her chart or marbles in her jar.

Good luck, Becky, and good luck, Mommy! This might or might not be a difficult journey for you both, but it's going to give Becky some great skills for the future, not least of which are patience and persistence in working toward a goal, and believing in herself.

Pearls of Wisdom

I remember when I used to be able to pack everything the kids and I needed for a weekend away in one little wheelie suitcase. But my kids are growing, so their clothes are growing. Not to mention all the extra pants and underwear I had to pack for Ami (2 1/4), who's potty-training. It was a tight fit this weekend. Summer's easier: summer clothes are smaller and lighter. If we can make it through this winter, maybe we'll have one single-suitcase summer left.

I guess by then Eliana will be old enough to schlep her own suitcase.

Oh, and NEVER go away for the weekend without Children's Tylenol.

Especially if you're going somewhere rural and you're not going to be able to get to a store in the middle of the night.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Choking Hazards and Standing Up for What You Believe In

Q: My daughter is three. Her preschool class is having a popcorn party. Is she old enough to eat popcorn? What should I do?

A: Experts say kids should be AT LEAST four, if not five years old before they can eat popcorn. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) explains that "children three to four years old are still learning to chew effectively. Children at this age also may be easily distracted when they need to pay full attention to the task of eating."

A lot of parents think "what's the harm?" "she's a mature three," "she's a good chewer," "I'll be watching her the whole time" or "it won't happen to me." But over 80% of the 17,000 annual choking-related ER visits in the United States occur in children ages four and younger. (This is different than "under four.") Close to 100 children in America die every year from choking on hazardous foods like nuts, grapes, raisins, hot dogs and popcorn.

Here in Israel, a lot of these foods have a big warning label on them: "Choking hazard for children under age 5!" In America this is not yet standard procedure. But looking at the statistics and hearing the horror stories from parents who have lost children to something as simple as a grape, I've learned a lesson: It's just not worth the risk.

I'm not an outgoing person. I prefer to write an email rather than make a phone call any day. I hate confrontations. I don't like to rock the boat. But when it comes to my children's health and safety, I am compelled to overcome my natural tendencies and take a stand.

I would bring the teacher a printout stating the facts. It's much harder for a teacher to negate hard facts than to brush off a "neurotic mother." If I felt the need, I might even start calling parents to get them on my side. A lot of people just aren't aware of what foods constitute choking hazards and up until what age they pose a threat.

Are you worried that these parents (and even the teacher) might be offended, as if you're calling them bad, or even ignorant, parents? I probably would. But you know what? If I didn't know something essential to my child's health and safety, yes, I might be a little embarrassed if you corrected me, but I'd be more grateful than ashamed. Because my children's health and safety comes way before my pride.

If the teacher's not interested and the parents are apathetic (it happens), you can go to the school board or even as far as the Health Ministry. (The Education Ministry might or might not want to get involved; even though it's school-related, it's more of a health issue.)

But what I find is even more effective than complaining (even if your complaint is completely justified) is coming up with an alternative solution. Preferably a better one than the original idea. A teacher doesn't want to be told "You can't have a popcorn party." The first thing she's going to think is "Now what am I going to do with the kids for an hour? And I promised them a party!" You've got to beat her to the punch and suggest a solution that's going to appeal to her and keep her from grasping at straws. After all, you catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar. (Boy, I'm just a wealth of idioms today, aren't I?)

Suggest a different kind of party. Marshmallows came to mind briefly, but I don't think young children are supposed to eat those either! What about building little "gingerbread houses" out of graham crackers and marshmallow fluff or frosting? It's the perfect time of year, and it's not just a snack but an activity as well. Of course, volunteer to provide all the supplies and lend a hand with the party itself. See if you can bring in one or two other parents to help out as well.

What teacher is going to say no to parents who want to be involved, volunteer to do the shopping, help the kids with the messy project, and stay to clean up afterwards? Hopefully stepping in about the popcorn issue won't upset your daughter's teacher. With any luck (and the right moves from you), she could very well end up thanking you for it.

I know I would.

Baby Sign Lesson from my Genius Baby

This is an amazing video. (I'm totally unbiased, right?)
My daughter Eliana, 16 months, signing "please," "thank you," "again" (which she used to mean "more" until she learned the correct sign for "more"), and "all done."


Oh, and something I say in this video is going to sound a little incongruous (OK, very incongruous) with my next post.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Communication Breakdown

This question splintered off from the previous one about Michael throwing things, including his bottle.

Q: Michael (16 months) throws things because he gets frustrated that we don't understand him. It's written all over is face. The problem is that he throws his bottle along with his toys, and we can't not give that back to him.

A: [I'm going to respond to the issue of Michael's frustration at not being able to communicate his needs. See the previous post to find out how to handle throwing.]

I recommend that you teach Michael a few basic baby (sign language) signs. "Drink" is just putting your c-shaped hand to your mouth as though you're lifting a cup to take a sip. Here are some instructional videos:

Do it every time you ask him "do you want a drink," or when you give him his bottle and say "here's a drink." He'll pick it up in no time. Then he can tell you when he actually wants his bottle, and the rest of the time you don't have to give it to him after he throws it.

I also recommend teaching him the sign for "all done." Then maybe instead of throwing his food or his bottle, he'll just tell you he's finished and you can take it away. This was the first sign I taught my daughter, Eliana. She picked it up within a week or two, at only 9 months old! I may have a video of Eliana signing "all done," but I'd have to look for it. In the meantime, here are two videos demonstrating the sign ("all done" and "finished" are interchangeable):

Here are some cute videos of children demonstrating the sign for "drink."

As you can see, these children are not mimicking the signs 100% correctly. Some kids are more advanced, more coordinated, or simply older than others, so their signing is more accurate, but that's not important. What's important is that they are communicating, and are able to get what they need without all the frustration and ensuing tantrums (or even pointing and grunting).

Kids are just a LITTLE more advanced than cavemen. (Take that, Harvey Karp.)

[Actually, I love Harvey Karp and think his children-as-cavemen philosophy i brilliant and often spot-on. But the cavemen evolved, and that's what we want our children to do too.]

P.S. I know this is a commercial, but it's a pretty amazing example of how many signs a baby (only 12 months old) can learn!

Throwing (food, toys, pretty much anything)

Question #1: The Question That Started It All:

Q: Any advice as to how to teach Michael (16 months) to eat the avocado and not fling it around the room?

A: Take it away the first time he throws it. Take him out of his high chair too. Try giving him avocado again another time. It can take 20 tries for a kid to get to like a new food. But he has to learn that throwing is NOT acceptable behavior. If he's throwing food that means he's not hungry and he does not get to sit at the table with you anymore.

Two days later, I received a follow-up question:

Q: Could you perhaps advise us on how to get Michael to stop throwing things out of his Pack 'n' Play?

You have three choices:

1) Attach the toys to the Pack n' Play. (I used a pacifier clip to attach Eliana's blankie to her crib sheet b/c she'd throw it out of her crib when she didn't want to nap, and then COULDN'T nap because
she didn't have a blankie!) Obviously, if you're going to do this, you have to use something very short that will not present a strangling hazard.

2) Put a crib tent over the Pack 'n' Play. Then he can throw as much as he wants, nothing's going to go anywhere.

3) Just don't give the toys back. If he learns that throwing toys results in no toys rather than a game of fetch with Mommy or Daddy, he should get the message pretty quickly.

Options 1 and 2 are "quick fixes" that will solve the immediate issue of your having to run and get the toys for Michael every time he throws them. "Quick fixes" are useful when you're traveling, visiting, busy working, or otherwise unable to drop everything and teach a lesson right then and there. But in general you want to choose the educational route. Option 3 will actually educate Michael and (if you are consistent with it), eventually prevent him from repeating the behavior.

I'm also going to add as an aside:

4) Go outside and play ball with Michael. He clearly loves to throw. Let him get some good throwing in during the day. Teach him that throwing is acceptable, good, clean fun - in the appropriate setting. Balls are for throwing. Toys and food are not. Offer him an outlet for his throwing fixation. If he has the opportunity to spend time throwing in a fun and accepting environment, he may feel less of a need to throw at other times.

Q: But he throws his bottle as well, and we can't not give that back. We would be willing to try that approach with the other toys, but I think giving him back his bottle but not his toys might send mixed signals.

I don't think you should give his bottle back either. Just like I said about his dinner: if he throws it, he doesn't want it. Pick it up and put it away.

You can give him his bottle 5-10 minutes later, but don't give him the instant gratification of getting it back as soon as he throws it. If you wait awhile, he will not associate your giving him a bottle with the fact that he threw it earlier.


Welcome to Dummies For Parenting (since Parenting For Dummies was already taken).

I decided to start this blog because I love parenting and I love being able to give people advice about how to raise and educate the beautiful human beings they have created, who are one day going to need the skills to take care of themselves and to run a productive and positive society.

Parenting is TOUGH! Anyone who's tried it for even a couple of hours knows that.

And all parents make mistakes. A lot of mistakes.

Parenting is a learning process. We learn a lot of it by doing. But isn't it great when you have a question and you know an experienced parent who can shed some light on this new stage in your child's development?

I know it is for me! I have a list of friends I call when I need advice on anything from potty-training to answering religious and philosophical questions. And I'll admit it, I also take a parenting class. Parenting is the most important thing I'm ever going to do with my life. I want to do it right! (Or as "right" as it's possible to do something like parenting.)

My friends asked me some questions this week and I decided that since my advice was sound, it might be helpful to other parents going through the same thing. And so Dummies For Parenting - Parenting 101 was born. I hope you'll check in often and ask me questions. Preferably questions I can answer. But questions I don't know how to answer are good too. Let's learn together and become better parents together.

Oh, and one caveat: My oldest is four. I can't help you with anything beyond the scope of raising a four-year-old. At least not from experience. Try me, though. Between all the reading I do, my friends with older kids, and my parenting class, you never know. I might just surprise me.