Spanking Gets Results: But All the Wrong Kinds

mrdad - spanking - wikicommonsDear Mr. Dad: I was over at a friend’s house and was surprised to see her spanking her 4-year old. I’ve never hit any of my kids and don’t have any plans to do so. But after taking an informal poll of other parents I know, I was surprised to find that I’m actually in the minority. Should I rethink my no-spanking policy?

 A: Please don’t. There’s some debate about whether an actual majority of parents spank their children. For example, one study found that while 62 percent of parents in the South admit to having spanked their children, only 41 percent of parents in the rest of the country have. And according to a recent study done by researchers at Columbia University, 57 percent of moms and 40 percent of dads engaged in spanking when their children were three years old, and 52 percent of moms and 33 percent of dads were still spanking when their kids were five. But let’s not quibble over semantics. The point is that way, way too many parents are hitting their children—and it needs to stop.

I know I’m going to hear from a lot of readers who will swear up and down that spanking works. And they’re right. Spanking definitely gets the child’s attention and will usually get him or her to immediately do what you say. That’s great in the moment, but what about future moments?

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OMG, Can’t You Smell That? When Teens Don’t Bathe…

when teens don't batheDear Mr. Dad: My 12-year-old daughter won’t shower, she won’t brush her teeth, and she wears the same clothes every day—and sometimes even sleeps in them. Honestly, she’s not very pleasant to be around. Is this normal? Either way, how can I motivate her to be a little cleaner?

This probably won’t help you feel any better—and it certainly won’t do anything about the smell emanating from your sweet daughter—but what you’re describing is very common among pre-teens. Unfortunately, there’s no easy fix.

There are a number of possible explanations. First, disregarding personal hygiene is sometimes a symptom of depression. Think about other areas of her life: Does she seem withdrawn socially? Have her friendships changed? Are her grades dropping? Have her diet or sleep patterns changed? If any of those are true, call her pediatrician. He or she will know whether to call in the mental heal professionals. Plus, a few words about showering from a non-family member might make a difference.

Second, she may be too busy—at least in her mind. From your perspective, she probably spends way too much time on her computer or her phone—time that might be better spent with a bar of soap. From her perspective, she’s just staying in touch with her friends.

Third, she may be trying to get your attention. Clearly, she has.

Fourth, this could be a power play. At 12, your daughter is relatively powerless. You may get her involved in family decisions and you may give her choices, but the final decisions are yours. Not bathing, brushing teeth, or wearing clean clothes might be your daughter’s way of exerting some control. The same dynamic is common among kids who are obese or who have eating disorders. Forcing a child to eat, stop eating, or get in the shower is nearly impossible. As a parent who’s been exactly where you are, I’d much rather be worrying about a hygiene problem than a potentially life-threatening eating disorder.

Here’s what you can do to help.

  • One common pre-teen and teen refrain is “you just don’t understand me!” There’s some truth there. Pre-teens have a lot going on in their head and we rarely ask about it. A few non-judgmental questions will show her that you care and might help you get to know her better.
  • Adolescence is a time when kids want to be liked and fit in. It’s also prime time for bullying and teasing. Nobody gets picked on, bullied, or socially excluded more than kids who are visibly or olifactorily different. Explaining to your daughter that she may be jeopardizing her social life might make a difference.
  • Do nothing. Actually being excluded or teased by her peers will get the point across more effectively than anything you say.
  • Have her read the Mrs. Piggle Wiggle story, “The Radish Cure.” The fictional Mrs. Piggle Wiggle comes up with delightfully creative solutions to parenting problems. In this story, she recommends to the parents of a child who refuses to bathe that they wait until their little darling is covered by half an inch of dirt, then, when she’s asleep, plant radish seeds. Seeing the sprouts was all it took to drive the child into the bath.
  • Don’t make threats. Threatening to take away her phone or Internet time may make the problem worse. If you absolutely must make a threat, be sure you can follow through. In a moment of frustration, I told one of my daughters that I wouldn’t take her to school the next day unless she showered and brushed her teeth. Dumb move on my part.

Supporting Mr. New Guy

Dear Mr. Dad: I just heard that my ex-wife is moving in with her boyfriend. We’ve been divorced for nearly two years and she wasn’t cheating on me, but I’m furious. Plus, I’m worried about how this is going to affect my kids and my relationship with them. Why am I so upset, and what do you suggest that I do?

 A: Discovering that your former wife is having sex with someone else brings up a whole flurry of strong and sometimes-unexpected emotions, regardless of how long ago your marriage ended. Here’s what’s going on:

You’re confronting reality. When your ex moves in with someone else (or even starts actively dating), it’s hard to deny that your relationship with her has ended. It also ends any fantasies you may have had that the two of you will reconcile.

You’re curious. I think it’s basic human nature in these situations to wonder about the new guy. Love your ex or hate her, you’ll probably be curious about where the two of them go and what they do.

She may be moving in with the world’s biggest moron, and she may dump him and start dating moron number two next week, but none of that is any of your business and you can’t do anything about it anyway. (If she does start dating and the two of you are able to communicate civilly, gently encourage her not to introduce the kids and the boyfriend for a long while.)

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Is My Baby Antisocial?

baby back - google - okay to modify and reuseDear Mr. Dad: My 7-month old baby is happy and playful when he’s at home. But when I take him to my new dads’ group (yes, that’s a real thing), he seems to have zero interest in interacting with the other kids. The same thing happens at the park or anywhere else where there are other babies. I’m worried that there’s something wrong with him or that I’m doing something wrong. Is there?

Sounds to me like the only thing that’s wrong is your expectations. Until babies are about 10 months old, they’re generally not very interested in interacting with other humans except the ones they see every day and who feed them. It has to do with something called “object permanence.” Let’s say your baby is playing with a toy. If you gently take it away and replace it with another one, he won’t protest. And if you cover it with a blanket, he won’t look for it. As far as he’s concerned, it no longer exists.

But in the not-too-distant future—usually at about 10 months—you’ll notice a dramatic shift. His out-of-sight-out-of-mind mentality will gradually fade as he discovers that, gasp, objects continue to exist even when he can’t see them. Now, he’ll protest if you take away something he’s playing with, he’ll get excited when he sees a favorite toy, and he’ll look around for it if it’s not right in front of him. He’ll also start paying attention to other babies.

Paying attention to other babies doesn’t mean interacting with them, though. Babies typically do what’s called “parallel play,” meaning that they’re perfectly happy to play with a toy while sitting next to another baby, but they might as well be in separate rooms.

To adults, babies engaging in parallel play look like they’re ignoring each other. And if that’s all they’re going to do, what’s the point of getting them together? The point is that it’s a stage they have to go through. Although you may not notice it, those babies are occasionally glancing at each other and they’re taking mental notes on how to steal each other’s play techniques. Today’s fleeting interactions are laying the groundwork for tomorrow’s lifelong friendships.

It’s a slow process, so don’t expect too much too soon. Over the next year or two, it’ll look more and more like little kids are playing with each other, and you may even notice some behavior that will seem very much like cooperation and sharing. It won’t be. What you’re watching is actually a live-action play called, “Toddler Property Rules in Action.” It goes like this: “If I see it, it’s mine. If I’m holding it, it’s mine. If you’re holding it and I want it, it’s mine. If you were holding it and you put it down, tough luck—it’s mine. Once something is mine, it’s mine forever so don’t even think about trying to take it from me.” Like parallel play, these rules are a normal part of child development. It’ll be a while before they can imagine that other people might have feelings.

Despite all this, there are a few things you can do to help your baby develop friendships.

  • Keep putting him in situations where he’ll be near other babies.
  • Don’t expect them to play together: Plop them down next to each other, give them toys, and step back.
  • If your baby is shy, withdrawn, or gets fussy, don’t force the issue.
  • Limit these “play dates” to a few minutes.
  • Praise anything that looks like sharing or pro-social behavior, but don’t expect to see too much of it.

photo credit: en.wikipedia.org

 

 

Dads and Pregnancy–Fatherhood Starts before Your Baby is Born

expectant dad listening to bellyDear Mr. Dad: My girlfriend and I just found out that she’s pregnant. She wants me to go to all the doctor visits with her but I don’t see the point. I know that it’s important for me to be involved after the baby is born, and I intend to be. But aside from supporting my girlfriend, I don’t get how I can actually be involved during the pregnancy or what difference it could make to the baby. Am I missing something here?

A: Yep, you’re missing something, and it’s a biggie. Your involvement during and after the pregnancy affects not only your baby, but also your girlfriend and yourself—and this is especially true because you’re not married. Before we get into the during-the-pregnancy part, let’s talk about what happens after the baby is born.

For your girlfriend: A number of studies have shown that first-time single mothers are far more likely than married mothers to experience stress and suffer from depression. Your being there for her, emotionally supporting her, and taking on some of the childcare responsibilities reduces her stress levels and gives her a greater sense of well-being. It also improves mother-baby attachment and generally makes her a better parent.

For the baby: When mothers are depressed, babies get depressed too. They may become fussy, withdrawn, and sluggish. As they get older, they’re more likely to develop emotional and psychological problems. So when you help the mother, you’re also indirectly helping your baby. Your direct involvement with your baby has some major effects too. Children with actively involved dads have better problem-solving skills, are more social, do better on IQ tests and in school, and are less likely when they get older to abuse drugs or alcohol, do stupid things that could land them in jail, or become teen parents.

For you: Dads who are actively involved with their children are generally happier than absent of uninvolved dads. They take better physical care of themselves (quitting smoking, reducing risky behavior, etc.), and they do better in their careers.

Now, on to the pregnancy part. My research—and that of a number of academics and clinicians—has found that the earlier dads get involved, the more they’ll be involved. And there’s no time earlier than pregnancy. Let’s take a look at what that means.

For your girlfriend: If you’re not involved—for example, by not going to medical appointments with her—she’ll be less likely to go herself. Inadequate prenatal care is associated with premature birth and low birthweight. When you’re involved and supportive, you’re demonstrating your commitment to her and the baby. That reduces her stress levels along with her risk of developing pregnancy complications that could threaten her or the baby’s health or life. Your involvement also reduces the chance that she’ll smoke during the pregnancy and increases the chance that she’ll breastfeed the baby.

For the baby: Maternal smoking is associated with premature birth and low birthweight. Babies born that way are more likely to develop physical and cognitive problems that can last a lifetime. Worse yet, infant mortality rates are higher among women who don’t get adequate prenatal care. Breastfed babies have fewer allergies, better immune systems, and are less likely to develop ear infections or pneumonia. Some studies even show that breastfed babies have higher IQs.

For you: Getting involved during the pregnancy makes it more likely that you’ll stay involved after the birth. In the thousands of interviews I’ve done with dads, I’ve come across many who started off less-than-excited about becoming a dad but none who regretted it.

Starting Middle School: Time for the Kids to Be Responsible

middle school desksDear Mr. Dad: I enjoy reading your columns every week. You recently wrote about kids making the transition from elementary to middle school. Your suggestion of keeping the communication lines open with teens is excellent.  More listening than talking is very good indeed. But I think you focused too much on the parents and how they should stay in touch with the teachers. What about the kids themselves? Don’t you think they should be taking more responsibility for their own education?

A: You’re absolutely right (and so are the other readers who wrote in with similar comments). Middle school isn’t just about the parents; kids should definitely be learning how to be more responsible and self-sufficient. However, early on, they may need a little help. Here’s are a few suggestions (including some from readers)

  • Be Interested: Ask what she’s learning or doing in the classroom, with friends, or on the sports field. Insist on answers that are longer than one word. When I pick my 7th grader up after school, she’s not allowed to fire up her phone until she’s talked to me for five minutes about her day. Knowing you’re interested in her education will help your child stay (or get) motivated to stay on top of things on her own. Other ways to do this include volunteering at the school and attending as many school events (including teacher conferences) as you can.
  • Organization: Many—but not all—schools require kids to have a calendar or planner for keeping track of their homework, projects, and due dates. But having a planner doesn’t mean your child will actually use it, or that completed assignment will make the arduous trip from his desk, into his backpack, and into the classroom. Keeping a checklist by your front door can help eliminate a lot of problems. (Lunch? Check. Soccer cleats? Check. Homework? Check. Are you sure? Yes. Really? Oh, wait, it’s on my desk….) Help your child find a system that works for him, whether it’s lists, separate binders, directories on the computer, or whatever.
  • Prioritizing: Talk with your child about how to identify tasks that need to be done right now vs. those that are due tomorrow or next week. If your middle-schooler tends to get frustrated or overwhelmed, help her break larger projects down into smaller, less-daunting chunks. Instead of doing 100 math problems in one sitting, divide them up and intersperse them with other assignments. Help her come up with a system that works for her and her individual learning style.
  • Routines: Having a set schedule for homework can keep your child on track. A short decompression period before diving in is good, as are regular breaks. If possible, stay nearby. That’s so you can help your child stay focused and be there in case she needs help with an assignment.
  • Praise: Grades offer pretty good feedback on how a child is doing in school, but not everyone gets good ones. It’s especially important that you acknowledge the time and effort your child put into a particular project or homework assignment even if the grades were less than ideal.
  • Trust but Verify: For the first part of the year, it’s okay to make frequent reminders and require your child to show you her progress every day. But don’t turn into a crutch—or a helicopter. Over time, make fewer and fewer reminders.
  • Consequences: As your active involvement and reminders decrease, your child’s freedom to make decisions will increase. Gradually, he’ll also learn to deal with consequences, which could range from winning an award to failing a class. It’s up to him.