When a Child Prefers One Parent

Question:

Dear Dr. Rene,

I have a two years and eight months old girl. I nursed her for 18 months. After that point, I slowly have faded into the background. If daddy is around, I am out. I can’t give her a bath and put her to bed without dealing with tantrums about why daddy isn’t doing it. She regularly pronounces her love for daddy. Sometimes, she goes out of her way to say that she does not love mommy. I try to be cheerful in spite of this, but it is really, really hard. I feel like the third wheel in my own family. She also refuses to be comforted by me if he is around; sometimes even if he is not. My husband tries to make room for me, but it doesn’t seem to be enough. He says it is “just a phase,” but, for the most part, it has been like this for almost a year.

Answer:

It is normal for a child to go through phases of preferring one parent over the other. I have heard from many parents in this position, including my husband, that it feels really bad.

My older daughter was always equally happy if it was me or her dad giving her a bath or reading to her. My younger daughter took about three years to warm up to the idea of her dad participating. In the first year, she strongly preferred that I hold her. By two years old, she only wanted me to read to her and tuck her in. On nights when it was his turn, she complained and cried. While I know it hurt his feelings, he always seemed to take it in stride occasionally saying things like, “I’ll just keep loving her and eventually she’ll come around.” She did. By the time she was about three years old, he was among her best playmates.

In the moment, the first answer is to not react in a big way. If you over react and get upset or angry, the situation often escalates to a power struggle. Raise your voice and you may spark a tantrum. If you under react and give in to it being the preferred parent’s turn, you give your child’s push power. Your child is more likely to push for the other parent the next go around because it worked.

The second answer is to give your child empathy, validate their feelings and let them know you understand. My husband would say something like, “I know you’re sad, you love when mommy reads to you, she’s great at it.” This dampens their need to argue.

And third, move forward through the process. As you can, continue to read the story, tuck-in and give love. This means my husband would finish the bedtime routine through her upset. If I took over or if he gave up, it encourages the push to be bigger the next go around.

If bath or bedtime are particularly difficult, it may be helpful for the preferred parent to “be away” during that particular time for several days in a row, and the non-preferred parent should strive to make the time enjoyable. If it’s bath, bring extra toys, make it a bubble bath, give extra playtime. If it’s bedtime, read and snuggle a bit longer each night. When the preferred parent re-enters the schedule, continue to alternate nights often and work through the difficult times.

It may also be helpful for each parent to spend some fun alone time with each child in the house every month. This is being sure that individual pairs in the family get regular time to connect individually.

Sincerely, Dr. Rene

Ideas for Reading Aloud with Young Children

mother and child reading

The Department of Education cites reading aloud with children as the number one way to build successful readers. The goal is reading aloud to children for a minimum of 20 minutes a day in order to build a love of stories and books. Reading aloud with very young children can be a challenge.

Here are a few tips to keep it going:

  • Start from day one and build it into your routine – The idea is to start reading aloud early, before you think they are really listening. Make it a habit from the beginning. Books offer a well edited version of the language which is beneficial for young children to hear.
  • As an alternative, spend time just looking at, labeling and talking about pictures together – As your baby is a little older, they might not have the patience for listening to stories. It is beneficial to share time with books in other ways.  Spend time looking at the pictures together, point to and label objects, have them find new objects. It’s fine to just look for and label colors, or tell pieces of stories in your own words as well.
  • Read aloud daily even if they aren’t paying much attention – Once your toddler is up and moving around, they might not want to sit long enough for a story. Let’s say you try to read, and they are up and down to play with toys. At least occasionally, the answer is to stay seated yourself and continue to read aloud. They are in the room so they’re still hearing the language. You are also modeling reading aloud.
  • Read aloud when you have a captive audience – Read aloud when riding in the car, or when you are waiting in line at the grocery store and they are buckled into the cart.
  • Share more active books – Introducing lift-the-flap books, puppet books, pop-up books and picture search books can increase their interest.
  • Go for books based on their interests – Okay, this is an obvious one but if they love trains, go for train books often.

Ideas for Reading Aloud with Older Children

Leisure time for mother and daughter

The Department of Education encourages parents to read aloud to their children 20 minutes a day at a minimum. The idea is to read aloud to them for longer stretches and more often as you are able. It’s also suggested that you continue to read aloud to your children long passed the time you thought they’d listen. Children who read aloud through high school do better on Verbal SATs than those that read to aloud through middle school, and those who read through middle school better than those that do through grade school.

I know most parents reduce their reading aloud time as children become more fluent, independent readers. The trick is to give time for both. When my older daughter wanted time to read to herself, we added that to the bedtime routine rather than replacing our read aloud time. So they got 20 minutes of read aloud, and an additional 20 minutes of reading books independently.

There are lots of good ideas to help read aloud continue:

  • Keep it part of the daily routine – This way you don’t have to find the time each day, it’s already there. It also makes it expected. If you stop reading aloud for a long stretch of time, children may be more hesitant or think “it’s for babies” when you try to start again.
  • Let your children pick the books – At any age, it is helpful if children feel they have some choice in the matter. Letting them pick the books is an easy way to give this. When the girls were little, I’d read the same books 20 nights in a row if that’s what they picked. Now we take turns choosing chapter books. I almost always pick a classic because they never do.
  • Take turns reading aloud – Once they are fluent readers, it can be nice to take turns during this read aloud time.
  • Occasionally read more active participation books – This might be a fill in the blank book or a quiz book. This might be something along the lines of the Choose Your Own Adventure series that let the reader make plot decisions throughout the book.
  • Shake up the types of books – As they are older, some children are drawn to biographies or sports books, others to how-to books or articles from magazines.  You might also try poetry or plays. Any reading is fine.
  • Read picture books longer – Once you start chapter books, it’s good to include picture books occasionally. There are so many picture books that really are aimed at older kids. You might try Stripes or Mr. Peabody’s Apples.
  • Occasionally, read their homework aloud – Not often as they need to be doing this reading, but I think it’s fine once in a while to read their homework aloud. I’ve done this, especially when they are struggling with a topic or the reading seems particularly dry to them.

Any other ideas? Please share them here!

Allow Negative Emotions Between Siblings

Zwei Kinder streiten sich

Following an upset in her bedroom, an older daughter storms into the kitchen saying, “I hate her! She is always ruining my stuff!” Unfortunately, common parent responses include giving logic or reason, “she is younger than you, you have to be patient,” or a demand, “she is your sister, she is going to be your best friend in life,” or, “we are a family of love.” Worse yet, parents might deny the emotion overall, “you don’t hate her, you love her.” All of these responses teach the older child to bottle emotions, teach that her emotions are wrong and give her something to argue about. These responses let her know that you don’t understand.

it’s better in these moments to understand her emotion, give empathy and validate her emotion. This would sound like, “wow, you are mad at her! You don’t want her in your room.” The parent is labeling the emotion and letting the child know she is understood, that her emotions are her own and they are important. The child feels connected and can safely express herself. She can move forward from the emotion, rather than have to hang on to it and argue.

I am not saying you have to allow the word “hate” or let them scream negative things at each other day in and day out. You can follow-up by curbing the words as you would behavior. After you’ve given empathy, and the situation has calmed, it’s fair game to loop back by saying, “I know you are mad. When you are mad, I need you to find a better way to say it.” Then talk with your child about better ways. You might curb the language moving forward with, “those words are too hurtful. If I hear that again you will be in separate rooms.” Also, it’s good to spend time with both children addressing the specific behaviors at hand. This may be coming up with house rules about being in each other’s rooms, or setting aside time when they play separately each day to give them a bit more elbow room.

If you want to learn more about sibling relationships, there is a great book titled Siblings Without Rivalry by Faber and Mazlish.

Too Many Toys?

Realizing your children may have too many toys is a common occurrence this time of year. It may be that grandparents over delivered at the holidays. It may be that your child has only opened half their presents and are already complaining that they are bored. Whatever the reason, here are a few good answers:

  • Storage – There are some toys that can more easily be stored than others. There are metal puzzle holders, storage boxes for manipulatives, suitcases for dolls and drawers for art supplies. In my own house, we store puzzles in a cabinet and board games in the garage. I try to ask if they’d like to play with either once a week to avoid ‘out of sight, out of mind.’
  • Rotation – The plan here is to take about half of your toys to storage, box them up to the attic or the garage. Then, once every month or two, rotate about half of that out of storage with toys that were still in the house. This allows children to focus on the toys that are available and play in deeper ways. It also gives your toys a longer life overall. A toy that has been ignored on the shelf for three months is boring, but a toy that reappears after three months of being gone is like new.
  • Relocation – Just moving toys around the house can be helpful. Once when I was cleaning the house, I moved the dollhouse from the basement to the dining room just to get it out of the way. The girls had not looked at it, let alone played with it, in months. When they noticed it in the dining room, it sparked a new interest.
  • Repurpose – Too many toy cars? Roll some in paint, and then roll them on poster board to make a cool painting. Draw a big map and glue on cars.
  • Donation – Gently used toys are often welcome at donation centers.
  • Friend Swap – Organize a swap with your moms club or neighborhood playgroup.
  • Sell – One of my friends swears by selling big toys on Craig’s List.

Between Siblings: Fair Is Not Equal

Between siblings: Fair is not equal, fair is everyone has their needs met.

It is okay for your discipline to be different for your three-year-old and your six-year-old for the same behavior. You might have a different expectation for your daughter and your son around a particular behavior. You might have to coach one child more to build specific social skills relative to their sibling and that’s okay. You are raising individual children who likely have very different personalities and paths of development. While I think it’s fine to have all of these differences, your children may complain that, “that’s not fair!” As a parent, I hope you can let go of defining fair as equal.

  • With things – Say you are scooping ice cream into bowls and the youngest one says, “she has more than me!” pointing at her older sister’s bowl. She is comparing and complaining about something relative to her sister. The idea is to answer her in a non-relative way. Push the other bowls aside and gently bring her attention to her bowl saying, “this is your bowl. Do you have enough?” She can then answer yes or no, and you’ll have to deal with that, but you are taking it off the sister’s bowl. If she says, “yes,” you can move on. If she says, “no,” you can let her know that’s what is available, or you can give her more just not relative to her sister’s. If you start to dole out slivers of ice cream in an effort to make it equal, you are putting yourself on a path to endlessly measure out amounts.
  • With time – I remember a Sunday afternoon when Alicen and I spent four undivided hours working together on her Jamestown Island project for school. She was eight years old, and her five year old sister spent the afternoon milling around the house and bored. Following that, I didn’t put pressure on myself to give Claire an equal four undivided hours. I had faith that Claire would have a similar project in the future. Overtime, if things really do seem unbalanced then address it.
  • With love – When a child asks, “who do you love best?” Answer them individually by saying, “I love you because…” and then tell them why you love them. Answer them individually, not relative to their sibling.

If you’d like to learn more, please visit our online workshops at www.parentingbydrrene.com. Related workshops include Birth Order, Managing Competition, Sibling Rivalry and Proactive Discipline.

There is also a great parenting book that fully covers this titled Siblings Without Rivalry by Faber and Mazlish.

Answering Kids Questions about Difficult Topics

  • Stop talking above them – Much younger than parents think, children are paying attention and making some sense of the language around them. Beyond 18 months, children are learning approximately one new word per hour they are awake. They are sponges, assume they are listening.
  • Answer every question honest and small – When children ask a question, they are honestly looking for an answer. If one is not provided, they may make it a bigger issue or come up with their own answers that are often wrong. Giving small answers means finding age appropriate words and giving just enough to answer the question. When a child asks, “why did grandpa die?” They are likely not looking for a full medical history, and if you provide one you are adding stress. They are likely looking for the basic explanation, “grandpa was very old and his heart stopped working. The doctors tried to save him but they couldn’t.”
  • Let their questions be your guide – Occasionally, a child will be looking for a bigger answer or more detail. That child will have follow-up questions, or will want the full medical history. Continue to answer honest and small.
  • For some topics, decide on an age that you will bring it up if they don’t – There should be several honest discussions about sex and drugs before your child has to make decisions out in the world.
  • Couch your answers in reassurance – Support them through your answer by letting them know you are calm and they are safe. Sometimes reinforce the idea that they can ask you about anything.

Screen Time Limits

It seems the challenge of limiting screen time is a growing concern for parents. With TV, computers, tablets and smart phones, screens seem available to our children at every turn. When a child is complaining loudly in a restaurant or crying in a waiting room, it can be tempting and so easy to pass them a screen to quiet them down. The difficulty is the little bit of research available about screen time and very young children is negative and for older children it’s questionable at best.

The American Academy of Pediatrics continues to suggest that there be no screen time for children under two years old, and a one to two hour maximum for older children. Other researchers, including Zero to Three, suggest less is better with a 30 minute daily limit for two to three years old, and an hour daily limit for older children.

Part of the reason for these screentime limits is to leave more time for other more valuable activities. When screen time is given to children just to quiet them down, parents are missing a golden opportunity to teach the child to calm themselves. They are missing a chance to build empathy by pointing out the annoyed people around them. Screen time as a passive activity is time children could be playing, having conversations, climbing trees, coloring or reading books.

Part of the reason is the growing research that supports links between higher rates of viewing with childhood obesity, attention span concerns and later depression.

My children watch tv and as they are getting older they have their own phones. The idea is to make sure you educate yourself as a parent and make the decisions that fit your family. For more information on this topic, read Screen Time: How Electronic Media – from Baby Videos to Educational Software – Affects Young Children by Guernsey.

Ways to Avoid Summer Academic Loss

Sisters reading book in summer park

Many studies site that children have an average of a two month academic loss over the summer months. With a little effort, you save their hard gained knowledge and may even help them make gains! Here are some ideas to support them while still having fun:

  • Practice school skills in real life – If your second grader was learning to count money, make them the “family cashier” for the summer. Stop using your cards and carry cash, let them count the money to and from at each transaction.
  • Play school – Little ones may willingly take turns being the teacher and the student. When they are the teacher, ask them to explain a math skill they recently learned. When they are the student, ask them to read aloud to the class.
  • Take field trips – My family is lucky to live in the Washington D.C. area. We have the Smithsonian Museums, National Zoo, Virginia battlefields and Baltimore Aquarium all within an hour drive. Within a day trip we can travel to Colonial Williamsburg, Jamestown Island and fantastic museums in Philadelphia. Take advantage of academically related field trips in your community.
  • Take nature walks – There is so much to be learned in the world around us. Summer is the perfect time to get them out in nature. A great book about this is Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder by Louv.
  • Make writing fun – When you travel, encourage them to write post cards and keep a daily vacation journal. Provide other writing activities like invisible books, spirograph, stencils, mazes and Mad Libs.
  • Challenge math in everyday ways – Talk about the math involved when you pump gas. For older children, teach them to calculate miles per gallon since the last fill up.  If you eat out, teach them to calculate the tip. Take them bowling and teach them to keep score.
  • Read aloud everyday – Reading aloud to children everyday is sited by the Department of Education as the single most important activity to build successful readers. Aim for 20 minutes a day and enjoy when it’s longer. Read aloud to them through high school if they’ll listen.
  • If they are reading aloud – Encourage children to practice their own read aloud skills. This can be reading to a sibling, to the dog or even a stuffed animal.
  • Encourage quiet reading time everyday – Again, aim for 20 minutes and appreciate when it lasts longer. Make this easy for them, bring books in the car or let them stay up later at night if they are reading.
  • Plan a book club – If they are at all interested, invite a few friends to read the same book with them. Then plan a party to celebrate.
  • Investigate library activities – Public libraries in our area host many fun children’s programs in the summer months. They also have a children’s reading challenge that ends with earning a coupon book for area businesses. Check out your local library!
  • Focus on vocabulary when you travel – There is new vocabulary available everywhere you travel. Discuss all the things you see with your children, provide definitions as you are able. There is beach vocabulary, zoo vocabulary, farm vocabulary, airport vocabulary…
  • Puzzles, board games, cooking and crafts – Play provides learning opportunities such as puzzles for spatial reasoning, board games for social skills and often math skills, cooking and crafts for following directions, tending to details, math and fine motor skills. Spend time this summer playing with your children.
  • Workbooks – My least favorite, but probably most reliable, way to do a little summer review work is workbooks. My children didn’t mind the Summer Bridge Activities workbooks. http://www.summerbridgeactivities.org/

Please share your own ideas below!

Ideas for Introducing Chapter Books

Chapter books can be a great addition to your read aloud time as early as three to four years old. If you already read picture books before bed, the easiest way to introduce chapter books is to finish your picture book and tuck them in like normal. Then, when you would have been turning out the light and leaving, announce that you are going to add a special reading time. Let them know this is a book with no pictures, that they should lay down in bed, listen to the story and can make the pictures in their imagination. Next read for a few pages or more. When you finish reading, maybe review what just happened in the story, ask them what they think will happen next or another question about the story. If they are unable to answer a question, just tell them briefly what you liked about the story or what you think might happen next.

The next night read a picture book, tuck them in then let them know you are going to read again. Spend a minute or so reviewing what happened the night before. Each night it can be helpful to talk about the story or ask what might happen next when you finish the reading time. Each night when you start, review from the previous night. When children are very young, you have to read some every night consistently. If you miss a few days, likely they will lose track of the story.

As they grow, you can read longer each night and longer stories over time. The idea is to read aloud to them long passed the point you thought they’d listen. Read aloud through high school if they will listen. Children who read aloud through high school tend to do better on verbal SATs than children who read aloud through middle school, and middle school better than elementary school. Unfortunately, most parents stop once children are reading to themselves. It’s better to build some read aloud and some independent reading time into the bedtime routine. There are benefits to both. It can also be nice to let older children pick the chapter books or alternate who picks.