Advice

This collection of Dr. Thompson’s answers to parents’ questions addresses children’s development, behavioral difficulties or other challenges at home or school. While he is no longer taking questions, you may find these questions and answers valuable. You can also join the conversation on Dr. Thompson’s Facebook page.

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Bright boy stumbling short of success

A boy in the high school freshman advanced math class I teach is clearly very bright but sabotages himself by failing to turn homework in or finish problems on tests. Then he is distraught over his bad grades and I have seen him wipe angry tears from his eyes when he gets back a paper with a low grade. How can I help him break out of this self-destructive rut?

Oh, I know this boy. I have seen him in many forms over the years. He is yearning for success and afraid of failure. He is tied in knots because his performance in school does not live up to his intelligence or his image of himself as being a boy in control. The problem here isn’t just math. The problem is his developing as a learner, developing strategies for dealing with frustration and feelings of ignorance. Math is only one of this boy’s worries. He is struggling to develop into a dogged, courageous student. Such students are made, not born, and there aren’t a lot of ninth-grade boys who have developed into steady, resilient students. Their self-esteem and personal discipline are too erratic for that.

What adults forget about school is how exposing it is to learn something new and how humiliating it is to make mistakes in public. Stop and think. When was the last time you were required as part of your job, to do something inpublic that required mastering material you knew nothing about? When was the last time you your boss handed you back a report marked up in red ink? When was the last you got a grade on a piece of paper-in front of all your co-workers? Most adults avoid experiences like that. Children are put in embarrassing positions in school every day. It is so routine that we forget how painful it can be. This boy is smart enough to do the math; he needs to learn how to support himself emotionally when he does it. You can help.

I suggest that you talk with him. Ask him whether he knows how smart he is in math. Does he feel smart in your class? If not, why not? What happens when he tries to do the work at home? Is it too frustrating? Is there some other reason he isn’t finishing that homework? Tell him you see how much he wishes to do well. Tell him that you see his frustration. If you’ve seen boys like him get the hang of advanced math after a tough start, tell him so. That’s encouraging. Ask him if there is any way you can make math more accessible to him, but be wary of asking, “How can I help?” The idea that he “needs help” can make him feel like a loser. He’d rather see this as a matter of developing strategies for success-something winners do-and he’ll be right.

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Young “Man of the House” needs clarification, not demotion

I’ve been divorced for some time and my son has gotten used to being the "man of the house" since I’ve shared a lot of my decision-making with him about my work and where we live, etc. As he’s gotten older, lately I’m beginning to think I’ve lost some authority as a parent and I need to establish that again. How can I take charge without making him feel demoted?

When a boy is the only "man in the house" he is almost certainly going to be mature for his age in comparison to other boys of the same age and, as a result, he is going to be a bit more demanding of respect. As long as he is not obnoxious about wanting his maturity seen you can freely acknowledge that he is pretty grown up. It is hard to see how it could be different in your house because, as you say, he is your confidante and partner in many things. I don’t know if you have younger children, but in situations with a single mom and an oldest boy, he often gets to share in the parenting duties, and that makes him like-what else?-a parent and a peer to his mother. When I visited South Africa I met a lot of boys and girls whose parents had died of AIDS. They were raising their younger siblings at age twelve and thirteen. Young children can take huge responsibilities if they have to.

You didn’t mention your son’s age. It doesn’t matter, because the fact that remains that he is still a kid precisely because he has a mother at home, an adult to watch out for him. And because there is a grown-up there he doesn’t have to make some decisions. It would be helpful to him if you would make it clear in advance that there are two categories of decisions: ones that are going to be yours alone and ones are going to be joint decisions. Simply say, "Honey, though it may be confusing at times, there are decisions which an adult should make and others which a mom and son can make together. If we are going to move to a new house or take a new job, I need your advice because we’re sharing a life, but when it comes to the usual kid stuff like curfew, homework, sleepovers, I need to make the decisions, because that’s what all parents do, and even though I rely on you as the "man of the house’ sometimes, and other times I just need to be a parent."

Tell him this in calm, quiet moments, not at the moment of decision-making. He’ll appreciate the advance warning and can adjust his reaction based on the kind of decision you tell him it is going to be.

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Little boy angry about time-outs

Time-outs just seem to make matters worse for my four-year-old son. He can be misbehaving in some ordinary way, but when I order the time out he really blows up — crying and screaming and throwing things. His behavior going into the time-out is almost always worse than the misbehavior that got him the time-out in the first place. What’s going on?

Time outs are a time-honored parental response to a child’s misbehaving ways. I have recommended them and have used them with my own children. But they do not work with all children, nor do they work for children of all ages. Your son may be too young for a time-out. It may panic him to be away from you when you are angry with him. The fact that his misbehavior escalates after you announce the time-out suggests to me that he is experiencing some separation anxiety from you. The idea of being in his room alone may be more than he can bear at the age of four. How big is your house? How far away is his room? Does he panic when you give him other kinds of punishments?

Mastering anger is a very big issue for four- and five-year-old boys. They often greet our authority with confrontation, puffing their chests or shouting in an effort to bowl us over. Their ferocious behavior often successfully hides the fact that they are scared. Boys experience the same need for attachment and nurturance that girls do at the same age. A time-out can be scary for a boy if he believes he is being abandoned or that you have withdrawn your love. I have known boys who have been deeply frightened to be sent to their rooms; it feels like exile to them.

Sometimes we get fooled by boy bravado and we give them punishments that are terrifying for them, but they cannot tell us how scared they are because they want to act tough. I think that’s what is happening with your son. I recommend you keep him with you and put him to work. In the kitchen, have him mopping floors, scrubbing something. Wherever you need to be, give him some safe, hard work to do. Stay at his side and let this community service activity you require of him absorb some of his wild energy. Boys of all ages respond to punishments that require them to do something. It calms them down. Doing something for his mother, a reparative act, mobilizes a boy’s desire to please in a way that exile or detention does not. Perhaps I’m only writing this because I wish that instead of spending hours in detention in school, as I did, I had been asked to dig post holes or wash kitchen floors. Making amends and honest labor bring out the best in a boy.

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What to expect when you’re expecting-a boy!

I’m pregnant with our first baby and we just learned it’s a boy. I never had brothers and from what I see of other people’s boys, they look like a handful. Is there a simple piece of advice (so I can remember it when the going gets tough!) for raising a son to be a good man?

First of all, congratulations! You are in for an adventure, a learning experience and a lot of fun. All you need is a loving heart and an open mind. As for boys being a handful, all children are a handful! I have a friend who says, "All human beings are more or less impossible." I think that is true (it certainly describes me). That’s why we all need families who love us.

You already have one important key to parenting a boy: your vision of him growing up to be a good man. In the years ahead, think of what you’ve liked or loved about the good men in your life your husband, your father, a favorite uncle or grandfather or friend-and speak openly of those qualities with your son. Be attentive to your son’s own attributes, too, and let him know that you see him growing into a fine young man. Love the boy you got.

Please don’t think about boys as a problem: don’t brace yourself for their energy or their competitiveness. Embrace it all. Play with your son. Read to him. Sing to him. Laugh with him. Listen to him.

For a mother, raising a son means you’ll get as close as one can get to crossing the lines of gender. You’ll get to see the world through your son’s eyes, and the world won’t look the same. Mothers get to be adored by their sons, and that is really fun. You son will open your eyes, broaden your knowledge, and help your sense of humor. I guarantee it.

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Eight year old boy stealing

Janice from Washington, writes:

Our 8-year-old son, Sandy, is an athletic, fun-loving boy. Our worries used to be limited to his dare-devil skateboarding and his struggle with reading in his second-grade class. We were upset to discover recently that he has been doing a bit of stealing (nothing major, but still it’s stealing.) He stole a Pokemon card from one boy, stole a $5 bill from us, stole some change from a friend, and another time jimmied a vending machine and hit the jackpot. (We made him take it back.) Of course, he has lied about it every time. Each time, we’ve talked with him and explained that it’s wrong and it will cost him friends. He seems to understand, but then he does it again. We’ve taken away all sorts of privileges, but obviously that isn’t working. We know we need to change our strategy.

My husband thinks Sandy has a sense of entitlement because we give him too much. But we don’t give him allowance, and I’m wondering if he’s stealing because he doesn’t have enough autonomy or access to money. We have given him money for special chores, but to be honest, we haven’t really been great about letting him spend his money the way he wants. We hate to see him waste it on junk.

Could a change in friends and sports have something to do with the stealing? Sandy’s friends all began to play football at recess this year, and even though he’s athletic, he’s doesn’t want to play, so his once large group of friends has shrunk. He’s pretty much only got one friend now, and it’s a boy from a rather wealthy family that’s kind of messed up. Our home life has not changed except that in an effort to expand Sandy’s peer group and make him successful in something that he does well, we signed him up for hockey. He enjoys it, but it is a bit much-every week for 5 hours.

Sandy used to be a very honest person. I still think that he is basically honest, but with these instances of stealing and then lying about it, I’m not always convinced he is telling the truth anymore.

Why would he do this and what can we do about it?

Before I address the particulars of Sandy’s, situation, and the reasons why he might be stealing and lying right now, let me say that all children lie sometimes, particularly when they are confronted by their parents with wrong-doing. It is also the case that a majority of children cheat in certain situations and most experiment with taking things that don’t belong to them. (Didn’t you or your husband ever steal something as a child?) Children lie and steal for six main reasons:

  • They are big enough to try something new and they now have the cognitive ability to maintain two different realities in their brains: the true story and the made-up story. Being able to deliberately choose to lie is exactly evidence of mental development. (Small children make up "tall tales" because they cannot yet distinguish between reality and fantasy).
  • Lying, stealing and cheating are a way of exercising power in the world, and all human beings like to feel powerful.
  • Kids get overwhelmed by their feelings, by yearning and envy for something they really want, like a rare Pokemon card, and don’t know how to arrange to get it except by stealing.
  • Children under ten years old do not yet have the levels of moral judgment to understand the underlying reasons for rules and laws, so they try to circumvent them.
  • Children lie to their parents to avoid feelings of shame and to try, sometimes desperately, to make sure their parents keep loving them.
  • Finally, some children lie because they see their parents telling "white lies" a lot and they sometimes see their parents take things that don’t belong to them.

Even if lying and stealing are normal childhood behaviors, you are right to be a bit concerned about your son because he is under some internal pressure right now. His behavior has changed and your punishments haven’t stopped his behavior. So, what’s going on? Has he suddenly become an entitled boy? Is this evidence of his being spoiled? I don’t believe so, but what you tell me about his school situation tell me that he is feeling sad, envious and angry inside. Sad, because he has lost his friends at school; confused because he has also lost some status in school; envious because he thinks his only friend has so much more than he does, and angry, because he doesn’t know how to feel good about himself again and his parents won’t let him use his own money to restore his good feelings about himself.

I don’t believe that he just "doesn’t want to play" football at recess. My guess is that he gets frightened during the games or worries that he is not good enough, or that something has happened in the group of boys in second grade. Perhaps a powerful boy has emerged in the group and he doesn’t like Sandy. Perhaps he has pushed Sandy out of the group. That is not something Sandy would tell you voluntarily, because he likely feels ashamed about what happened (if it happened as I imagine).

Sandy is now down to only one friend, and my guess is that that boy boasts about his money and possessions to make himself feel better; unfortunately, his boasting is making Sandy feel worse; it is making him wish he had more stuff. Unfortunately, he has no way to get it because his mom and dad, for reasons of principle, won’t let him use his own money to buy things he really values. Collecting cards such Pokemon or baseball cards has been a traditional way of eight-year-old boys building their self-esteem for as long as I can remember. It helps them build memory and negotiating skills.

My suggestions are to check with his teacher about what has happened with the boys’ group in second grade, start arranging (or at least supporting) one-on-one play dates with some of his former friends-and, perhaps, with their parents as well. Finally, you should allow him to use some of his money to buy cards and candy. After all, we all like the freedom to use our money the way we see fit. What’s the point of having money if we can’t ever spend a bit of it on indulgences?

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Teacher’s warnings have us worried about our active 3-year-old son

Christina from New Jersey, asks:

We have a typical three-year-old boy. He’s full of energy and doesn’t sit still long, especially when he’s expected to do so for things that don’t interest him. I don’t think he’s out of control or "bad," but he’s not perfect and sometimes it takes creative thinking to get him to listen or do what he is supposed to. Sometimes he’s perfectly fine, playing alone with his trains or cars, or watching a movie. He also plays very well with his sister.

However, his preschool teacher says he has an attention problem. At our recent conference she actually suggested there could be something wrong with him and I should speak to his pediatrician. She said he loses concentration at circle time, runs from station to station, doesn’t sit still at lunch, etc. She said if he doesn’t get it under control he’ll have problems in kindergarten and may fall behind. She must have noticed the look of shock on my face because she added that it could be the foods he’s eating that are giving him too much energy. His pediatrician says there doesn’t appear to be anything wrong with him, and it’s premature to diagnose him at this age. I believe the teacher feels overwhelmed because in her class of 20 there are 14 boys and she’s singling some out.

How can we tell the difference between "normal" boy behavior and a problem that needs attention? Is there a way to get him to listen better, especially since the schools now expect so much of these little kids and have no tolerance for even normal active behavior? And how should we respond to this teacher?

A little boy who loses concentration at circle time? That’s normal. A three-year-old who runs from station to station in preschool? That’s expected too. You ask if I have any suggestions about what to do so a three-year-old boy will listen better? I absolutely do. Wait until he’s five, or seven, or seventeen…or twenty-three. A short attention span is perfectly normal in a three-year-old boy. Boys of this age tend to be very physical; though their behavior varies according to temperament-not all boys are equally restless-most boys this age tend to be interested in anything and everything, and not for too long. So, I’m on the side of your pediatrician. It is much too early to diagnose your son. It is much too early to worry.

The worries of your son’s teacher seem odd to me because they don’t have a developmental perspective. She says that if he is still this way at five-and-a-half he’s going to have trouble in kindergarten. Well, of course. If you behave like a seventh-grader when you get to high school, you are going to get in trouble; and if you are as disorganized as a ninth-grade boy when you get to college you might flunk out. That’s obvious. But most of the time people grow up in the way they are supposed to grow up. Five-year-olds act in a much more mature way than three-year-olds because they are five. By kindergarten age a boy will have a longer attention span, will spend longer time at the different stations in the room, and he is likely to listen better than he did at three.

I agree with your judgment that your son’s teacher is either overwhelmed by the number of boys in her group, or she is simply intolerant of normal boy activity levels. By school age, three-quarters of the boys in any class are more physically active than the girls. Only one-quarter of boys are as calm as the girls. The teacher should be accustomed to that, and should have more confidence in boy development. If you can do it gently, it might be a help to her to say, "We checked with our pediatrician and she says our son is completely normal for his age, that it is way too early to diagnose him." Perhaps that will help the teacher to understand boys better, or at least make her hesitate to diagnose a boy and scare his parents.