Growing Concerns

Forbidden fruit

Question: My wife and I are at odds in determining the amount of candy to give our 4-year-old. I am concerned that he will develop poor eating habits, and she is concerned that if she does not supply him with a daily amount of candy he will overindulge himself once he is on his own. Our society does not reinforce proper eating habits, and I think fruits can satisfy most of those sweet cravings and still supply some vitamins and minerals. Your thoughts?

Answer: With young children, it can be difficult to know how to handle those special treats. Your wife’s concern about the “forbidden fruit” phenomenon (or forbidden candy, in this case) is not unfounded.

Telling a child he can’t have something often does make that item even more desirable, but that does not mean a child should be given candy every day. It’s up to parents to set reasonable guidelines for a child’s diet, just as for other aspects of a child’s behavior. It also is important to explain the reasons for those guidelines so, as a child grows older, he has a framework for choosing wisely on his own. Of course, as with all areas of behavior, the example parents set with their own behavior will be the most powerful lesson of all. 

Like you, I prefer to offer candy only as an occasional treat. I do not like to see children believe they are entitled to candy every single day. However, I believe the most important issue here is the overall eating pattern you and your wife are helping your son establish. 

If your son is being encouraged to eat a well-balanced diet, including plenty of fruits and vegetables — and if he is given a small piece of candy after a healthful meal — then it is unlikely that any harm is being done. But if he’s eating large amounts of candy or if the candy is reducing his appetite for nutritious foods, he could be headed for trouble. Eating habits established early in life have long-term consequences for health and nutrition. High-calorie, empty-calorie diets in the early years of life are associated with obesity, both in childhood and at later ages.

So, what can you do? If your son is aware that you and his mom disagree about the candy, you’re at risk of being the bad guy — the candy police, so to speak. But, if you’re willing to roll up your sleeves, you can seize an opportunity here to broaden your son’s (and perhaps your wife’s) sense of what a special treat is — and have some fun at the same time.

As the weather warms up, how about engaging your son in making ice-cube-tray popsicles with real fruit juice. For something different, try adding a fresh strawberry or raspberry to each cube, so he gets the fiber of whole fruit. Or use the blender to mix up a fruit smoothie, letting your son create his own concoction with fresh or frozen fruits, a little yogurt and a small amount of his favorite juice. Or fill a small bowl with vanilla yogurt and use it as a dip for chunks of fruit or graham crackers. These are just a few of the treats that have satisfied the sweet tooth of youngsters around our house over the years and provided some nutritional value at the same time.

I’m sure you and your son can create your own recipes or find other nutritious ideas in one of many children’s cookbooks available at your public library. And I hope your wife will agree to pull back on the candy at least part of the time and join you in exploring more healthful alternatives.

Dr. Erickson and her daughter can be heard every Sunday, from 2–4 p.m., on “Good Enough Moms,” on FM107.1 and at


Growing Concerns

Question: Some time ago, you wrote about postpartum depression in new mothers, but I’m wondering if there’s such a thing as postpartum depression for new dads, too. Beginning a couple of weeks after the birth of our first child, my husband seemed to sink into a deep slump. Could this be postpartum depression? And, if it is, how could this affect our son’s development?

“Postpartum depression” specifically refers to depression in a woman following childbirth. The hormonal changes that occur in a woman’s body at that time are thought to be a contributing factor. However, depression can occur in both males and females at all stages of life. It is certainly plausible that the many changes associated with the birth of a baby could contribute to the onset of depression in a father.

No matter how much a couple wants a child, adjusting to life with a baby is stressful — emotionally and, in many cases, financially. A baby demands almost constant care and attention, challenging both Mom and Dad to figure out how to manage their new roles; share responsibilities equitably; and keep the household, and their relationship, running smoothly. The sleep disruptions that are an inevitable part of life with a new baby can also put both parents on edge.

On top of that, a father may struggle to find his place in the new family constellation, especially during those early weeks when baby and Mom (particularly a breastfeeding mom) seem inseparable. Sometimes, seeing his wife’s attention consumed by the baby, a father feels a sense of loss. (When will my wife have time and energy for me again?) These are normal aspects of adjusting to parenthood. But for someone predisposed to depression, these could contribute to the onset.

That said, without more details about your husband’s “slump,” it’s hard to say if it indicates depression. Typical signs of depression include:

– Lack of motivation;

– Loss of interest in activities that usually bring pleasure;

– Sleep disturbances, such as either wanting to sleep all the time or having difficulty sleeping — though, granted, this indicator is confounded by the presence of a new baby;

– Prolonged sadness and/or irritability; and

– Feelings of hopelessness.

If your husband exhibits these symptoms over a period of several weeks, it is likely that he is depressed. This can have serious consequences for him, you, and your child. At this time of great change and new responsibility, you need your husband’s full engagement and support. In these early months of life, your baby is forming important attachments with both you and Dad; connections that are meant to provide a secure foundation for later learning and development. In order for these attachments to develop as they should, both you and your husband need to be emotionally available to respond warmly and consistently to your baby’s needs. Needless to say, this is difficult for a parent hampered by depression.

So, if you do have a strong reason to suspect that your husband is depressed, urge him to see a mental health professional as soon as possible for a formal diagnosis and treatment. Millions of people have been helped by treatment, which often includes antidepressants and/or therapy to enhance coping skills. Frequent exercise and regular contact with supportive friends or family members can be helpful in conjunction with formal treatment.

Sometimes people shy away from seeking mental health treatment because they see it as a sign of weakness. But, to the contrary, seeking help is active coping, a sign of strength. And when there’s a child involved, seeking help is a sign of good parenting.

Want to hear more parenting advice? Dr. Erickson and her daughter can be heard every Sunday, from 2–4 p.m., on “Good Enough Moms,” on FM107.1 radio in the Twin Cities or at

Growing Concerns

Question: My husband and I both grew up in homes where no one ever talked about sex. We want to do things differently with our children, but we need some guidance about when and how to take on this touchy subject.

For many adults, one of the most uncomfortable tasks of parenting is talking to their kids about sex. It used to be that parents had a talk about “the birds and the bees” as their children approached adolescence. But today even very young children often see or hear explicit sexual information through TV, music, or from older children. In a world filled with casual and often negative images of sexuality, it is more important than ever that parents take responsibility for giving their kids good, age-appropriate information, communicating important values about love, respect, and healthy sexual behavior.  

Since you didn’t say how old your children are, I’ll give you some general guidelines:

Start early so that it is a natural, matter-of-fact part of the child’s learning. With very young children this means teaching them about body parts and functions and answering all of their “What’s this?” and “Why’s that?” questions. It is in these early years that you begin to establish an atmosphere of openness and trust.

When your children ask questions, it’s important to give them straightforward answers in language they can understand. Sometimes parents offer much more information than their children want or need. But if you take your cues from your children, they usually will let you know when they are ready for more information.

With words and nonverbal communication, give your children a clear message that they always can come to you. If they ask things about your personal sex life — as children often do — set clear boundaries, but don’t shame them for asking. (For example, you might smile and say, “There are some things that are private for me — just as there are for you.”)

When your children are young it’s important to regulate what they see and hear on TV and in movies. Then as they get older, it’s important to mediate what they see and hear by discussing it with them. It is the parents’ job to communicate values about sex and relationships, making sure that children have a healthy context for thinking about this important aspect of life.

Most of all, set an example. The best thing parents can do is give their children a model of a loving, respectful relationship that includes sex and romance, as well as deep friendship and trust.

Dr. Erickson is a senior fellow and director of the Harris Programs in the Center for Early Childhood Education at the University of Minnesota.

Dr. Erickson and her daughter can be heard every Sunday, 2–4 pm, on “Good Enough Moms,” on FM107.1 radio in the Twin Cities or at

Growing Concerns

Question: Four months ago, we adopted a 2-year-old boy. He often wakes up crying in the middle of the night, his moods are unpredictable, and, even when he’s not fussing or fighting, he rarely smiles. We have given him a stable, loving home, but it doesn’t seem to be enough.

Answer: The arrival of a new family member is a challenge and a big adjustment under any conditions, but your situation poses some special issues. You do not mention anything about the circumstances of the adoption. Was he removed from an abusive home? Did he lose his parents through death? Was he in a foster home and now has “lost” those parents as a result of his placement with you? Or was he perhaps moved from place to place without any opportunity to form strong relationships?

Whatever his history and whatever the circumstances of the adoption, this little boy brings that history with him. In the first two years of life, children normally are building a sense of trust through their attachments to the adults who love and care for them. When that does not happen, it can take much time and patience to gradually establish that sense of trust. Four months is really not a very long time to undo what happened during the first two years of life. If his experience tells him that people disappear after awhile — or that they cannot be counted on to care for him — then he may be very slow to trust in the love you offer him. His crying in the night is an opportunity for you to reassure him that you are there for him.

Beyond the psychological effects of his life history, it is possible that there are physiological effects as well. Poor nutrition, chemical use by parents prior to or during the pregnancy, and general quality of care can have an impact on a child’s behavior. Your pediatrician or family physician can work with you to monitor your son’s development carefully, making sure that any problems are identified and addressed as early as possible.

Some of what you are seeing in your son also reflects his stage of development. Most 2-year-olds are moody and unpredictable. They are going through rapid changes in motor skills, language ability, and learning what they can and cannot do. They swing from wanting to be big and all-powerful to wanting to just curl up and be little babies. It will take time for your son to learn what is expected of him and to know that you will be there to love and guide him.

All parents need support to see them through the ups and downs of a child’s development. And adoptive parents need and deserve special support to address the unique issues they face. I’d suggest that you contact the agency through which you adopted the child or a mental health agency in your community and ask about resources for adoptive parents. Many communities offer support groups or can link you with national networks that provide information and support specifically for adoptive parents.

Dr. Erickson is a senior fellow and director of the Harris Programs in the Center for Early Childhood Education at the University of Minnesota. Dr. Erickson and her daughter can be heard every Sunday, 2–4 p.m., on “Good Enough Moms,” on FM107.1 radio in the Twin Cities or

Growing Concerns

Question: Our son always has done very well in school. He learns quickly, gets good scores on tests, and participates well in class. However, this year (in fifth grade) he has quite a bit of homework, including some long-term projects, and he’s losing points in class because his assignments are incomplete or he loses his papers. I want to help him, but my husband says it’s important for our son to take responsibility. What do you advise?

Assuming your son is still doing well in the classroom and on tests, this problem most likely reflects a lack of organizational skills. Although your husband is right that a fifth-grader needs to be accountable for his own work, many children require some adult coaching and encouragement to develop strategies for managing work and completing tasks. Here are some steps you could take to help your son become more responsible for his homework.

Work with your son to develop a system for organizing his assignments, perhaps a pocket folder for each subject or a three-ring binder with dividers. Give him a small pocket calendar in which he can mark the due dates for assignments.

Set aside one place at home where he will keep his homework, perhaps a basket or an office tray with an inbox and out box that he can keep on a kitchen counter or near the coat closet. Monitor this with him until using it becomes a habit.

Every evening, go over his assignments with him to help him plan how he’ll proceed. Then have him show you each assignment when he thinks it’s complete. If anything is missing — or the work doesn’t match the teacher’s directions — have him re-do it right away.

Figure out together a place where he can work most comfortably without distraction. Encourage him to think about how he works best — alone in his room or at the kitchen table while someone else is working nearby? Should he do his homework in total silence or with music in the background?

Decide on a work schedule that suits him best. He may need a break after school to let off steam, or he may find it works best to do the work right after school and then relax. What’s important is that your son tune in to his own rhythms and figure out what works best for him.

Communicate with your son’s teacher and let him or her know about the plan you and your son are implementing so the teacher can encourage your son’s efforts. Request a weekly note or phone call from the teacher to let you know whether your son’s work is complete and on time.

Recognize your son’s progress. Some kids work best if parents chart their progress or celebrate each successful week with a special activity or favorite meal. Others find verbal encouragement to be enough. Whatever your son needs, recognize that he’s working hard to learn something that may not come naturally to him.

By catching this problem early and engaging your son in figuring out how to work it through, you will be helping him build critical skills for lifelong success.

Question: My mother-in-law is very upset that my 4-month-old uses a pacifier. She worries that we’re making a sissy out of him, and she says that it will give him crooked teeth. Should we be concerned?

Your mother-in-law is not alone in her concerns about your baby’s use of the pacifier. Her point of view was very common a few years ago and is still shared by many people today. However, most child development specialists see no cause for worry when a baby uses a pacifier. As for the effect on your child’s teeth, dentists say there is no evidence that pacifiers cause crooked teeth. Concerning the impact on your son’s emotional development, rest assured that using a pacifier will do no harm and, in fact, probably will do him good.

The instinct to suck is very strong in nearly all babies, so strong that they often need much more sucking than they get through the feeding experience. Sucking is a great source of comfort to a baby, and a pacifier can provide an easy way for the baby to soothe himself at times when Mom and Dad are busy and not available to provide comfort. A baby’s need to suck is often especially high when he is tired, not feeling well, cutting teeth, or is in an unfamiliar environment that makes him feel somewhat unsettled.

If you were to interfere with your baby’s efforts to comfort himself, his need for the pacifier probably would become even more intense. But if your son is allowed to satisfy that need for comfort, he will gradually outgrow his need for the pacifier. The surest way to help your baby grow to be a strong, secure boy is to show him that you respect his need to feel safe, comfortable, and satisfied now. As your son becomes increasingly sociable, as he learns to babble and make faces and play with others, as he begins to move around and explore the world around him — the pacifier will become less interesting to him. Of course, for many months, he may still want the comfort the pacifier provides when he’s sleepy and alone, but eventually he won’t even need it then. He will develop new ways to feel calm and comforted — like snuggling under a favorite blanket, listening to Grandma read a bedtime story or hearing Dad sing a lullaby. Keep in mind that no matter how young or how old we are, we all need comfort. By letting your child find comfort in his pacifier, you are showing him that his needs count.

Dr. Erickson is a senior fellow and director of the Harris Programs in the Center for Early Childhood Education at the University of Minnesota. Dr. Erickson and her daughter can be heard every Sunday, 2–4 p.m., on “Good Enough Moms,” on FM107.1 radio in the Twin Cities or


Growing Concerns

Question: My husband and I recently divorced and now, after four years of staying home with my son, in a few weeks I have to go back to work full-time and he will enter a childcare center. I am concerned that this transition will be really hard for my son, especially since his dad is no longer going to be living with us. What can I do to help my son get through this difficult time?

Answer: You’re right that this is a lot of change for a 4-year-old to handle, and I’m glad you’re able to focus on your son’s needs even in the midst of the upheaval in your own life. Although there is no way to erase the feelings of loss your son is bound to feel, there are several things you can do to ease the way for him.

First, take your cues from your son’s emotions and behavior. It’s common in this kind of situation for a child to be sad or angry or both. Your son may express his feelings in words or actions (being less cooperative, for example, or acting babyish). Although you still will need to set limits on unacceptable behavior, give your son a chance to express his feelings and encourage him to put them into words. Acknowledge that you know he wishes things could be the way they used to be, and reassure him that both you and his daddy are still going to take good care of him.

Since you have a few weeks before you start work, see if you can arrange for your son to get familiar gradually with the people who will care for him and, if possible, other children who attend the same childcare facility. Talk positively about the new people he will meet and the interesting things he will do, being careful not to let your own sadness, apprehension, or anger about the new situation color his experience. Four-year-olds often welcome the social interaction and varied activities available in childcare, so this could be a positive change for your son even though it isn’t what you had planned.

In your time at home, begin to establish new rituals and traditions with your son. For example, give him your full attention while you sit down and enjoy dinner together, followed by a favorite story. Or, when you first get home from work, play a game or draw pictures together. Even if it means getting up a little earlier in the morning, allow adequate time for your son to get ready and enjoy a healthful breakfast with you before going to childcare. Let him experience firsthand that his home is still a place of love, safety, and comfort for him.

However hurt or angry you may be about your divorce, do everything you can to support a close relationship between your son and his father. Talk positively with your son about the times he spends with his dad, and make every effort to work cooperatively with your ex-husband when it comes to child rearing. Because young children have a poorly developed sense of time and the days away from either you or dad can feel very long, encourage frequent communication between your son and his dad such as daily phone calls; hopefully your ex-husband will do the same for you when your son is with him. The bottom line is that children thrive best when moms and dads can set aside their own animosity and focus together on the children’s needs. If for any reason this seems too difficult for you or your ex-husband, I urge you to seek professional help from a family counselor or mediator so that you can deal with your own issues without putting your son in the middle.

Dr. Erickson is a senior fellow and director of the Harris Programs in the Center for Early Childhood Education at the University of Minnesota. She and her daughter can be heard every Sunday, 2­–4 pm, on “Good Enough Moms,” on FM107.1 radio in the Twin Cities or at

Growing Concerns

Question: My 3-year-old daughter has been on the waiting list for two preschools and we just found out she got into both for this fall. So now it’s decision time and we’re torn about which one to send her to. One is a lively, play-oriented school where the kids look like they’re having a lot of fun. The other is a more quiet, serious environment with a strong emphasis on reading and math. The schools in our suburb are very competitive and we don’t want our daughter to start kindergarten at a disadvantage. But our guts tell us she needs time to be a kid. Can you provide some guidance?

Answer: Fortunately having fun does not mean sacrificing learning. And getting children ready for school success does not require a quiet, serious environment — especially at the age of 3. Children learn a great deal through play, particularly in an environment with interesting things to explore and adults to provide developmentally appropriate guidance and encouragement.

Young children are naturally curious and eager to learn. Whether acting out a favorite story, measuring ingredients for cookies or taking care of the class guinea pig, children absorb important concepts in language, math, and science that will serve them well when they move into the K–12 education system.

Equally important to future school success are the social and emotional skills children develop through active interaction with classmates and teachers — skills such as focusing attention, expressing emotions appropriately and respectfully, understanding other people’s feelings, and solving problems together. A well-run “lively, play-oriented” preschool can provide all these things and more.

Several years ago, Dr. Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, a psychology professor at Temple University, conducted a study that compared children who attended an academic preschool with those who attended a play-oriented preschool. She found no short- or long-term differences in school achievement between the two groups. And, in elementary school, children who had attended the academic preschool were less creative and more anxious than those who had attended the play-oriented preschool.

Hirsh Pasek, with colleague Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, has written a book called Einstein Never Used Flashcards: How Our Children Really Learn — and Why They Need to Play More and Memorize Less (2003). This book may be helpful as you decide which preschool will best suit your daughter. The authors also offer creative ways you can encourage your daughter’s learning at home, while having fun at the same time.

Dr. Erickson is a senior fellow and director of the Harris Programs in the Center for Early Childhood Education at the University of Minnesota. Dr. Erickson and her daughter can be heard every Sunday, from 2–4 p.m., on “Good Enough Moms,” on FM107.1 radio in the Twin Cities or at

Growing Concerns

Question: My sister recently had a baby, and now she seems to have a bad case of the “baby blues.” I went through some of this as well after my last baby, but I’m worried that hers is becoming a more serious depression. How do you tell the difference between a real depression and just a normal period of adjustment?

Answer: In recent years there has been considerable research on this subject, with findings that provide helpful guidelines for knowing when special intervention is in order. A fairly mild, brief period of postpartum blues is actually quite common, occurring in 50 to 75 percent of new mothers. Symptoms include sadness, crying spells, anxiety, irritability, and insomnia, usually lasting from a few days to about two weeks. Many women actually experience a real upswing in mood about two days after the baby is born (about the time most new mothers leave the hospital), but the blues often follow soon after that, peaking at about five days and then gradually getting better without treatment.

Less common is a more serious postpartum depression, which occurs in about 10 to 20 percent of women. This pattern of depression includes the same symptoms as the blues, but in a more severe and longer-lasting form. In addition, mothers are often troubled by intense feelings of guilt, worthlessness, and helplessness. They may feel a strong urge to run away and they often feel an aversion to the new baby.

When signs of the blues last for more than a couple of weeks — and whenever the urge to leave the baby is more than a passing thought — it is important to get professional help. This pattern of depression is very much like other forms of clinical depression in people who are not new parents, so it is important to treat it seriously. And with a new baby in the picture, this is especially important. Those early months are a special time in the development of attachment between mother and baby, and maternal depression can be a major barrier to those good beginnings.

Finally, in a very small percentage of mothers (about one to three in 1,000), postpartum psychosis occurs. This major psychiatric disorder, which often requires hospitalization, is characterized by disorientation, hallucinations, suicidal thoughts or actions, and persistent thoughts of harming the baby. When any of those severe symptoms appear, it is critical that family members seek immediate psychiatric help for the mother in order to prevent serious harm to her or the baby.

Depending on how severe and prolonged your sister’s symptoms are, she probably falls into the first or second category (blues or depression). If her symptoms have gone on for more than two weeks, you’d be wise to encourage her to talk to her doctor, who may recommend a therapist or support group.

In the meantime, you can be an important source of support to her as well. Share your own experience with the baby blues, do what you can to help your sister get the food and rest she needs, encourage her to stay connected with others, and help her get up and out for fresh air and exercise. Depression, whether postpartum or not, is a condition that feeds itself; it makes you want to do nothing, and doing nothing makes you feel more depressed. But, along with professional help as needed, caring friends and relatives can make a big difference for both mother and child.

Dr. Erickson is a senior fellow and director of the Harris Programs in the Center for Early Childhood Education at the University of Minnesota. She and her daughter can be heard every Sunday, 2­­–4 p.m., on “Good Enough Moms,” on FM107.1 radio in the Twin Cities or via webcast at

Growing Concerns

Question: What can I do to help my 8-year-old grandson overcome a negative attitude? He loves to play games and draw pictures, yet he is unsure of himself and usually figures things will not turn out the way he wants. He is being raised by his mother, my ex-daughter-in-law, who comes from a negative family — always feeling they have been dealt the worst. I suspect that was one of the underlying reasons for the breakup of his parents.

Answer: Your question raises two important issues. Although your primary question is about how to help your grandson develop a more positive outlook, your description of the situation also suggests some underlying issues between your family and that of your son’s ex-wife. It sounds like it sometimes feels overwhelming to try to counteract what you see as the negative influence of his mother. Much is written about divorced parents, but less attention is paid to the role of extended family after a divorce. And yet the steady love and support of a grandmother can be just the thing to help a child thrive even in the face of the loss and confusion surrounding a divorce.

Here are a few suggestions that might help as you try to encourage your grandson toward a more positive, hopeful attitude:

Counteract his pessimistic outlook with your own realistically positive attitude. Example is the best teacher, so look for opportunities to demonstrate a positive attitude even in the face of challenges. Let him see that things don’t always go perfectly but will usually work out okay. For example, when you do an art project with him, let him see how you sometimes make a mistake but then laugh and use your creativity to turn it into something different — make lemonade out of lemons!

When he expresses negative expectations, acknowledge those feelings by saying, “I can see that you’re afraid it’s not going to turn out well.” Then encourage him to move forward anyway by saying, “I wonder what we could do so that it will be okay even if it’s not exactly what we want?”

Real self-esteem comes through the experience of actually doing things well. So, work with your grandson to develop one special area of competence — whether it’s in the arts, academics, sports, fixing things, cooking, or playing chess.

Although your grandson is still very young, it’s not too early to begin to help him develop a focus on other people’s needs. Engage him in helping you in the church nursery, choosing holiday gifts for people who can’t afford them, or going with you and his dad to serve at a soup kitchen. As he matures, stepping outside of his own experience may help him develop a more balanced perspective.

Every chance you get, affirm for the boy how much both of his parents love him. Although you see things in your ex-in-laws that trouble you, your grandson will do best if you can approach his mother in a supportive, nonjudgmental way — and if you can encourage positive co-parenting even though the parents no longer are married. Recognize that there is much that is beyond your power to change, but that the most powerful thing you can do is to be a part of the network of adults who join together to guide, nurture and encourage your grandson through each stage of his development.

Question: My mom is worried about my baby because she says he’s too skinny. I say he’s just fine, but she has this idea that a baby isn’t healthy unless he’s chubby. How can I know for sure, and what can I tell my mom?

Answer: It used to be that people thought “healthy baby” and “chubby baby” were synonymous; but now we know that’s not the case. In fact, with childhood obesity at epidemic levels in the United States (and Type II diabetes increasingly common at young ages), growing “chubby” kids is not a desirable goal. That said, babies vary greatly in size and body type, and there’s a wide range of normal. Up to the age of 2 years, a baby’s weight is not very predictive of size or weight later in childhood or adulthood.

There are two situations in which a baby’s low weight may be cause for concern. First of all, a baby weighing less than 5.5 pounds at birth is considered a “low-birth-weight baby” and may have a higher risk of developmental problems than a normal-sized baby. Low birth weight is sometimes a result of maternal smoking or poor nutrition during pregnancy. A second scenario is a baby whose growth proceeds at a slower rate than normal. This may indicate a physical problem or, in rare and serious circumstances, a condition called “failure to thrive,” which may result from extreme emotional neglect or hard-to-diagnose medical problems in the child.

Chances are your baby is just fine. Your pediatrician can show you exactly where your baby falls on the normal growth curve for both height and weight and can track his growth over time, reassuring you and your mother that he’s on track in spite of his slender body type. Beyond looking at his growth patterns as compared to others his age, it’s also important to pay attention to other indicators of your baby’s health and well-being — for example, skin tone, muscle tone, energy level, and his achievement of major developmental milestones such as rolling, sitting, pulling up, and grasping.

As for what to say to your mother, it’s important to let her know that you appreciate her concern about your baby’s health. Then let her know what your doctor says about your baby’s growth, perhaps showing her where he falls on the growth chart or even inviting her to go along for a well-child visit. No doubt, your mother has much to teach you, and you will have things to teach her as well. Knowledge about child development, nutrition, and parenting is changing all the time, so welcome your mother to be your partner in learning all you can about what’s most important for your child.

Dr. Erickson is a senior fellow and director of the Harris Programs in the Center for Early Childhood Education at the University of Minnesota. She and her daughter can be heard every Sunday, from 2­–4 p.m., on “Good Enough Moms,” on FM107.1 radio in the Twin Cities or via webcast at

Growing Concerns

Question: I am home-schooling my four children, ages 10, 8, 7, and 4. I believe this is the right thing for my family, but I often feel like I am not taking any time out for myself. My house is a mess, and I often find myself yelling at the kids in frustration. What can I do to make sure that I remain focused on educating my children without losing my mind?

Answer: It sounds like teacher is ready for recess! If I were you, I’d begin by taking inventory of potential sources of help and support.

First of all, does your husband share your commitment to home schooling? If so, perhaps you could arrange for him to teach a couple of lessons each week during the evening hours or on weekends while you take some time for yourself. Even an hour to walk or sleep or read a good book can ease some of the pressure you feel. Maybe it’s also time to arrange for your husband to take on more household tasks – or, if financially feasible, hire someone else to clean for a few hours each week

Are there other extended family members or close friends who are invested in your children’s education? If so, maybe they would be willing to take the children on a special outing or introduce them to a new skill or hobby every so often? It’s hard to ask for one-sided favors, so how about offering something in return – maybe even a casserole and dessert made by you and the kids during home-school time. Cooking provides great opportunities to practice reading, measuring, fractions, temperature, and time concepts.

Are you affiliated with other home-school families? Perhaps you could work out a weekly exchange with another family as a way of buying yourself some time off. Or maybe there’s an interesting afterschool program in sports or the arts that would be a good complement to your children’s home schooling and would allow you time for yourself. Even hiring a neighborhood teenager to come to the house once or twice a week for educational games or story-time could allow you a much-needed break.

If you’re like most parents who home-school, you do so to ensure your children a good education in academic subjects and in values and character development. But, if you’re exhausted, frustrated, and yelling at your children, you probably are defeating your own purpose for home schooling. If you can’t find the support and respite you need to sustain you in your effort, it may be time to reconsider enrolling your children in school. If it comes to that, you could become an active partner in your children’s education by volunteering in their classrooms and supporting their teachers’ best efforts – and still have time to catch your breath and enjoy some of the activities that help you feel calm and fresh.

Martha Erickson, Ph.D. is a professor at the University of Minnesota and senior fellow with the Children’s Youth & Family Consortium. She also hosts the radio show “Good Enough Moms” with her daughter Erin, Saturday afternoons on WFMP-FM 107.

Growing Concerns

QUESTION: Our daughter has been in a family day care home since she was 1 year old, but in a few weeks, she will enter a more structured preschool program each morning. Are there things we can do to make the transition of moving from daycare to school easier for her? She will be picked up each day after preschool and taken to the daycare home for the rest of the day.

ANSWER: For children of all ages, knowing what to expect can help ease the anxiety of a new situation. Before your daughter starts preschool, take time to show her the school and, if possible, introduce her to the teachers. If you know other families whose children attend the school, arrange a play date with one of the children so your daughter sees a familiar face when she enters the classroom. Also, talk with her about activities she will do at the new school and explain how you’ve arranged for her to get to and from school. Let her know you will be eager to visit her at school after she gets settled there.

Your daughter’s attitude toward school will be influenced strongly by your attitude. No doubt you’ve chosen this preschool carefully, so that’s a good beginning. Once your daughter has started school, ask her to tell you about what she learned, who she spent time with, and what she liked most about her day. Encourage her childcare provider to do the same. Ask to see the projects she’s doing at school, and display them in a place that shows you value her work. Also, communicate regularly with your daughter’s teachers about her school experience, particularly her social behavior and emotional well-being, which are so important in this preschool period. If your job permits, volunteer occasionally to help in the classroom or chaperone a field trip. One of the most important factors accounting for school success is the active involvement of parents. What you do in these preschool years will set the pattern for your involvement at each stage of your daughter’s education.

It is to your daughter’s advantage that she will continue in her familiar childcare setting. For preschool children, stability and continuity help them maintain feelings of security. Also, since she’s already used to being way from you during the day, she probably has worked through the separation issues that challenge many young children when they first enter preschool or childcare. Nonetheless, the schedule you describe makes for a busy day for a young child. Your daughter may get tired and cranky after a day with so many transitions – much the way we parents feel after a day of going from one meeting to another. It will be important to make sure she has plenty of time to just play, relax, and snuggle with you at the end of a long day. For both adults and children, it is important to create a healthy balance between structured activities and “down time.” In today’s busy world, that starts early in a child’s life!

Martha Erickson, Ph.D. is a professor at the University of Minnesota and senior fellow with the Children’s Youth & Family Consortium. She also hosts the radio show “Good Enough Moms” with her daughter Erin, Saturday afternoons on WFMP-FM 107.


QUESTION: Our daughter is a first grader and 6-1/2 years old, and she takes forever to get ready and get out the door in the morning, or at any time of day for that matter. It doesn’t matter if she’s going to school or if our whole family is going to church, or shopping, or whatever. She can tell time quite well, but she is always late – and she’s making the rest of us late, too. How can we handle this without just nagging her all the time?

ANSWER: It’s not unusual for a child this age to have trouble getting organized and out the door. Even though your daughter can tell time by the clock, at age 6, her practical sense of time is still developing. She may need help to learn how much time it takes to get ready to go out. Also, getting ready requires some organizational skills that many young children haven’t developed yet. And there are countless things that can distract a child between the closet and the front door. It sounds like time to give your daughter some coaching on organization and time management. Here are some suggestions:

  • In the evening, engage your child in thinking about the things she can do in advance to make getting ready go more smoothly the next morning. For example, she could choose her outfit for the morning and lay it out next to her bed. And she could pack her backpack for school and place it by the front door. If you ask her to come up with the ideas, she’s more likely to cooperate.

  • If she’s especially slow in the morning, as many children are, wake her 15-30 minutes earlier to give her extra time. Whatever the time of day, give her plenty of advance notice whenever she needs to get ready to go out.

  • If certain things distract your daughter while getting ready, try to eliminate those distractions. For example, if TV is a distraction, leave the TV off until she’s completely ready.

  • Break the getting ready time into chunks. For example, tell her a half hour in advance that it’s time to get ready, then check on her progress at 15 minutes and again at five minutes before it’s time to go. Gently ask her, “How are you doing? Is there anything you need?” With a dawdler, it’s easy to say, “Hurry up! Aren’t you ready yet?” But that often causes a child to get flustered and go more slowly.

  • Some children respond well to using an oven timer to give them a more concrete sense of the passing of time. Your daughter might enjoy a game of “beat the clock,” seeing if she can be fully dressed by the time the bell goes off.

  • You have discovered already that nagging doesn’t work. So try focusing on the positive instead. Initially, you’ll need to acknowledge each sign of progress – organizing her things the night before, eating breakfast without dawdling, or dressing quickly. Eventually, you can just congratulate her, “You’re ready right on time! That’s great!”

    QUESTION: My daughter is in fourth grade. The girl who has been her best friend for more than a year has stopped talking to her. I’m not sure what triggered the split, but the other girl is totally rejecting of my daughter and absorbed in her new best friend. It’s breaking my daughter’s heart. How can I help her through this?

    ANSWER: Children this age can be very fickle. Alliances form and dissolve and form again, but this can be very painful indeed. Here’s some advice:

  • You can begin by simply acknowledging your daughter’s feelings. Tell her this is a lousy thing to go through and that you know it makes her sad and angry.

  • Without giving her too much false hope, let your daughter know that things may change. There may have been a misunderstanding that led to the rift in the friendship – or even misinformation spread by a jealous classmate. With patience and care not to slip into treating the former friend badly, your daughter may find that the friendship is renewed over time.

  • Sometimes children benefit from practicing what to say and do in tough situations. Ask your daughter what happens when she sees her former friend at school. It’s tempting for someone who’s feeling rejected to find ways to retaliate, saying bad things behind the other person’s back for example. But whether or not your daughter and the other girl ever resume their friendship, your daughter will do best in the long run if she can treat the former friend with respect. This can be a hard, slow lesson to learn, but it will be one that lasts a lifetime.

  • Regardless of what happens with the old friend, help your daughter focus on other opportunities for friendship. Engage her in thinking about interests she shares with other classmates or neighbor children, and encourage her to invite others to come over to play games, go skating, or watch a movie.

    Years from now, your daughter may not even remember this falling out with her best friend, but the comfort and guidance you give her will be with her forever.

    Martha Erickson, Ph.D. is a professor at the University of Minnesota and senior fellow with the Children’s Youth & Family Consortium. She also hosts the radio show “Good Enough Moms” with her daughter Erin, Saturday afternoons on

    WFMP-FM 107

  • Growing Concerns

    Toddler terror

    QUESTION: My 18-month-old son’s favorite word is “no!” He’s extremely active and into everything, even or especially the things we’ve told him are “no-no’s.” He absolutely flips out when he can’t have his way. His dad says I’ve spoiled him by letting him get away with too much, but I don’t see that his strict approach works very well either. Is this already the beginning of the “terrible 2s”? And what is the current wisdom about how to make this age less terrible?

    ANSWER: One of a child’s main developmental tasks in the second year of life is to demonstrate that he is a separate person with a mind of his own. As you are discovering with your son, children accomplish this task in some noisy and irritating ways. At 18 months, your son has moved beyond the total dependency of the first year of life. But he doesn’t yet have fancy words to plead and reason with you, nor does he have well-developed mental or physical skills that allow him to be as independent as he’d like. So, to show you he’s his own person, he resorts to using the only tools he has: saying no, doing the opposite of what he’s told, and throwing a tantrum when his efforts fail.

    At this age, a child also repeats what he hears. And since most parents find themselves saying “no-no” a lot, toddlers throw that word right back at them. Furthermore, toddlers have insatiable curiosity, as well as a new mobility that allows them to act on their curiosity. And they are only beginning to learn and remember the rules about what’s OK to touch and what’s off limits. Often, their troublesome exploration is not deliberate disobedience but just an enthusiastic expression of their natural curiosity.

    That said, your job as parents is to help your son find a healthy balance of independence and cooperation. This requires time and patience, but there are several key steps that will make this gradual process go more smoothly for you and your son.

  • So your son can express his natural curiosity freely and safely, move dangerous or fragile objects out of his reach and keep safe, interesting objects where he can explore them to his heart’s content.

  • Use simple words and gestures to set clear limits for your son. Keep in mind that if limits are too strict, your son will feel angry and frustrated much of the time, and that will be difficult for both you and him. But if limits are too liberal, he will feel overwhelmed and insecure.

  • When possible, give your son choices. For example, let him choose whether to wear the red shirt or the blue shirt. When children feel they have some power over the things that affect them, they are more willing to accept their parents’ power when they need to.

  • When necessary to stop your son from doing something unacceptable, offer an alternative. For example, when you move him away from the buttons on the stereo, give him a colorful puzzle and say, “Let’s play with this instead.”

  • Reserve your harsh voice for the most important warnings you need to give your son. For example, if he reaches for a cup of hot coffee or darts toward the street, shout, “Stop!” or “Danger!” Too often we parents bombard our young children with so many sharp directives that we lose our effectiveness. Then, when we truly need to stop our child in a hurry, we’re at a loss.

  • At those times when your child “flips out” (as toddlers are bound to do), give him some space and don’t engage in a battle. Only if he is putting himself or someone else in danger, hold him firmly and gently until he begins to settle down.

  • Teach your son words to express his feelings. When he begins to get upset, say, “You’re angry,” or “I know you don’t want to do this right now.” Over time, he will learn to use words to tell you how he feels, and he will have less need to act out his anger.

  • Finally, the toddler period is the time for you to begin developing a very important parenting habit: Catch your child being good. When your son follows a simple direction or calmly accepts a limit you’ve set, give him a big smile and tell him you like what he did. Young children want their parents’ approval; when you pay attention to their positive behavior, they are likely to repeat it again and again.

    Martha Erickson, Ph.D. is a professor at the University of Minnesota and senior fellow with the Children’s Youth & Family Consortium. She also hosts the radio show Good Enough Moms with her daughter Erin, Saturday afternoons on WFMP-FM 107. H

  • Growing Concerns

    Focus on practice, not perfection

    QUESTION: Our 6-year-old son wants to do everything perfectly right away, especially sports. He watches professional sports on TV and thinks he should be able to shoot baskets, hit the baseball, and ski or skate just like the pros. When he tries and fails, he gets terribly upset and cries and slams things around. He actually is well coordinated for his age, but he lacks the patience to take things slowly. How can we start to help him develop these qualities?

    ANSWER: Your question triggers childhood memories for me. My parents still tease me about the way I would watch performers or athletes on TV and then proudly proclaim, “I can do that!” One time, after watching trapeze artists on a circus show, I eagerly tried one of their stunts on the trapeze swing at our neighborhood park. Alas, I landed flat on my face in the dirt – a quick and painful lesson for me in the importance of taking time to learn! (Not that I ever learned to be a trapeze artist, mind you, but you get the point.)

    Since your son is not likely to experience such an instant lesson, here are some steps you can take to help him learn to manage his frustration and build his sports skills, one step at a time:

    – Pick one or two of your son’s favorite sports and help him break the complex skills down into “chewable chunks.” For example, practice tossing and catching a baseball, hitting the ball off a T-ball stand (much easier than hitting a moving ball), dribbling a basketball, or throwing the basketball into a large trashcan or at a spot on the garage wall. Encouraging him in each step along the way will help him work his way slowly toward his larger goals.

    – Sometimes children with a low tolerance for frustration do better practicing skills with someone other than a parent. So consider arranging for a family friend or an older boy in the neighborhood to take your son out for a game of catch once in a while.

    – As an alternative to watching professional sports, take your son to a peewee hockey game or a park and recreational T-ball or basketball game. Let him see other children in the early learning stages of the games, and remind your son that’s where the pros started, too.

    – When he’s old enough, sign your son up for low-key sports activities in your community. Make sure there are sensitive, supportive coaches who emphasize sportsmanship rather than scoring or winning. Most programs face a shortage of parent volunteers, so perhaps you will become one of those sensitive coaches yourself.

    – Knowing that some frustration is almost inevitable in sports (something I’m reminded of every time I play golf), teach your son ways to manage his feelings. For example, when he starts to feel frustrated, encourage him to take three deep breaths and count to 10.

    – Focus your positive attention on the times your son handles frustration well. Assure him that you understand how hard it is to keep trying something that doesn’t come easily, and tell him you’re proud of the mature way he is learning to calm himself and continuing to work on his skills.

    – Finally, be aware that your son will learn from your example. Let him see you struggling with new skills and handling your own frustration well. Laugh at your own missed shots or slips on the ice, and go back and try, try again, just as you hope he will.

    Living on a Mallrat planet

    QUESTION: The shopping mall in a nearby suburb recently added a new group of shops aimed at young adolescents, and this has become the “in” hangout for 11- to 12-year-olds. We’ve heard our 11-year-old daughter and her friends talking about all the time they plan to spend there. We’ve told our daughter we won’t allow her to spend a lot of time there because the shops sell overly sexy clothes and feed into the kids’ materialism, not to mention the fact that hanging out at the mall is just not a constructive use of time. She just stomps into her room, slams the door and yells that we’re “living on another planet.” Are we being unreasonable? And, if not, how can we handle this without having her mad all the time?

    ANSWER: Your concerns are well founded and quite reasonable, especially considering the age of your daughter. The bottom line is that you are the parents; your job is to keep your daughter safe and help her develop strong character. Your job is not to make her happy all the time – and that is a good thing because that would be impossible! Although you’re bound to hear some grumbles for now, here are some guidelines for setting reasonable limits balanced with a clear respect for your daughter’s need to have opportunities to hang out with friends.

    – Decide on the specific limits you will set about your daughter’s time at the mall. For example, will your daughter never be allowed to go? Or might she go occasionally for a brief time with a friend? If and when she does go, what will be the rules and guidelines about how much time she can spend and what kinds of things she can buy (e.g. no low-low hip-hugger pants and no suggestive slogans on T-shirts)?

    – Explain your limits simply and clearly, then stick to them even when she groans, “Oh, Mom!” Keep in mind, however, that you will need to adjust the rules as your daughter matures and gains more independence. Being clear and firm does not mean that you have to be rigid.

    – Talk with other parents and, if possible, unite with them in setting shared guidelines and limits about not only the mall, but also other situations that arise. This is the best line of defense against the classic “everybody’s doing it” argument, which you’re bound to hear many times in the next few years. For the kids, a united community of parents helps to relieve the stress of peer pressure. In fact, many young people say they sometimes secretly feel relieved when their parents tell them no.

    – Brainstorm with your daughter (and perhaps with her friends and their parents) about other ways to spend free time. Sometimes “hanging at the mall” is the fallback when there’s a lack of opportunity for other activities with peers. Consider bowling, skating, volleyball or gathering each week at a different home to make pizza, bake cookies, or play games. Or coach the kids in planning a service project, such as monthly visits to a nursing home or collecting outgrown clothing, books, and toys for a shelter.

    – Because young people do need unstructured time to socialize, think about alternatives to the mall. Too often, communities lack safe places for kids to hang out, so consider taking the initiative to get something started in your community. Perhaps if parents volunteered to help, a local church, school, or park building could offer a drop-in center during specified hours. Such a center at a church in our neighborhood was a great asset for our kids when they were younger.

    Your daughter is at an age at which she may give you “get out of my life” messages (the slammed door, for instance). But know that love, steady guidance, and clear, reasonable limits are exactly what she needs from you. Although you’re not likely to hear a “thank you” right now, you are sure to see benefits in the long run.