Parenting coach and columnist Meghan Leahy answered questions recently in a Washington Post online chat. Here is an edited excerpt.
Q: I know you have been against homework for young kids and I've always been in agreement from afar. But my kindergartner is coming home with worksheets and flashcards to practice sight words. Is this worth it to speed up the acquisition of the ability to read? Or is this just homework that should be avoided? This is a Montessori school and we already read to her every night at bedtime.
A: Does your child happily do the homework? If everyone is happy, and the child is doing it, then fine.
If there are frequent power struggles, complaints, whining and the homework feels like yours, reassess the goals of these assignments and talk to the teachers.
Q: I have a 2-year-old who started preschool two mornings a week this fall. As is expected, he brings home a new cold just about every week. What's the etiquette for sending preschoolers to school with a cold? I keep him home if he has a fever or is acting particularly sick/off (both rare). But most of the time, it's just a ridiculously runny nose and occasional sneezing that doesn't slow him down at all. I feel terribly guilty for taking him to school like this, not because I think he should be home in bed, but because I know he's spreading the germs. But he would be so bored at home, and honestly, if he stayed home for every runny nose, we probably wouldn't see the inside of his classroom again until May. What's the right answer when they are a little bit sick, but not too sick?
A: A runny nose and some sneezing? Sounds like every 2-year-old known to man.
Your instinct is smack-on.
Fever = no school.
Child is low energy, tired and looks awful = no school.
Extreme coughing = no school.
But if you waited for complete health, you would never leave the house.
Q: I am in toddler hell. I love my daughter more than anything. But she's a tornado. I can't keep her out of anything. Potty training has been a struggle. She still doesn't talk clearly and her favorite word is "mom." She walks around just saying "mom" for no reason. Her other favorite word is "no." No to everything — even things she wants. If I need her, she runs the other direction. Of course everything is a game. Sometimes I play, sometimes I don't depending what I have going on. Luckily she's not too big on tantrums, but they always happen out in the world when we're stuck somewhere. She throws things when she's mad. The other day she dumped her milk out on the table because she was angry. I know all of this is normal but my frustration is starting to overwhelm me and I need some kind of mantra to help me through all of this. I feel my temper slipping a lot and I hate myself for it. I'm also not a believer in spanking but I've found myself swatting her hands or backside when she's extremely uncooperative and I hate that the most. Please help.
A: Friend, you don't need a mantra (though they are nice); you need help. You need another human helping you through this stage, because it is so taxing.
We want to do it all ourselves and we feel guilty when we feel overwhelmed and exhausted. But the toddler stage is intense, and if you feel like you are veering toward spanking (again, I get it), you need to change something. And please know, this stage will not last forever. There will be new problems to take on, but the unique problems of toddlerhood will give way to some maturity.
Until then, what can you do?
— Regular babysitter
— Nanny share
— Daycare options
— Mother's helper
— Childcare at gym
— Parent coach
— Parenting classes
It is normal to need time for yourself; raising a toddler is physical and emotional heavy-lifting.
Q: My third-grade son said there is a boy in the third grade who smells and no one wants to sit near him. I feel like I should talk to someone at the school about this, as I'm sure the boy is suffering and possibly being bullied, but I'm not sure how to go about it.
A: Call the teacher and maybe the school counselor. The child may be having issues at home that lead to some kind of neglect, and the school needs to know. And even if he smells for other reasons, the bullying needs attention. Be an advocate for that child and praise your own child for telling you.
Q: I'm a high school teacher who is comfortable interacting with students dealing with mental health concerns such as anxiety and depression and individualized education plans for things such as ADHD. But I recently emailed our school guidance counselor about a student who did not turn in a project, stopped doing homework and was failing multiple classes. When I asked the student about it, I was surprised at how bluntly she said, "Yeah, I just don't do anything at home but watch Netflix." When I emailed the counselor to see whether parents had been called, the reply was: "She has social-emotional issues. She has anxiety, paranoia and is oppositional defiant." There was no follow-up as to how to help a student. I'm curious what makes "normal" teenage testing of limits be considered a social-emotional issue and what I can do in this situation.
A: Sitting and watching Netflix for hours is often the sign of a problem, not the actual problem, so I believe this young woman is escaping into Netflix to avoid her hard feelings, or at least that is what the counselor is indicating.
ODD is a big disorder and as a teacher you won't be able to do much to change that, but you can be a compassionate, open and kind teacher while holding some boundaries.
Depending on her level of crisis, I would try to engage with her on the Netflix level. If she says she only watches Netflix, say, "Oh! I just binged 'The Great British Bake Off,' what are you watching?" Creating a link can provide a teen a powerful sense of connection and belonging. Ask for recommendations and listen.
You are not her parent or counselor, but asking thoughtful questions and listening is good enough. Otherwise, ask your counselor for best practices with these conditions.
Q: I'm a long-distance aunt of a not-fun kid. My nephew, an only child who doesn't have cousins or live in a neighborhood of kids, is 8 and mostly obnoxious and exhibits unempathetic behavior as well. Examples: I was out to visit recently and he was stuck like glue to his computer game the whole time. I figure that's normal. When he wasn't, and was engaging in human interaction, he was a know-it-all, bragging liar who bossed older people around without any "please" or "thank you." And my attempts to start a conversation were responded to with yes/no/I don't know with a shrug. If I didn't know better I would think I was hanging out with a teen! I took him out with his friend and while he and his friend played in a great way, he was exhibiting some of the same not-great things — telling the other kid he was not as smart as my nephew because of where he goes to school, lying about factual things to win a point/game and so on. I know his parents are aware and are working on it. I would leave this to them, but these behaviors have been going on for a solid year. Is there something I can learn/do that will help?
A: I have empathy all the way around here. Although you sound a bit tough, you list examples of an aunt who is trying her best to connect with this child.
The parents may be aware, but it is not getting better. And the real victim, the child, is not getting what he needs.
Culture, school and peers will soon punish him for his rudeness, but what if he has deeper needs that are not being addressed? Learning issues? Social-emotional issues?
Keep lovingly supporting his parents when he is with you, and be clear with your boundaries. If he insults you, leave the video game. If he is rude to his friend, say, "Uh no. Don't say that."
Don't discipline him (not your job), but you can hold minimum boundaries of not being called names and not allowing him to call others names.
Your confidence and love may rub off. He's still young.
Q: How do you handle physical meltdowns with bigger children (big in size, not necessarily age)? My 5-year-old is 65 pounds and I know he's going to have at least one major meltdown during an upcoming road trip, even though we'll do everything we can to avoid it. When he was younger, we could just grab him and hug/hold him while he thrashed around, so he and others would be safe. Because of his ADHD and sensory issues, his meltdowns are pretty physical (lots of arm flailing, screaming). At home, we can move away and give him his space, but that may not be possible while we are in a hotel, restaurant, at a relative's house or out and about. Any tips?
A: Do you have a team of people who help you? Occupational therapist/developmental pediatrician/psychologist/etc.? Asking, just in case you don't. You need support as your child continues to grow and change.
In the meantime: Prevention, prevention, prevention.
Have a clear list of what will set him off and avoid if possible.
When it's not possible, create a plan with him. Say to him, "If you are overwhelmed at Aunt Susie's, we are going to go outside and play soccer." This will require you trying to catch the meltdown before it begins, which is not always an option, but having a clear plan that is written down and shared with him will help.
Build in frequent rewards for having him identify his mood on a chart, and this may help you see what's coming as well as grow his neural synapses toward greater self-awareness.
And wherever you go, scan for where you can be a bit private.
But the reality? Tantrums may occur and there may be nothing you can do but not make it worse. Keep your calm and kindness. It will end and you will make it.