Parenting coach and columnist Meghan Leahy answered questions recently in a Washington Post online chat. Here is an edited excerpt.

Q: My son has long(ish) hair compared with other boys his age. He is 7. I found out that other kids in class have told him multiple times that he has girl hair. My son finally came home and said he wants a haircut so he can have "boy hair." Before this school year, he loved his hair, so the only reason he wants to cut it is because of what the other kids are saying. Should I let him cut his hair just to conform? Or am I going too deep with this?

A: It is painful to see our children fall victim to our larger culture, but it is somewhat inevitable (unless you go off the grid). But I would not become too attached to his hair, and he shouldn't either.

At 7, the need to feel part of the pack is strong, and not letting him cut his hair could result in miseries that are simply not worth it. Stay in talks with him about it, cut the hair, grow it back, cut it again. It is a fluid situation. More importantly, keep him surrounded by people and activities that are character-strengthening and value his special spirit.

Q: My 6-year-old daughter will often "act up" when she is in an area where it would be difficult to discipline her appropriately. I know she is cognizant of this safe zone, and it is sometimes difficult to know how to handle such a situation without causing a scene, or how to properly discipline her after we have left the safe area.

A: Where does this safe zone mean?

I am going to say something that may cause people to roll their eyes, but you should be disciplining your daughter in a restaurant the same way you discipline her at home — just as you would speak to a co-worker respectfully at a formal meeting or in the hallway.

Not to say that we can give all of our time and attention to a child in a restaurant that we would at home, but as much as possible, your child should always feel safe with you — even if you are using boundaries and consequences.

Q: By safe zone, I mean an environment where she knows she can get away with acting up, because disciplining her (e.g. during a church service) would potentially cause a scene.

A: Thanks for the clarification. So, let's say she is "acting up." Not listening, fooling around, being silly, bothering others. She is 6, which means that if she is neurotypical, she behaves pretty well most of the time and then also has normal kid shenanigans the rest of the time. This means that when life is boring (church), the child's mind will find ways to occupy itself. Some children are more mature than others and can just stand/sit/wait, but some children can't control their impulses as long. This is not willful misbehavior. This is childhood.

If she is being really disruptive, I would take a bathroom break with her, and maybe get a sip of water or run outside a bit. Wait a couple of minutes and return to the service. Don't lecture and punish; that is only watering weeds (because you are paying attention to and growing the negative).

Now that you know that this will be a weekly problem, go ahead and pack a little bag of things she can do during the service. I always had a bag of markers, crayons, coloring books, paper, mazes, word searches, etc.

Tech is typically not welcome at church, but do what you must.

Extend some compassion to your daughter. She is not trying to be bad. She is bored, and I think she wants attention from you and this works.

Q: How much should my nearly 3-year-old daughter be learning? All her similarly aged friends in day care/preschool seem to be doing well with their ABCs, numbers, etc. But my daughter shows the opposite of interest in learning these things when I bring them up. She will speak gibberish or talk about something else, which indicates she has no interest in what I'm trying to teach her. I don't worry about it too much, but when I hear other moms talking about how important learning is and they don't want their kids just playing at day care/preschool, it leaves me feeling like I'm not doing something right. (I am a stay-at-home mom and she has a 1-year-old brother.) So, how much active learning do kids need to get at age 3? Is my daughter at a disadvantage because I don't spend my time making sure she knows how to spell her name? I would be happy to, but she has no interest.


That "wut" encompasses all my thoughts and feelings, which are as follows:

1. Immediately stop listening to these mothers as they churn their anxiety cauldrons and fuel each other's wrong thinking.

2. Look at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website for a basic list of developmental milestones for the average 3-year-old. And remember: Every child is different.

3. Find, use and trust a pediatrician whom your child sees regularly.

4. Know that if you read books yourself, if you own books, if you read with her and if you are educated, studies show that your child will also read.

5. Your child is fine. She was born with all of her genetic material right there. You are to tend to the environment. Forcing early learning can actually disrupt the healthy maturation of children. To understand more about this and what young children really need, read "Rest, Play, Grow: Making Sense of Preschoolers" by Deborah MacNamara.

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