Dear Dental Debater,
Sandbox's view is that you should leave this kind of arguing to the child-rearing experts, who love to turn daily routines into large-scale debates about autonomy and dependency—and who for a century have set inordinate store by parental consistency (while showing little of it themselves). Let your wife do it her way. She's clearly a pro at the latest communication techniques, offering choices (should mommy brush, or does he want to try?) rather than issuing commands. Count yourself lucky your son isn't howling at the sink but welcomes her help. And keep doing it your way when it's your turn for tooth-brushing duty: Together you and he can enjoy feeling you're not mama's boys. He'll just be poking around in his mouth, not properly cleaning, but given fluoride (and his mothers' efforts), Sandbox thinks an honest dentist would join her in telling you (and your wife) not to worry.
How do you raise a confident kid without producing a monster? The tryouts for American Idol—where the young adult contestants argued with the judges, boasted about having their name in lights after they were just awful (sang off-key, forgot words, etc.)—left me wondering how all these kids get such a strong sense of self and whether it's too much: They seem almost oblivious to reality. Is it a result of hyper-parenting—endless assurances to kids that they're the be-all and end-all? Is it an advantage?
Dear Idol Wonderer,
The syndrome you discuss invites a label: Attention Surplus Hyperactivity Disorder. And while we're at it, why not diagnose it as the peculiar malady of a media-saturated, celebrity-besotted (and pharmaceutically extroverted) era. Ubiquitous video cameras, closets full of athletic "trophies," bleachers packed with cheering parents, "star of the week" charts, and "proud to be me" exercises at school: Kids these days spend no end of time in the spotlight. We may stress that they're learning the confidence and poise required in our interactive world (as they no doubt are). But we also shouldn't be surprised when children—the most imitative animals on earth—perform just like the hyper-self-conscious and exhibitionistic pros they've watched during hours of screen time ever since they could sit up.
And we shouldn't expect some easy remedy. Long before media overload, in a 1903 article called "Showing Off and Bashfulness as Phases of Self-Consciousness," America's great-grandfather expert, the psychologist and promoter of "child study" G. Stanley Hall, expressed concern about showoffs in particular. The "poser and attitudinizer [whose] individuality remains undeveloped" might become all too common in the sophisticated, complicated modern world, he feared. But he had no ready cures—except to urge parents to become more self-conscious about children's developing self-consciousness, which of course meant paying them ever more attention.
We see where that's gotten us. Even the head of the National Association for Self-Esteem in Normal, Ill., worried recently that if "your self-worth is built on a false reality … it's not healthy." Dr. Hall was right, "ensuring the development of a normal, sure self-respect free from too great self-depreciation on the one hand and any excess of self-assertion on the other is one of the most difficult" challenges. Sandbox endorses what looks like the new trend: an old-fashioned emphasis on encouraging a kid's hard work, rather than her every move and inner "me."
My shy 2-and-a-half-year-old much prefers playing at home with my wife and me, her nanny, and her grandparents to going to nursery school and being with other kids (especially boisterous ones). All the books I have been reading suggest this kind of reserve is hard-wired and that she is likely to grow up into a shy child and adult. My question is: Should we make her go to nursery school, even though we know it makes her uncomfortable, on the grounds that she must eventually learn how to engage with the world? Or should we allow her to happily play alone or with the few adults she trusts?
—Wary in Washington
Dear Wary in Washington,
Give her a dose of Inderal, and pack her off to nursery school. Just kidding: Relax, and let her keep puttering in a corner of the classroom, away from the rowdy kids. Presumably she's more or less acclimated. (If she were traumatized, Sandbox trusts you'd have removed her long since.) And why not allow her, of all children, a very gradual warm-up to kindergarten?