Getting in touch with your inner parent.

Keeping an eye on kids and parents.
May 30 2003 10:33 AM

Oh, Behave!

Getting in touch with your inner parent.

(Continued from Page 2)

The current fuss about school readiness dates back to the interwar expert Dr. Arnold Gesell, who coined the term "preschooler" ("run-about" was the phrase in the rural old days) and bequeathed us a mixed message. He helped popularize the importance of the "guidance nursery" tailored to children's stage-by-stage growth, beginning as early as possible; he also worried that many kids were sent on to "real" school too soon and introduced the Gesell School Readiness Test for prospective kindergarteners. On balance, the solicitous developmental ethos has served kids well—even, or especially, those who used to be called the "clinging-vine variety." Plenty of parents, though, seem to have been turned into nervous wrecks in the process.

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During her few hours a week of school, your shy flower is probably under the protective eye of teachers primed by Gesell (and many others since) to appreciate the "considerable variation not only from child to child but also within a single child from day to day." The problem is that the same Gesellian emphasis on formative early milestones in maturation leads parents (and testers) to forget just that flux and flexibility. You see in the seed of your flower her ultimate fate. But vines grow unpredictably up and around what's in their path. Though your daughter probably won't end up on American Idol, she'll surprise you—who knows, maybe she'll be a readier mingler by the fall, and then you'll kick yourself for giving up her spot.

—Sandbox

Dear Sandbox,
I have a sibling rivalry question. My two kids, especially my younger daughter, are constantly saying, "That's not fair." I've tried explaining that "it is too" fair. I've tried saying that the little unfairnesses of life even out and that she'll soon get something her big brother doesn't get. I've tried a parody version: "That's not fair—you put soap in your brother's eye but not in mine." That one at least gets a laugh. I've tried saying (a la Jimmy Carter), "Life is unfair." That just makes me look like a jerk (just as it made Carter look like a jerk).

I know I can't eliminate the primal emotions of sibling rivalry. But I'd like to hear about it less. How can I turn my complaining daughter into King Lear's sweet Cordelia?

—Weary Lear

Dear Weary Lear,
To judge by your litany of responses, you've somehow managed to miss the bible on sibling bickering, Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish's Siblings Without Rivalry, which came out in 1987 (a successor to their How To Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk). Their trademark empathetic response? "I know, it's hard when your brother gets something and you don't, isn't it?" The core of their strategy is to acknowledge, rather than deny, your kids' jealous feelings—and then work at showing that you give "uniquely, in terms of each child's legitimate needs," rather than "equally with measured amounts."

I know, the "I feel your pain" gambit sounds gimmicky and/or fine in theory but sure to fall flat in practice. (It also has a Clintonian ring, Sandbox realizes.) But try some version of it. Your empathy won't sound phony (you're probably still nursing sibling resentments of your own, right?), and some parental attention to their feelings is what kids are after in the first place—and what you feel guilty for seeming to fail to provide; they'll appreciate it, and so will you. How you proceed from there gets trickier, of course, and depends on what's "not fair" at the moment—but please, King Lear is no role model at all! On the contrary, he's the cautionary example: the dad who set sisters at odds with each other—and with him—precisely by demanding that love be measured and duly rewarded.

—Sandbox 

Dear Sandbox,
My 5-year-old daughter is headstrong. I say, "OK, sweetie, time for bed." She says, "No." I say, "I'll lie down with you for a while, and we can talk." She says, "No." Half an hour later, after all the pleading and commanding, she's still saying "No" or creeping out of her room. I drag her kicking and screaming to her room and close the door; she fights to come out. I recently put a lock on the door for "timeouts," but I'm reluctant to use it at bedtime: That seems Dickensian. And anyway, if she has bedtime issues, I want to work on them with her. I'm not going to lock her in a dark room. Then again, at 10:30 p.m., when my wife and I haven't had a moment to ourselves all day ... without force, I just don't know what we're supposed to do with a determinedly defiant child. I say, "No ice cream tomorrow," but that's tomorrow.

—Mad in Manhattan

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