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Kids’ behavior: Dr. Peters answersyour e-mail

After the first week of our "‘Raising Kids Today" series, psychologist Dr. Ruth Peters responds to your questions and concerns

In a special month-long series called “Raising Kids Today,” the “Today” show is looking at issues surrounding parenting. In this first week we have been exploring behavior; now psychologist and “Today” contributor Dr. Ruth Peters responds to viewers’ e-mails on many of the topics raised.

FINICKY EATERSQ: What should I do about my finicky eater? I feel like a short-order cook, but my child still won’t eat much and is underweight. The whole issue is also dividing me and my spouse, who says I am too anxious about the whole matter.

A: Kids’ eating behavior is one of the “control” areas of childhood — with the children usually controlling what is or isn’t eaten and Mom and Dad feeling either pleased (if lucky), frustrated (if the child is consistently picky) or downright frightened (if the pediatrician notes a lack of proper weight gain or weight maintenance).  The problem is often based in youngsters’ tendencies to be able to eat very little, yet still have the energy to run circles around their folks. To make matters worse, kids’ taste buds change as they mature, so what was pleasant at 18 months may be perceived by Junior as downright yucky at 36 months of age. And, to complicate the whole scenario, a French fry may be treasured yesterday, but snubbed today.

What’s cooking here?  Well, kids are kids and parents are grown-ups and each has their own take on the nutrition situation.  If you’re one of those who envisioned placing three squares on the table each day, and your children joyfully eating them, you’ve probably already experienced how exasperating this problem can be. 

What seems to worry folks the most are those children whose parents perceive that they may not be eating in a healthy fashion, and therefore are becoming mal- or under-nourished, possibly facing future medical problems.  First, before deciding by yourself that the kid has scurvy or some equally scary disorder, check with your pediatrician.  Most likely you’ll be assured that your child’s height and weight are fine for his or her build and genetics. Even though the child may eat like a bird, kids generally do not need nearly as much food as we, their wiser (and much heavier) parents feel they do.  As long as the kid is on “the chart” don’t waste your time worrying about it.  Make sure that the youngster takes a good daily vitamin (suggested by your pediatrician), drinks enough liquids each day and actually enjoys some of the meals.

Now, how about the child who will readily eat, but has a repertoire of perhaps three proteins (chicken nuggets, pizza and macaroni and cheese), two veggies (French fries and green peas), three fruits (grapes, apples and bananas), tons of starches (bagels, French fries again, cookies and cakes) as well as a real sweet tooth for candy and ice cream? Well, try to work within your child’s likes and dislikes in a reasonable fashion — make or buy “lightly breaded” chicken nuggets, thin pizza with extra tomato and perhaps some lower fat cheese, and check out the lower-carb macaroni that is now readily available. 

Let your kids know that you are not a short-order cook and that you’ll make dinner as palatable as possible, but it’s also for the adults.  They are encouraged to try the foods you cook (generally kids like meats plain, without a lot of sauces, and likewise for the veggies).  Place a small amount of food on their plates, so that if they want more they are welcome to “seconds,” but so the initial portion looks more palatable and less aversive to them. 

Encourage them to eat what they’d like, and then if they are absolutely nixing your concoction — tell them that's OK but the rules are: they must be polite in rejecting the food (“I’d rather not eat this” rather than “That’s yucky!”).  Next, they are in charge of preparing their own meal (and it will probably be of the microwave variety — lots of healthier stuff is available these days).  Finally, they must thoroughly clean up after themselves.  Remember, you are the mom or dad, not the maid.  If they desire, eating a bowl of Cheerios and milk at dinner a few times a week won’t hurt, and it’s easy for them to prepare and clean up.  After supper, if the child is hungry, limit the snacks to healthy foods such as fruits, yogurts, or veggies.  If they snub their nose at those, then they can go to bed without having a snack.  Remember, lack of snack never hurt anyone.

Finally, please come to a compromised position with your spouse on this issue.  It’s not wise to “discuss” (or argue) about your child’s eating issues at the dinner table, especially if one parent is willing to let the child make his own meal and the other parent is tending toward sending the child to the bedroom if dinner is not completely finished or there’s some okra left on the plate.  Trust me; the kid will sit there until your bedtime just to prove that he’s not going to eat the darned stuff.  Just take it away, either allow him to make something more enticing (and clean up his mess), or “close the kitchen” and only those eating what you are serving are fed.  If you’d like to offer a dessert only to those who eat well, then that’s fine also, but I wouldn’t put too much emphasis on finishing every last bite.  There are too many overweight adults who began some mighty bad habits by “finishing every last bite,” and who still continue to do so!

TATTLING VS. TELLINGQ: How do you teach kids the difference between tattling and sharing necessary information?

A: There’s a huge difference between kids tattling on each other and those who tell on another.  The motivation behind tattling is usually to get the other guy in trouble, and the behavior generally involves trivial or meaningless behavior. (Mom … he’s looking at me again. Tell him to stop! Or, Dad, she’s touching my arm … punish her!). You know what I mean, the dumb stuff that you really don’t need to know about.

Telling, however, involves the important things.  Teach your children that you need to know if a sibling or a friend is engaging in dangerous, destructive or immoral behavior. Dangerous activities range from involvement in online chat groups without the parent’s knowledge or permission, riding a bike or scooter on the street or another hazardous area, jumping on furniture that may tip over, or climbing on counters to reach high objects. Destructive behavior varies from cutting one’s hair (or the dog’s coat) with scissors to playing with matches to sneaking out at night.  Immoral behavior involves lying, stealing, cheating or using drugs or alcohol.  These are activities parents need to know about and your children should be encouraged to share any knowledge of this with you.  Guarantee confidentiality if you can so that they will feel free to confide in you.

If you have a chronic tattler, tell the offending child that for every tattle (versus telling you an important piece of information), they will receive a negative consequence.  This can range from loss of a favorite toy for a week or two (or permanent loss of a possession if it’s a repeat offender), early bedtime, or loss of TV or other electronics for a specified amount of time. As with all behaviors that need to be changed, be sure that the consequence is of consequence to the individual child and that you stick with it.

I’m very concerned. I find that I keep yelling at my children. It’s making me exhausted, I’m not really getting them to behave any better — and I’m worried that I might be affecting their development. Please help!

A: If you find yourself having gotten louder over the years (yelling, threatening, and nagging), that’s a good indicator that whatever you’re using for a discipline system is just not working.  Kids who are raised on a steady diet of being yelled at tend to get used to it, feel badly about themselves and their abilities, and basically ignore or resent the screaming. Generally, parents who resort to constant yelling do so out of habit — it’s either what their parents used in their own childhood home, or it seemed to work initially when the child was very young, but no longer has the desired result. If screaming at a kid really worked, we would all be doing it; kids would become nice and compliant and no longer need to be yelled at.  Make sense?  Yes, but the problem is that yelling rarely has a long-lasting effect.  It may temporarily scare, startle or embarrass the child into ceasing the inappropriate behavior, but it really hasn’t taught the youngster a more appropriate response. 

For example, instead of barking out an order, calmly tell the child that she has five minutes to clean up the dirty clothes on the floor. Then set a countdown timer, and if she “beats it” give her praise and perhaps a “good point” using a behavioral system of some sort (“Earn 15 good points and you can pick out the movie rental this weekend” may be enticing).  Or, if the dirty clothes have not been picked up, give a demerit (“If you get more than 4 demerits per day you’ll lose all of your electronics privileges for the next 24 hours” just may get the kid’s attention and a change of behavior in the future).

Also consider that screamers generally feel lousy about their parenting ability. They consider themselves to be out of control and often find themselves yelling at their own spouses, which only encourages more fear and screaming within the household.  So, if you’d like to avoid the nightly threatening, screaming, nagging drama, develop an effective behavioral system to use with your kids — and stick to it.  The consequences should be interesting, intense, inviting and convenient, and something that you, as parents, can live with.  And, if you feel like screaming, take it into the bathroom, turn on the shower and hoop and holler ’til your heart’s content.

BEING A ‘COOL’ MOMQ: How do you enforce the rules and still be a cool mom?

A: Face it — a “cool mom” is probably an oxymoron.  Cool, to a kid, usually means someone who is fun, witty, playful and “with it.” And that is not someone who makes a child get dressed on time, finish teeth, face and hair before breakfast, bring their book bag in from the car, complete their homework, take a shower, brush their teeth again, and get to bed on time.  Nope, nada, it’s not going to happen!

It’s great when your children are well-liked by others and frequently have kids spending the night or over for dinner, but there does come a time when even the circus takes a break and everyone engages in a well-deserved breather! That means that you have every right to reserve family time for yourself and the kids, meals without visitors, and bedtimes without a horde of kids sacking out on the couch and living room floor.

And, trust me; your child is definitely not the only kid whose mom sets some limits.  Why do you think the neighborhood practically lives at your home as it is? Well, it just may have something to do with the other moms and dads having had their fill of critters drinking milk straight from the carton and eating the ice cream right from the box. So, don’t worry about being cool — focus instead on what works for your family, what rules and regs you need to set up, and the structure that helps make your household work for you!

DEALING WITH A BACK-TALKERQ:  I have a 3-year-old who is very aggressive, both in the way he speaks and acts. I'm concerned about how violent he can be. I am at a loss at how to reprimand him because nothing has worked so far.

A: Talking back to parents is almost a rite of passage for many kids as they mature through the developmental years. “You can’t make me!”, “That’s not fair!”, “I hate you!”, or even the proverbial adolescent “Whatever” are all sassy remarks that may make you wonder why you even had the kid to begin with! Well, consider that talking back is a child’s way of trying to get their own way.  If you said “yes” to their request to begin with, or didn’t ask them to turn off the TV and come in for dinner, they probably wouldn’t have become fresh.  It’s only when you get in their way that they jump onto the sassy bandwagon.

How’s a parent to deal with this behavior?  First, realize that it’s probably just a habit, albeit a bad one.  Are you sarcastic, a screamer, or a back-talker yourself?  If so, try to tone this down as your child is watching and mimicking your behavior, especially when it’s the not so attractive stuff. Now, turn the tables on the kid who is being unreasonable and arguing just because you said “no” or interrupted his favorite TV program. Never, ever try to reason with the unreasonable. Trying to talk a child into seeing things your way — “Yes, Mom does have a point…. I really don’t need another Spiderman figure and it would be rude of me to fuss just because we are in the toy store” — probably isn’t going to happen.  Kids need consequences to change their behavior.  Give the back-talking child a warning (one warning) to stop the fuss.  If she does, praise her for her cooperation and move on with the day.  If she doesn’t, give a consequence.  The consequence can take the form of leaving the toy store immediately or giving a demerit that adds up to losing all privileges for that day (daily allowance; privilege token to be saved, added up and used to engage in interesting activities; use of electronics; outside play; and perhaps bedtime).  It has to hurt — not in the physical sense, but in terms of boredom and loss of fun time or possibly even possessions (toys, clothing, CDs, video games — whatever works).  If a consequence is not important to a child (both positive and negative), it is probably a waste of your time.

Do not tolerate back-talking, fresh-mouthed, sassy children.  You’ll probably grow weary of arguing with the kid, and so will her friends and perhaps her teachers in the years to come.  Set the limits now — not when she’s 15!

Copyright ©2005 by Ruth A. Peters, Ph.D. All rights reserved. Dr. Peters is a clinical psychologist and regular contributor to the “Today” show. Her most recent book,“Laying Down the Law: The 25 Laws of Parenting to Keep Your Kids on Track, Out of Trouble, and (Pretty Much) Under Control,” is published by Rodale. (See excerpts .) For more information you can visit her Web site at .

PLEASE NOTE: The information in this column should not be construed as providing specific psychological or medical advice, but rather to offer readers information to better understand the lives and health of themselves and their children. It is not intended to provide an alternative to professional treatment or to replace the services of a physician, psychiatrist or psychotherapist.