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How can I expand my picky eater’s palate?

Dear Mama Drama:

My two-year-old won’t eat anything, but macaroni and cheese. I’m afraid to give him other things because if he doesn’t eat it he’ll be hungry. I see other children, even younger than him, eating a wide variety of foods. I am amazed that they will eat things like tofu and vegetables.

How can I get my son to eat a wider variety of foods?

~Scared of starving

Dear Scared:

Many children have difficulty expanding their food choices once they have found a favorite food. Macaroni and cheese, PB & J, and mashed potatoes are common favorites. They may like the texture, smell, or associate a positive experience with that food. However, we have to offer them other foods on a regular basis if we want them to make other choices. Our job as parents is to provide healthy options for our children to eat, not to force them to eat it.

Children may need to try a new food several times before they develop a preference for it. Having a family rule that everyone tastes each type of food offered at a meal is a good way to start. Varying the ways that you prepare food can also make a difference. You don’t have to be a short-order cook, but cooking foods in a way that your child is more likely to eat them ensures a better chance of success. If your child doesn’t like slimy foods, don’t offer cooked spinach. Instead, offer him spinach salad with yummy cranberries or mandarin oranges and a sweet vinaigrette dressing. As parents, it is important to model trying foods we previously disliked as well.

Sometimes children are more willing to try new foods if they can dip them in something familiar. Barbeque sauce, salad dressings, and honey are just a few choices that may make a new food more appealing for your child.

Some children (and adults) don’t like their food mixed or touching. To those of us whom this does not bother, it doesn’t always make sense. But rather than forcing the issue, simply use plates that have sections in them to separate the foods. It’s an easy fix that eliminates an unnecessary battle.

If your child misses a meal or two, he will be hungry but will not starve. If you have provided healthy, kid-friendly food to eat and he has refused to eat, then you have done your job. Be sure you refrain from rescuing your child on these occasions by giving him the mac and cheese after he’s refused to eat other foods you’ve provided.

There are times when extenuating circumstances may be impacting your child’s willingness or ability to eat other foods. Some children have sensory processing issues that make eating different food textures almost unbearable. Others have very sensitive senses of smell that may cause them to avoid foods. Subtle reactions to unknown food sensitivities or allergies may also be an underlying reason. If you have concerns in any of these areas, please consult your pediatrician.  

-Lisa Vratny-Smith

Dance Mom Fails and Dreaming the Impossible Dream

One of the most rewarding parts of parenthood is seeing your children wade through the wall of clutter to discover their talents and passions. We tried it all–soccer, gymnastics, swim team and upside-down basket weaving. She had marginal successes but there was one activity that was a complete flop: dancing. You see, my daughter Hadley has inherited my lack of rhythm. Instead, she has a raw, aggressive athleticism that makes her adept at climbing mountains, careening down a ski slope, scaling large buildings and reducing her competition to tears at any sign of weakness.

When she was three years old, she had her first – and last – dance recital. We invited the entire family out for the occasion, an event we knew would go down as yet one more painful chapter in the Johnson Family History of Dysfunction.

I hoped an early intervention would counteract her lack of groove but I was wrong. Early on, it became painfully clear that she is not made for the dance floor. Her only redeeming quality is she loves an audience, as was evidenced by her performance at the recital.

While most of the little girls timidly and gracefully danced, Hadley did her toe-heel kicks like she was crushing a philandering ex-boyfriend. She spun like a rabid Tasmanian devil.

7 tips to stop nagging your kids

Dear Mama Drama:

I am so tired of nagging my kids to do what they’re already supposed to do. How can I motivate them without constantly nagging? Sticker rewards worked when they were younger but now that they’re getting older, nothing is working.

~Nagged Out

Dear Nagged Out:

When our children are younger we provide lots of structure and supervision for their daily routines. As they get older and develop more independent skills, we tend to relax these and are often surprised to find ourselves nagging constantly.

Nagging tends to undermine all that independence we worked so hard for our children to gain. It tells them we don’t really think they can do it and removes any motivation to remember on their own since they know we’ll remind them anyway. It also creates barriers in our relationships at a time when we really want to be enjoying our kids.

1. We can offer structure for our older children and instill confidence in them by providing clear expectations, consequences, and rewards.

2. Make a checklist of tasks you expect your children to do that you’d like to stop nagging them about. Discuss this with them, clarifying what you mean by each task (clean your room to you may be much different than to your children), and negotiate time frames in which they need to be completed. The key word here is negotiate. Be flexible about when you’d like things done (right now!) and what may be a reasonable compromise.

3. There should also be negotiated consequences for not completing their tasks. For example if the checklist isn’t completed on time, they don’t get their daily computer time. However, they still need to complete their tasks for the day.

An easy way to keep track of what has been done is to post the tasks on a white board and have your children check the task off when it is completed. A little quality control option is to require a second check by you or another adult at home to verify it was done. This also gives you the opportunity to recognize their effort ~ make sure you don’t expect perfection. You can fade to intermittent checking after it’s clear that everyone understands the expectations, but keep up the positive recognition.

4. Set a goal for completing the checklist with a limited amount of reminders.  (Be reasonable, if you are asking them five times for each task now, expecting no reminders wouldn’t be fair. Over time you can reduce the number of reminders allowed. ) Have them earn a point for each task completed within the guidelines. You can have each child earn their own points as well as having them work together to earn points for a larger reward. (Be creative here by making a game board or using a sports metaphor to document the points they’ve earned.) You can also give bonus points for tasks done early, without fussing, and with no reminders.

5. The next step is motivation. Even though your kids may not want stickers anymore, there are many other things they’ll be willing to work for such as computer or video game time, staying up late on the weekend, family movie night where they pick the movie, their favorite dinner, a special dessert, an itunes card, spending money, etc.

6. Have a discussion and set goals for what they want to earn, I’m sure they’ll think of more things than I can. Make sure most of what they work for doesn’t cost anything and work to have some things that involve the whole family. You can split things into daily rewards and rewards they can earn over time. Put all the ideas in a bag or box and when they reach their goal for points earned, they can pull one out and that’s the reward.

7. The key to making any of this work is self-discipline, for you. You have to resist the urge to nag, follow through with consequences and rewards, and recognize their efforts every step of the way.  You also have to work on not getting angry if they don’t meet their goal or finish their tasks.

Be gentle with yourself and your kids, you’ll all make mistakes, as you work together to build trust and create a more harmonious home life.

-Lisa Vratny-Smith 

How do I handle the bad behavior of my kids’ friends?

Dear Mama Drama:

Hope it’s okay I’m a dad.

My wife and I have a 4 year old in preschool and have recently been struggling with whom our little guy is friends. There is one particular boy at school that we feel is a bad influence from whom our son seems to be picking up bad habits. Should we let his teacher know and perhaps ask them to not allow them to spend so much time together throughout the day?

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We even have the kid’s mother now asking for play dates and we’re not sure if we should encourage our son to hang out with this other little boy. Are we being too protective and controlling?  What would your advice be for encouraging our son to hang out with nicer, more well-behaved kids?

Thanks ~ Flustered Father

Parenting question: You Want to Read What?!

Dear Mama Drama:

I have three daughters ages 13, 11, and 8. They are all avid readers and generally read well above their age level. My eight-year-old wants to read whatever her sisters are reading, but as they get into their teens I am not always comfortable with the content.

When there is sexual content or violence, my eight-year-old is often confused, scared, and has had nightmares, especially after reading some of the vampire books.

The girls think it isn’t a big deal, but I do.  I am not sure how to handle this with them.

~ Raising Readers

Dear Raising:

Your concerns about your youngest daughter’s reading material are valid. The themes in books for teens and tweens focus on different experiences and thinking processes than books for younger children.

It can be difficult to find engaging books for advanced readers. I suggest working with your daughter’s teachers, the school or local librarian, or a clerk in the children’s section of a bookstore to find challenging yet age-appropriate books. Searching the internet for age-focused book lists can also be helpful, just be sure to read through the books first before you give them to your daughter.

You need to enlist your older daughters in supporting the limits you are setting on the books your youngest reads. Talk with them about your reasons and the impact you have observed reading these books has had on their sister. They don’t have to agree with you, but they do need to understand the influence they have on their sister. She looks up to them and wants to be as grown up as they are.

Find ways for the older girls to mentor and guide their sister. Have them make a list of the books they enjoyed when they were her age and share that with her. Encourage them to go to the library or bookstore to choose books together. With your girls being older you may not still read aloud at night. Consider reinstituting reading together as a family to bring these books to life.

With her sisters encouraging her to read age-appropriate books, your eight-year-old will be less resistant to waiting for the right time to read their books.

-Lisa Vratny-Smith

How can I help my kids become more independent?

Dear Mama Drama:

I am trying to get my five-year-old son to be more independent in bathing and dressing himself. I have been working with him for the past two weeks on this and he still cannot do anything on his own. I am frustrated and he starts crying every time I tell him to do it on his own. I don’t understand why this is so hard or how to help him.

~Confused Mama

Dear Confused:

Building independent self-care skills for bathing, dressing, etc., is very important for five-year-olds. While as adults we view these skills as fairly basic, we have also been doing them for many, many years. Tasks that seem like one step for us, i.e. washing our hair, are really multiple steps. For your son to try to master all of these things in a short amount of time is probably quite overwhelming.

Rather than working on all independent self-help skills at once, I suggested stepping back and deciding what will be the easiest skill for him to master. Start with that skill so he can experience success quickly and build from there.

Break down the skill step by step and teach him in manageable chunks. For example, if you are teaching him to wash his hair the steps are 1) wet your hair, 2) get the shampoo bottle, 3) pour shampoo on your hand, 4) put the bottle down, 5) rub your hands together, 6) rub the shampoo all over your head/hair (this in and of itself requires lots of practice), 7) rinse the shampoo out of your hair.

Talk through the steps as you do them for him for a few days. Then talk through the steps as he does them himself. Use simple, concise language to describe each step. When he gets stuck or distracted, ask him, “What’s next?”

Making up a song or rhyme to describe the routine can make things more fun and easier to remember. Be sure to give your lots of positive recognition for his efforts throughout the process of learning. Focus on what he has done well and gently re-teach when he struggles.

Once he has master washing his hair move on to the next skill while continuing to encourage and reinforce the skill he has mastered. If he uses a hair conditioner that is a perfect second skill because he already knows the steps with the shampoo!

Clear and simple directions will make a big difference for your son as he works master these self-help tasks. Using visual schedules to show the steps can be very helpful and allows you to support him without always telling him what to do. As you fade your verbal cues, you can have him use the visual schedule to see what comes next. Visual schedules can be used to describe a broad daily routine as well as to break down the steps of tasks within that routine.

-Lisa Vratny-Smith

A (Funny) Lesson on Attachment-detachment Parenting

My kids and I are having a fabulous summer. If we’re not swimming, we’re hiking, playing with friends or traveling. I fully realize these years are fleeting and I’m making the most of my time with them.

The only snafu is this thing called work I’m supposed to be doing. And by the end of the summer, you’d better believe I’ll be in dire need of some alone time to finally be productive. As much as I enjoy having my kids around 24-7, school is a much-needed respite for all of us.

I realize not everyone shares my opinion. Several years ago when my daughter was about to enter preschool, our community had a big ol’ garage sale. My husband Jamie and I stopped at a house a few blocks away and struck up a casual conversation with the home owners. It took only a few seconds for me to realize I was talking to The Urban Legend of our neighborhood. Err…or I guess that would be Suburban Legend.

Rumors have circulated for a few years that this woman sent her child off to college and decided whilst in her 40s to start from scratch and get pregnant…20 years after the first. And she was rewarded with not one but twin girls my daughter’s exact same age.

Well, I was ecstatic to meet The Legend! We immediately hit it off and talked of future playdates. My husband Jamie asked if she was sending them to our local elementary school and she responded affirmatively. I then asked if they were going to preschool.

“Yes, they’re going to ________.”

“Oh great! That is where my daughter is going in the fall!”

“Well, admittedly I am pretty reluctant to send them. I just don’t think I can bear to be without them. You know what I’m talking about?”

I thought of my “How Many Days Until Hadley is in Preschool Countdown Chart.”

Loving ways you can help kids overcome their fears

“Mommy!! Monsters are under my bed!!”  Our creative and knowledge hungry preschoolers are constantly exploring, being exposed to new things and developing new skills. All of these exciting and new things are wonderful for development and can encourage a very active imagination.

However, these new things, ideas and images, combined with an active imagination can create fear and anxiety. Fears and anxiety in preschoolers are completely normal and can take anywhere from six- twelve months for them to be overcome.

Typically, your child’s fear will fit into one of these three categories:

1)    Specific Things- spiders, the dark, monsters in the room, the neighbor’s dog etc.

2)    New Situations- new daycare, new people, new events etc..

3)    Being Hurt- covering their “boo-boos,” being embarrassed when they receive even minor scrap or cut.

 Some children will immediately vocalize to you or another adult what they are feeling fearful of, whereas other children might be less vocal. If you notice your child having difficulty sleeping, sleeping too much, backtracking on potty training or a sudden increase of aggressive behavior these can be signs that a child is experiencing a new fear or feeling of anxiety.

How can I navigate summer break boredom vs. overscheduling?

Dear Mama Drama:

My kids are getting out for the summer and I’m dreading the constant running them here and there and that I’m never able to get anything done. If I don’t schlep them to play dates or other activities they complain that they’re bored. I feel exhausted after these crazy days and then end up staying up late to get the things I need done completed.

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I’d like a different summer experience this year. Any help you can offer would be great!

~Dreading Mama

Dear Dreading:

A change of pace sounds like it is definitely in order for your family this summer. Finding a balance between activities and down time is critical to create an enjoyable experience for all – including you!

Are you doing too much? Start by looking at the activities you have the kids signed up for. Is it a reasonable amount or is there something you/they can let go of? Organize a carpool to sports practices or other daily/weekly activities so you and the other moms aren’t all driving around town to the same places.

Create Mom time. Develop play date schedules that builds in time for you. Arrange for all the kids to be with friends at the same time once a week. Even if it is just a couple of hours, you can relax or run a few of those errands that are quick on your own and take forever when you’ve got a carload of kids. Offer to provide the same opportunity for other moms, so everyone gets a little time off.

Institute F.O.B. When I went to camp as a kid F.O.B. time stood for Flat On Back. This meant we were all in our bunks reading, writing letters, or taking a snooze. We always thought the adults were treating us like babies by making us rest. We didn’t understand it was for them to have some quiet time so they could continue to be patient with us the rest of the day!

Another alternative is D.E.A.R. time. Many schools use Drop Everything And Read as a time to help kids settle down and have the opportunity to read. Your kids’ teachers will love this as it helps keep their literacy skills sharp.

You can also be creative and come up with another version of down time that fits your family. If you do, share it with us!

Let them get bored. Boredom is a great opportunity to be creative and silly.  Here are a few ideas for tackling the boredom beast that I’ve gathered over the years.  Pull out the recycling bin, tape, and glue and let them create building, boats, or anything else they can think of. They can float or race them in the kiddie pool, too, if you’d like. (A similar idea is to pull out the art supplies and see what develops). Gather all of the sports and outdoor play equipment and have them create an obstacle course. And a favorite from an OT we worked with is to have a safari. The kids pull out all of their stuffed animals and then go into one room while you hide the animals all over the house. While they hunt, you get to sit and drink a cup of tea or read the paper. It’s lovely and they’ll want to do it over an over. Last but not least, if they don’t like any of your ideas, offer the opportunity to do chores. This has an amazing effect on their creativity and they are suddenly able to think of something extremely interesting to do… and if not, your floors are swept and the dishes are washed.

Finally, if you are all going stir crazy and really do need to get out of the house, JoAnn and Amber compiled a phenomenal list of 100+ things to do around Denver. Whatever the weather and the interests of your kids, you are sure to find something here.

Remember that you don’t have to entertain your kids. Summer is an opportunity for less structure and more creativity. Let them use their imaginations and invent their own fun – within reason of course. 🙂

Please share your ideas for navigating the summer break blues.

-Lisa Vratny-Smith

5 Important Ways to Teach Your Kids Empathy

Kids say the darndest things! We have all experienced the pure innocence and honesty of a child. “ Mommy, your teeth look yellow” or  “Daddy, your nose is big.” Maybe you’ve experienced what’s even more humiliating … your child’s sharing their innocent, honest and totally inappropriate thoughts to a stranger. Or, maybe your child isn’t the “verbal” type and these examples don’t sound familiar. Lucky you!

But what about grabbing toys away from other children and not noticing the other child is now crying? How about hitting their baby brother or sister and feeling little to no remorse? You can’t help but wonder what happened to your sweet innocent baby, and why some of their behaviors resemble, well, a little monster.

No, the behaviors described above–or similar ones that might be found in your home–do not make these children monsters. In fact, children ages three to five years old simply are not developmentally capable of understanding empathy.  However, with the help and leadership from parents and teachers, children can  develop a sense of empathy, caring, altruism and appreciation for other people and different situations.

 Empathy might seem quite simple and straightforward to adults. However, empathy is quite complex which makes it difficult for preschoolers to understand. Empathy consists of three skills:

 1. Self- awareness and the ability to distinguish one’s feelings

2. Being able to take another person’s perspective as to “putting yourself in others’ shoes”

3. The ability to regulate one’s emotions