My son needs lots of attention. Where did we go wrong?


hadley hooper for the washington post
April 23

Q We adopted our 10-year-old twins — a girl and a boy — from China when they were 13 months old. They are terrific kids who spend ample time with us, read and play outdoors. We are careful to balance our attention between the two of them. ¶ There have been some challenges, however, which may have occurred because we were in our 40s when we adopted our children. ¶We don’t quite know how to handle our son, who needs something on his plate every minute of the day. While he makes many of his own plans, I think he needs a cruise director because he always wants to do more, whether it’s going to the basketball court with his dad when it’s almost time for dinner or playing another round of gin rummy when it’s already past his bedtime. When we have to say no, he melts down. He can’t believe that there are only 24 hours in the day or that we might have plans or interests that are different from his own. He just wants us to meet his desires and his needs, which is not the way we want to rear our children. ¶ Therefore, we’ve adopted a new strategy. Now we say, “I’m sorry we can’t do that today, but maybe tomorrow.” These responses never satisfy him, so we let him spend some time alone to work through his frustration. But, goodness, he sure can suck the life out of a room! ¶ At what point will this selfishness — this neediness — wane? And what can we do to help him develop better social skills so won’t be so devastated by these small disappointments?

ADon’t blame your son’s problems on your age, but on his age. You would have had some kind of trouble with your children whether you became parents in your teens, your 20s or your 30s, because parents always do. Somehow, our children are more complicated than we expect them to be, and every time we think we know what we’re doing, they get a little bigger — mentally, physically or emotionally — and then we’re back to square one. You run the show, but it’s the children who set the course.

A child who wants someone to program every minute of his day is either hyperactive or acting like the toddler who asks “Why?” “Why?” “Why?” all day long. The more responses he gets, the more “Why’s” he asks because he’s really looking for attention, not information. You shouldn’t give your son so much attention or make too many plans for him, either. You’re his parent, not his concierge, and his neediness won’t go away until you quit feeding it.

This may sound harsh, but if you want your son to be self-sufficient, you and your husband need to back off. Otherwise, he will become more and more dependent on you.

Your son will change his ways when you start rejecting at least one of his requests every day and without promising to let him do it later. Instead, say, “I’d really like to do that with you, honey, but I need to take a nap.” He’ll wail, but in time he’ll make more and more plans for himself, which is just what you want him to do, as long as he tells you about those plans before he acts on them.

You also need to encourage the giving side of his nature by expecting him (and his sister) to do two or three things for other people every week and without any prodding from you. Whether he spends a half-hour watering the lawn, reading a story to the child next door or visiting a retirement home, these kinds of efforts will teach your son to think of the needs of others as well as himself. Young children are momentarily concerned if a buddy is unhappy, but they don’t become truly empathetic until they’re 9 or 10 and only when their parents encourage that trait.

To learn more about good parenting, read two great new books, “Family Whispering” by Melinda Blau and Tracy Hogg (Atria; $25) and “Parenting With Courage and Uncommon Sense” by Linda E. Jessup and Emory Luce Baldwin (Parent Encouragement Program; $25). Hogg’s work has been seminal, and Jessup’s practical, time-tested philosophy has set the right course for many, many parents.

8 Send questions about parenting
to advice@margueritekelly.com.

Chat Thursday at noon Join Kelly for a live Q&A about parenting and other family relationships at washingtonpost.com/advice , where you can also read past columns.

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