Q. My daughter, 8, is convinced that her brother is the root of all her problems.
This has gone on since he was born, five years ago. She resents him terribly and the equality thing has gotten out of hand. "I want one, too" is making me nuts!
She is a high achiever, excellent in school and in sports too. We give her lots of reinforcement but it's never enough. She is often sulking about something -- usually some unfairness she perceives.
We give her guidelines and limits and small responsibilities: dishes on Thursdays, an hour of play after school, and homework before dinner. She also earns a weekly allowance, but still she constantly feels deprived.
It's hard to be with her, one-on-one, because her dad is often working, but it happens now and then. We just wallpapered together and she enjoyed that.
What can I do for this demanding child? How do I boost her self-esteem? We're expecting our third child and I fear the worst is yet to come.
A. An only child always feels a little shortchanged when she turns into a firstborn. It's a lot easier to share toys than parents.
While it may make you feel better to give your daughter extra privileges and presents, this practice puts a price tag on love and encourages her resentment. She's bound to think it's justified if you keep paying her off. An earned allowance has much the same effect.
Sometimes parents do pay their child for doing a big, special job -- if they know she is trying to pay for a big, special purchase -- but a small, regular, weekly allowance should be regarded for what it is: the child's fair share of the family income. You and your husband aren't paid to market or cook, and your child shouldn't be paid to do her chores either. Moreover, a raise should be given at a birthday or a new school year, to signify new rights and responsibilities, and not when a child feels fretful.
All of this will call for a major turn-around in your thinking, so your household will operate more like a 1990s business than an out-of-date family. The permissive style of the 1950s is as bad for children as the autocratic style of the 1890s.
Children, like workers, want to be part of the team. If you ask your daughter how to clean the kitchen quicker, she'll not only be flattered, but her ideas may save you enough time to play checkers with her afterward.
You don't want to do the kitchen work alone, however, any more than you'd play checkers by yourself. Camaraderie is built on equality, and nothing will strengthen it more than asking her to work with you -- a subtle way to tell her that she's on a par with grown-ups, even if she can't do the work quite as well.
You saw it when your daughter wallpapered with you. She enjoyed it because she was needed, not because she was earning her keep. Everyone should go to bed at night knowing that she made a difference that day -- especially a child. This is the bedrock of self-esteem -- a bedrock that must be reinforced with competence, expanded with generosity and mellowed with humor.
Children have a special need to learn competence between 6 and 12. Achievements in school and sports make your daughter proud, but she really needs to know how to survive when you're around. This gives her the stuffing to depend on herself, so she will demand less of you and her dad.
Your daughter needs to know how to fix her supper if you're not home; to find her way around the neighborhood if she must; and wash her school clothes in an emergency, which isn't as impossible as it sounds. If a child can run the VCR, she can run the washing machine.
Just grab a minute here or there to show her one small skill each week -- like square-cornering the sheets -- and one bigger skill each month, like holding a nail with one hand and hammering it with the other, and then give her enough practice and encouragement to learn these jobs well. Minor accomplishments to an adult are major ones to a child, particularly if she gets as many compliments for these achievements as she gets for her A's and her home runs.
The pleasure of giving -- of time and energy and homemade gifts -- will also bolster your daughter's self-esteem. When a child pleases others with her thoughtfulness, she begins to please herself.
Some laughs will help too, particularly when you laugh together. "Tales for the Perfect Child," by Florence Parry Heide (Lothrop, $13), makes gentle fun of perfection, so you won't have take her gripes so seriously -- and she won't gripe so much.
Questions may be sent to P.O. Box 15310, Washington, D.C. 20003.