Note to readers: Marguerite Kelly has decided it’s time to step away after 35 years as a parenting advice columnist. We will miss her, and we know many of you will as well. Here’s to Marguerite, The Family Almanac and the endless good advice she gave us.
After writing the Family Almanac for 35 years, I’m finding it surprisingly hard to say goodbye.
For one thing, my guilt runneth over. No matter how hard I tried, I never answered enough letters, recommended enough books, cited enough research or wrote enough thank-you notes, which may have been the biggest sin of all. I’m from New Orleans, you see, where thank-you notes matter almost as much as Mardi Gras. Although I can only thank you this way, I really have appreciated your comments. You have taught me so much, even when you were telling me how little I knew.
Let me also answer some questions that I’ve received lately. I want to tell the father of a math-minded child, who is concerned that his girl likes “boy toys,” to give his daughter a pre-wired dollhouse called Roominate (Maykah; $30-$50), so she can design her own furniture, her own rooms and her own house (and then do it again and again). This toy, which is perfect for children who love science, technology, engineering and math, was invented by three women engineers-to-be at Stanford and is wildly popular. But don’t call it a “boy toy” or a “girl toy,” please. If you want your child to be happy, give her toys that suit her interests, rather than expect her to suit the toys.
And let me say to the parent of a slow-reading 9-year-old: Be patient. She will probably learn to read faster (or become an artist) if you give her a copy of “A World of Your Own” by Laura Carlin (Phaidon; $20) or “Frank Lloyd Wright for Kids” by Kathleen Thorne-Thomsen (Chicago Review; $14.95), which is a gem. Or let her wait until her brain has taken its big leap around 14 and then give her “The Edge of the Water” by Elizabeth George (Speak; $10). Mysteries help everyone read faster.
If these books don’t enchant your child, give her audiobooks instead of paperbacks and stop worrying about it. There are at least eight discrete intelligences, and no one is equally good in all of them.
I also want to answer a letter that haunts me, from a mother who grew up with an autistic brother and who has just found out that her boy has autism, too. She needs to know that Patricia S. Lemer, the director of Developmental Delay Resources, has recently published a fine book, “Outsmarting Autism” (Word Assn.; $35). It will teach her the latest ways to handle autism and its sensory issues.
Finally, I hope at least some of you will read “Anatomy of an Epidemic” by science writer Robert Whitaker (Broadway; $16). The author of this prizewinning book says that mental illnesses have tripled since new medicines hit the market 50 years ago. Drugs can be essential, but they should be a pediatrician’s last recommendation, not first.
A few final thoughts in my final column: Although drugs, alcohol and our own blood chemistry have caused many problems in many families, others are of our own making. We work too much or not enough. We marry before we should or divorce when we shouldn’t. We have our babies too early or let our eggs get too old. We watch a loved one die too soon and another live too long. And then there are the parents who abuse their partners or their children while others watch this abuse and say nothing at all. Life isn’t perfect because we’re not perfect, either. But what we do and say to our children — and what we don’t do and don’t say — can decide how well they will live out their lives.
We can’t expect children to do for others if we do too much for them. We can’t expect them to be brave when they must if we try too hard to keep them safe. And we can’t expect them to have confidence in themselves if they don’t learn how to cook and clean and take care of everything they own. It is their competence, not their good grades or their compliments, that gives children the stuffing they need.
As parents, we must give our children the freedom to test themselves, the faith to chase their dreams and enough trust to let them go. These are the greatest gifts that we can ever give our children.
And if these children need a little more help sometimes? Tell them to open the paper, have a cup of tea and do whatever their advice columnist tells them to do.
Help me give my children the best — not of trappings or toys, but of myself, cherishing them on good days and bad, theirs and mine.
Teach me to accept them for who they are, not for what they do; to listen to what they say, if only so they will listen to me; to encourage their goals, not mine; and please, let me laugh with them and be silly.
Let me give them a home where respect is the cornerstone, integrity the foundation, and there is enough happiness to raise the roof.
May I give them the courage to be true to themselves, the independence to take care of themselves and the faith to believe in a power much greater than their own.
See that I discipline my children without demeaning them, demand good manners without forgetting my own and let them know they have limitless love, no matter what they do.
Let me feed them properly, clothe them adequately and have enough to give them small allowances — not for the work they do but the pleasure they bring — and let me be moderate in all these things, so the joy of getting will help them discover the joy of giving.
See that their responsibilities are real but not burdensome, that my expectations are high but not overwhelming and that my thanks and praise are thoughtful and given when they’re due.
Help me teach them that excellence is work’s real reward, and not the glory it brings. But when it comes — and it will — let me revel in each honor, however small, without once pretending that it’s mine; my children are glories enough.
Above all, let me ground these children so well that I can dare to let them go.
And may they be so blessed.
— From “The Mother’s Almanac Goes to School” by Marguerite Kelly