Rosalind Wiseman is the author of the best-selling Queen Bee Moms & Kingpin Dads. For more info, go to www.rosalindwiseman.com. Do you have a parenting question? E-mail email@example.com.
Q. My daughter said her volleyball coach suggested she lose some weight. Her doctor and I think she's fine. Should I speak to the coach?
A. It's hard not to want to scream at the coach about contributing to society's toxic messages to girls about being thin. But that's not good parenting. Speak with the coach in person (not by phone or e-mail) and ask him if he told your daughter to lose weight. If he did, request that he focus his comments solely on concrete ways to improve her game. If he didn't, discuss why your daughter has this impression and what he can do to address it. Usually I prefer for kids to advocate for themselves, but weight is such a sensitive and potentially humiliating issue that this is one of those times when you have to directly intervene.
Q. My 17-year-old son doesn't shower enough. Should I say something to him?
A. Here's a rule to follow when you want to talk to your son about something that makes you and/or him uncomfortable: Have the conversation side by side instead of face to face, maybe while driving in the car or watching TV. Then be direct: "Sam, I love you dearly, but you smell. You need to take showers more often. Every day before school would be ideal, but I'll be satisfied with once every other day." If he blows you off or seems to forget, I'd ask him straight up what's going on because his behavior may mean he's resigned to being rejected by his peers or he doesn't notice other people's reaction to him (i.e., he's depressed or he has social skills deficits). Either way, if the problem continues, I'd get him the appropriate psychological help.
Q. My 16-year-old daughter wants to spend Christmas at her boyfriend's house. We'd like her at home but not if she's going to be a grumpy teenager.
A. She should be home with you — moody or not. That's what the holidays are for, right? Ungrateful, sullen teens moping about wishing they were somewhere else. Just keep her busy with a holiday project she's in charge of, like baking a pie or hanging out with an elderly or younger relative.
Q. After my son struggled through the first quarter of fifth grade, his teacher asked us to review his homework before he hands it in. But now our son says we're treating him like a first grader. Is there a better way we can handle this situation?
A. I'd back up a bit. This is an excellent opportunity for your son to develop some measure of control by learning to articulate the problem and find a solution. Have him meet with his teacher, with you sitting beside him as backup. He should ask her why she's unhappy with his work. If she says it's rushed or incomplete, why does your son think this is the case? He should also tell her what makes it hard for him to do his best and what helps him to do well. Then the two of them should create a plan. When you get home, allow your son to pick a designated homework time and help him organize his workspace.
Copyright © 2007. Used with permission from the December 2007 issue of Family Circle magazine.
Q. My 10-year-old daughter adores our 18-year-old neighbor, who babysits for us. She phones her and even goes over unannounced. I'm worried that my daughter is being too pushy. Should I leave it between them, or get involved?
A. It's great that your daughter is close to her babysitter, but if you don't set down guidelines, she (and you as the parent) may be putting the babysitter in the awkward position of either tolerating your daughter's behavior or telling her to get lost. Take this opportunity to teach your daughter that good manners mean drop-ins and calls should be extremely limited. And tell the babysitter that while you appreciate her kindness, she should feel free to tell your daughter when she's overstaying her welcome.
Q. I told our 17-year-old daughter she could meet us at our last family get-together. She was two hours late, didn't have a good excuse, and hardly talked to anyone. What can I do to make her shape up?
A. When one of my kids behaves badly at home it's annoying, but I deal with it and it's done. But if they're bratty around other people, their behavior is not only irritating — it's now also embarrassing. In your case it's happening in front of your family, where maybe you have an aunt or a sister-in-law who loves to criticize everybody's parenting. To solve this problem, first recognize that your embarrassment makes the situation feel worse than it really is. Then talk to your daughter and tell her exactly how her actions made you feel. Basically, you were worried because she was late, then upset because she was being rude.
Ask for her side of the story. Do the family get-togethers happen too often — or are they taking up an entire day? Is the only person her age a cousin she hates? Listen to her answers, clearly state your expectations for her behavior at future events, take away a meaningful privilege for a week, and then compromise for the future. Maybe she goes every other time or you agree before the event that she can come late or leave early. No matter what you come up with, she, at 17, owes it to you and to herself to articulate her needs without behaving like she's 5 years old.
Q. How can I get to know my teenage son's new group of friends without being a hovering parent?
A. Stock the fridge and pantry, and let them hang out at your house. Once they're watching a movie or doing anything else reasonably safe, you can get all the information you need without being annoying. Pop your head in occasionally and say, "Hey guys, anybody need anything else to drink?" Then come back 20 minutes later, "Who wants a hamburger?" (Don't overdo this, though, because you'll come across as their servant.) Observe how your son interacts with his new friends. Is he comfortable being himself around them? At the same time, you'll be building relationships with these kids so you have a good sense of who they are and so they develop a healthy respect for you and your home.
Copyright © 2007. Used with permission from the November 2007 issue of Family Circle magazine.
Q. My 13-year-old has made it her mission to find a boyfriend and is acting so clingy that she has driven away all the boys she used to be friends with. How can I get her to slow down?
A. My worry isn't about her boyfriend search; my concern is her inability to see how her behavior is pushing people away. You didn't mention if she has a similar history with girlfriends, but this is often the case — and it usually backfires in the same way. In other words, kids feel forced to be mean to her because she's not recognizing their personal boundaries. So you should focus on increasing her social intelligence. I would have her work with a counselor who specializes in adolescent social and emotional skill-building to help her learn to read herself and others more effectively.
Q. Our family has always designated Saturday as family day, but since my son entered middle school, he has begged to be allowed to hang out with his friends instead. Should I let him?
A. While it's completely understandable that a middle-schooler would rather be with friends than family, that doesn't mean he gets to. So hold your ground but make one compromise. Encourage your son to occasionally invite someone along on family activities so you can 1) model how to combine friends with family and 2) develop relationships with the kids your son is close to. Remember, the more you're around your son's friends, the more you'll know about him and his life outside your home.
Q. My 14-year-old daughter always takes her 16-year-old sister's clothes without asking, which invariably causes major drama. Should I set a punishment or just stay out of it?
A. Sisters should be able to borrow each other's clothes. That said, there have to be ironclad rules. They have to ask permission and respect the answer if it's "No." If the reply is "Yes," then the borrower has to return the clothing in the same condition as it was received, within an agreed-upon period of time. If it's stained, she has to do everything in her power to fix the problem, like take it to the dry cleaner and pay for cleaning. If the clothing is irreparably damaged, then it must be replaced within one week. That's the system. Your job is to remind both parties about the rules and enforce them when necessary.
Q. My 11-year-old has a friend who frequently sleeps over. We enjoy having him, but his mother always makes him bring his little brother, who's only 8. I end up entertaining him. How can I tactfully get out of this?
A. You say the younger child always tags along. Why? Did this parent ask you once and then assume it was okay for subsequent sleepovers? When she has asked, have you agreed but without really meaning it, hoping she'd read between the lines? Whatever is going on, the problem needs to be addressed directly. Tell Mom that while you adore her sons, it's too difficult to have both boys. Then, since you've said you really enjoy the older brother, end the conversation by inviting him for a future sleepover.
Copyright © 2007. Used with permission from the October 2007 issue of Family Circle magazine.
Q. I can't stand hearing my teenage son's soccer coach call the players "girls" if they make a mistake. How do I say something to him without being insulting?
A. I'm glad you want to tackle this problem! First tell your son that you disagree with how his coach motivates his players because your family believes in treating everyone with dignity. Then ask to talk with the coach and say, "Thanks for meeting with me. You're doing a great job and this is uncomfortable to say, but when you call the boys 'girls' for missing a play, you are teaching them to disrespect girls." If he responds with something like, "The boys know I don't mean anything by it and you have to admit, girls aren't as strong as boys, etc.," you answer with, "This isn't an issue of who can kick a ball farther. This is about motivating players without putting anyone down."
Q. My 14-year-old son has always picked on his 12-year-old sister, but lately any comment sends her into tears. I want him to back off and her to lighten up.
A. When this happens in my family, I fantasize about running out of my front door until the whining stops. What I do instead is sit my two boys down and talk them through what needs to happen. Here's what I suggest you say to your kids: To the teasee, "One of the unfortunate realities of having a sibling is he knows exactly how to irritate you. Yes, your brother is being totally annoying and acting like he's desperate for your attention."
Now turn to the teaser. "Sam, while I can't control what comes out of your mouth I can help you decide if it's worth it. When you [name the behavior] to your sister, you violate our family's rules — which make it less likely that you'll get what you want from me in the future, like that baseball game you want to go to." Turn back to your daughter. "Calmly and specifically tell him what he's doing that you don't like and what you want him to do instead. If Sam's behavior doesn't change, tell me." To your son say, "Sam, if you continue, you're forcing me to give you consequences until you stop." Now to the two of them: "Are you both clear about my expectations? Great! Now, let's get on with the rest of our day."
Q. My daughter is a 10-year-old in a 15-year-old's body, and people often expect her to act more grown up than she's capable of. Is there any way I can help her stay a kid?
A. It's hard to be a girl in this situation because it's so confusing. She could hate the way people treat her, love it, or a combination of both. Whatever she feels, this will be a big issue for your daughter and you until she grows up. Your priority is to make sure her socializing is age appropriate. Soon she'll start getting invited to things happening for older kids, and you should say no without exception.
Meanwhile, teach her to be proud of what her body does, not how it looks and the attention she gets for that. Get her involved in activities where she can feel strong and capable.
Copyright © 2007. Used with permission from the September 2007 issue of Family Circle magazine.
Q. Once or twice a week my 16-year-old crashes at his friend's house after their band practice. I don't want to force him to come home so I usually allow it, but I also don't want him to feel like he can just live at this kid's house. What should I do?
A. While in theory there's nothing wrong with your son wanting to stay over at his friend's house, my alarm bells are going off because he's doing it so often. No matter what, your son needs a regular curfew. And you should ask him whether he's avoiding your home, and why, and be prepared to listen to what he tells you. Also check for signs of drug or alcohol use, like small or dilated pupils or breath that is a little too minty fresh. I don't want to freak you out or make wild assumptions about your son, but I think there are two likely explanations for his behavior. Either he's escaping your home because someone is making him feel unsafe, or he wants to drink or get high without having to deal with you.
Q. In the seven years since my divorce, I've never had a man stay over in my home. Now I'm in a relationship and I'd like to have the guy spend the night sometimes. But I'm worried my 14-year-old son will be upset. How can I prepare him? I don't want to just say, "This is my house and this is what I want."
A. You're right. This isn't one of those "It's my house" moments. Unless you're in a long-term relationship, you shouldn't have a man spend the night because your primary responsibility is your son, not your sex life. Even then, before a man walks in with his toothbrush and pajamas, talk to your son about your intentions and ask him how he feels. Your goal is to communicate two things: what you want (without giving him inappropriate information about your relationship) and that you recognize how difficult this situation could be.
Then start small. Invite your date over for a family dinner. Next time, have dinner and then watch a movie. Overall, your duty to your child is to provide as home where he feels comfortable. As long as he's uneasy, you have to wait until he is more accepting, you're married, or he isn't living with you.
Q. My 12-year-old daughter and her best friends got into a fight and now they aren't speaking. Trouble is, we carpool. How do I preserve the peace in the car?
A. First, prepare your daughter to confront the other girl by helping her articulate her feelings, acknowledge anything she did that contributed to the conflict, and decide whether she wants to maintain the friendship. Then, next time you have both girls in the car, tell them, "I'm sorry you're fighting. You don't have to be friends, but you do have to treat each other civilly."
Or you could be creative and turn on the radio and sing loudly along with an uncool song (something like "The Wind Beneath My Wings"). Yes, you'll embarrass your daughter, abut you also may unite the girls as they laugh at you. Then go get gas and leave them alone in the car. While you pump they can go from talking about you to making up or coming to a truce.
Q. My two teens are always arguing over who gets to use the family car. What's the best way to handle the fights?
A. Collect all the car keys and tell them if they're going to act like they're 5, you have no choice but to treat them like they're 5. That means that until they're mature enough to stop throwing tantrums and work it out, neither one of them will drive. Because having access to a car is so important to teens, use this conflict as a way to demand they learn to negotiate civilly — an invaluable skill to have, whether in a family, the classroom, or the workplace.
Q. I found out that my son stole alcohol from our liquor cabinet and took it to a friend's party. Should I tell the friend's parents or just deal with my son privately?
A. You get to do both! First up is your son. He stole, which is obviously wrong no matter what he took. And he stole alcohol, which is illegal and dangerous. His actions also show his willingness to take big risks (like getting something important past you and the host's parents) to demonstrate his "maturity" to his peers. For all these reasons, you need to take a strong stand.
Reiterate your values about stealing and drinking, and tell him he now has to work to rebuild your faith in him, starting with calling the other parents to apologize. After this he should turn over the phone to you. While he's listening, start off the conversation by admitting how embarrassing this is for you. Then apologize on behalf of your family, ask whether there's anything else you should know about your son's behavior at the party, and explain briefly how you are holding your son accountable. When you hang up tell your son that by apologizing he's on the road to rebuilding your trust. Then put a lock on your liquor cabinet.
Q. Last year we moved to a new state. My 13-year-old daughter is still focused on the friends she left behind. She has even canceled plans with local kids to stay home and call her out-of-state friends. Should I start restricting her contact with them?
A. In general you should limit your child to 45 minutes a night of IMing and talking on the phone. That said, perhaps her timetable for adjusting to the move is different from yours — and that's fine. True friends are hard to come by, and maybe she was lucky enough to have those relationships in her old community and rightly doesn't want to give them up. You should also be careful about bringing your own baggage to this situation. Do you feel guilty that you uprooted her? Impatient that she doesn't adapt like you think she should? Ask her what she's not getting in the new community and what you can do to help her change that. The one thing you definitely should be focusing on is making sure she's not completely isolated.
Q. How can I control my 14-year-old's bad attitude? She's driving me crazy.
A. Being a teen isn't an excuse for bad manners. But don't react with typical mom comments like, "Don't use that tone with me, young lady," which will push her buttons, and she'll stop hearing you. Instead, tell her that if she's having a problem, you will listen (and she may get what she wants) if she expresses herself without the sighs, eye rolling, etc.
Q. My 18-year-old son, a high school senior, is dating a 15-year-old sophomore. This doesn't seem like a great idea to me, but I don't want to forbid it. Are there any ground rules I should set?
A. There are two reasons boys date younger girls. Some boys aren't as mature as their female peers and feel more comfortable with someone younger. Other guys want to exploit the fact that younger girls have a harder time holding their own. Your job is to make your son aware that his girlfriend may have trouble communicating her personal boundaries. Teach him to ask her questions and to listen to her responses, both verbal and nonverbal (because a girl may say something is "okay," while her tone indicates the opposite). If you're concerned that your son fits the second scenario, be very clear with him that he will have to answer to you if he takes advantage of this girl. And also remind him that in some states he could be legally prosecuted for sexual activity with her. (For specifics, go to sexlaws.org.)
Q. My daughter is 11 and is the only one of her friends who has her period. She gets teased a lot, and she's horribly embarrassed. What can I do to help?
A. You're already doing something right if she felt comfortable enough to tell you what's going on. The first girl to get her period in a clique can stir up a lot of emotions among the other girls, who may be jealous and relieved, all at the same time. Girls often process these confusing feelings by targeting the person they think is causing the problem.
But knowing why someone is acting mean doesn't justify her bad behavior. Tell your daughter you're really sorry about the situation, and coach her to respond to her friends with something like, "Look, it's weird enough to get my period without being teased about it. I can't help that I got my period, and I can't control what you say. But it would be nice to have friends who'd make my life easier instead of harder. So please stop."
You can also use this as an opportunity to share some of your own experiences at this age — just don't describe it exclusively as the most wondrous, magical time in a woman's life because she'll tune out.
Q. My 17-year-old wants to take a road trip with two of his buddies this summer. They have a reliable car and some money saved. Should I let him go?
A. No way. How's that for a short answer? Your son could be the safest driver, and the most ethical, responsible teen, but it is still pretty much guaranteed that he will endanger himself and get into serious trouble.
I know he will be angry with you, but hold your ground. He needs to wait until he has a few more years of driving experience, he and his friends are less prone to impulsive decision making, and he knows his limits better.
Q. My daughter had a huge falling-out with several
friends and now she's insisting on canceling the party
she's been planning. Do I let her?
A. More important than the party is whether your daughter wants these girls as friends (because you and I both know they could make up tomorrow). She has to start by talking with them. Why? Because they all have to learn how to get angry at one other and then discuss their feelings in healthy ways. Ask your daughter questions that help her articulate how she feels, what she wants, and how she is going to achieve her goals. I would also ask her what are the most important things she looks for in a friendship. Most girls will say, "trust," "loyalty," and "honesty." Then ask your daughter whether the girls she's fighting with treat her according to those values. Based on her responses, your daughter should be able to decide for herself whether she will cancel her party.
Q. My 16-year-old son has a girlfriend, but he has been spending a lot of time with another girl whom he calls his "best friend." Do you think I should get involved?
A. Sure. Start off with, "Maybe I'm seeing things the wrong way but I've noticed that you're hanging out with Mary. I love that you have strong friendships with girls but how does Anne feel about that?" He responds with, "Mom, it's no big deal. Don't worry about it." You say, "Well, it's normal to have strong feelings about two people at the same time, so if you want to discuss that, we can. The only thing that worries me is that you may be hurting somebody's feelings. This isn't about what I think of either of the girls. It's about how I expect you to conduct yourself in any relationship."
Emotions run high when you have to confront another adult in your child's life — but sometimes it's unavoidable. Here are some ways to navigate those difficult conversations.
- Don't interrupt. If possible, let the other person get to the end of her sentence or thought. Jumping in too soon sends the message that what she's saying doesn't merit your full attention or reflection.
- Assume the other person isn't insane, stupid, or vindictive. When it feels like someone we love is being attacked, it's easy to decide the other person has horrible motives.
- Find the other parent's emotional truth. Whether or not she can articulate it, she's almost certainly speaking from a feeling that's every bit as valid as yours.
- Insist on civility. If either of you is on the verge of losing it, call a timeout: "I really want to hear what you've got to say, but if we can't be respectful we'll have to continue another time."
- Be aware of your tone. It's very easy to come off as controlling.
- Ask, don't tell. You are the expert on your own thoughts and feelings; the other person is the expert on his. If you catch yourself saying something like "You're just upset because..." you've leaped to an assumption. Pull back and check in with the other person: "I want to make sure I've got this right. Are you saying that...?"
- Know that it matters. You may think that it's the most trivial, ridiculous discussion in the world, but if another person took the trouble to seek you out to talk about something, that's reason enough to take the issue seriously.
Q. My 15-year-old son went and got his nose pierced without my permission. What's the best way to deal with him?
A. Though it's hard not to be distracted by your hatred for the silver ring in his nose or wondering what he'll do when he has a cold, begin by calmly and clearly telling him why you don't like it, and then ask him why he did it. You haven't said if you officially outlawed the piercing beforehand or if he took advantage of the "But you never told me not to" strategy. If he knowingly disobeyed your rules, then you should punish him for that — not for the piercing. Then try to figure out his motivations. It could be that all his friends are into piercing (which is a problem because he could follow them into other, dumber, choices). Perhaps he wants to get a strong reaction from you. Or it may be that body decoration is his way of exploring his self-identity. Whatever his reasoning, use this as an opportunity to find out what's going on inside your son's head.
Q. I sometimes have to take my 7-year-old to work with me (with my boss's okay). I get the feeling some of my coworkers resent his being there. How can I smooth things over?
A. Ask them in person (not by e-mail) if they have any suggestions for how you can bring your child to work with the least distraction for others. Don't apologize but be clear that you are open to hearing from them if your child behaves in a way that makes it difficult for people to get their work done.
Q. My 16-year-old daughter is constantly confiding in her stepmother. How can I get her to come to me when she needs to talk?
A. You aren't a failure as a mother if your daughter talks to her stepmother instead of you. Sometimes daughters can't talk to their mothers because it's so easy to push each other's buttons. This is a moment for you to be really mature. Is your daughter safe? Is she learning which adults in her life can provide guidance? Under no circumstances should you make her feel she has to choose between you and her stepmother. What you can do is talk to her about your relationship in general. Tell her you love her, you're always available to talk, and that while you may have an opinion about what she's going through, you'll support her every step of the way. Just don't be resentful if this doesn't immediately result in an "I love you so much Mom, and now I'll totally open up to you" moment.
Some of you disagreed with my advice on coed sleepovers in the January issue. I agree that teens shouldn't go to them, and I should have said so explicitly. But by the time kids are 16, parties that turn into all-nighters (with or without parental permission) are common. Teens have to know what to do if dangerous situations arise (e.g., your child's friend gets into a fight with her boyfriend, and your child wants to drive her home). All parents must talk to their kids about when to leave a party or when to go to an adult for help.
Q. My 12-year-old son is 5'9" and very good looking. The problem is, girls ages 14 and 15 find him attractive and actively pursue him. How can I make him understand that they're too old and he shouldn't be encouraging them?
A. Don't assume that boys always welcome these advances. They're under tremendous pressure from our culture to look like they want attention from girls, even if they don't. Today it's not uncommon for older girls in high school to target 9th-grade boys for pursuit, just like 12th-grade boys have done for years to 9th-grade girls.
Watch your opinions of these girls. It's normal but not good parenting to judge them harshly (you know what I mean). Tell your son, "Because you're tall and good looking, older girls will pursue you. You could be happy, nervous, or not like it. You could even have all those feelings at once. What's important is that 1. Being attractive doesn't mean you're more special than anyone else. 2. Just because they like you doesn't mean you have to do anything with them that makes you uncomfortable. 3. You must always treat girls and women with respect, but you have to treat yourself with respect, too."
Q. I'm ready to ban my 11-year-old from going on sleepovers because she invariably calls us in tears and begs to come home. What should I do?
A. I'm assuming your daughter is going to sleepovers where the host has invited her and at least one other girl, because that's when one of the girls often ends up crying and wanting to leave. For that reason alone I think parents should allow only one guest. But they usually let their daughter invite three or four. The girls hang out by the computer and IM other kids or check out personal Web pages. Inevitably someone gets cyberbullied or the girls push each other to do something or see something they shouldn't.
So here are some rules. Take a sleepover break of two to four weeks. Then your daughter should go only when she is the sole guest. Role-play with her what she will say to her host if she's unhappy. Choose the next sleepover with a girl your daughter feels secure with. And then tell her she can call you only if she's bleeding, vomiting, or in physical danger. Drop her off and tell her, "See you in the morning!" And mean it.
Q. My teenage son recently decided to become an animal rights activist and a vegetarian. While I'm proud of his convictions, he makes dinner a nightmare with his comments. How do I get him to rein it in?
A. If he's really serious about educating his family, how about telling him to cut out the remarks and instead cook a meal that's in line with his activism? He can research good vegetarian recipes, go to the market with you, and help you cook. That way he backs up his activism by doing something beyond complaining. Of course this doesn't mean the family has to become vegetarian, but you should all make a good faith effort to try his food and skip the obnoxious comments and eye rolling.
Q. My bubbly 13-year-old daughter has suddenly begun wearing all black, all the time. Is this just a phase or is she trying to tell me something?
A. Don't be so quick to dismiss phases. They mean your child is wrestling with an important personal problem or developmental change. In this case she could be rebelling against what she correctly perceives as a relentless teen culture that demands her unquestioning acceptance — and that's a good thing.
On the other hand her clothes could be reflecting that she's depressed. How do you tell the difference? First, get the stereotype out of your head that all "Goth" kids are suicidal, antisocial misfits destined for failure. Second, ask her how she came to the decision to change her style, and then listen to her answer. Third, observe her relationships with you, your family, and her extended support system of peers and other adults. If she cuts off from her old network, isolates herself, or exclusively hangs out with people (either in person or online) who encourage her isolation from you and her friends from before, then you should take her to a therapist who specializes in teen depression.
Q. My 12-year-old daughter and I have the same interests and spend a lot of time on the weekends doing things that would simply bore my son, who's 10. How do I make sure he doesn't feel left out?
A. What kind of interests are we talking about here? Lots of moms tell me they like to go shopping with their daughters. I don't mean to be disrespectful, but we need another bonding activity that involves something beyond the latest trends.
That said, if you are not talking about shopping, I think all siblings need to support one another's interests and talents. Why? Because children first learn consideration for others in their families. And a great way to learn and practice is to participate in the interests of other family members. So I suggest that you schedule more activities with both kids, making sure that everyone's likes and wishes are taken into consideration.
Q. We just adopted our son, a toddler, from Ethiopia. My husband, two sons, and I are white, and people keep asking us whether he's our "real" son or brother. What's a good comeback?
A. Using comebacks is so tempting, especially with rude, horrible people. But remember, as a parent you're a role model and as such you must treat people with dignity, particularly when you really don't want to. So call them on their insensitive words: "You just asked me if this is my real son — as if the only real son I could have is my birth son. I don't know if you realize how hurtful your question is to us, but this is my real son just as I am his real mother." If they try to blow you off or tell you they didn't mean it, follow with, "Now that you do know, I hope you won't say something like that again. Thanks so much for listening to me." As for your kids, if people ask them the same question, tell them to say, "Yes. He is my real brother." And leave it at that.
Q. Whenever my 15-year-old goes to his friend's house, his friend's parents take him out for expensive dinners and day trips. We can't afford to reciprocate in the same way. I'm afraid my son's getting the idea that it's okay to take without giving.
A. Where is this feeling coming from — you or your son? It's normal to feel bad about not being able to reciprocate, but be careful that you don't slip into "keeping up with the Joneses." Likewise, it's true that some kids fall victim to this problem, too. Be clear with your son about your financial limitations, but also make sure he knows that his friends are always welcome in your home. An invitation to a family dinner is one of the most valuable gifts you can give. And forget about breaking your bank account. Your only responsibility is to provide a warm, inclusive home for your son and his friends.
Q. My 17-year-old daughter was invited to a coed sleepover for New Year's Eve. I know the host family and trust the parents will be at home, but I still think this is asking for trouble.
A. You say you trust the parents, but you don't say if you know what they'll be doing during the sleepover. Because hanging out in their bedroom while the party rages downstairs doesn't cut it. Call them to confirm that they'll be checking on the kids every 45 minutes. Then ask your daughter how she feels about the event. It's common for teens to be anxious about a party like this precisely for the same reasons you are. If she doesn't want to go but is too embarrassed to tell her friends why, suggest that she blame you.
But if she does want to go, let her — with certain conditions. Discuss the possible problems that could occur (i.e., drinking, fighting, using drugs, inappropriate sexual behavior, etc.) and how she will respond. Give ground rules and expectations for her conduct that are based on treating herself and others with dignity.
Also tell her that under no circumstances (especially if it's 3 a.m. and someone has to go home because her boyfriend has hooked up with someone else) can she get into a car as a passenger or driver. Certainly she can call you anytime to pick her up if she is uncomfortable. No questions asked — until the next morning over a nice cup of tea. Finally, before she leaves for the party, say to her, "Just to be sure we're on the same page, tell me in your own words what my rules and expectations are for you at this party and the possible consequences if these rules are broken."
Q. My daughter's friend, who is 14, has a MySpace page with some pretty personal info on it. I don't think her parents know. Should I talk to them, to the child, or mind my own business?
A. Of course you should tell! Parents have to get over their reluctance to reach out to one another in situations like this. First, ask them if they know. If they do, don't let your face scrunch up in the "you are the worst parent in the world" expression that makes other parents so defensive.
Second, the problem isn't MySpace. The problem is when a child includes personal information anywhere on the Internet. So suggest the parents check out stopcyberbullying.org or isafe.org for advice on how they can keep their daughter safe. Then remind your daughter that she is forbidden to share her own personal information on her friend's Web page.