Q. A neighbor told me she saw my 16-year-old daughter smoking. My daughter denies it. Now I'm not sure who to believe.
A. Who has more incentive to lie in this situation? Your neighbor, who has overcome a major (though unspoken) rule that you don't interfere with other people's children, or your daughter, who has every reason to deny doing anything she knows you won't like? After your daughter has looked you in the eye and denied it, tell her, "Well either way I'm going to take this opportunity to be clear about my rules regarding smoking." Wait until she finishes rolling her eyes and sighing, and begin.
Q. I've been divorced for five years. My ex always gets the kids for Thanksgiving; I have them for Christmas. My 15-year-old son just told me that this year he wants to spend both holidays with his dad. I really want him with me at Christmas, but I don't want him to be resentful. Is there a way for everyone to have a happy holiday?
A. While hearing that from your son must have felt awful, you need to quiet your mind and ask yourself about his possible motivations. His reason may be as superficial as wanting to go to the house where he gets the most freedom or as simple as needing more time with his dad. Tell your son that while you're hurt, you want to discuss it. Agree on a time, and ask him to prepare his reasons — "I don't know, I just want to" isn't good enough. If he isn't comfortable talking face-to-face, then he can write you a letter first. The most important thing is to overcome your feelings of rejection so you and your son can have a thoughtful and productive discussion.
Q. Two years ago we moved to a new neighborhood, and I still feel like an outsider. The moms here are very cliquish. How can I break in?
A. Parent cliques can be as bad, if not worse, than 7th-grade-girl cliques. Stop regarding them as a group and see if there's one member who seems genuine. Approach her by asking for advice, perhaps about a volunteer activity or an event at school, and go from there. Keep in mind that you don't have to break into any cliques — that's why you graduated from high school — and neither do your kids. This is the lesson you want your kids to learn.
Q. My mother-in-law sends out an annual holiday letter that mentions all of her grandchildren — except my adopted son, who is developmentally delayed. He hasn't noticed yet but eventually he will. Is it okay to say something to her?
A. Of course someone should say something. What about your husband stepping up to the plate? Regardless of who does it, prepare before you speak to her so your resentment and desire to defend your son don't sabotage your ability to communicate effectively. Even though it's hard not to assume the worst, she could be excluding him because she's so uncomfortable about his disability she doesn't know what to write. Or she could be embarrassed to admit he's part of your family.
Either way, when you talk to her, be kind but direct. Tell her what you've noticed, that it's hurtful to you and harmful to her grandson, and could create problems between him and his cousins. Offer to help her write something about your son in her letter. If she says no, at least you've respectfully communicated your position.
Q. My son, a senior, nearly makes himself sick doing the weekly five-page paper required in his AP history class, on top of pages and pages of reading every night. Should I speak with his teacher?
A. Your son (not you) needs to decide whether this class is a good fit. I know — he's smart and you want him to have the best classes, not to mention early college credits — but this attitude can contribute to his being hyperanxious. Your role is to help your son reevaluate his priorities. If he wants to stay in the class, he should talk to his teacher about how to manage the coursework. He should also decide whether he has too many outside responsibilities. Remember, choosing to take a less demanding history course or cut out an after-school activity doesn't make your son a failure! On the contrary, it will allow him to focus more energy on the commitments that mean the most to him.
Q. I got my 17-year-old daughter a job at my friend's store. She often goes in late, fakes sick days, and has a bad attitude. How do I get her to shape up?
A. Sit down with your daughter, tell her you love her, then explain precisely what she did that was irresponsible. Let her know that in addition to returning to work with a better attitude, she has to apologize to your friend, being very specific about what she did that was unacceptable. She can't just mumble "I'm sorry" and run out the door. Phone your friend, tell her your daughter is coming by to apologize and ask her to call you after your daughter leaves so you know she went through with it. When your daughter gets home, spend a moment alone with her and tell her how proud you are.
Q. My daughter says she has a boyfriend. How should I respond? She's only 12!
A. Without freaking out, ask your daughter what having a boyfriend means to her, keeping your questions positive so she'll feel more comfortable sharing with you. Did they meet at school? How did she know she liked him? When did she find out he liked her? While you have the right to tell her she can't have a boyfriend at 12, remember that "couples" this age are mostly too scared to talk to each other without their friends around. Regardless, tell her your expectations for how a boy should treat her, and that you are always there to talk. Also, encourage her to confide in her dad or another trusted male. Start teaching her that she deserves to be treated with respect, always.
Q. My daughter is 11, my son is almost 8. At what age can I leave her in charge for a few hours in the evening?
A. It depends on the child, of course, but 11 or 12 seems to me to be a good age to start babysitting a sibling. Assess your daughter's readiness: Do you trust her common sense? Can she think clearly (enough) under pressure? Can she remember important information (like the name of at least one neighborhood adult)? Can she handle simple first aid and figure out when to dial 911? Is your son likely to be cooperative? If you decide she can handle it — as you would do for any babysitter — leave clearly posted contact info for you and several other adults nearby, as well as for poison control. Some states have adopted "Home Alone" laws, which set standards for when kids can be left alone and for how long. To learn more, visit http://nccic.org/poptopics/homealone.html.
Q. My 15-year-old son's friends are all allowed to go to concerts by themselves, which I'm not comfortable with. What should I do?
A. Since someone has to provide the transportation, you (or another responsible adult) should go with them — and stay. Either read a book in the parking lot or sit in the audience two rows up and a little over. You'll be close enough to keep an eye on them but far enough away so you aren't completely embarrassing. Well before the event make a plan with every parent and child about when and where you'll meet the kids after the concert and the protocol if someone doesn't show up. Although I'm not a huge fan of kids having their own cell phones, in this situation they should have one, and you should have their numbers. If someone doesn't appear within 10 minutes of the agreed-upon time, call him. If he hasn't shown up within 20 minutes, contact his parents.
Q. My daughter has always been a good student. But it's several weeks into her first year of high school, and she doesn't seem to be making a smooth transition. She says none of her close friends go to her school, she hates the teachers, and she's drowning in work. How can I help?
A. Next time she brings up problems, stop what you're doing (no multitasking in this situation) and say, "I'm so sorry. Let's come up with some ideas to help you feel better." Then look for simple, manageable ways she can make some changes. Have her identify one adult at school she can build a relationship with and also a peer in one of her classes. Or is there a club she's interested in? If things don't improve in another month and she continues to dread school, uses being sick as a way to avoid it, or can't concentrate, ask her guidance counselor for help. You may also want to ask for the name of a therapist.
Q. The list of activities the PTA needs volunteers for is overwhelming. I want to be involved, but I have so little time. What do you advise?
A. I know exactly how you feel. Remind yourself that children want mothers who are strong, calm, and comforting, not someone who's running around hyper and anxious because she can't say no to the PTA. If you still want to volunteer, each semester ask your child's teacher, counselor, coach, or administrator if there is something you can help with in the school for one morning or afternoon.
Q. My 16-year-old son has found his first love. He spends all his free time with her, then is on the phone at least a couple hours at night, and that's not counting the IMing and text messaging. Is this relationship too intense?
A. A teenager's first love is a powerful experience, but it's not an excuse to abandon his responsibilities. Set rules about phone and computer use and enforce them. Hover until he hangs up or signs off and review his cell account online to confirm when and for how long he's communicating.
But it's not all about rules. Ask him why he likes her (watch your tone so you don't sound like an interrogator). Then tell him your non-negotiables, including respect (no name calling when they argue) and maintaining relationships with his other friends and his family. Lastly, go over your expectations and values about sex. If he doesn't feel comfortable talking to you, find another adult to speak with him — someone he thinks is cool and who shares your values.
Q. My 14-year-old daughter calls me her best friend. While I like it, I'm concerned she's depending on me too much. How do I encourage her to have her own pals?
A. First off, could you be jumping to conclusions? Parents often worry that their children are having problems when they don't have a large group of friends. Some kids are social butterflies, but others are more comfortable being close to just a few people — and those friendships are usually really strong. If your daughter has only a few friends and she feels good around those people, don't worry about it. If she has no friends, involve her in activities outside of school — art lessons, for example — so she can have relationships with other people and isn't totally dependent on you.
Q. I feel like I live in the local teen center — my 16-year-old son and his friends hang out in my house day and night. I'm glad they're comfortable with us — and I like knowing where my son is. But sometimes it's too much. What should I do?
A. This is one of those "be careful what you wish for" situations. You need to analyze why the kids are drawn to your house. Is it that your home is warm and welcoming — or because you're too preoccupied doing other things to supervise? Or is your family room isolated from the rest of the house? Kids can have some privacy, but you need to drop by every hour or so, as in, "I'm making popcorn. Anybody want some?" Scan the room, look directly in their eyes, take in the vibe, smell the air.
Since you're the adult, you get the final say on how long they stick around. When you're ready to go to bed, everybody goes home — you should have curfews for your kids and your house. The only time to break that rule is if one of your son's friends needs a safe haven.
Q. My 12-year-old son is really shy and just started a new school. A coworker's son goes there. Would it be okay if I invited him over?
A. Go ahead, but be careful not to go overboard trying to be the perfect parent or forcing your son to adopt a fake persona. And don't kiss up to the other kid by taking them to an arcade an hour away from home, either. Tell your child that you don't expect them to be best friends after this one visit, and that if it doesn't go well, he doesn't have to do it again. You don't want to put too much pressure on him. Instead, give him the opportunity and freedom to make friends on his terms.
Q. My daughter didn't get a part in the class play, even though she's very talented. I think the adviser has something against her. Should I talk to him?
A. You shouldn't approach this guy — unless you want to come across as a crazy parent and deprive your daughter of the opportunity to advocate for herself. Instead, sit down with her and help her clarify why she's disappointed, decide what she wants, and figure out when and where to approach the adviser. She should then call or e-mail him to arrange a meeting. There, she can express her disappointment and ask what she can do to have a better chance in the future. Whatever he says, you both have to live with the answer.
Your child has to experience frustration and deal with difficult people. And she must learn that you handle people and problems the same way regardless of the circumstances.
Q. My 13-year-old daughter has started demanding clothes I can't afford — and I'm not wild about her choices, either. I'm tired of arguing with her. Is there a way to work out a compromise?
A. You're absolutely right not to sacrifice common sense by giving in to, "Mom, you don't understand, all my friends have it." First, decide on a clothing budget. Then ask your daughter to write down a list of moderately priced stores she's willing to shop at — with your approval — along with a plan for her to earn the extra money for anything that goes over your budget. But make it clear that earning the money doesn't mean she gets to buy whatever she wants. Set up parameters — how high heels can be, how much belly can be bared (if any) and so on. And if shopping together is torture, send her with someone you trust who she thinks is cool, like an older sister, aunt, or friend's mother.
Q. I'm worried that my son is closer to me than he is to my husband. How can I get them to have a better relationship?
A. Ask yourself why you think this — is it based on what you see, or what your child has told you? You might define being close as telling each other everything. But your husband and son might define closeness differently (hanging out in the garage, for example). Talk to your husband, focusing on how important he is to your son and how much your son wants a strong relationship with him. Encourage (don't nag!) your husband to set up a standing date with his son every other week. They should do something your son cares about — if he hates football but loves comics, it's off to the comic-book store they go. Then they can get a soda and just hang out, and your son can talk about his favorite characters. In the end, though, remember that you're not responsible for how close they are.
Q. Should I encourage my daughter to find more socially savvy peers? Her current friends are sweet, but not the real movers and shakers in their school.
A. If your daughter is with kids who accept her and like her for who she is, why would you want her to be with anyone else? If it's not bothering her, ask yourself, is it social status you're after? Be warned: The higher up a girl goes on the girl social ladder, the more she has to conform rather than be herself. This is a risky behavior to encourage because it teaches your daughter to capitulate to girls with more power. You don't want your daughter to submit to others like this, especially because it could be her model for romantic relationships later on.
Q. I signed up to chaperone the sophomore camping trip this fall, thinking it would be a good way to see my son and his friends in action. Now my son is threatening not to go unless I cancel. Should I cancel?
A. It depends. Is your son shy and worried that you'll hover over him to make sure he's social? Does he have good reason to fear you'll spy on him? If so, then you need to give your son some space, including not going on this trip. However, if your goal is to help the school or to develop relationships with other parents, teachers, and kids, go ahead. In response to your son's threats, tell him you'll supervise a different group of kids from the one he's in. And listen to what he's telling you. While parents should never yield to ultimatums, they do need to understand why kids feel so strongly about something in the first place.
Q. My 9-year-old has been invited for a week at the beach with a family we don't know very well. He wants to go, but I don't know how much supervision the kids will get and whether my son's ready to be away from home. How do I decide?
A. Has your son had successful sleepovers with friends and relatives? If not, don't start with this vacation. But if he has, your next step is to meet with the other parents. Open the conversation by asking about their general plans, at which point you can ease into a discussion about safety rules. How will the kids be supervised at the beach and elsewhere? Will they be expected to adhere to a buddy system? Also, ask about family guidelines regarding chores, bedtimes, and TV. Your goal is to learn about their rules, without making them feel defensive, while you let them know what your standards are.
Q. My 11-year-old daughter desperately wants a cell phone. What do you think?
A. Many parents are convinced that cell phones are a safety tool that allow them to keep tabs on their kids and children to reach Mom and Dad in an emergency. But a cell phone can actually cause big problems. For starters, your child may be tempted to lie about where she is, so you won't really know. Also, the cell connection makes it too easy for parents to bail kids out of problems that are not life-threatening, as in, "I forgot my sneakers." Worst of all, kids can snap peers' pictures, download them to their computer, paste them into humiliating Internet photos — and forward them to everybody. Then there's the rampant bullying that's now common with text messaging. So as a general rule, I don't think kids under 14 should have a cell phone. But if you want your child to have one, get one like the Firefly (intended for kids 6 to 12), that doesn't have a camera or text messaging.
Q. My husband is pushing my daughter to try to make the "A" team in travel soccer. I think she'd be happier on the "B" team. Who's right?
A. Your daughter gets to make this decision. Have her write a list (without you around) of the pros and cons of being on the "A" team. Meanwhile, you and your husband should individually come up with what you want your daughter to get out of the experience, and what worries you. Then call a family meeting. First, your daughter shares her list without interruptions. Then you and your husband say what you think, making sure to be respectful of each other's opinions so your daughter won't feel she has to choose between you. Finally, tell your daughter you'll abide by her choice.
Q. My 12-year-old's friend is always bragging at my son's expense. Should I talk with the boy's mom?
A. If your son says it doesn't bother him, stay out of it. If he's annoyed, he can talk to the kid one-on-one, saying, "Hey, Brian, we're good friends, but I'm asking you to stop trying to outdo me." If your son decides to pull away from his buddy and the families are friends, then tell the other parents what the problem is, how your son tried to resolve it, and that you're available to talk. Resist the urge to one-up the bragger yourself or talk about him with others under the guise of information-sharing. It's vital to model for your child that problems should be dealt with directly, not by talking behind someone's back or playing the bragging game.