Columns for November 2012
Q: My 8-year-old son was born prematurely and weighed only three pounds. He is still too thin in my opinion, although his doctor hasn’t been worried about it. I have been trying to get him to gain weight his whole life. In pre-school, kindergarten, and first grade I did not pack a special lunch for him (lunch was provided by the school.) It seemed to me that he rarely ate lunch for these three years. My mother convinced me to start packing his lunch this year. He seems to be eating a bit more, but is overall just as picky. What should I do?
A: Because parent concerns about children who don’t eat much and are underweight are fairly common these days, I’ve asked the expert opinions of two pediatricians. Both tell me the same thing: First, if the child in question is healthy and active, then he or she is eating enough; second, being overweight is more of a problem than being slightly underweight (the childhood obesity problem is perhaps America’s major childhood health issue); third, if the child’s physician has been consulted and is not concerned, then there is almost certainly no problem. It is the extremely rare child in America who suffers from malnutrition, the symptoms of which–lethargy, distended belly, dizziness, significant weight loss–are obvious indicators that something drastic is wrong.
In all likelihood, his prematurity sensitized you to health issues and your anxiety causes you to see mountains where there are only molehills. I can only advise you to relax and trust your son’s physician where his physical well-being is concerned.
Q: My daughter is in 8th grade and a straight A student. She turns 13 in a week and the iPhone 5 is on top of her wish list. She has told me that all of her friends have one. In truth, even some younger kids have them. My response was that I typically don’t do what other parents do, and I am not able to justify spending that amount of money on something she absolutely doesn’t need. What do you think I should do? I’m thinking of giving it as gift when she graduates from middle school. But that means depriving her for another 8 months.
A: A 13-year-old whose only material complaint is that she lacks an iPhone is not deprived. Four things I’ve said before in this column bear repeating: First, it is healthy and ultimately strengthening for children to not have everything their friends have. Children need to learn, and the earlier the better, that keeping up with the Jacks and Jills at school is not the key to happiness. Second, children do not need cell phones until they begin to drive (maybe). There is no evidence that they are life-saving and plenty of evidence that their use is life-threatening. Third, teens use cell phones primarily to text one another. They do not promote proper communication or a healthy social experience. Fourth, my recommendation is and will be that a child should get a cell phone when he or she can afford to buy one and pay the monthly bill. It is an extravagance that however “normal” isn’t necessary to a normal life. In this situation, your financial priorities should rule. Period.
Q: What is an appropriate age for a child to begin learning a musical instrument? I’ve looked into lessons in my area and teachers accept children as young as 2 or 3 for violin and piano lessons. My 3-year-old has asked to learn piano and while this is something we would like to pursue, we are wary of her beginning too young and/or being pushed or getting burned out. On the other hand, most people I know of who are both proficient and truly love playing their instrument as adults started at a very young age. Can you advise?
A: Learning a musical instrument is like learning a new language and preschool children are able to learn a second language much more easily than older children. I believe every child should learn to play a musical instrument. An instrument can be a great source of personal satisfaction as well as one of the best possible outlets for creative expression. I don’t, however, believe in pushing by either parent or teacher. Don’t be a Tiger Mom about this. Take a relaxed approach. If your daughter feels pressure from you to practice, for example, she may push back and lose interest altogether. Let her curiosity, her natural inclination to learn new things, rule. If she’s destined to be a great pianist or violinist, it will happen.
Q: My 3-year-old is being bullied by another girl in her preschool program. Today, this girl pushed her to the floor and snatched a toy away from her. The teacher is trying to handle it, but in the meantime can you recommend any books I can read to her that would help her better understand bullying and learn how to deal with it?
A: To qualify as bullying, aggression must be premeditated and inflicted with deliberate intent to humiliate. Having had lots of experience consulting with preschool programs, I am reasonably certain that your daughter isn’t being bullied. The perpetrator in this case is simply an aggressive child who has figured out that your daughter isn’t going to defend herself. The aggression is impulsive as opposed to premeditated and happens when the other child wants something your daughter is playing with. What you’re describing is the sort of thing that is likely to happen in groups of toddlers. It’s virtually inevitable, in fact. some studies have found that toddlers in preschool groups are more aggressive, on average, than toddlers who stay at home. This casts doubt on the conventional wisdom that preschool programs promote better social skills.
I know of no books that would help a child this age put another child’s aggression into proper perspective. The best solution is to arrange with the teacher to keep the two children separated. If that’s not possible, then the only solution might be to find another preschool program for your daughter. Or, if you can, keep her at home another year. I’d vote for the latter.