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Help Me Help My Child (May 2006)

Past cases: May 2006

Here are the cases dealt with on Ruth’s page for May 2006.

My daughter, Sophie, finds it really difficult to make decisions. She dithers about everything – what to wear, what present to give, what sweets to choose etc. It’s driving us all up the wall. She’s only nine, I can see it getting worse and worse. What can I do?

This seems to be something that affects a lot of us – and is probably evenly divided between boys and girls. In the olden days, dithering was a luxury and it was important to almost snatch at things before the possibility evaporated. Now, there are so many choices that it is hard to focus on one, lest that means rejecting something even better. With adults, it is particularly noticeable in restaurants where it is often impossible to make a decision until the waitress has been standing next to you, tapping her pen for what seems like hours.

I believe strongly in the nature/nurture debate. Brand new babies show very different characteristics, and, although an inability to choose is not apparent at birth, clearly some children find it much harder than others to make decisions. Try to reduce the necessity to make choices – either tell Sophie what to wear or give her a choice between two. If she is taking too long, say “Either choose in the next minute or I shall choose for you” and do it. Reduce the time she has available for choosing: the very time available makes the whole thing much more stressful.

And when she has made her choice, compliment her on it briefly and then let the topic go. It is easy to turn this into a major issue and compound problems; much better to say something like “Oh, that looks good on you” and move on to talk about something else. If she feels she has made the wrong decision, point out that this is something she can learn from for next time, and, again, let the topic go. The more you show you are willing to discuss the issue, the more significant it all becomes.

Rhiannon was quite poorly when she was a small child, and we have probably been over-protective…

I’m sure you have. When your much loved baby is ill, she becomes the focus for all of your thinking, hopes and fears. And when you can bring her home, or the fear eases, you still find yourself watching her “just in case”. When my son came home after undiagnosed whooping cough turned to rather awful pneumonia at five months, we raced in to check whenever he began to cough and began an awful pattern of behaviour that meant he did not sleep through the night till he was five.

You don’t say if Rhiannon is an only child, but, in any case, you are obviously aware of the need to treat her like any other child, as much as you are able. Your job as parents is to step back and teach her to become independent of you. And so you need to be learn how to stand there with your heart in your mouth as she climbs on something awfully high, or swims out with the others, or asks to go to the Mall with her friends. All parents worry about their children; you actually know that things sometimes go wrong.

But if you want her to grow up normally and have friends who like her, you have to be able to back off when necessary, and tell her off when appropriate. If she wants to do what others of her age are doing, put any necessary precautions into place and then let it happen; if she does something naughty or silly or careless, be angry and punish her if necessary.

The biggest confidence you can give to your daughter is to allow her to feel that her life is normal. Rhiannon was ill, perhaps she is more delicate than others of her age, or perhaps slighter. But now she has to be part of the wider society and she needs all your support. Stand back and let her be.

Jonathon is much brighter than his older brother and I don’t know what to do about it

Research suggests that it is always more difficult to bring up two children of the same sex.

Whatever you do, they are likely to compete on some level. So two boys or two girls are more likely to fight and squabble and nadger (I love that word) than a boy and a girl.

And of course, two boys are more likely to compete in the same arena – they both want to sail, or play football, or swim – and, since the older boy should achieve more quickly, there are problems. Number 1 son achieves first and Number 2 son feels jealous or inadequate. If the converse happens, and Number 2 son achieves more quickly, then Number 1 son feels even more useless and may well stop trying.

If Jonathon is genuinely brighter and more academic than his brother, then that is just something his brother is going to have to live with. You can help, though, by encouraging the older one in other interests. If Jonathon loves French, push the other one towards Mandarin or German. Be aware of the talents your older boy has and be proud of them. Your pride in his acting or ice-skating or fishing will be highly significant in his life, and in real life it might well be that his ability to tell jokes will be as important as Jonathon’s maths skills.

Whatever children you have, try to be aware of their strengths and praise them. This gives confidence and an appropriate confidence is the foundation for a successful life. Try not to compare one child with the next but value what each one has – one may be much calmer, or more sensitive or friendlier. One may have artistic skills, or enjoy music or be good with his hands. Value what each child can offer – we tend to particularly value academic skills, but for most people they are a relatively insignificant part of the whole person and his future.

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