A question-and-answer column with Dr. Martha Erickson of the University of Minnesota
Question: When our 10-year-old comes home from school, he just seems to dump on us with a barrage of complaints about his teachers, his classmates, the lunchroom--anything and everything about school. In general, he doesn't seem unhappy and shows no reluctance to go to school in the morning. But listening to him complain is no fun. How should we handle this?
Answer: It's encouraging that your son seems happy overall and that he doesn't show any school avoidance. Nevertheless, it would be wise to stay in close touch with his teachers and make sure that everything is going OK from their point of view. Also pay attention to his friendships. Watch for signs that his peer relations are what they should be. Does he have at least one or two friends with whom he enjoys spending time?
If indeed there does not appear to be a problem beyond his end-of-the-day grumbling, you may just be experiencing a fairly common phenomenon: mom and dad being dubbed a safe place to dump the day's garbage. After being on good behavior all day at school, sometimes kids just need to complain about the little stuff. And home is a safe place to let it all out. We adults often do that with our family or close friends at the end of a workday. The following steps have worked well for many parents who have been in your shoes.
*Begin by simply listening to and acknowledging your son's feelings - "I can see you really were bummed out by the way that kid acted in the lunchroom."
*If it's a problem that needs more attention, brainstorm with your son about how he might handle it when it comes up again. This is a good opportunity to help him develop coping skills and a sense of his own ability to deal with tough situations.
*If you find that all suggestions are met with "Yes, but...," you might try saying, "Well, I guess there's nothing you can do." Sometimes "siding with the helplessness" will wake a person up to finding his own solution.
*Some parents have told me it's helpful to designate a "whine time," when everyone can grouse about the crummy things that happened during the day. Then it's nice to balance that with, "OK now, what went RIGHT today?" Kids need to know it's all right to get the bad feelings out on the table. But it's also important that the positive not get lost in the process.
Question: With summer approaching, I'm worried about how to manage my kids' TV viewing. There is too much sex and violence on the air and they have a lot of free time when school's not in session. I want to start the summer off right. How should I manage their TV viewing?
Answer: You are wise to be thinking about this at the beginning of summer, before your children settle into an unhealthy pattern. Too much "screen time" (not only TV, but computers and video games as well) can harm kids in all sorts of ways--from the negative impact of inappropriate content to the physical inactivity that can undermine a child's health.
Here are a few suggestions that may help you and your children use their free time well this summer.
* Avoid letting TV become the "default" entertainment. This may mean making a family rule about how much TV viewing is acceptable each day, then planning with your kids which shows are the best use of that time. If you have a VCR, you also can tape shows to watch at a more convenient time, or rent movies that you and your children select together.
* Involve your children in the decision-making process. When parents take a dictatorial approach, it just sets kids up to rebel. Explain your reasons for the standards you hold and listen to your kids' reasons for what they choose. Praise them as they become smart consumers of television.
* If possible, join with other neighborhood parents in setting common standards and rules for what the kids watch. Neighborhood parents might even want to take turns planning movie nights (or rainy afternoons) when the kids can get together for popcorn and a video.
* When possible, join your children in watching what they choose on TV and discuss the content with them. Research shows that by talking with their kids, parents can buffer the negative effects of media and turn even a bad show into a learning opportunity.
* Help your kids keep busy with other fun and wholesome activities. If you guide them toward good books, games, art projects, neighborhood play groups, sports and music activities, they are less likely to be drawn to the TV. Encourage and admire their creativity in structuring their own time so they don't depend too much on adults to plan things for them.