Raising Children


What constitutes good mothering?

When Lenore Skenazy shared that she allowed her 9 year old son to 'roam' the landscape and subways of NY she felt a huge public backlash. The confessions of Amy Chua's tiger mother approach started a firestorm of debate about over-controlling parents. And Sarah Palin is always an easy target for arguing that she is too involved or not involved enough in her children's lives and their Dancing With The Stars bids.

Most mothering is judged as too hard, too soft, too absent, or too emeshed with their children. With the end result being the same message - we are bad mothers.

It is a disappointing commentary on our support for motherhood. Sure, there are bad mothers out there. But most mothers are good, caring moms who try to get it right every day. Even if they do it differently than we might, we should at least be honoring each other's efforts. ...continue reading


When my son was in 7th grade, he was particularly short.

Genetically predisposed to being a late bloomer, he found himself suddenly surrounded in a sea of students who had literally grown a foot overnight. Between gawky limbs, swirling body odor, deepening voices and the constant chatter of socially-dawning teenagers, my undersized son worked to maneuver the halls and the rules of middle school.

Fortunately, he entered this era happy and with plenty of friends, so being short wasn't an issue. That is until one day his friends and classmates got the idea that pointing out his height was funny.

The first few times it happened he laughed along. He wasn't thrilled by the focus but a little kidding about it wasn't a big deal. But it didn't stop. Within a month the teasing had gone from an occasional Hobbit joke to a seemingly constant flow of “short" remarks and hallway head pats. ...continue reading

ABCGMA_logo#2: The following is the second of 3 questions for the ABC Good Morning America Advice Guru Challenge. I applied for the position. What do you think of my 150-word-or-less answer?

While cleaning my son's room, I accidentally saw on his Facebook page threatening remarks from his friends. I fear he's being bullied. What should I do?

Annie Answers: The bottom line is to be the kind of parent your son needs. Start by not freaking out - calm parenting trumps crazed parenting any day.

Explain how you came to see the posts, apologize for the intrusion and then - calmly - find out what is going on. Your goal is to determine how real the threat is. And that starts with listening. ...continue reading


In the story The Little Red Hen, the overworked and under-supported Mama Hen spends all her time cooking and cleaning while the rest of her household naps the day away.

Finally fed up after getting no help in tending the wheat seeds she eventually turns into flour and eventually a cake, she answers the question of "Who's going to eat this cake?" with, "Not any of you."

Of course, in the story, losing out on cake is just the trick needed to get her lazy, and now hungry, crew to start pitching in - presumably living cooperatively ever after from there on out. ...continue reading

Bored_teen_CC_sunshinecityRaise your hand if you fear that your child's honest answer to 'What I did on my summer vacation' will be: slept a lot; did most of my socializing online; spent countless afternoons moping around and fighting with my siblings; played hundreds of hours of video games; lost a huge chunk of the previous year's learning - or worse yet - got into lots of trouble in the world when no one was looking.

Most tweens and pre-working teens love the thought of summer vacation. But once it gets going the sheer number of hours to fill can lead to 10+ hour, zombie-induced, video game marathons interspersed with wandering the world under the radar and getting into trouble. ...continue reading

Dad__I_10My dad is 82 years old. So with Father’s Day approaching, I decided to take a trip back to my childhood and contemplate this man and his influence on me. What I discovered was not what I expected but an insight that I have come to regard as possibly his greatest legacy.

It is a legacy that I admire from the sidelines. And one that I am impressed by far beyond these words.

My dad, Don Zirkel, has had a memorable life. He worked for 30+ years as a columnist and editor of a Catholic paper, as an ordained Deacon, and as the information officer of the NY Division of Human Rights. He has been an advocate for, as he would say, "the least and the lonely" all his life. ...continue reading

gate_latchFrom the moment our children are born we, as parents, are asked to be the gatekeepers for what and with whom our children come into contact.

Do they have access to plug outlets or the cords of mini-blinds? Are they being exposed to lead? Could they choke on that grape? And this doesn't even begin to consider who their childcare provider is and other, much bigger, concerns.

We are expected to ensure their safety, proper nutrition and physical development, their homework completion, academic success, chore responsibilities, acquisition of life skills, good morals and behavior and watch that they are not being bullied or bullying others. ...continue reading

Dear Annie,

bullied_child(Note: This question is a combination of questions from different parents whose children are being bullied at school.)
My 12 year old son (daughter),
a pretty typical kid (or a kid who might be a little too: naive, sensitive, awkward, talkative, socially clueless, odd, out-of-sync, needy, easily angered, un-funny, different looking, or even confident) is being picked on by a group of kids at school. I don't know if I am overreacting (I want to slap these kids silly, call their parents and yell at the teacher!) but I want to help him deal with this. I don't know how involved I should be or when and how I should take it to the next level. Any ideas? -
Concerned Mom

Dear Concerned Mom, ...continue reading

angry boyHow Are Bullies made?If you really want to understand bullying you need to see it from the inside out and the outside in. Given the right (or wrong) circumstances it can happen to more of us that we might want to believe.

Bullying is about three things:

 1. Distorted Power
2. Lack of Empathy
3. Warped Push Back

1. Distorted Power: As children grow up, they are trying to figure out how life works. They quickly hit on power as a pretty important key to success. But at some times and with some kids - their quest for this power goes too far. ...continue reading

Dear Annie,


It seems like whenever I grant a special treat to my 8-year-old son, it makes everyone more miserable than if there were no treat at all. For example, if I surprise him with the statement that I'm making cookies for dessert, then he quickly starts complaining that he wants them for snack instead, or when I present the cookie, he complains that he wants two instead of one, or that he wishes they were a different kind, or... you get the picture.

This kind of behavior occurs whether it is a surprise, or a planned event. For example, he was thrilled that we were going to get a movie as a treat for everyone doing their jobs well, until he found out that we were not getting the movie he wanted (not age-appropriate).

I don't think he's greedy, or bitter due to deprivation - although he might say that. Some other traits that may fill in the picture: He has trouble bouncing back from both disappointment and activities that are especially enjoyable for him. Structure is important to him, and he gets anxious easily, so he does better when expectations are very clear (especially at school though they say he's in the normal range).

With his younger brother it is a different story and from my own childhood, I really appreciated this kind of incentive. Now for our family, doing something fun or special seems to make everything worse.

What do you think is going on, and what can I do? - Frustrated Mom

Dear Frustrated Mom,

One approach to the cookie ingratitude is to say, "Fine then, no cookies for you." And I could hear this coming out of my mouth if I was feeling like entitlement was the culprit. But with all you describe about your son, I think we would do him the most good by helping him figure out what's going on.

So let's see if we can look beyond the gripe. Sometimes we gripe about cookies as the most convenient outlet for a different unresolved trigger - raining outside, brother troubles, school stress, tiredness, etc. If the griping seems out of place, it may help to play detective to see if something else is going on.

You also state that structure is very important to your son and that lack of structure causes him anxiety. Surprises are, by their nature, the opposite of structure. So while the surprise may be pleasant, that temporary free-falling feeling may trigger his anxiety. His trying to take control: Snack vs dinner, 2 vs 1, this kind vs that kind, could be his way managing his anxiety. Some of the other examples like struggling to bounce back from both disappointment and great fun would also fit into that temporarily unstructured transition.

With anticipated events, it sounds like your son is filling in details with concrete ideas of what the event will look like - creating a structured picture. When his picture meets reality he now has to synthesize the two images causing another free-fall.

The most important thing you can do is help him learn about his thoughts and emotions and assist him in finding strategies for handling his anxiety while continuing to stretch his comfort zone. If you want more specifics on HOW to do that - keep reading.

3 Steps for Teaching

1.) At a time it isn't happening, have the Big Conversation to explain your concern and frustration. Use examples like the cookies, the movie, ending a fun activity, or being disappointed. Explain your concerns about his not having more happiness. This is also a good opportunity to add that you need to be treated better because you are a good person and deserve respect.

Paint a picture of a child who can get better at these skills. Find examples of situations where he handles this better. Go in curiously. See how much he is aware of his reactions, whether he sees times he does this better, whether he understands his thinking and would like to change anything. Taking the direction from this talk see if he has any ideas on how he could change and what you could do to support him.

2.) Model reasonable emotions and share your thinking process out loud. For some kids, they really need to see/hear other ways of thinking. Let him hear how you think about good surprises that happen in your life, and how you think through your own anxiety.

3.) Teach strategies for checking and dealing with his reactions and anxiety - some suggestions are playing detective to uncover the thoughts that led him to his reaction, breaking things down, challenging him and brainstorming alternative reactions for next time, and roleplaying. Preventative discussions about upcoming events, and helping him 'keep the door open' for things going differently can also help. And of course giving him control in as many situations as possible (without being held hostage) can help as well.

3 Steps for Intervening during an interaction:

1.) Mirror and optimistically notice his reaction (breaking it down to find the good part):

Mom: Honey I'm making cookies for dessert.

Son: I don't want them for dessert, I want them as a snack.

Mom: So you like the cookies idea, you just would rather have them as a snack. (Or: So you liked the movie idea until you learned that you weren't going to get that movie. Now you're disappointed.)

2.) Give him the version that you had hoped he would see:

"Well I was hoping that me making cookies would make you feel loved." (Or: I was hoping that getting a movie would feel like a treat.)

3.) Resolution Options:

A.) Empathize and allow him to feel his disappointment but do not change your plans. "I'm sorry that it's not exactly what you wanted."
B.) If you think he can stretch: Empathize THEN Challenge. "I know you would prefer the cookies now. Do you think you'll be able to handle the wait?" or "Is there some other way you can look at this so you can appreciate the treat?" If he says 'No'. Go back to A.
C.) If you feel he has a legitimate point and he respects that it's your choice: Power share. Don't placate him if he is being abusive or just so you avoid a melt down but, especially if he is being respectful, allow him to have influence over a third way solution.

Between incidents, continue teaching and help him notice if any of his reactions are improving. For further reading, I like the book The Explosive Child by Ross W. Greene. Some books I recommend for children on optimism and resiliency can be found under the Parenting Resources section.

Please let me know if that helps.