This mom babies her 7-year-old

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  January 25, 2010 06:00 AM

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Barbara, I appreciate your reasonable point of view in the multiple child-rearing questions with which you are handed.  I have a question as to how to handle a slightly different situation that I have seen in your column in the past.  

My partner has a 7-year-old child whose mother has primary custody.  Her child-rearing methods are very different from those of my partner's and mine.  In the past, it has been passed off as a difference in child-rearing methods, as he had only gone to school part-time and was not, in her mind, therefore required to be weaned and potty-trained.  Full-time kindergarten in the second half of his kindergarten year and first grade have required those things to take place, reluctantly in the mother's eyes.  The remaining issues are a lack of age-appropriate behavior, as evidenced by baby talk and lagging socialization skills, and the inability to sleep on his own.  

My partner has tried to address the lack of age-appropriate behavior by meeting with the school, who has tried to help the mother learn to parent her child by not carrying him into first grade and by not encouraging his toddler behavior, which she has told the school that she refuses to do.  This has affected his ability to keep any friends that he might attract.  

As for the inability to sleep by himself, the boy has told us that he is aware that this behavior is not appropriate, but it is what his mother wants, so he continues to do it.  As a result, he has not developed the ability to sleep alone, which causes my partner a lot of sleepless nights.  
What else can we do to try to help this child?  His report card has already shown below district standards in social skills and self-control, and we feel that this will only get worse. We also feel that the lack of ability to act in an age-appropriate fashion will continue to cause him to doubt his ability to act in an age-appropriate, independent fashion.

From: Sharon, Boston

Hi Sharon,

This is a troubling story; I don't blame you for worrying about this little boy.

The first thing to keep in mind is that it would be very detrimental for your partner or you (or anyone else for that matter) to bad mouth his mom in any way. That will only create terrible conflict for him. That doesn't mean you need to approve of what she says or does, rather to not pass judgment at all.

Here's the second thing to keep in mind, though: children at this age can absolutely handle differences, including differences between their mother's home and their father's home. In fact, one of my all-time favorite books for parents of divorce is called, "Mom's House, Dad's House," by Isolini Ricci. Her point is that rules can be different, expectations can be different. (That's not the same as saying that it's OK for there to be inconsistency within each home, however.)

So it's totally appropriate for dad to have a conversation with him in which he says, "You live in two houses. Your mom has rules for her house, and I have rules for my house. In your mom's house,  for instance, I know you and your mom talk baby talk, but it's not something I enjoy, so in my house, let's have a no-baby talk rule." That's a way to acknowledge the reality of the situation without putting his mom down or passing judgment on her, but at the same time establishing something that is different and, obviously, age appropriate.

Would the boy like to have friends visit when he's at his dad's house, or have playdates? Is this something dad can arrange? This is something that can be part of an on-going conversation between them.  

Similarly, it's appropriate for a 7-year-old to have chores and responsibilities. This is something else dad could establish for his house: "In my house, everyone needs to contribute to the family. Here are three chores that need to be done on the days you're here. You can choose which one (or two) you want to be responsible for." Chores, believe it or not, can go a long way to growing a child's self-esteem and sense of autonomy.

The sleeping nut will be the hardest to crack, but since it sounds like the youngster recognizes the lack of age-appropriateness, I would ask him, "If you would like to have a different sleeping routine in my house, so you can sleep better by yourself, I will work really hard to help you make that happen." Then discuss how you can do that, for instance, making a bedtime routine together that ends with dad sitting on a chair in the room but not in bed with him, until he falls asleep; then gradually (after a number of successful nights), the chair inches closer and closer to the door. And then outside the door, and then down the hall.

On the school front, I hope the dad is present at parent conferences and is a co-parent in every sense of the word, including raising the questions at a conference about his social skills, or requesting a private conference with the teacher to explain the boy's situation and seek her advice. The teacher should absolutely be aware of what's going on in this child's home life.

In general, the more able your partner is to keep things calm and amiable between him and the boy's mother, the better it will be for the boy and, indeed, for everyone.This is a tough situation and one that requires dedication, patience, and love on the part of your partner, and I'm sure you, too. There are no easy fixes here but his son will someday come to appreciate the effort his dad makes on his behalf.

 It sounds like the mother needs professional help. How to help her get the help she needs, well, that's fodder for someone else's Q&A, although I would be remiss if I didn't add that if your partner thinks she is a danger to his son (does contributing to developmental delay constitute abuse?), there are avenues he can pursue.

I answer a question from a reader every weekday. If you want help with some aspect of child-rearing, just write to me here.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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10 comments so far...
  1. So what are age appropriate chores for a 7 year old?

    Posted by southern mom January 25, 10 10:06 AM
  1. This is a difficult situation, and I think all of the suggestions offered by Barbara are excellent. As the divorced mom of a ten year old son, I have experienced many of these issues, and the essential elements for success seem to be:

    1. validating the child's experience, and making sure he can be comfortable communicating anything about his concerns and the situation at this mom's house without fear that she will be ridiculed
    2. addressing very specific behaviors, and enlisting the teacher to address these with the mom; my ex-husband did much of this babying (carrying a 1st grader around, etc.), and the teacher was instrumental in putting an end to this behavior. The more specific the feedback to the ex-spouse, the better
    3. as Barbara recommends, establishing appropriate rules in YOUR household, without offering judgment of the mom. My ex and I parent very differently, but I have NEVER criticized him in front of my son. Ever.

    Posted by Cathy January 25, 10 10:46 AM
  1. Age appropriate chores for a seven year old:

    -emptying the silverware caddy of the dishwasher
    -making his/her own bed
    -emptying his/her own hamper
    -sorting laundry by color
    -matching socks
    -wiping down the bathroom sink and counter with a clorox wipe
    -putting his/her own dishes into the sink (or dishwahser)
    -cleaning up his/her own toys and putting them away appropriately
    -emptying his/her own school backpack and lunchbox: giving papers to Mom & Dad that need to be read and checked, setting aside homework assignments, putting lunchbox items into the sink or back into the fridge as necessary
    -windexing glass doors, windows, front of the stove, etc.
    -picking up sticks in the yard, a little bit of raking
    -weeding the garden/flower beds

    Posted by RH January 25, 10 11:11 AM
  1. Southern mom - my 7 year old sets the table and empties the dishwasher. She is also responsible for keeping her room tidy and putting away anything she takes out. My 10 year old clears the table, including putting leftovers away, takes the trash out to the barrels, and brings the barrels back after they are emptied by the trash collectors (we take the barrels to the street, as they are too heavy for a child), as well as being responsible for his room and any stuff he takes out. Both kids help with raking leaves, shoveling snow, and other general chores.

    Posted by akmom January 25, 10 11:20 AM
  1. A 7 year old can operate a swiffer wet jet on the kitchen floor, and they think this is the coolest toy ever. At least mine does.

    Posted by BMS January 25, 10 05:21 PM
  1. Good advice from Barbara - outside of something that would reasonably be considered endangering the child, really the only thing the non-custodial parent and partner can do is control what happens in their own home and be as involved as possible with school, doctors, activities, friends, etc.

    For chores, I second what RH and akmom listed. RH's list mirrors what my kindergartner does with supervision (age 6). I think by age 7 my older kids could do that on their own and I added a few things like vacuuming and dusting. If you use non-toxic cleaners, they can clean glass and surfaces without worry. My little guys also clean baseboards and other low spots (under beds, desks) when we do detailed cleaning and do a great job with a dust buster!

    Posted by Jen January 25, 10 08:24 PM
  1. My fiance and I are experiencing the satme problems with his 5 y/o. Her mother babies her, does her homeowork for her, carries her, and still gives her a bottle at night. It has gotten to the point where the 5 y/o doesnt want to come to our house because she has chores, has to do her homework here, and has responsibilities. This hurts my fiance a lot. He feels that his daughter doesnt love him anymore. His other daughter who is 7 cant wait to come to our house every weekend. Now the mother is saying that some sort of abuse must be going on here since the 5 y/o is so adamant about not coming....last week she threw such a fit at a basketball game where we were picking them up that we allowed her to stay with her mother to avoid ther fit!! IT WAS HORRIBLE!!!! Now this week she has already started to throw a fit about coming up on Friday and this concerns her mother who says we are mean to her 5 y/o. We don't know what to do about this situation and any help would be greatly appreciated. My fiance asked the 5 y/o why she didnt want to come up here and she made up a story about us biting her and being mean to her. The 7 y/o said nothing like that happens here, but the mother is very adamant that she isnt being treated good here. HELP PLEASE!!!!!

    Posted by Tab January 27, 10 10:22 AM
  1. For both Tab and the Sharon, it may be time to go back to your divorce attorneys to work out equal custody. Or in the case of Sharon, primary or sole custody.

    Posted by Sarah January 27, 10 03:31 PM
  1. Totally agree with Sarah (8). Is it possible to revisit the custody issue here? Good luck. I think Barbara's advice is good here. I know it's hard, but being a stable presence for the child here is so important.

    @southern mom: my first grader is responsible for: making his bed, setting and/or clearing the table, keeping his room tidy, picking up his toys, emptying the silverware from the dishwasher, putting his clean laundry away, getting his backpack ready for school in the morning ... these are a few things.

    Posted by anita January 28, 10 10:10 AM
  1. I'd use the different rules for different places strategy as well. Start off with getting the kid involved by asking him, "what are some of the things you do at school that don't make sense to do at home?" If he needs prompting, talk about raising your hand to ask questions. Once you get talking about the idea, then you can talk about different ways of acting at the two parent's homes.
    As far as the sleeping alone factor, try to give him some autonomy. You can ask if he'd like a sleeping bag in your room, which you then can have him still sleep in on his bed then in the bed without it? for you to leave both bedroom doors open so if he needs anything he can call you? if he'd want a nightlight? can try getting a body pillow for his bed so it doesn't seem so empty and big? etc.

    Re #1: Some of the other chores that are appropriate for that age are:
    -taking the sheets off the beds on laundry day (if the bed is not in a corner) and putting the pillows and blankets back in a pile on the bed
    -folding towels, pillowcases, etc
    -filling the dog's water bowl from a cup
    -sweeping the sand off the porch from everybody's boots
    -wiping the crumbs off the table after meals

    Posted by The Other January 28, 10 01:02 PM
 
10 comments so far...
  1. So what are age appropriate chores for a 7 year old?

    Posted by southern mom January 25, 10 10:06 AM
  1. This is a difficult situation, and I think all of the suggestions offered by Barbara are excellent. As the divorced mom of a ten year old son, I have experienced many of these issues, and the essential elements for success seem to be:

    1. validating the child's experience, and making sure he can be comfortable communicating anything about his concerns and the situation at this mom's house without fear that she will be ridiculed
    2. addressing very specific behaviors, and enlisting the teacher to address these with the mom; my ex-husband did much of this babying (carrying a 1st grader around, etc.), and the teacher was instrumental in putting an end to this behavior. The more specific the feedback to the ex-spouse, the better
    3. as Barbara recommends, establishing appropriate rules in YOUR household, without offering judgment of the mom. My ex and I parent very differently, but I have NEVER criticized him in front of my son. Ever.

    Posted by Cathy January 25, 10 10:46 AM
  1. Age appropriate chores for a seven year old:

    -emptying the silverware caddy of the dishwasher
    -making his/her own bed
    -emptying his/her own hamper
    -sorting laundry by color
    -matching socks
    -wiping down the bathroom sink and counter with a clorox wipe
    -putting his/her own dishes into the sink (or dishwahser)
    -cleaning up his/her own toys and putting them away appropriately
    -emptying his/her own school backpack and lunchbox: giving papers to Mom & Dad that need to be read and checked, setting aside homework assignments, putting lunchbox items into the sink or back into the fridge as necessary
    -windexing glass doors, windows, front of the stove, etc.
    -picking up sticks in the yard, a little bit of raking
    -weeding the garden/flower beds

    Posted by RH January 25, 10 11:11 AM
  1. Southern mom - my 7 year old sets the table and empties the dishwasher. She is also responsible for keeping her room tidy and putting away anything she takes out. My 10 year old clears the table, including putting leftovers away, takes the trash out to the barrels, and brings the barrels back after they are emptied by the trash collectors (we take the barrels to the street, as they are too heavy for a child), as well as being responsible for his room and any stuff he takes out. Both kids help with raking leaves, shoveling snow, and other general chores.

    Posted by akmom January 25, 10 11:20 AM
  1. A 7 year old can operate a swiffer wet jet on the kitchen floor, and they think this is the coolest toy ever. At least mine does.

    Posted by BMS January 25, 10 05:21 PM
  1. Good advice from Barbara - outside of something that would reasonably be considered endangering the child, really the only thing the non-custodial parent and partner can do is control what happens in their own home and be as involved as possible with school, doctors, activities, friends, etc.

    For chores, I second what RH and akmom listed. RH's list mirrors what my kindergartner does with supervision (age 6). I think by age 7 my older kids could do that on their own and I added a few things like vacuuming and dusting. If you use non-toxic cleaners, they can clean glass and surfaces without worry. My little guys also clean baseboards and other low spots (under beds, desks) when we do detailed cleaning and do a great job with a dust buster!

    Posted by Jen January 25, 10 08:24 PM
  1. My fiance and I are experiencing the satme problems with his 5 y/o. Her mother babies her, does her homeowork for her, carries her, and still gives her a bottle at night. It has gotten to the point where the 5 y/o doesnt want to come to our house because she has chores, has to do her homework here, and has responsibilities. This hurts my fiance a lot. He feels that his daughter doesnt love him anymore. His other daughter who is 7 cant wait to come to our house every weekend. Now the mother is saying that some sort of abuse must be going on here since the 5 y/o is so adamant about not coming....last week she threw such a fit at a basketball game where we were picking them up that we allowed her to stay with her mother to avoid ther fit!! IT WAS HORRIBLE!!!! Now this week she has already started to throw a fit about coming up on Friday and this concerns her mother who says we are mean to her 5 y/o. We don't know what to do about this situation and any help would be greatly appreciated. My fiance asked the 5 y/o why she didnt want to come up here and she made up a story about us biting her and being mean to her. The 7 y/o said nothing like that happens here, but the mother is very adamant that she isnt being treated good here. HELP PLEASE!!!!!

    Posted by Tab January 27, 10 10:22 AM
  1. For both Tab and the Sharon, it may be time to go back to your divorce attorneys to work out equal custody. Or in the case of Sharon, primary or sole custody.

    Posted by Sarah January 27, 10 03:31 PM
  1. Totally agree with Sarah (8). Is it possible to revisit the custody issue here? Good luck. I think Barbara's advice is good here. I know it's hard, but being a stable presence for the child here is so important.

    @southern mom: my first grader is responsible for: making his bed, setting and/or clearing the table, keeping his room tidy, picking up his toys, emptying the silverware from the dishwasher, putting his clean laundry away, getting his backpack ready for school in the morning ... these are a few things.

    Posted by anita January 28, 10 10:10 AM
  1. I'd use the different rules for different places strategy as well. Start off with getting the kid involved by asking him, "what are some of the things you do at school that don't make sense to do at home?" If he needs prompting, talk about raising your hand to ask questions. Once you get talking about the idea, then you can talk about different ways of acting at the two parent's homes.
    As far as the sleeping alone factor, try to give him some autonomy. You can ask if he'd like a sleeping bag in your room, which you then can have him still sleep in on his bed then in the bed without it? for you to leave both bedroom doors open so if he needs anything he can call you? if he'd want a nightlight? can try getting a body pillow for his bed so it doesn't seem so empty and big? etc.

    Re #1: Some of the other chores that are appropriate for that age are:
    -taking the sheets off the beds on laundry day (if the bed is not in a corner) and putting the pillows and blankets back in a pile on the bed
    -folding towels, pillowcases, etc
    -filling the dog's water bowl from a cup
    -sweeping the sand off the porch from everybody's boots
    -wiping the crumbs off the table after meals

    Posted by The Other January 28, 10 01:02 PM
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About the author

Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer, parenting consultant, and author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World." She won several awards for her weekly "Child Caring" column in the Globe, including the 2008 American Psychological Association Print Excellence award. Barbara is available as a speaker for parent groups.

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