Parenting Tips: Considering Kindergarten?

I'm digging deeper into the decision of whether to start Kindergarten this fall -- or not. Look out for 4 in-depth posts on the subject. Check out my video over here --> for a sneak-peek!

Next, check out my first post in the series, where I show you how I make tough parenting decisions when there isn't an easy answer. You can apply my method to your kindergarten decision, or any other tricky parenting dilemma.

Here's the second post, for parents of shy kiddos. Even they can have a great start to their school careers.

And now for the third post. The "Redshirting" craze has me worried: Here's why.

My fourth post requires a box of Kleenex for the sentimental among you (and I certainly count myself a member of your group). Our babies are growing up so fast! Some ideas on how to Let Go As They Grow. (Sigh.)

There will be 4 total entries this month, and I'll post as they're ready for you -- so come back and check for each in the series.


Dr. Heather The BabyShrink

"Cutoff" Birthdays & Kindergarten Readiness: How to Decide?

Dear Dr. Heather,

My daughter turns 5 right before the “cutoff” age for kindergarten – so she’ll be able to attend, but I’m not sure she’s ready. Should we have her start this fall, or wait another year?

Sam in Philly

Dear Sam,

All over the country, parents are going through the same dilemma. For many, like those with “early born” kids, the decision is easy. For others who have “late-borns” (like yours, and my fourth child -- an October baby) -- or for those who’s kids are a tad behind, developmentally -- it’s a tough call. There’s no “magic” test for readiness, and no single developmental accomplishment that means your child is 100% ready.

Here is my basic Kindergarten Readiness Checklist of the areas I consider essential to success in the fall:

  • Enthusiasm about learning
  • The ability to speak understandably
  • The ability to listen and follow instructions
  • The desire to be independent
  • Playing well with others (most of the time)
  • Willingness to separate from parents
  • Basic letter and number recognition

Here are 3 steps to help you make your decision:

  1. Have a basic “Kindergarten Readiness” test administered at your intended school. There are many such tests available.
  2. Discuss the results -- plus the above readiness checklist -- with the important adults in your child’s life, including prospective teachers. Your pediatrician can help too.
  3. Revisit your decision over the summer. A child who’s not ready in the spring might quickly become ready in the summer.

Consider YOUR child’s readiness, and make the decision independent of the “trends” in your neighborhood. Ignore the tendency to “go along with the Joneses” – whether to “hold back” or “push ahead”. Whether your kiddo starts kindergarten this year or next is irrelevant compared to the fantastic developments that he’s gone through in the past 4 or 5 years. Remember that tiny newborn bundle they handed you that day 4 or 5 years ago? Look at your baby now! Good work, Mom and Dad!


Dr. Heather The BabyShrink

Getting Your Child To Eat Fruits And Veggies

Direct from the Parent Coaching files, an issue that plagues many of us: The Preschooler Who Won't Eat Healthy Foods. Common variants of this plague include The Preschooler Who Only Eats White Foods, The Preschooler Who Only Eats Starches, The Preschooler Who Only Eats Chicken Nuggets, and my niece's current version: The Preschooler Who Only Eats Raisin Toast. (What can I say? Our family always has to be a little different.)

Seeing as though we can't force our children to Eat, Sleep, or Poop, we must BACK OFF. Yet, how to encourage healthy eating habits? And how to cope with the obvious complications of No Healthy Food -- constipation, and it's negative impact on potty training?

I wish it was as simple as many of our pediatricians say: "Encourage fruits, vegetables, and whole fibers. Have them drink a lot of water." OK -- but HOW?! Most preschoolers will turn up their cute little noses at a plate of healthy food -- or even something that looks just a little DIFFERENT than what they're used to eating.

My take on it: This is an opportunity to walk the precariously thin line between ENCOURAGEMENT and PRESSURE. Do we give up trying? No. Do we get frustrated and beg, plead, cajole, or bribe them? Nope. But we DO encourage -- with a parenting trick up our sleeves.

So, try this, a daily tactic in our house: It's the One Molecule Rule. We serve meals in courses: Healthy foods first. Each kid gets a serving of either a fruit or vegetable -- kid-friendly -- think carrot strips and ranch dressing, banana "coins", or apples with peanut butter. Each kid's serving must be finished before the rest of the meal becomes available to them. And by "serving size", we start with One Molecule of something different. The other day, we tried pomegranates. One kid LOVES them, but one kid freaked out when he saw them. For him, the rule was One Seed. He had to eat ONE pomegranate seed before "unlocking" his turkey sandwich. And next time, his serving might be TWO seeds. Whatever it is, be reasonably sure that it's a serving size he can handle -- and maybe even feel proud of finishing. SMALLER IS BETTER, until they graduate up to the next level. Praise and reinforce even the most incremental progress. And of course -- model the behavior you want them to emulate. OOH and AAH over your artichokes, brussels sprouts, and avocados. But let them go when they've had their molecule.

Because:  Little kids are biologically programmed to avoid weird, unusual foods. It's a survival thing from back in the day when weird foods could (and often did) kill them. So don't blame your kids, work with them.

And the good news is this: With lots of encouragement over time, this too shall improve. To wit: My 9-year-old daughter, previously a card-carrying member of the "I Only Drink Juice And Eat Goldfish Crackers" club, asked for a CHICKEN CAESAR SALAD last night. And she LOVED it.


Dr. Heather The BabyShrink Mom of Four, Parenting Expert

Psychological Milestones: Why Your 4-Year-Old Is So Awesome

I'm really enjoying our 4-year-old. He's sort of an "Entry-Level Kid" -- no longer a squirelly toddler, he can join in the group for some fun, manage his feelings pretty well, and tells silly stories that have us rolling.

Common parenting wisdom has remedies for the "Terrible Twos." But they leave out the "Terrible THREES," which can be mighty tough.

Three-year-olds are really just glorified toddlers who still need a lot of special attention, and are prone to frequent meltdowns, tantrums, and making wacky demands.  But the difference between three and four is huge -- and hugely fun.


Here are some of the major emotional developments that come along with being four. Your 4-year-old can:

  • smoothly enter into new play situations without much help from you
  • start to be responsible for small, regular chores like carrying his laundry to the laundry room
  • take turns and share (most of the time)
  • create elaborate, vivid play scenarios, and stick with them for longer
  • be goofy beyond belief, and play around with silly words and "jokes"
  • boast and brag with the best of them
  • "use his words" more often than resorting to violence
  • start to follow rules (and even insist others do so)
  • enjoy family outings and trips more than ever

But it's not always rosy. Some 4-year-old challenges include:

  • tattling, name-calling and complaining
  • resorting to whining and tantrums when tired, sick, or overwhelmed
  • trying to change the rules mid-way through games
  • "lies" -- still can't understand the difference between "truth" and "fiction" -- and won't, until age 6+

No matter the challenges, it's a special time -- and I'm making the most out of it. Soon, he'll be starting school, and sometime in 1st grade his focus will shift away from family -- and towards school and peers. It's really our last chance to enjoy the special, intense, close parent-child bond before he starts launching into the wider world. (Sniff! I'm going off to have a little cry now -- for my awesome boy who won't be little forever.)


Dr. Heather The BabyShrink

Kindergarten Haters And Dumb Potty Training Rules in Preschool

Very Common Problems. We bloggers check our blog traffic to see how many "hits" we're getting. My software also tells me how you got to me -- what you entered into the search or URL line to get to BabyShrink -- and this is where it gets interesting. This time of year, I get a lot of searches that look like this:



MY+KINDERGARTENER+HATES+SCHOOL+WHAT+SHOULD+I+DO? The demand is so strong for these topics that I'm re-running these 2 posts together. So without further ado, here's my post on potty training rules in daycare and preschool - you'll see that I have some pretty strong opinions.

And here's my post on what to do if your poor little kindergartener decides that they would rather NOT be a big boy or girl anymore and stay home after all.

I've been there more than once myself, so I can sympathize. Check out those posts and let me know what you think!


Dr. Heather The BabyShrink

Body Awareness & Sexuality: Advice On Dealing With Preschool Fears

Dear Dr. Heather,

I am worried about my 3-year-old daughter, who has made 2 comments about her "bottom" in the last 2 weeks. She didn't want me to look at her bottom when I was putting a pull-up on her. When I asked her why, she said "I don't know." And visiting her grandparents' house, she was getting dressed for the day and told her grandma that she didn't want grandpa to see her bottom. I know that her grandpa would NEVER EVER do anything a matter of fact, he has never even changed her diaper when she was younger. There is nobody else who she is in contact with who would EVER do anything inappropriate either. But I am concerned. I have never used the word "bottom". I do not leave my girls alone with men or even just grandpas or other children (like playing in their room by themselves). They have to play where I can see them.

What I want to know is this: Do preschoolers develop a self-awareness of their body to a point where they don't want certain people seeing them in their undies, or in the what age and is this normal? What should I be doing at this point? My number one priority is protecting my young daughters.


Anonymous -- and Fearful -- Mom

Dear Fearful Mom,

Sometimes it's hard to see our babies venture into territory like this. Body awareness, along with a sense of "private parts", is a first step in a child's developing sexuality. This can trigger strong feelings in us as parents, especially for those who have lingering issues over sexuality, or perhaps have experienced some sort of sexual abuse or inappropriateness in our own pasts. The natural response is to hypervigilant about any possible danger, and to protect your child at any cost. But this can get in the way of your child's growing -- and normal -- awareness of his or her own body.

So YES, children do start to develop a beginning sense of body awareness -- and privacy -- by age 3. It's not a fully-formed sense yet, but preschoolers do start to pick up on the fact that some areas of the body are "private". It's a complicated idea and so at first they can get confused. They might not totally understand whom you DO and DON'T show your private parts would not be unusual for a 3-year-old to act shy about her "bottom", even with a parent. Then there may be other times where she will run around naked, with no inhibitions. They're trying to figure out the "rules" about who can view which body parts. It's a long process that takes at least a couple of years to really come to grips with what is a complicated -- and "loaded" -- concept.

You mention that you're worried about where she heard the word "bottom", since you don't use it in your family. You might think about where else she might have picked it up. Does she go to preschool? Or have friends that use the word "bottom"? Those are possibilities. She could have even overheard a mother talking to her child about it at the grocery store, for instance, "Sit on your bottom when you are in the shopping cart." Of course I can't know, but I'm just thinking of how often you hear parents talking to toddlers and preschoolers about stuff like that in public. Maybe that's where she heard it.

Now, it sounds as if you are afraid something inappropriate might have happened. Of course I cannot say one way or another if that is the case; I'm not evaluating your daughter, only giving you some parenting information. But I can tell you that, usually, children who have been sexually abused show MANY signs of disturbance and regression including sleep, appetite, behavioral, and other problems. Simply using an unfamiliar word -- by itself -- would not necessarily concern me. I would look at her OVERALL behavior over a period of time. Of course if you have reasonable suspicion, you should report those suspicions to her doctor and the authorities. But hopefully this is just part of the normal process of your daughter learning about "public" and "private" body parts -- a task that all preschoolers do work on at this age.

You might also want to check out another article of mine on the normal development of sexual sensations in preschoolers. Click here for it. I hope that helps. Let me know if you need more help.


Dr. Heather The BabyShrink

Post updated 12/2/2010

More on Potty Training: When Your Preschooler Poops in Her Sleep

Dear Dr. Heather, I have a question for you regarding my daughter, who turned 3 in October. She has been potty trained (pee at least) since August. Here is the problem….she poops in her sleep. She also poops on the potty if she has to go while she is awake. But mostly, she is pooping in her pull-up during naptime. She also has pooped twice at nighttime. I don’t know if she is holding it to do it while she has a pull-up on, or if she is sleeping so soundly that she doesn’t realize she is doing it. Since she also poops on the potty, I don’t know what to think. Is it possible to influence the time of day she poops? She will be starting preschool soon and I am concerned that she will poop in her underwear at school during naptime. When she does poop in her pull-up, she apologizes profusely. I used to say that she needs to poop in the potty, not in her pull-up, but I don’t want to turn her into a neurotic kid, so I just clean her up and say nothing. Any suggestions?

Thanks for your help.


Hi Marcia,

It sounds like you are being sensitive to your daughter regarding her poopy-timing. I'm glad you're not pressuring her about the issue. And the fact that she apologizes profusely shows you that she knows what she is supposed to do, but isn't there yet. You're right; lecturing her about it won't help. And I wouldn't suggest doing anything to somehow manipulate her potty schedule; this would likely be felt as intrusive by her.

It also seems that it wouldn't concern you as much if it weren't for the preschool issue. Many preschools have rules that state the child must be "toilet independent" before starting school. The pressure to be "completely" potty trained before starting preschool MAKES ME CRAZY! It's really unrealistic for many kids, and parents feel compelled to get their kids trained before they're ready. This can cause problems later on.

That said, many schools WILL work with you, if you approach them directly. Believe me, this isn't the first time they've dealt with this! They can support your daughter on her way to being fully potty trained. If her school won't work with you on this -- look elsewhere. You want a place that understands the developmental issues of preschoolers.

In the meantime, continue to praise her efforts, and be neutrally supportive when she has an accident. I wouldn't dwell on it much with her; it sounds as if she KNOWS what is expected, and that's what matters. It sounds like she's well on her way to having full control over her potty needs, and I'll bet that soon, she'll be making good progress.

Good luck and let us know how it goes!


Dr. Heather The BabyShrink

Advice for a preschooler who HUGS too much

Dear Dr. Heather, My 3-year-old son started nursery school a few weeks ago. Everything is fine except that he hugs the other kids too much! They do not want him to hug them and they wind up hitting him or running from his approach. The teachers have tried to talk to him about it and asked me to please try again tonight. Today he came home with 2 more scratches on his face. I don't know what to tell him to make him understand, and I want him to have a good experience at school. Help!

London Dad

Dear London Dad,

Even though it may seem like your son is the only one with difficulties in transition to school, believe me, he's not. They all have their little variations on the theme. I myself have just now returned from dropping off my 3-year-old at his new preschool. He's not a "hugger", but he is a "clingy whiner". Another of the kids there gets upset when the teacher pays attention to other children, and another strips down to her undies when she misses her parents! This is a difficult time of year in terms of transitions to new things for our little ones. Usually, a few weeks max is all it takes to get used to a new school. But those weeks can feel punishingly, guiltily LONG for us parents!

Your little guy is so young and new to the preschool setting. He really can't be expected to get all the social niceties completely worked out yet. Ideally, you want him with a teacher who can help him to transition and learn how to interact with the other kids so that they all have fun together. This should not be a "scolding" thing, but rather a "fun/learning" thing.

As I said, there are other kids there who are struggling as well with the transition, but in different ways. It's normal; we can't expect a 3-year-old to transition to such a new setting without some bumps and wrinkles. So don't feel too bad about it, and try to convey a positive attitude to him. You can practice with him how to greet friends -- lots of "high fives" and "good morning!" greetings. Give him lots of praise when he seems to improve and "get it". Help him greet his friends once he arrives at school -- stay with him 1-1 down on his level until he says hello to everyone. Don't make it a chore, but simply help him do it in a good way, and again -- give lots of praise. And when he gets home, reinforce the positive steps he took during school that day, and practice "how we say hello" to others at school.

Please talk with the teacher(s) about the issue and ask for their help and guidance and suggestions. Good teachers will have come across this before (many times!) and will not be put off by it or scold him for it. And be happy that he's a sociable little guy!

Hang in there and let us know how it goes.


Dr. Heather The BabyShrink

Child Discipline: Discipline Tips & Techniques for a 3-Year-Old

Dear Dr. Heather, When my 3-year-old son hits, pushes, or bites me, my husband, or his 6-month old sister, or is throwing things or generally being threatening (he likes to act like a mad dinosaur), our response is to tell him he needs to calm down and spend some time playing quietly in his room. Theoretically, this gives him a chance to calm down, plus teaches him that the consequence of misbehaving is that he doesn't get to be around the rest of us. He gets to come back downstairs whenever he feels he's ready to be nice.

In the last week, though, he has started really testing how much he can pinch, slap and otherwise hurt his sister. This culminated in him biting her thumb - HARD. He had missed his nap and it was late afternoon, but otherwise things were calm, we were relaxing in the bedroom, and he had climbed up on the bed to give her a hug. While hugging, he apparently decided to bite her. Thankfully it didn't break skin, but it was close. Our response was to make him spend the last few hours of the day in his room playing quietly, although we let him come out whenever he had to use the restroom and to join us for dinner. We tried not to be overly dramatic about it, and talked about how he needed to stay in his room because he isn't allowed to bite or hurt his sister.

What are your thoughts on our discipline approach? Is it ineffective because he gets to play in his room (i.e. is a "naughty chair" a better approach?). I like the idea of having a consequence that is related to the crime - removal from the family area and time alone if you are not behaving as expected toward family members - but only if it works. And the recent biting and acting out makes me wonder, but maybe that's typical behavior toward a sibling. Also, he is really focused on talking about how I love him even when I'm mad, which of course I confirm and say I love him no matter what, all the time. But I worry we might be messing with his psyche in some unknown way. Okay, so I'm worried about that a lot! Your thoughts are appreciated.



Hi Cherise,

I must say that you sound very thoughtful in your approach; your thinking is right on. You seem to have developed a way of thinking through these situations that makes sense, based on your kid. Bravo!

I do think, though, that he's too young to spend an afternoon in his room; it's simply too long, at his age. The usual rule of thumb is about one minute of time-out per year of age, so he shouldn't have more than about 3 minutes in his room. Any more than that is overkill.

His biting should be met by immediate attention to the "bite-ee", plus an unemotional reminder to him about the rule against "no biting". He can then be removed for a time out, and when he returns, have him check on the "bite-ee's" condition. "Check and see if your sister is OK. She us how you can apologize." Don't over-react to biting, but make sure your approach is consistent. Overreacting is likely to INCREASE the behavior, so respond unemotionally, but firmly.

His asking about "Do you love me even when I'm mad?" is long as he's not using it to distract you from doling out some kind of consequence. I think it's great to introduce him to the concept that even though you may or may not like his behavior, or even if YOU'RE having a grumpy day (Moms are allowed!) love him, no matter what. And that people can get mad at each other, but then get over it; and still love each other the whole time. "Anger" doesn't equal "loss of love". That's a difficult -- but important -- concept to start conveying to your kids, even in their early years.

In terms of "naughty chair" vs. "time out"...I think it totally depends on your own preferences, the layout of your house, and last but not least....WHAT WORKS BEST for YOUR PARTICULAR KID. For some, a quick trip to the end of a hallway met by a closed door is enough to turn around the behavior. Other kids need longer time outs, or more specific locations that work best. Experiment. GO BY WHAT WORKS.....that's a BabyShrink theme.

There are also some relevant tips to look over in my "Biting Babies" post; click here to check it out.


Dr. Heather The BabyShrink Mom of Four, Parenting Expert

Child Discipline: Is My Little Kid a Controlling Bully?

Hi Dr. Heather, My almost-4-year-old is extremely controlling. She tries to control everything, including telling us to stop whistling or singing, and trying to control the other children at her preschool. She has always had an outgoing personality, and is very determined. We have tried ignoring the situation when she tries to control us, which has significantly helped. After weeks of us reacting the same way to a particular controlling behavior, she will subside. Now, the problem is when she tries to control the other kids in her school.

Is there anything we can do at home that will change her controlling behavior toward others when we aren't around to handle the situation? She is also a very sweet and affectionate little girl who loves to laugh. It is her mix of control and determination that is concerning us.

Thank You,


Hi Jenelle,

We've got a 5-year-old who tries to do the same kind of stuff. It is annoying, to be sure! We've done what you have; ignoring the behavior. Eventually, it works (even though it can take WEEKS, as you experienced!)

But when it comes to school behavior, it is a different story. First, arrange a meeting with her teacher to talk about it. Find out how frequently your daughter tries to be "bossy" at school. Ask if it's impacting her ability to make (and keep) friends. See if it's interfering with the teacher's lesson plans. The degree of your response will depend on the answers to those questions.

If it is a significant problem at school, you want to coordinate your approach with her teachers. Make sure everyone (including teachers' aids, enrichment teachers, etc.) is involved in creating the plan, and everyone responds similarly. The more everyone is "on the same page", the faster the offending behavior will decrease. You know your daughter responds to the "ignoring" approach, so use what works, just expanding it into the school setting. Then get at-least weekly updates as to how the plan is going.

You can also engage in some play-acting of the scenarios she encounters at school; ask her teacher to give you some examples of what tends to happen. Don't scold her, but rather wait until you have some time together. Tell her you heard from her teacher that there was a problem between her and another kid, and you want to learn what happened, and how to try to make it different next time. Then start a "pretend" scenario, asking her to play it out with you. Switch roles so that she has the opportunity to be the "boss-ee". Talk about how it feels to be bossed around. Play-act different ways of responding to similar situations, then ask how THAT felt. Again, try to keep any scolding tone out of your voice; she won't listen as well if she feels defensive. Sum it up with a quick rehearsal of how she can "ask people nicely", or "wait her turn", or "let people try things their way", or whatever the issue is.

And no, I'm not necessarily concerned about a determined and "head-strong" 4-year-old. She's at an age where you have the ability to characterize her attitude in either a positive (or negative) way -- and your attribution will "stick", over time. So look for the positive side of her personality. This dedication and intensity will help her be a leader and a hard worker. And look at it this way; you won't be worrying about your daughter getting bullied at school!

Try these suggestions on for size, and let us know how it goes.

Aloha, Dr. Heather The BabyShrink

Parenting Tips: What Should We Do If My Kindergartener Hates School?

This year, one of our sons is starting kindergarten. Being a second-born, he was "raring to go" to school; he talked about it incessantly over the last few months. When asked if he likes school, he replies, "I don't LIKE school. I LOVE it!" But the J-Man already knew his teacher before school started; she was his older sister's teacher two years ago. J-Man also had been going along for school pickups and drop-offs for the past couple of years; he'd had the chance to slowly get used to the school environment. It helped a lot. But his older sister was more tentative, when she started school. She had to learn the routine from scratch, and didn't have an older sibling on campus to help make her feel more at home. It took her quite awhile to get into the swing of things. For awhile, we fretted that perhaps we had chosen the wrong school, or she wasn't in the right classroom, despite the fact that her teacher was a gem.

I've gotten several emails lately from parents in a similar situation. "My child just started kindergarten. She acted like she was excited to go, but now that school has started, it's a real battle. Although she attended preschool with few problems, she's now clingy, whiny and tearful every morning. Her teacher says she does well after I leave, and when I pick her up, she's fine. But the next morning, all I get is crying, whining, and begging to stay home. What should I do?"

Of course it tugs at our heartstrings when our little "Big Kid" wants to stay home with us just a while longer. Their tears are surprising. We doubt ourselves, and argue over whether we made the right choice. "Maybe she's just not ready yet," we wonder.

But by and large, the protests put up for parents at the beginning of kindergarten are temporary, normal, and not cause for undue concern. We can help our kids get through the transition more easily if we remember where they are developmentally, and have reasonable expectations.

It's important to understand the developmental issues of a kindergartener. A 5 or 6-year-old still has, in many ways, a preschool mind-set. We expect a kindergartener to be a "Big Kid" and go to the "Big Kids' School", yet emotionally, they're still more similar to the squirrely preschoolers they were last year. Kindergarteners don't care much about social norms, fitting in with other kids, or achieving well academically. But our current system of education in the US asks them to do just that: act like a "Big Kid". Yet we can't realistically expect them to behave that way until sometime in 1st or 2nd grade.

So, what to do? Luckily, most kindergarteners have a rough time for a few days (or few weeks) at most. Then, they're off and running with the pack, happily ensconced in their classroom, with their teacher and new friends. Here's what to keep in mind until then:

Talk with your little one about school. Listen to her fears, and clarify any confusion she has about the day. Understanding the flow of the school schedule will help her feel like she knows what'll be happening after you leave.

Be positive, and don't entertain a discussion about possibly staying at home. Say, "I know you feel scared. But your teacher will take care of you, and I will be there to pick you up right after school. I know you can do it. You might be scared sometimes, but you'll have so much fun, too! What a big kid you're getting to be."

Rely on the teacher for advice and guidance. She (it's usually a "she") is an expert at this, and goes through this every year with several of the kids in kindergarten. She'll have suggestions for how to best handle drop-offs. Usually, this involves a cheerful goodbye, a quick kiss -- and then a purposeful exit.

Hold your own concerns in check until you've given your child (and the teacher) a few weeks to settle in. If your child is still upset about going to school, then it's time to schedule a sit-down meeting with the teacher to explore what might be going on. You'll also want to observe the classroom in process -- unobserved by your child, if at all possible. Even a few minutes watching her will help you decide if her protests are just meant to test you -- or if she's really unhappy there.

Most of the time, kindergarten fears and tears evaporate within a few weeks. By then, we're left tearfully wondering, "When did my baby get so grown up?"

What are your experiences with kids starting kindergarten? Care to share?


Dr. Heather The BabyShrink Mom of Four, Parenting Expert

Toddler Behavior: Body Awareness & Sexual Fears In A Young Boy

Dear Dr. Heather, My 3-year-old son gets upset with his penis gets erect. He says "mommy my pee pee go big." It's like a question/concern/fear all rolled into one statement. He then pulls down his pull-up or underweare (whatever he is wearing) and shows matter who is around. I tell him it is ok and it will go back down. Is this normal, and if so, when does this stop?


Hi Mel,

At 3 years of age, your son now has an awareness of his body. He also is sensitive to any changes in it, and worries whether the changes mean something is wrong. Children crave consistency, and when things are different -- they can get upset and worried.

Your son is not alone. Most toddlers and preschool-aged boys show an interest in the sensations and changes happening in their penis. (I guess it's an interest that starts in early childhood -- and never goes away!) It's a perfect opportunity to convey the overall message that:

Your body is a good thing; The sensations your body produces are healthy and normal; and It's OK to touch and explore your body -- in private, by yourself.

Talk to your son about his private parts. Use short, simple sentences, and don't try to convey too much at once. "Yes, sometimes your penis gets big like that. Sometimes it is small. But we don't take off our clothes in the living room. You can go look at it in your room, if you want."

Make sure nobody is giving him a negative message about his body; check with sitters, grandparents and others to see if this has "come up" with them, and how they've handled it. You want to make sure he's getting a consistent, positive message.

Of course girls show the same interest in their bodies; check out this post. It also describes the limits of "normal", and when to worry.

It's not too early to begin to send a healthy message to young children about their bodies. Aim for striking a balance; you don't want to instill a sense of shame or negativity about the body. Yet you want them to internalize the sense that their bodies are private and should be respected. It will help them to eventually feel a sense of physical integrity and safety, and to set appropriate boundaries later on.

Aloha, Dr. Heather The BabyShrink

Parenting Tips: BabyShrink's Hubby Referees Playground Battles

Mr. Dr. BabyShrink, introduced here, is the playground expert. So I'm letting him handle the following question, sent in by reader Ben: Dear BabyShrink, I have a 3-year-old son who gets pushed around on the playground. He is active but friendly. At the playground, my wife gets involved and tries to work out the disagreements that occur between our son and other children. She becomes too protective, and I think I can be the same way. When do we let our son take care of his own battles, and when do we step in?

Ben in LA

Dear Ben,

Here's What Not To Do When our daughter was about the same age, she was pushed flat on the ground by a little girl on the playground. I immediately went into “kick ass mode”, and yelled “Hey you, little girl” at the top of my lungs. I immediately saw that I had scared both girls. I tried to collect myself as the other parents gawked, and I realized I was over-reacting. I walked up to the girl who did the pushing and said, “Honey, we do not push at the playground. We wait our turn. When she's done, it will be your turn”. I could see that both girls didn't hear one word I said. My daughter was still startled and frightened by my tone, and the other little girl was just staring at this big man who had yelled at her.

After talking with our daughter later, she was able to say that she was most upset about me, and not the altercation with the other girl. I had to apologize for my over-the-top reaction, instead of helping her figure out how to handle other kids' pushing on the playground.

Here's What I Should Have Done In the future I will let my BabyShrink wife handle playground skirmishes. But in all seriousness, it would have been better to have stayed quiet, and allowed my daughter to handle it herself first. She was not in any real danger, and I was right there if she needed help. I think it’s natural for parents to over-protect and over-react in these kinds of situations. However, reacting this way, we are conveying the message that the little one cannot handle their own affairs. Parents get in the way and become the focus of the problem, instead of allowing the child to learn to resolve the situation on their own. Children develop incredible social skills by handling difficult situations on their own, as long as safety is not an issue.

Help Them Think It Through, For The Next Time After a parent witnesses “a situation”, it is helpful to talk to your child about the way she handled it, and help to brainstorm other ways of dealing with it in the future. We need to put our Neanderthal instincts in check as much as possible. Our kids will stop bringing these situations to us if they know we will over-react. Children will lie to please their parents, instead of discussing the difficult situation.

When parents become too emotionally charged, it usually does not lead to a good outcome. This is one of the most difficult aspects of being a parent: keeping your emotions in check. How do you do that? Take a deep breath and think about how your response will be heard by your child. "Good enough parenting" takes thought and sensitivity. Show understanding, and confirm the facts. Don’t make a scene. Children do get bruises on the playground - don’t have a coniption about it. Calmly teach your child how to verbally defend herself. And if that doesn't work, have her ask a parent or teacher for help.

I want to thank my friend Jeff for helping me edit this post. Jeff is the stay-at-home Dad to four kids, ages six and under!

Toddler Behavior: Dealing With Finger-Sucking in Preschoolers

Dear Dr. Heather, My daughter is five-and-a-half and starts kindergarten in the fall. Though she's not developmentally delayed, she is a bit emotionally immature. The thing is -- she's a finger sucker (the 3 middle fingers on her right hand). It doesn't interfere with her play, but if her hands are not busy, her fingers are in her mouth. Even when she talks, I constantly have to say, "I can't understand you if your fingers are in your mouth." Her 3-year-old brother is a thumb-sucker himself, so that could complicate any attempt to get her to quit.

Quite frankly, this drives me BANANAS. But I don't want to make her quit just to soothe my own self-consciousness or aggravation. If I do try to help her quit, how? Help me, BabyShrink! Ellen D.

Dear Ellen, While finger and thumb-sucking tends to subside naturally by age 4 or 5, it’s not uncommon for it to linger awhile longer. We expect a kindergartener to behave like other elementary-aged kids. But ask a teacher. Kindergarteners and first graders are really closer, developmentally, to preschoolers. At this age, kids still don’t care how they appear to others. Social pressure to fit in doesn’t start until closer to age 6 or 7. That’s what will probably be more important to her over time; what her friends say about the finger sucking. Until then, there’s not much you can do to stop it, and you’ll have to Find A Way To Ignore It. Look away, take a deep breath, and do something else.

Isn’t it amazing how well our very young children have the ability to find the exact habit that makes us nuts? My current struggle is with our 2-year-old. He doesn’t suck his fingers, (which probably wouldn’t bother me much), but he very deliberately throws food from his highchair. (And he has good aim now, too.) That’s what drives ME bananas. And the more I try to make him stop, the worse it gets. I’m not saying your daughter does it on purpose to annoy you. But I am amazed at how often our kids’ behaviors push exactly the wrong button with us.

Young children have such little control in their worlds. They’re physically small. They aren’t very coordinated. They’re not allowed to do a ton of cool-looking stuff. Their bodies and minds develop so quickly from day to day, they have no idea what they can (or can’t) accomplish at any particular time. And at any moment, they’re liable to get picked up without warning and taken somewhere they don’t wanna go. Their independence is developing, and yet it’s often thwarted. You can’t blame them for trying to establish some sense of power and control in their life.

That’s why they need self-soothing strategies; funky little habits that help them feel better about the lack of control and chaos they experience in daily life. These self-soothing strategies are also selected partly to aggravate us, as parents. It’s your kid’s way of saying, You may be able to have 90% control of me, but this 10% is all about me. The fact that it annoys you may be what makes it so powerful to your daughter. It’s her way of saying, I finally have some control here! I can get Mommy really bananas about this finger sucking thing!

As a child psychologist, I’m not usually worried about the young kids who have developed weird, annoying self-soothing strategies. I DO worry about the kids who are too compliant and too easy, at this age. Their budding sense of independence needs to be appreciated and given room to grow. So my advice is this – Pick Your Battles. And only pick the ones you can WIN. This one, you won’t win. I mean, is there any strategy or technique that actually works to make a kid stop sucking their thumb or fingers? And more importantly, is that technique worth the price you will pay, psychologically?

If you look up solutions to finger and thumb sucking on the internet, you will come across sites that suggest aversive techniques such as using nasty-tasting things, or even installing dental appliances. YIKES! While these techniques may physically stop the offending behavior, I’m really alarmed at the kind of emotional and psychological damage they could inflict. What kind of message does that send to your child? Your self-soothing strategies are so offensive to me that I will pull out the big guns to make you stop. Your efforts at learning to be independent are going to be crushed. This could set the stage for a complete withdrawal of the drive for independence, resulting in a regressed, passive child. It also could simply press the “pause” button on asserting independence, and then you’ll have major power struggles later, when you can’t simply pick them up like a football anymore. I’ve seen too many difficult therapy cases of 10 and 12-year-olds who are only starting to rebel after having their spirits crushed as toddlers. And then, the rebellion is far worse.

So hang in there, with understanding for the struggles your daughter is experiencing. You should always check with your pediatrician if you have any concerns, but by and large, weird and annoying toddler/preschooler behavior is almost always transitory, and almost always normal. And enjoy this last summer before her first “real” year of school! They grow so fast! (sniff!)


Dr. Heather The BabyShrink

Toddler Behavior: My Child Has A Fear Of Being Alone

Dear BabyShrink, My 4-year-old has a sincere fear of being alone. She’ll drop whatever she is doing to follow someone out of a room if she realizes she’s the last one in it. She is most definitely NOT SHY; she is extremely gregarious and lights up a room. When I ask her why she doesn’t want to be alone, she just says, “because no one’s there with me." She’s never mentioned monsters or bad dreams. Is this something she’ll grow out of? I’d like to eventually go to the bathroom by myself, if you catch my drift!



Dear Kristen,

Sounds like you've got an extremely social little girl on your hands!  I've got one of those, too.  I can certainly understand how she feels -- people are just more fun to be around! Especially when you can walk and talk and do all those other "big girl" things she can now do.  But it is important to encourage her to play by herself now and then, and this will stretch into longer periods of time of "self-directed activity", which will be really important once she starts school.

You can try starting really small -- while you're together, and she is feeling good and really engaged in some kind of play, say something like, "Oops!  I have to ....."(turn on the dishwasher, grab a glass of water, etc.).  Then leave the room, for like TWO SECONDS.  Then make a grand re-entrance..."See?  Here I am.  I just turned on the dishwasher, and now I'm back with you."  Then re-engage in play with her.  Slowly stretch out these mini-interludes so that she slowly but surely gets used to you being gone for bits at a time.  When she makes a leap (and you're finally able to go pee by yourself...what a concept!), make a big deal out of how GROWN UP she is for waiting nicely while Mommy pees, and how HELPFUL it is to Mommy that she can wait for a few minutes, and now....let's play TOGETHER some more! So you're using the time together as a reward for her being patient for a few minutes.

Try that, Kristen, and let us know how it works!


Dr. Heather The BabyShrink

'Truth' or Consequences, Preschool Style: How To Deal With A Child That's Telling Lies

Dear Dr. Heather,

I have a 3-year-old son who has been fibbing about his behavior at daycare. What can I do to make him understand that this is wrong? When we find out that he has told us a lie, we sit down and discuss the behavior, and give him a consequence of not being able to do something he likes, even if it's a day later.  Am I going about this all wrong?


Melissa from Texas

Hi Melissa,

I know it's rough with this age, but at 3, 4, or even 5, your little guy still doesn't REALLY know the difference between "truth" and "a lie". He's just not cognitively capable of understanding it. He's not 100% sure about the difference between dreams, TV shows, his own imagination, and "reality". That's why imaginary friends and the Easter Bunny get such good play with the preschool crowd.  So asking him about "the truth" is kind of like speaking a foreign language.

I asked my just-turned-five-year-old if the Backyardigans are real. He said "yes". (DUH, Mommy!)

"But are they made up? Like a story?"

"Yeah, a cartoon."

"So are they a lie?"

"Ummm.... I don't know!"  he said.

Your son may PRETEND he understands, because he sees it's important to you, but don't be fooled. Kids this age have yet to come to the stage of Concrete Operations, when they will start to understand the difference between the "real" truth, and what is false or imaginary.

So, make your decisions based on what YOU know to be the truth of his behavior, not what he "admits" to. If he protests that "it's not true", you can say, "Well, I know you WISH it wasn't true, but it was, so here's the consequence." Or one I used tonight, when my daughter said she already washed her hands, but I knew she hadn't: "I know you WANT to be done washing your hands, but I didn't see the scrubbing. Let's try it again, please." Don't make him feel like a "liar" or a criminal for telling stories, but let him know that YOU as his parent DO know the truth -- and will work on helping him understand what that means.

The most important issue here is to help your son think through those tough situations at school, to help him make better decisions next time. Ask him about what happened, in a curious way, without getting upset. "You got mad at the other kid and ripped his paper? How come? What happened next? Maybe next time, try and ask him to stop touching your paper, so you won't feel like you have to rip his picture."

Punishing him the day after the infraction is not likely to work, and more likely to cause a power struggle to erupt. He won't connect the punishment with the action that long after the fact. You're better off letting his teacher give the immediate consequence, if it's necessary, and then talking it over later with him.


Dr. Heather The BabyShrink

Parenting Tips: How To Handle a Sassy-Talking Preschooler

Dear Dr. Heather, I have a 3-year-old son and he is for the most part a good boy. However, he comes home from daycare upset because a friend at school tells him he isn't his friend anymore, or that he doesn't like him. My son takes it very personally and is starting to use phrases like "I'm not your friend" and "I don't like you" to my husband and me. How do we handle this? I tried talking to his teacher at school and she treats it like they are just typical toddlers. I just don't want this behavior to continue or get worse. We try time out, taking toys and TV away, but nothing seems to help.

Stacey Orlando

Hi Stacey, I know it's really hard when your precious little guy starts talking like that.  But don't take it personally.  He's just trying out the strength and power those new words have.  He sees how much impact they have at school, and wants to "try them on for size" at home.

Talk to him about the meaning you hear underneath the words....not the words themselves.  When he cries about his friends saying those things, say, yes, it's hard when friends say mean things.  I think your feelings are hurt.  We don't like to say mean things in our family.  But try not to dwell on it...the friendships of preschoolers are notoriously changeable.

If he says those things to YOU, try not to overreact, but use it as a lesson.  I think you heard your friend talking like that today, but I know you can talk more nicely.  If you're mad, say 'Mommy, I'm mad' instead.  Can we try that again? It's important that you don't get emotional about it. Remember that he's testing out some new phrases. Staying low-key about it -- but setting the limit about what's allowed (and what's not allowed) -- will help him to learn how to use his words most effectively (and politely).

Otherwise, you run the risk of putting too much emphasis on those powerful words, and he'll be tempted to get into a power struggle with you about it.

Let me know how that works!


Dr. Heather

The BabyShrink

Parenting Tips: Dealing With Sibling Rivalry That's Alive And Well

Of the tons of emailed questions you’ve sent me, one main theme is coming through loud and clear: SIBLING RIVALRY. Dear BabyShrink,

I thought our five-year-old daughter Emma was doing great with her baby brother, but she has hit him twice. His cries of distress alerted me to what was going on. I want to stop this behavior, but frankly I am stunned by it and don't know how to help the situation. Both times I had a discussion with her about how the baby is so little and how she could really hurt him even if she didn't mean to. She replied that she hated him and hated all little babies. I told her that she still should never hit a baby. BTW, she loves little babies, I just think it's her own flesh and blood she's having the problem with. Needless to say, I am not leaving her alone with him after the second incident.

What really breaks my heart is when Emma tells me, "I need you, Mommy".  She misses me and I miss our time together; I just returned from a visit with the baby to my aunt in Florida. I did tell her that her baby brother is getting bigger and bigger and will be more fun and take less of my time.

Emma has a sister who is 17 months younger, who has accepted her little brother it seems without problems.

Help ~~ Dara

Hi, Dara,

I think Emma should be given a medal for her great verbalization of her feelings. Yes, it's true! I wish ALL 5-year-olds could tell us so clearly how they're feeling. Probably not what you wanted to hear. But I am MUCH more worried about the kids who look like little angels all the time...but have secret plans up their sleeves. The kids who keep it all bottled up often have more trouble later on.

Little ones have incredibly powerful emotions, ones that are still unchecked. As they get older, they learn more “socially appropriate” expressions of them. A great deal of development comes along to mute and contain those feelings as they get older. But for now…watch out, and don’t be surprised.

But of course, you can't allow hitting. Never. Give her the opportunity, regularly, to explain how hard it is to be a big sister, to not one, but TWO siblings! I mean, I bet she did great with the first, but this one is really too much for her! ;) Empathize with her feelings; how the younger ones mess up her things, take away your attention, and get to go on trips. Sometimes it really stinks! Letting her have the space to verbalize her aggressive feelings will lessen her need to act it out physically.

Help her control herself by not letting her alone with the baby, as you've already done, but don't make her feel like a criminal for it. "I know sometimes you get mad at Baby, and the feeling to hit is so strong, but we don't allow hitting in our family, so I will keep you with me so that I can help you use your words about it, instead of hitting."

You can also talk to her about how you know she needs you, and you will always be there for her, even if you have to take care of the babies. Try to plan something special with her now – nothing fancy, like a regular weekly trip to the grocery store, even just 30 minutes, while the other kids are with Dad or someone else. Say, "I need you to come with me on our special weekly trip to find some good fruit for the house for the week! You are getting so good at picking fruit!"  or something.  It does not need to involve anything "special", beyond regular, predictable time with you.

The other thing: when the baby gets bigger, in many ways he will be MORE of a pain to her, since he will be mobile, getting into her stuff, and requiring even more from you. So don't set her up too much to be loving that! I think in many ways, the 10-20 month age is the hardest; they require so much direct supervision, since they are mobile, but not really trustworthy yet!

I promise, a fierce and wonderful love will grow between them, despite all of this, especially if you can help them manage their aggressive feelings towards each other.

I love Dr. Brazelton's approach to these issues, so for more see his book on sibling rivalry.


Dr. Heather The BabyShrink