Smart Love


By The Piepers

Will your philosophy hurt my child later? Q: My wife and I worry that if we follow your philosophy of child-rearing, our children will grow up entirely unprepared for the "real world." For example, if we give our toddler a hug instead of a time-out when he is throwing a tantrum, aren't we teaching him that he can get attention by having a fit? Doesn't it mean that when he gets older he'll expect other people not to care if he throws tantrums when he doesn't get his way? We get that it is more enjoyable to parent the way you suggest, but we're not clear that it prepares our children for the world. P.G., Evanston

A: There is no logical reason to try to prepare your toddler for the "real world." Just as it would be unthinkable to teach him calculus, this is not the moment in his development to try to get him to respond to frustration in an adult manner.

Your son has a child's mind and views the world very differently. For example, he believes the way you make him feel is the way he should feel. So if you isolate him when he has a tantrum, he believes that when he is upset he deserves to be alone and made to feel extra unhappy. As he grows older, he will be more likely to be unsympathetic toward himself and others in the face of life's inevitable frustrations. On the other hand, a comforting response to his tantrums will teach him to respond to frustration without losing his equilibrium.

Interestingly, there are numerous animal studies that support the claim that consistently warm responses to children actually prepare them better for the "real world," One recent study found that baby rats that were licked more by their mothers handled stress much better as adults. The increased maternal care activated a gene that regulated stress hormones and kept these hormones under control. So when your children are unhappy, comfort them knowing that you will be making them happier now and also helping them grow into stronger, more resilient adults.

Our sons have grown apart, should I force them to play? Q: My best friend and I have sons the same age-they are both 4 years old. When the boys were infants and toddlers, my friend and I did everything with them. The problem now is that my son, Casey, no longer wants to play with her son, Sam. Sam is going through a fragile stage. If he can't have the toy he wants, he cries and throws toys and even tries to hit my son. My son says Sam is "no fun." I have tried telling him that it is just a phase and that Sam needs his help and understanding, but Casey remains convinced that he doesn't want to play with Sam anymore. If I bribe him with ice cream, he will allow me to invite Sam over, but then Casey is unhappy. I don't think Casey should be allowed to hurt a friend's feelings just because he is going through a difficult phase and I want to be able to continue to spend time with my friend. What do you advise? B.R., Wheaton

A: Your son is way too young to be expected to overlook his friend's consistently bad moods for the sake of your friendships. If Sam had only one or two bad days, certainly you could explain to Casey that everyone has a hard time now and then, so give Casey another chance. Given that Casey has been difficult to be with for some time, though, you need to acknowledge to your son that you can understand why he might not want to play with Casey right now. Your son is making an age-appropriate and healthy choice to want to play with children who don't cause a lot of conflict and unhappiness.

We suggest that you simply tell your friend that Casey and Sam seem to be in a period in which they will do better playing with others. Then make plans to see your friend alone at times when the boys' fathers can baby sit or the boys are in preschool or day camp.

Is a 5-year-old able to cope with the stress of reel life? Q: We have a 5-year-old who wants us to take her to movies she says friends are talking about. If the movies contain more violence and death than we think she is ready for, we tell her she can go when she is older.

But what do we say about movies that are in a gray area? An example is "Finding Nemo," which starts with the mother being eaten. Then little Nemo is taken from his father and shut up in an aquarium.

She really wants to see the movie, but we don't know whether it will be a positive experience for her. T.L., Chicago

A: It has always seemed unfortunate to us that so many books and movies intended for children use the death of one or both parents as a plot device. We agree that, given her age, it is difficult to say whether your daughter will find the movie more enjoyable than upsetting.

Probably the best thing to do in this case is describe the plot to her and ask her how she feels about going to a movie in which the mother is eaten and the baby fish gets taken away from his father (you can add that the baby fish does get back to his father in the end). Young children are unlike adults in that knowing the ending doesn't spoil the fun. Make clear to your daughter that if she doesn't feel she wants to see a movie with that plot, she can watch it on video when she is older.

If your daughter does decide to see the movie, at least she will not be taken by surprise by the sad parts.

If she enjoys the show and does not subsequently have nightmares or become more anxious than usual, she is old enough to make decisions about what she will enjoy if you inform her ahead of time about potentially disturbing parts of the story. However, if she decides she wants to see the movie but then becomes upset in the theater or in the days following, then for the time being she needs to be sheltered from exposure to sad or scary stories.


Questions? Here's your chance to get some answers to your pressing parenting questions. If you're trying to figure out how to handle some aspect of your child's behavior, send your question to Chicago Parent Q&A, 141 S. Oak Park Ave., Oak Park, IL 60302; or e-mail it to Answers to past questions from readers are available at Click on "Archives," then "Smart Love."

Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D., and William J. Pieper, M.D., have a new book, Addicted to Unhappiness: Free Yourself from Moods and Behaviors that Undermine Relationships, Work and the Life You Want (McGraw-Hill, 2002), about helping parents and other adults improve their own lives. They also wrote the best-selling parenting book, Smart Love (Harvard Common Press, 2001). The Piepers have spent more than three decades practicing psychotherapy with infants, children, adolescents and adults; counseling parents; and supervising other mental health professionals. The parents of five children, the Piepers live in Chicago.

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