How can I protect my overly curious toddler?

Smart Love - January 2005


How can I protect my overly curious toddler? Q: My 18-month-old girl is wonderfully curious and outgoing. The problem is that she has no fear. We live in an apartment building that has a lot of dog owners. When a dog is on the elevator with us (which happens all the time) she rushes over to pet it. Once or twice a dog has growled or acted unfriendly, and I am really worried she will be bitten.

I have told her over and over that not all dogs are friendly and that we need to ask the dog’s owner if it’s OK to pet the dog, but she gets so excited when she sees a dog that all my warnings go out the window. I hate to start punishing her, but I can’t seem to get through any other way. How can I stop this behavior? L.H., Chicago

A: Just as you would not expect to explain to an 18-month-old that it is dangerous to run into the street and then rely on her ability to keep herself safe from traffic, there is absolutely no good way to explain to your daughter that strange dogs can hurt her.

Children under 3 do not have the mental ability to grasp hypothetical statements such as, “If you go near that dog, it could bite you.” Because she cannot understand future dangers, your daughter needs to be protected in a way that does not dampen her confidence and curiosity. Punishing her would confuse her and make her feel inadequate, but it would guarantee that she won’t run up to the next dog she sees.

The best solution is to make sure you always have her hand or are able to scoop her up out of harms way if a dog is in the elevator. You will keep her safe without putting a damper on her age-appropriate desire to explore her world. After she is 3, she will be able to understand that some dogs aren’t friendly and she will want to stay safe by staying away from dogs she doesn’t know.

How do I deal with my son and his homework lies? Q: What do you do when your child doesn’t tell you the truth about handing in homework?

I check with my 13-year-old son every day about whether his homework is done and he always says it is. I just went for a parent-teacher conference, and his advisor told me that he is inconsistent about getting homework done in each of his courses. And, of course, when he doesn’t do his homework, he can’t do well on tests and quizzes. As a result, he is doing quite badly.

I have talked and talked to him about the importance of doing well in school to his future life, but I am obviously not getting through. I am thinking about grounding him or taking away his TV privileges until I get a good report. A.J., Oak Park

A: Actually, this is a fairly common problem. Like younger children, teenagers often bend the truth to avoid unpleasantness.

The solution is not to punish your son, which will only make him feel alienated and more inclined to hide bad news from you, but to show him that you will help him and work with him.

Let him know that you realize that at this moment in his life he needs help getting his work done. Tell him that you are going to contact each of his teachers and request that they e-mail or fax you his homework schedule and contact you immediately if an assignment is not handed in.  Teachers are usually willing to do this for parents of struggling children.

Offer daily to help your son with assignments he finds difficult. Insist that he do his homework first before he watches TV or talks with his friends on the phone. Go over the homework with him to make sure that it is done well and that he understands the assignment. Most important, remain friendly and positive so that your son sees you as being on his side.

Over time, the good habits you instill will become second nature to him and he will be able increasingly to assume responsibility for getting his work done well and on time.

Should I say no to my daughter’s piercing? Q: What is your view about body piercing? My teen wants to get her nose pierced. I find the idea totally repulsive, but she insists that lots of her friends have done this and she thinks it looks “cool.”

At first, I just said “no,” but she has been begging and begging. I told her I was worried that she would pick up a disease from an unsterilized needle, but she says the place her friends go for piercing guarantees the procedure is sterile and that I can check that out if I want.

It goes against the grain to just say “no” in an arbitrary way, but I don’t have any other real arguments except that I just don’t like the idea. She says I am just out of touch and old fashioned. What’s your advice? S.H., Naperville

A: If body piercing is not against your religious beliefs, and if you find that it can be done safely, consider allowing your daughter to go ahead.

Just as you probably let her wear clothes that are not exactly to your taste as long as they are appropriate for her age, the fact that you find nose piercing unattractive is probably not a sufficient reason to forbid her from doing it. Moreover, unlike tattoos, which are extremely difficult to remove, piercings will grow together and disappear if the wearer stops wearing the jewelry that is keeping them open. So your daughter always has the option of changing her mind if she decides she no longer likes the look.

Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D., and William J. Pieper, M.D., are the authors most recently of  Addicted to Unhappiness: Free Yourself from Moods and Behaviors that Undermine Relationships, Work and the Life You Want (McGraw-Hill), which helps parents and other adults improve their own lives. They also wrote the best-selling parenting book, Smart Love: The Compassionate Approach to Discipline That Makes You a Better Parent and Your Child a Better Person (Harvard Common Press). 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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