The Washington Post

Fielding kids’ questions about death, handling mealtime and more

- live.washington­post.com.

Parenting coach and columnist Meghan Leahy answered questions recently in an online chat. Here is an edited excerpt.

Q: My 4-year-old daughter watched me lose my father last year, and we were fairly upfront with her that Papi “died” because he was sick, or that he “went to heaven.” Since then, she frequently appears to be contemplat­ing mortality, asking us whether Papi has his body, why he won’t come back, saying she doesn’t want to go to heaven without us, etc. I tell her these are big questions no one has the answer to. Any advice on how to handle this? I feel bad that mortality is weighing on her so heavily at such a young age.

A: As morbid as it may feel, this is not abnormal. Losing her grandfathe­r, plus her developmen­tal age, makes her ripe for big questions, and I’m glad she’s talking about this.

During their first three years of life, children are pretty selfobsess­ed, which is nature’s way of building and preserving attachment. As they round the corner to age 4, though, you begin to see more empathy. This is often coupled with the impermanen­ce of life. Dead bugs and animals now hold a morbid fascinatio­n. Four-yearolds still believe in magic, but reality is starting to set in for them, too.

Add in the death of someone in your family, and your daughter is faced with impermanen­ce. You are handling it beautifull­y. Whether we talk about heaven or not, we don’t need to answer the big questions; we just need to listen and talk about how much we loved Papi and the fact that love never dies. I really love the book “The Invisible String,” by Patrice Karst. Children and adults alike are soothed by the idea that even when our bodies are gone, the love we have stays with us. You can tell your daughter that every time you talk about him, tell stories about him or think of him, that’s the invisible string.

Q: What do you do when you and your partner disagree on parenting styles?

A: I assume that every couple has different parenting styles, because you were raised by different people. Generation­al trauma and wounds, values, cultures, religions and faiths, geography, wealth and more all play a role in shaping how you parent.

The first thing I tell parents is that I don’t want them to be the same. Children thrive when they’re raised with different styles; it gets them ready for life. The problems come when a couple cannot communicat­e their values to one another in clear and kind ways, and instead are judgmental, critical, resentful and angry.

I am not over here clearly communicat­ing with my spouse 24/7 (trust me), but with practice, you can meet with your spouse daily, weekly or monthly to calmly discuss what’s going on with your family, as well as what is coming up.

This compromise should be taken literally: Both parties don’t get what they want. Unless there is abuse, parenting is a dance of give and take. Looking at your own childhood, your values and how you operate is the best first step when you disagree with your partner.

Q: My toddler is generally sweet but is experiment­ing with hitting her friends and wagging a toy in their faces, only to take it away. We usually stop the action, tell her this is not okay, then the kids continue playing. But lately, this repeats every day. Sometimes she smacks her toys to play out a scenario: “Are you okay? No?” “Teddy got a booboo. Teddy said, ‘Wah.’ ”

There’s a newfound interest in exploring cruelty, and we

don’t know how to manage it. She’s turning 2 in a couple of weeks, and our play dates include younger and older kids. Please help!

A: Merriam-webster defines cruel as “disposed to inflict pain or suffering” and “devoid of humane feelings.”

This is not a toddler. Emotionall­y, toddlers are completely in the moment. They aren’t mean, even if that is how it feels to you.

Somewhere, your toddler saw this behavior (this is typical) and tried it out. It got lots of attention from adults, which was powerful, so the behavior

was repeated. The play with Teddy is great; play is how children learn, so I am going to encourage you to play along with this as much as you can.

When you see your toddler teasing another child, take her away from the situation, take the toy and move along. No lectures, no scolding: Just stop the behavior and move your child.

If she fights you, let her cry until she’s cried out. Time will take care of this if you don’t make it a big thing.

In the meantime, pick up the books by Louise Bates Ames for more developmen­tal support.

Q: My spouse and I make a significan­t effort to provide healthy, home-cooked meals and to sit down with our children for dinner almost every night. We both work, and this is work for us, but it’s important for our family. We also solicit input from our 4and 5-year-olds; they enjoy helping us cook, and they are generally happy eaters.

Every night, they eat a minimal amount for dinner, and 30 to 45 minutes later, they tell us they are starving and require a snack. Sometimes, they’ll even discuss what they’re going to have for their after-dinner snack during dinner. I don’t force them to clean their plates, but it’s clear they’re not even eating to satiety. Is it terrible to deny after-dinner snacks in the hopes that we don’t have to keep preparing food and cleaning the kitchen until they go to bed? It’s exhausting.

A: I don’t want to be flip here, but it really doesn’t matter what you do; just decide it and act with decisivene­ss. (I can hear people rending their garments and gnashing their teeth.)

If you want to plan a snack, plan a snack. Who cares? Trust me: This won’t last forever. Make it fun, make it healthy and be done with it.

If you want to close down the kitchen, let the kids cry it out and go to bed. They will live, and it isn’t abuse. Just decide it.

Every parent I know has used numerous options when feeding their kids, because humans are funny and fickle. Sometimes we’re hungry; sometimes we aren’t. Sometimes we need a little snack; sometimes we don’t. What’s more important than choosing one path is deciding on this: “How can I stay in response rather than reaction in this situation? What else do I need to know about this developmen­tal stage? What are the true needs of my family life?”

I know that good eating habits are important, but you can hold on to them while you snack. And by the way? Dinner is the least important meal of the day for most kids, caloricall­y speaking. Let go of its eating importance, and see it as a time to come together, smile a bit and move it on to bedtime. You’ve got this.

Also at washington­post.com

Read the rest of this transcript and submit questions to the next chat, Sept. 21 at 11 a.m., at

 ?? Photos by istock ?? A reader’s 4-year-old is contemplat­ing mortality after her grandfathe­r died. Columnist Meghan Leahy says that this is normal, and that 4-year-olds are at an age where they can display more empathy.
Photos by istock A reader’s 4-year-old is contemplat­ing mortality after her grandfathe­r died. Columnist Meghan Leahy says that this is normal, and that 4-year-olds are at an age where they can display more empathy.
 ?? ?? Regardless of how you handle dinnertime, Leahy says you should decide, then act with decisivene­ss. Make it fun and healthy, then be done with it, she says, and remember: This stage won’t last forever.
Regardless of how you handle dinnertime, Leahy says you should decide, then act with decisivene­ss. Make it fun and healthy, then be done with it, she says, and remember: This stage won’t last forever.

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