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Ask Mother Wit

A place to get advice

Dear Mother Wit: My Daughter Has Picked Up Some Bad Habits From Her White Friends

My 12-year-old daughter is a great student and generally well behaved. I have to address some normal adolescent moments from time to time, but nothing unusual. We live in a wonderful suburb, where we moved for the excellent school system. But I’m worried that my daughter is starting to act too White.

Our community isn’t very diverse, though we feel welcome. And my daughter has some very good friends—two White girls her age—that she’s grown up with. They’re nice girls and I’ve worked hard to build friendly relationships with their parents. I wish we could live in more diverse community, but this is where the best schools and other family-friendly services are located.

My husband and I are both African-American professionals, college-educated, and very culturally aware. We have wonderful Black art throughout our home, we belong to an African-American church across town, we play all kinds of Black music. And we’ve gone out of our way to make sure that our daughter has had diverse books, dolls and other toys throughout her life.

I’ve sometimes wondered if she’s missing out by not having close Black girlfriends, or learning traditions like clapping games and double-dutch. But I’ve pushed those concerns to the back of my mind. What’s bothering me lately is that she’s exhibiting behaviors that aren’t appropriate in our home. We’ve spoken calmly with her from time to time, even jokingly, about how the rules that her friends live by don’t always apply to her or to us. We discuss racism in open, honest and age-appropriate ways, and she pays attention.

But lately she’s been whining when she doesn’t get her way, and talking back to her father and myself in ways that are just plain rude. She slams doors and talks at me in a tone of voice that would have gotten me slapped in the mouth by my mother. She seems to be adopting that sense of entitlement that her friends wear as part of their White identity. Even her voice changes: if you close your eyes, you’d swear you were hearing a young White girl. She’s been rejecting anything we say that suggests Black history, culture or pride lately—even putting up her hand and claiming that she “is tired of all that racial stuff.” We talk about what’s happening in the news around the country, but she just ignores us or tries to put her headphones on—even at the dinner table! When we scold her, she whines, “Well, Jillian’s parents let her do it! Why are you so unfair?”

I don’t want to be paranoid or petty, and I don’t want to get physical with her the way my mother did me, but I want to nip this problem in the bud. The world we live in isn’t going to cut her any slack for growing up in a fancy suburb. All that matters is her Blackness, not her zip code. I don’t want to make her feel limited—we’ve always told her she can be anything that she chooses, and succeed at whatever she puts her mind to. It was great being able to point to the Obamas when they were in office. But the current administration is making it clear that White is right, and I’m desperate to get my babygirl straightened out before she runs into trouble and learns the truth in some horrible way.

Dear Frustrated Suburban Mama:

Guess what? I’ve heard versions of this same story from so many parents like you. You are not alone! As Black people have been able to “move on up” and live in nice neighborhoods with wonderful schools, we’ve faced the challenge of how to balance our kids’ sense of Black identity with the whiteness of their neighborhoods, schools and social circles.

First, remember that your daughter is 12. She’s an adolescent, almost a teenager, and the one thing they are guaranteed to do is test you and work your last nerve on the regular. In your case, it sounds like she’s trying to figure out her identity in relation to her parents, her friends and her environment. She might be able to better relate to some things that we consider “White” simply because that’s what she has always lived with.

Second, while the way she’s acting and speaking to you might feel like disrespect, she probably doesn’t mean it that way. That doesn’t mean that you don’t speak to her about it, though. Just try to keep the racial part out of the discussion for a while. Explain that her tone of voice, whining, etc. is not acceptable. Encourage and praise her when she acts and talks in ways that are more normal for your household.

One thing you can discuss (when everyone is relaxed and calm) is that the world is full of different cultures (again, try to leave the Black-White aspect out of it for now). And you can give examples of how Jillian and her other friends interact with their parents, explaining that things are different in your home and that when she is there, she needs to get with the program. Don’t come down too hard on her and try not to sweat the small stuff. She might really be struggling to keep up with her friendships, and soon she’ll be wondering where she fits into the dating scene at her school. So she’s facing her own sources of racial and cultural stress on top of the normal pre-teen identity struggles.

You sound like you’re doing all the right things by demonstrating a commitment to your culture in your home, church and activities. Keep presenting those opportunities, but in a laid-back way that doesn’t make her feel you’re forcing her. I know—that can be so challenging, but it’s also part of bringing up teens, who pull away from us in a natural attempt to figure out who they are beyond their relationships with their parents and other authority figures.

Don’t ridicule or criticize her when you see her acting White. Accentuate the positive and focus on the things she’s doing right—good grades, not getting in trouble, etc. And while it might seem impossible, you also have to accept the fact that all of us are impacted by our environment in one way or another. So while you’re seeing her behavior in terms of Black and White, she’s just trying to adapt, fit in, be accepted and figure out how to move through a very different world than the one in which you grew up.

Interestingly, it’s young people who grow up in mostly White environments who often want to attend Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Include that in the options you present when that time comes, but keep it low-key and chill.

And cut yourself some slack. Your daughter sounds like a “normal” suburban adolescent, and I’m sure you and your husband are doing a fine job of raising her. We can’t control the choices our children make when they grow up; we can only love them, nurture them, and encourage them to find their own way.

With love,

Mother Wit

Dear Mother Wit: “I’m A White Dude. Can I Call Out An Abusive Black Parent In Public?”

Dear Mother Wit:

Is there any role for White parents (such as myself) who see an example of prolonged emotional abuse by a Black parent of their child in public?

Today, for example, I saw a Black mom screaming at her two-year-old daughter for half an hour to sit down and shut up. As the child was screaming and crying, her mom kept forcing her out of a hug and down into a seat. The mom said, “You can’t have candy! What did I say?? Why are you making a scene?? Goddamnit, what’s wrong with you?” The girl didn’t want candy anymore; she just wanted to be held and for her mom to stop yelling.

First and foremost, I’m a White dude, and I understand any angry confrontation would be completely counterproductive (and every Black person on the bus would rightly consider me a racist asshole). It just hurts, and I want to know if there’s any reasonable intervention, or if it’s strictly a matter for folks like me of supporting folks like yourself and waiting for institutional change.



Dear Jim:

First, thank you. Thank you for caring and for speaking up and for asking from a place of respect and humility. That doesn’t happen often enough, so I want to appreciate you for your concern and your question.

It can be the hardest, most heart-breaking thing to witness a scene like the one that you’ve described. When I see that, first I have to calm down my own “mother bear” instincts to correct the parent and comfort the child. That usually takes several deep, deep breaths.

That helps me to realize that I’m not looking at an adult and a child. I’m really looking at two children. The older one, the mother, is a big child who was never loved or nurtured in a way that makes it possible for her to be empathetic, loving, and nurturing to her son or daughter. I recognize that they are both frustrated. Maybe deep down, the mother wants to do better, but she has no idea how to start because she doesn’t even know what it feels like to receive that kind of tenderness, so how would she know how to give it?

It’s still heartbreaking, but seeing it in that way sometimes helps me to calm down. Still, there’s the natural desire to “fix” the situation, especially for the very young child who is simply trying to get her needs met.

I don’t have an easy solution for you, Jim, because you’re right: the fact that you’re White—and a man—makes it hard for us to see anything else. The way that society works, we’re so surrounded by the fact that White and male equals power and often oppression, that sometimes it can be challenging to view you simply as another concerned human being. And when we as Black people are corrected or criticized by a White person—especially in the area of parenting—we’re not likely to be receptive or responsive at all.

But don’t let this make you feel hopeless. Even if it’s uncomfortable, I hope you stay alert and aware and I hope you keep caring and wondering what you can do. Because it’s possible that maybe one day you CAN do something to make a difference. Maybe there will be a situation where you’ll find it appropriate to acknowledge the fact that you’re White and a man, but that you’re also a parent and you know that’s the most frustrating job in the world. And maybe you can share how you know that sometimes parents just need somebody to understand what they’re going through, or that they don’t have all the answers, or that sometimes their children need more than they can give them right then. You might be able to share a story about how your child/ren drove you to the brink and you weren’t sure what to do, and that it helped just to have another parent say, “Hey, I get it. I’ve been there. I’ll be there again. And I just wanted you to know that you’re not alone.”

Once I was in a fancy department store, in the gift section with my 5-year-old son and my 3-year-old daughter (who refused to stay in the stroller). I was holding my daughter’s hand and my son pulled away and knocked an expensive glass decoration onto the floor. I was already tired, hungry and frustrated. And I started to grab him to get us away from all of the beautiful, delicate, expensive stuff that looked so scary to me because all I could think of was that he’d break something I couldn’t afford to pay for. And suddenly, this woman appeared right in front of me. She was an older woman. She was White, with silver hair, looking like somebody’s grandmother.

She looked me in the eye and spoke in a soft, soothing voice. She said, “It’s hard, isn’t it?” I nodded, wanting to cry. She nodded and said, “I understand. He’s a good boy. You’re a good mother. It’s going to turn out fine.”

And just like that, she was gone. I swear, Jim, I thought she was an angel because I hadn’t seen or heard her approach me and I didn’t see her leave. But she saved me from my own fear and frustration. She slowed me down just enough to take a breath, and her reassurance was everything for me.

Because those are the moments, Jim, where a little bit of human sunshine can break through the clouds and we can acknowledge our differences while connecting on our common ground. Where we just reach out to help someone because we understand and we just want them to know that we care. Without judging or criticizing or trying to fix it (and that can be the hardest thing). Without scolding or correcting or acting like we know something they don’t (even when that’s the truth). Just reaching out for a quick minute to say, “Hey. We’re different in a lot of ways, but some parts of parenting are the same for all of us. And I just wanted to tell you that you’re not alone and it’s going to be okay.”

I have a feeling you’re going to be that kind of “angel” for somebody—maybe even for more than one somebody—Jim. So please, keep watching and caring and waiting for that moment when you can break through the barriers and help somebody make it through a tough, tense moment of parenting. You’ll be making the world a better place when you do.

With love,

Mother Wit

Dear Mother Wit: “It Makes Me Feel Sick To My Stomach When I Spank My Niece”

Dear Mother Wit,

My sister got pregnant at a very young age by a man much older. She decided to keep the baby but as soon as she gave birth, as you can imagine, she became disinterested in parenthood. Four years later, my sister ends up pregnant with a second child, still living with my mother, no income, and not trying to do anything for herself or her children. My niece was getting ready to start pre-k but we all knew that my sister didn’t want to be a parent and just needed a reason(s) for us to continue taking care of her by continuing to have children.

My 6-year-old niece came to live with me and everything was smooth for about a month. She throws these AWFUL fits that I just can’t handle. When she was living with my mother she lived in a house full of people and discipline only existed when she made someone angry enough to spank her. She got whatever she want and did whatever she wanted. I haven’t been able to break that mentality and punishments do NOT work. She is  throwing a mega fit as I’m typing this because she has to go to bed early (because of another fit that she threw this morning). I’ve taken things away, tried time-out, talked, spanked, meditation corners, EVERYTHING and nothing works. She would also do this when she lived back home but anytime she would throw a fit they would just give in. She does it at least once of week at the slightest “no”. She back talks her teacher at school and constantly provokes me.

I’ve hit her out of anger but it makes me sick to my stomach every time. I never thought I would be the type of parent to spank.  I can’t take it anymore and I don’t know what else to do. Please help!



Dear Cameron,

I can feel and understand your frustration. Experts say that “every behavior meets a need.” Even dysfunctional behaviors. You know that your niece’s “need” is to get her own way, and her experience is that acting out will help her achieve that goal. You have a challenging job ahead, which is to find a way to change her “programming” and move into more productive behaviors.

Even if you don’t have a lot of money, are there resources for family therapy for the two of you? I think it might help (at least help you) to talk with an objective professional who can offer insights into your niece’s behavior, and help you brainstorm some solutions.

I’m wondering why your niece’s default seems to be rage at such a young age. Has acting out been the most effective way for her to get attention in the past? With kids, it’s easy to be casual when they’re acing right, and invest much more of our time and energy when they’re acting out.

Also: are you noticing patterns or triggers that set her off? If you can, try to pay attention to that. The hard part might be to remain calm yourself, and to (temporarily) forget about trying to be “in control” of your niece. It might seem counterintuitive, but take a step back. Which battles is she picking—and why?

Sometimes as parent figures, we have to examine our own wiring and unconscious responses. You listed many approaches to discipline and punishment…what would happen if you changed the game? If you hugged her and asked her what was bothering her, while speaking in a soft, calm voice and letting her know that you love her unconditionally, but that her behavior choices aren’t working in her favor. It never hurts to try something different—especially when it’s something that the child doesn’t expect from you.

Take a break from fussing at her and focus on praising what she’s doing right, even if it’s something really basic like getting dressed on time for school or eating a meal or doing a chore. Keeping her off balance by changing your behavior in positive ways can help to restore the balance of power to you. You want her responding to your energy rather than the dynamic you have now, where she is controlling everyone with her fits.

What would happen if you ignored her next fit—if you acted like nothing was happening? How would that make you feel? Could you pull that off?

Please also consider medical issues—sometimes allergies or eating too much sugar can contribute to misbehaviors in children. Have you had a doctor check her out and make nutritional recommendations?

Children will always try to engage adults in power struggle—that’s how they grow. And adults need lots of support and different ways to move out of power struggle and into maintaining the energy of being in charge—but not necessarily in a forceful way.

Finally, nothing is more frustrating than rearing children, and your niece sounds more frustrating than most. You need constructive, healthy ways to deal with your own frustration before interacting with hers. Deep breathing, a glass of tea, listening to soothing or uplifting movement, taking a minute to stretch and give thanks for what’s working in your life, even if it feels like everything is falling apart—those are some of the things I taught myself to do when my kids worked my last nerves.

Please check back in and let me know if any of these things work, and what you learn about her behavior, okay? I’m in your corner and cheering you on!

With love,

Mother Wit

Dear Mother Wit: My 3-Year-Old Is Hitting Me!

Dear Mother Wit, I have a 3-year-old son who hits me, scratches me, pulls my hair, throws things at me, punches and spits at me. Before my son was born I didn’t believe in spanking. I was never spanked. However, I was also a well-mannered child, the complete opposite of my son. I have tried every tactic to tame my son’s behavior such as reasoning with him and explaining why his behavior is unacceptable and the consequences for them, I’ve restrained him when necessary and I also use the time out method, I have been consistent with discipline, but nothing seems to work. Most times, my son tends to really hurt me. He has pulled hair out of my scalp, he has scratched the cornea of my eye and has caused me to lose most vision in that eye for a week. I just don’t know what else to do. Spanking seems to be the only option. What do you suggest?

Bruised & Confused

Dear Bruised & Confused:

Pinching, biting, scratching, and pulling hair is all normal behavior for toddlers because they haven’t learned how to control their emotions yet, they act out of a natural instinct, and children LOVE attention whether they get a positive or negative reaction.

You have a complicated situation. And you didn’t say, but I have to wonder: is your son witnessing or experiencing any kind of violence in your home or anyplace else? What I mean by that is, children who are around physical violence—especially those who see their parents or other adults fighting—grow up learning that this is normal and acceptable. I hope you’re not in any kind of abusive situation and that if you are, you get help right away.

Now let’s focus on your son. Your son is still a toddler at three years old. So when he feels angry or frustrated or even scared, he might hit, pull hair, and all that. And the worst thing you can do is spank or hit him (or do any of the things he’s doing to you) to punish him or to “show him how it feels.” Even though I know it can be tempting. You don’t want to hit and yell because you’ll be modeling for your son that this is an acceptable response to situations that make you angry.

You need stay calm and in control, and stop his behavior by removing him from the situation. If you have to, restrain his hands to protect yourself.

Some children hit their parent to get their attention and then we reward the behavior by teaching them that hitting is a good way to get it. But to get them stop this negative behavior you have to be consistent in your body language and tone. At a young age they don’t really understand a lot of talking so you have to firmly use simple words like “NO!” “We don’t hit!” “Hands are not for hitting.” Try doing this while holding their hands and counting backward slowly from 10. After doing this enough times your child will not like being confined and the message will catch on.

I noticed that you didn’t say when your son acts violently with you—are there things that make him angry, or is he doing these things randomly?

Acknowledge your child’s feelings and let him know that it is okay to feel mad but hitting hurts and it is not okay. Show your child what to do instead of hitting. Show him how to touch people gently and to use appropriate words to express his frustration. (Use the helpful feelings chart below) Give him positive reinforcement when he is gentle and kind.

A helpful feelings chart,

I want you to notice when your son acts like this. Write it down—take some notes with details to see if there might be a pattern. Also take him to the pediatrician and ask your doctor if there is anything going on medically or with your son’s health that could be causing this violence.

Next, think about what your son likes to do—toys or games he likes to play with, TV shows he likes to watch, things he likes to eat, etc. Explain to your son—calmly and gently—that hitting, spitting, punching, pulling hair—those are not acceptable ways to let you know if he’s feeling angry, tired, hungry, frustrated or scared. Teach him the words for those feelings, and encourage him to use them. At his age, you might also want to try a feelings chart that the two of you can use to see how he’s feeling, and then you can talk to him about better ways to handle those feelings.

Right now, your son doesn’t have healthy or safe ways to let you know what’s he’s feeling. Talk with the doctor, and if you feel helpless, ask for help. Ask if there are books you can read, videos you can watch, even classes you can take (parenting classes can really help in tough situations). The good news is that you’re not the first mother to experience this and it doesn’t mean you’re doing a bad job. You just need to take control of the situation before it gets even worse.

Your son might need more gentle, affectionate, soothing touch. Find out what calms him. Hold him, rock him, and make sure he’s getting plenty of love. And he might be a child who uses his hands to express himself. Look for fun, safe ways to help him express his feelings without hurting others (or himself).

Good luck! Be sure to check back and let me know how it’s going, okay? You might learn some things that can help other parents, and that’s what this is really all about.

With love,

Mother Wit

Dear Mother Wit: “My Two-Year-Old Is Telling Me ‘No’!”

Dear Mother Wit:

I popped my daughter on the behind today. I feel bad, but I don’t know how else to get her to pay attention to me.  She’s 27 months and taking me through the terrible twos.  When I tell her to do something, she says, “No!” with an attitude.  How does a child that young even know how to have an attitude?  The more I try to correct her, the more stubborn she gets.  I love her so much, but I cannot have her being disrespectful.  I wasn’t raised like that.  My mama would have popped me in the mouth if I acted like that.  If hitting is bad and my daughter won’t listen, what am I supposed to do?  I need some advice because I’m fed up!

Dear Fed Up Mama:

I remember feeling exactly that way with each of my children.  They can work your nerves like a full-time job with overtime, can’t they?  

I know what your daughter is doing feels like disrespect.  But at just past two years old, she doesn’t understand “disrespect” the way that we do.  She’s just learning to be her own person and a natural part of that is starting to see herself as separate from you.  It’s easy to feel angry and frustrated, but this is an important stage that’s gonna set the tone for your relationship with her in the years to come.  

Here are a few things you can try:

First, as crazy as it sounds, she’s not disrespecting you!   She’s learning the power of “NO,” which is something she needs to know as she grows up.  Right now it feels bad because she’s defying you.  If you can see it that way, try to take a deep breath and move out of feeling angry.  The calmer you can be with her, the more power and authority you will have.

Let her know the rules—explain things simply in a way that she can understand.  Have a plan in place so that when she gets stubborn, you already know how you’re going to handle it.  Let her know what will happen if she doesn’t do as you say.  For instance, “When mommy tells you to do something, I need for you to do it.  The first time.  If you don’t listen and do as I say, then you’ll have to go to time-out.  That means you can’t play with your toys or watch TV or anything fun.  You have to sit still and stare at the wall.”  The hardest thing about discipline can be to follow up on what you promised.  So be prepared to put your plan into action.  

Now, she’s gonna test you to see if you mean it.  So when she acts out, punish her as you said you would.  You don’t have to yell, scream or hit her (even though you might want to).  You’ll have to do this more than once to teach her what she needs to know.  The important thing is to stick to the plan and let her know the pattern: if she acts out, she gets punished.  

If your daughter cries or gets upset or throws a tantrum, try to remember that she’s not being “bad.” She’s too young to know how to express her feelings, especially frustration or anger.  She might also be feeling sad.  When her punishment is over, talk with her calmly.  Explain that she needs to do as you say. Give her a hug and tell her you love her.  Remind her that you’re in charge, and that you know she can do the right thing.

Also praise and compliment her when she does things right, especially doing as you say.  Catch her being good and let her know you’re pleased.

The “terrible twos” won’t last forever.  They’re a normal and healthy part of your daughter’s growth, no matter how frustrating it feels to you.  Find ways to release your stress and focus on making sure she knows you’re the Head Momma in Charge.  This is where you’re teaching her how to treat you.  And it’s important because the next time she acts this way, she’ll have hormones and be asking for your car keys.  But don’t worry—I’ll be here for you when that time comes!

With love,

Mother Wit.

Too Tired To Play

Anthony Gordon Asks:

My wife and I have a 2 (soon to be 3) year old boy. He is an only child for the most part and we have no plans for any more. He goes to daycare 5 days per week however when we get home after picking him up, he wants to play with us as though we are his playmates from daycare. We work long hours and are usually exhausted when we get home. We bought him a dog to play with and that has helped some. We force ourselves to have some play time and read to him nightly before bed. Any suggestions?

Mother Wit says:

Dear Anthony,

It’s hard to come home after a long day of work and then have to spend more time and energy playing with the little ones. Lord knows, there were plenty of days when I was just too tired to get on the floor and play horsie or sit on one of those little chairs and pour another pretend pot of tea.

When my children were young I swear sometimes I wished they would magically disappear. Not forever – but just for a little while so I could read the paper, watch the news, chat on the phone or just unwind for an hour or two after work.

Some of my friends believe that they have to constantly entertain their children every waking moment of the day, but this mentality doesn’t leave time for relaxation and it can create stress. Your job as a parent is to be a role model, not a playmate.

So I learned to fill my children’s “play cups” half way and taught them how to fill it the rest of the way themselves. Sometimes I would sit down with them for a specific amount of time just to get them into an activity – like puzzles or some kind of arts or crafts – that they could continue without me. And then, I would slowly remove myself. When I would give them a little of my time then I found they were more receptive to doing things by themselves.

My oldest son was a little more of a challenge because he was my little shadow. So I would plan little activities or projects that he could do in close proximity to me and let him know the he had to play quietly while mama was doing her thing.

The other thing that worked was allowing for what I call “creative chaos.” As I took a “Mommy Break” I’d create some Kid Space where they could make a mess to keep them preoccupied for long periods of time. One time I lined their room with an old shower curtain and let them finger paint. If you look around the house you can find all kinds of old things that will keep them stimulated. I found that this approach taught my children boundaries, how to self soothe, build focus, and to be independent. Try this approach and see what happens.

How Do We Deal With Our Children’s Constant Fighting?

Vincent Powell asks:

Mother Wit we need your help! Me and my wife have two children and they are always fighting over their toys. The younger one always starts trouble with the older child. Sometimes their fights get out of control. They bite, wrestle and hit each other with objects. I’m afraid they are going to seriously hurt each other one day. I know that sibling rivalry is normal but this has gotten out of hand. We take things away from them and we separate them when they fight but neither tactic has worked. How do we get them to stop fighting?

Mother Wit says:

Sibling rivalry is definitely a normal part of growing up. It’s as old as the Bible story of Cain and Abel. It’s only natural for them to compete for attention, toys and other resources. But it’s your job to protect your children, even from one another. How they behave toward each another is their first social lesson in how to behave in a group and in public.

When my kids had their little squabbles over toys I taught them to handle it themselves. I would tell them, “I’ll be back in one minute. If neither of you can figure out how to share the toy then it will be locked away where neither of you can get to it. Try this technique and what you’ll be doing is giving your children two choices – work it out themselves or face the consequences if you have to work it out for them.

Help! I Yell At My Kids Too Much!

Cheryl T. asks:

I’m a single mom. My kids are 9, 7 & 4. I yell at my kids too much. I try not to but it’s hard because I don’t have much help with them. They don’t always listen when I tell them to do things. I’ve only hit them a few times but I don’t really believe in beating butts. My mother raised me and my brother that way and I hated it. But these kids of mine are wearing my patience thin. How can I stop yelling so much so that I don’t stress myself out and them too? Thanks.

Mother Wit says:

Dear Cheryl,

First let me say that I admire you for wanting to make some changes in how you interact with your kids. A lot folks don’t always realize that they need to make changes so they just go on doing the same old things and dealing with the same old problems.

Believe me, I know that children can work your nerves. But a whole lot of hollering doesn’t help you or the situation. When my kids would lose their minds I used self-control methods to distract me from the tension of the moment and help me keep control over the situation. Sometimes I would look up to the ceiling and pray, “Lord Jesus please help me. I don’t want to hurt these kids. Father please give me the strength to endure.” Sometimes I would count to 30 and just breathe. Sometimes I would leave the room and close myself off in a closet or bathroom until I was calm.

Cheryl, it’s normal and human to have moments when you get angry. But yelling makes the situation worse and teaches your little ones that it’s okay for them to act that way when they get upset. You might think this is a bit radical, but when you do yell, apologize to your kids and tell them something like: “Mama was frustrated. I’m sorry I yelled at you.” Then, tell them what you’re going to do differently next time. This models for your kids what they should do when they make a mistake.

Make a plan to help you stay calm. Identify what makes you feel like yelling. Write down what your kids do that causes you to lose your temper. Be specific. Include when and where the behavior occurs. Identify what happens to you before you yell so that you learn to recognize your warning signs and take steps to calm down before you begin yelling. Write down what you will do differently such as taking a deep breath, leaving the situation for five minutes or using positive self-talk. Staying calm is not easy, and you have to work at it.

Dear Mother Wit: My Child Is Playing With His Poop!

Dear Mother Wit,

I’m a young mom trying to raise two young boys.  I don’t know what to do about my son’s behavior. He only does this at school.  Today he threw his poop in another stall and I soooo bad wanted to kill him but your posts keep reminding me that I could be his first bully.  Please help.

Dear frustrated Mama,

Thanks for writing.  I realize this behavior is frustrating and just straight up nasty, but don’t hurt him.  The fact is, and this may sound strange, “diaper digging” is perfectly normal behavior in young children.  Every behavior meets a need: before you punish your son, investigate.

Before we can explore some tips to help guide your son through this phase, we gotta figure out the WHY behind your son’s poo play.

When a child plays with their own poop that means he or she is struggling with attempting to master his or her own body, to control their own functions, and is quite curious about what his body is producing.  And this is actually a sign that your son is interested in exploring potty training.  Your son might be taking his poop out of the diaper because he doesn’t like the feeling of being dirty, or because his nose is stimulated by the smell, or because he is simply curious.

How old is your son, by the way?  If he is playing with his poo past age 4 or 5 then you should be concerned and talk to his pediatrician.  I did a little bit of medical reading for you and found that there might be some medical causes.  Here’s a list for you.  Write these down on a sheet of paper, take it to your pediatrician and ask him/her to check to see if your son has any of these issues:

PROTOZOAL INFECTIONS can cause rectal digging behavior.

PICA the ingestion of non-foods, may be caused by nutritional deficiencies.

ENCOPORESIS (the medical term for chronic constipation, impacted stool and soiling) causes abdominal discomfort that is relieved by rectal digging.

HEMORRHOIDS are caused by straining to evacuate the bowels, and are the source of itching and pain around the anus, which leads to anal exploration and rectal digging.

RECTAL PROLAPSE occurs when the rectum slips out of position, and can be caused by prolonged encoporesis or low muscle tone in the pelvic floor.  Symptoms include fecal incontinence and a sensation of incomplete bowel evacuation, which lead to fecal smearing behaviors.

There may also be some underlying psychological issues at play.  I’m not suggesting that this is the case in your son, but we must explore this, Mama.  Fecal smearing past age 4 or 5 may be a sign of developmental delays or post-traumatic stress.  If so, your son may be engaging in this behavior as a form of communication.

So why do some children communicate with poo?  A number of shrinks and pediatricians have explain that it does the following:

— It gives a child the sense of control over his body and environment when other areas of life are out of control.

— It gives a child a sense of ownership over his actions.

— It helps a child express feelings of anger, frustration, helplessness and powerlessness.

— Allows a child to avoid unwanted social interaction.  And since you’ve indicated that he’s only doing this at school you may want to investigate what kinds of social interactions may be going down between him and other children or with his teacher.  He may be trying to communicate that something negative is going down in that environment.

— Allows the child to comfort himself, or it may be part of an obsession that is getting out of control.

So what can you do?

1. You have to use his poop play as a teaching moment and try to calmly say, “No playing with poop. Poop stays in the diaper or in the potty. We play with toys.”  Don’t get pissed off.  If you do that then your son knows that you will get pissed off every time this happens.  So he’ll keep doing it to get a lot of attention from you.

2. Limit your son’s access to his feces. Dress him in onesies, zip-up pajamas, or overalls.  This will at least buy you a few extra minutes to respond.

3. Closely monitor his bathroom routine, changing him or her soon after pooping or peeing.  And be sure to praise him once he has successfully used the bathroom.  Often parents only give a child negative attention when things go wrong.

4. Give him something messy to play with: clay, finger paints, shaving cream, and bread dough. Give him LOTS of praise for playing with this messy stuff verses the poo.  LOL.  A child that is deprived of sensory input who is then given frequent periods of supervised play with soft or sticky substances with strong smells to satisfying the craving for odors, can be alleviated from the need to play with poo.

If your son is not getting enough appropriate touching and stimulation of his senses, then frequent periods of supervised play with soft or sticky substances such as clay, shaving cream or bread dough can alleviate his need for handling feces.  Substances with a strong smell may also satisfy any craving for odors.

Remember, every behavior meets a need.  You need to move beyond your very understandable feelings of disgust and frustration and focus on what is behind your son’s behavior.  Your son’s behavior is a message that you need to focus on decoding.

Don’t hit the kids, hit the keyboard.  For alternatives to hitting ask Mother Wit!





How To Talk To Children About Mike Brown, Ferguson & Matters of Race

Dear Mother Wit,

Because of all of the news about the cop killings of Mike Brown, Eric Garner and John Crawford, my son is having nightmares about being murdered by police. How do I make him feel safe when he feels like his skin puts him in clear and present danger by law enforcement? What’s the appropriate way to talk to a kindergartener about racial profiling, police brutality and the criminalizing of Black bodies and reassure him while preparing him adequately for the reality of how he’ll be perceived as a threat?

— Ferguson Nightmares

Dear Ferguson Nightmares,

Alas, this is the plight of Black and brown parents here in America: we have to raise our children to live within and honor a system that, at every turn, consistently reminds us that we are not respected by it. This becomes glaringly apparent when protests against police brutality reach fever pitch and we Black folk voice our frustrations with tactics that target our families.

There are protests (like that surrounding the death of Mike Brown, whose shooting death by a cop sparked mass demonstrations in Ferguson), there are angry demands (like the call for a change in policing tactics after the killing of Eric Garner, whose strangling death at the hands of police officers was caught on cell phones) and there’s lots of chatter about how incredulous these cases are (like the shooting death of John Crawford in a crowded Walmart, while he was holding a toy rifle police thought was real). All that anger about the injustice of it all plays out in one big, loud, emotional stereo on our TVs, radios, social media, and haunts our dinner table conversations, and rightfully so. We’re crying out and trying to figure out how to cope with it all—maybe even figure out how to fix this thing.

The problem is that those emotional conversations often happen in front of our kids, sans the filter necessary to help them process it all. We’re talking around them, but not to them. The result: a 5-year-old child is left to consider all the scary details of these incidents—shootings, chokings, being murdered for playing with toys, riots, tear gassings, scary police officers who kill people for being Black—all on his own. And since five-year-olds are developmentally incapable of reasoning and separating fantasy from reality, it is only natural that they would gather up all the anger, emotion and snippets of information and conclude they and the people they love are in imminent danger.

How do you help your son deal with it all? Consider these steps:

Encourage conversation and listen to him.

It’s important you give up that old Black folk saying, “Children are to be seen, not heard,” and give your son the opportunity to talk about it all. He doesn’t have to be in adult conversation, but he does need for you to give him the chance to express his fears and beliefs in a safe space where his feelings are validated, he doesn’t have to check his emotions and he can count on the person who loves him most—his mother—to help him process it all. For instance, if he says, “Police are bad, they kill Black people and they are going to kill me, too,” you can counter that by acknowledging that there are police officers who do bad things to people for a number of reasons, but that an overwhelming number of them are there to protect and help people. If you really listen to what he’s saying, you can allay his fears, dispel what is unreasonable and give him the tools he needs to cope.

Answer his questions about the high-profile police brutality cases with facts.

Remember: your child’s understanding of what happened to kids like Mike Brown, Trayvon Martin and the like comes from a myriad of sources—family, friends, nightly news, fellow 5-year-olds—and the “facts” can come fast and furious, sometimes contradicting one another, sometimes embellished. It’s important, then, to let him both say what he knows and ask questions. Then answer him with basic facts and honest, developmentally-appropriate conversation that considers his feelings about the matter. Acknowledge that the details are scary, but that the chances of something like that happening to him really are low. Remind him, too, that you don’t have all the answers and that this world is not perfect, but that you are going to do everything within your power to protect him, love him, and be there for him if he feels upset or doesn’t understand what is going on.

Monitor what he sees and hears.

News coverage of both Eric Garner and Mike Brown’s deaths is graphic and full of imagery that is wholly inappropriate for kindergarteners. Simply put: seeing a dead body laying in the street or watching a man be choked to death is not something 5-year-olds should be consuming. Ever. If your child has seen it already, explain to him what happened, and put it into age-appropriate context for him: “I’m really sorry you saw that; I’m sure it was scary to watch. We are going to wish good thoughts for their families and hope that anyone who did anything wrong gets punished for it.” Then, here comes the important part: turn off the TV and radio and let your child get the information he needs about the case directly from you. Remember: the news is meant for adults. It’s up to parents to craft news into age-appropriate conversation.

Get him involved.

Racism, police brutality and racial profiling show us the absolute worst in people; the shock, sadness, hostility and anger can be heartbreaking and overwhelming, even for adults. But we know that raising our voices—whether by signing petitions, protesting or exercising our right to vote—helps not only contextualize ways to fix what’s broken, but also gives us the opportunity to work with others to make some kind of difference. This is cathartic. Give your son the chance to do the same: consider helping him write a letter to the families of Mike Brown or Eric Garner. Let him listen to music that speaks to social issues—think Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” Raheem DeVaughn’s “Nobody Wins a War,” or Jill Scott’s “My Petition”—and discuss their context. Share books and poems of hope: think Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise,” or Langston Hughes’ “I, Too, Sing America,” and talk to him about their meanings, too. Let him know that ours is a mighty people that has come a long way, and with each passing generation, we’ve gotten stronger—and it is possible to continue doing so.  With your love, care and attention, surely, he will come around—and be the better for it.


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