Parenting expert Vivian K. Friedman, Ph.D., is a child-adolescent psychologist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) Department of Psychiatry. She has been an expert source for publications and news services such as Women’s Day, Parents, Parenting, Child, First for Women, Good Housekeeping, Scripps Howard News Service, The Washington Times and the Associated Press.

September 5, 2003

BIRMINGHAM, AL — Parenting expert Vivian K. Friedman, Ph.D., is a child-adolescent psychologist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) Department of Psychiatry. She has been an expert source for publications and news services such as Women’s Day, Parents, Parenting, Child, First for Women, Good Housekeeping, Scripps Howard News Service, The Washington Times and the Associated Press.

Since 1988, she has written a weekly parenting advice column for The Birmingham News. In her column, Friedman answers questions on everything from peer pressure, self-esteem, sibling rivalry and discipline to coping with disabilities and bullying. This fall, Friedman compiled nearly 130 of her Birmingham News columns into a new book Raising Children: Selected Columns from The Birmingham News.

Friedman earned her master’s degree in clinical psychology from Harvard University and her doctorate in clinical psychology from Case Western Reserve University. She completed an internship at Boston Children’s Hospital/Harvard Medical School in clinical child psychology.

Examples of Friedman’s Columns

Q: I have a 10-year-old son who is chunky but not really fat. He is not very active and is not participating in any team sports this year. He would really rather read or play chess. He spends a lot of time on his computer. The problem is that the kids are calling him fat and this upsets him. What can I do as a parent to help him?

A: On the playground or the lunchroom at school, where groups of children gather with relatively little supervision or structure, children vie for power and social status. Some, but not all children, will attack any vulnerability in a peer because to put another child down raises their status.

While you are focused on your son’s minor flaw, as far as teasing is concerned, it matters little if the child has a real vulnerability or not. The peer group will find something to poke at. Without a visible shortcoming, they might say something like, “Where’d you get that ugly shirt?” The attack is really about pecking order, not about flaws.

Helping your son to understand that the teasing is about power hierarchies will take his focus off his body and prevent his becoming insecure. He can then either learn to talk back in a way that will give him status, or decide that he doesn’t care and will choose to let it go.

The kinder, gentler children in the class do not participate in the hurtful behavior, except maybe to be drawn into group behavior from time to time. This means that only the more aggressive and meaner children are involved.

This makes it harder for a gentle child like your son to fight back. The aggressive peers may come forward to bother your child without your child’s having provoked it in any way. You might advise your son not to encourage more attacks by seeming vulnerable.

On the other hand, some of this kind of attacking talk is just banter among children who do not know how to talk to each other at a more meaningful level. They “rib” each other as a means of acknowledging each other’s presence. They do not really intend to hurt their peer.

For this kind of banter, it might be helpful to help your son develop a thicker skin. You might help him to see that it is just a way to say “Hey, how are you?” and that means little more than that. He can respond by changing the topic to something more neutral that is of interest to both boys. A socially appropriate response to “You’re fat,” might simply be, “I got an electric train set for my birthday. Would you like to come over and see it?”

If his weight is a factor in the teasing, he might benefit from some increased exercise. Without making an issue of his weight, you might ask him to play tennis with you or to hike in the park on weekends. By making it quality parent/child time, rather than a weight issue, you avoid reducing his self-esteem at the very time you are trying to boost it.

Many children who are not athletically talented at the team ball sports do quite well at other physical endeavors such as swim team, track, or karate. All of these provide exercise and exposure to other children who are potential friends.

Children don’t need to be wildly popular to be happy. They need one or two peers who share their interests and who are kind to them.

Q: Two of my friends have children in the same first grade class as my son. They have asked the teacher for copies of the workbooks that the children use in school. They do this so that they can drill their children in the evening to make sure that their sons will get 100 percent on the tests. Now I feel like I ought to do this too, but I don’t really want to. I worry that if my son doesn’t get perfect grades, (his grades have been 90s) his self-esteem will suffer. We are a two-working-parent family and I feel that if I drill schoolwork in the evenings it will not leave time for anything else in our relationship. Do I have to ask for the workbooks too?

A: Parents and children need to find a balance between work and play. While parental interest in academic achievement is important and parental tutoring and overseeing of homework is admirable, parents can go overboard with too much of a good thing.

The parent who wants his child to master the basic first grade skills, and tutors his child towards this goal, is making a wise investment. The parent who competes through his child to have the brightest child or the one with the highest grades, is setting his child up for anxiety. If the child is not as superlative as the parent wishes, the parent creates low self-esteem in a child who might otherwise have felt pretty good about himself.

Children are not all alike in temperament. Some children are driven to perfection, while others are content with high but not perfect grades. The parent’s job is to steer the child towards the middle ground, pushing a child who is too laid-back and reassuring and calming a child who is overly driven. Attainment of knowledge is not measured by perfect test scores alone. The child who misses one word on a spelling test, can learn that one word rather quickly by reviewing it when the test comes home. This may involve considerably less time than drilling a child before the test on the whole list, if he gets nearly perfect grades on his own anyway.

The issues are different for a child who struggles to learn. This child may need parental help in addition to the classroom time spent on the material. For the struggling child, it is even harder to find the balance between work and play. This child needs to review schoolwork each night, but even he needs some down time.

While first grade is a year of learning skills that will form the foundation for later learning, it is also important for parents to keep a sense of perspective. As long a child is learning to read, to add and subtract, and to share and take turns, he has mastered what he needs to know. When he applies for a job, no one is going to ask whether he got an A or a B in math in first grade.

Grades at this point should be just feedback to the parent and a means of communication from the teacher to the parent. They are neither a trophy nor a predictor of life success.

Reinforcing school-learned skills at home can help your child be successful. However, for the child who is already successful, time spent fostering the emotional bond to parents may be more important.

The child who feels loved only for his achievement often rebels against achieving. The child whose parents are proud of his best effort is better able to put out that best effort over the long haul.