Marisa Fox; Additional Reporting By Nubia DuVall; LaToya Evans
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Doctors, Dentists, and School Nurses Say:
Slather 'em in sunscreen. "Eighty percent of sun damage occurs before the age of 18," says Jody Levine, a pediatric dermatologist in New York City. Later in life, it shows up as wrinkles and skin cancer. "Apply sunscreen during your morning routine. It doesn't have to be sunny for people to wear sunscreen, as damaging rays are always shining, even through window glass," she says.
Go low-carb in the morning. "Make kids eat a real breakfast, not a sweet breakfast," says Judy Bearman, the nurse at St. Mary's Episcopal School, in Memphis. "The simple carbohydrates in doughnuts, strudels, and juice enter the bloodstream quickly, giving them energy but leaving them groggy by 9 A.M. I see so many stomachaches in my office mid-morning, and the kids are just hungry." Ideally, children should get protein (like a scrambled egg) and some fat (at least 2 percent milk) to keep them full until lunch.
Don't share all the gory details. When it comes to possibly unpleasant situations, like getting a shot or pulling a tooth, "give children only as much information as they can handle," says Hope Zimmerman Waxman, a pediatric dentist in New York City. "Kids get anxious when you present too much detail. We might say, 'You have to come back to wash a tooth' or, of a shot, 'It's like a mosquito bite.'"
A mild fever is no reason to panic. "Parents have fever phobia, where they look at a number, not at the child," says Stephanie Freilich, a pediatrician in New York City. "If your child is older than two months, a low fever in and of itself is not dangerous. It's the body's way of fighting something." (For children under two months, consult your doctor, because different rules apply.) There is no need to rush to the ER when the mercury inches above 98.6. But you should be concerned if your child also has severe diarrhea, is vomiting, or appears lethargic.
Don't offer a kids' menu at home. "The child needs to adapt to the parents, not vice versa," says Peter Waldstein, a pediatrician in Beverly Hills. "Parents say to me, 'I make dinner and little Johnny doesn't eat it, so I make him a grilled cheese.' I guarantee if you don't make the grilled cheese, he'll eat dinner. Every child has an appetite."
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Therapists, Behavioral Experts, and Psychologists Say:
Don't compare your kid with Chatty Cathy. "Many parents come in and say, 'All of my friends' children are speaking,' and worry because theirs aren't," says Steven Blaustein, Ph.D., a speech and language pathologist in New York City. Speech and language skills develop at different times for different kids. "And a number of factors go into it. I don't expect a two-year-old to master S, L, or R. Sure, some can, but that doesn't mean they should all be doing it," Blaustein says.
Taking scissors to her own bangs isn't the real problem. When your child acts defiantly—chopping off her hair, answering only to "Shirley"—a parent's instinct may be to home in on the behavior rather than the reason behind it. "In most cases, the behavior is usually just your child's attempt at solving a problem," says Brad Sachs, Ph.D., a family psychologist in Columbia, Maryland, and the author of The Good Enough Child (Harper Paperbacks, $15, amazon.com). "It is the best solution she's come up with." Instead of lashing out over the haircut, ask probing questions that get to the heart of how she's feeling. Maybe self-esteem is the issue, not an urge for a bob.
Don't fight his pint-size battles. "If your child talks about being bullied, don't immediately become the lioness, ready to confront the other child's parents. Let your child tell the story and simply say, 'Whoa!' or 'Wow!'" says Wendy Mogel, a psychologist and the author of The Blessing of a Skinned Knee (Penguin, $15, amazon.com). Then ask what the child did about it and suggest strategies. "Barring physical or deep psychological harm, don't do your child's bidding for him. If he doesn't learn from an early age how to resolve his conflicts, how is he going to fare later in life?" says Mogel.
Conquer molehills, not mountains. "Give your child little challenges so he sees himself as capable and effective," says Alison Frungillo, a therapist in Madison, New Jersey. "Let him tour the school before his first day or meet a counselor before camp. It builds self-confidence, especially in kids who suffer from separation anxiety."
Pick one activity, not seven. "Well-roundedness is not always a virtue," says Mel Levine, M.D., a cofounder of the All Kinds of Minds Institute, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, which helps kids with learning difficulties. "A child trying to be good at everything may not discover who he is. The most successful people have highly specialized minds."
Be careful with labels. Common nicknames like "bookworm" and "jock" can carry negative connotations, bringing to mind a nerd and a kid who is valuable only on a field. "So much depends on word choice," says Mel Levine, who suggests using adjectives instead of nouns. "Say he's 'scholarly' or 'well coordinated.' You don't want anything to sound like it is wired into the kid. 'You are a blank,' and therefore beyond his control. It turns into a self-fulfilling prophecy."
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Teachers and Administrators Say:
Making beds can help them make the grade. "Children who have responsibilities at home have the easiest time being responsible students," says Deen Logan, a first-grade teacher at Christ Presbyterian Academy, in Nashville. Give your child regular, age-appropriate chores. It will teach him to follow instructions and complete tasks—helpful when he's organizing his science project the next day.
A preschool doesn't get your child into Harvard. So your toddler mixes up her P's and B's every so often. "Don't take everything so seriously when kids are young," says Michal Fox, a psychologist and the head of the Early Childhood Center of the Ramaz School, in New York City. "What might seem huge and monumental in pre-K will eventually work out." In other words, stop sweating the small stuff—your child's coloring skills at age three, for instance. "When you relax, you can see whether there's a real issue or whether your child just might benefit from another approach," says Fox.
Empty their backpacks. You might find last week's ham sandwich that your child refused to eat. Or, more important, you might find permission slips, homework assignments, and notes from teachers. "Sometimes kids fail to tell you there is something important to sign, and they are the ones who suffer the consequences the next day at school," says Gayle Kraut, a teacher at Washington Elementary School, in Tiffin, Ohio.
Let your child fail. "It seems counterintuitive to parents, but don't be afraid to let your child fail. This means letting your child go to bat for herself, without your trying to change reasonable consequences," says Jennilee Miller, a middle-school teacher at Immanuel Christian School, in Springfield, Virginia. Miller says parents sometimes try to negotiate a grade change for a child who goofed off instead of studying. The long-term result? The child never deals with real consequences. "The greatest gift we can give our kids is accountability," says Miller. The same goes for homework: Don't do those math problems for her. Instead, say, "I see a few mistakes. Do you want to find them?"
Read, read, read. "Practice reading at every opportunity," says Rhonda Compton, a third-grade teacher at Cane Ridge Elementary School, in Paris, Kentucky. "Read books, by all means, but also read cereal boxes, street signs, magazines, and lotion bottles. It's the foundation for all other learning and sets the stage for your child getting ahead in every subject matter."
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Athletic Instructors and Dance Teachers Say:
Do it for the love of the game. "To get your kids to embrace sports or some other after-school activity, it's important not to overstress accomplishment," says Anne Josephson, founder and director of the Josephson Academy of Gymnastics, in Los Angeles. "If you stress competition over enjoyment, no one wins." And your child will probably burn out and hang up her leotard.
Not everyone needs a trophy. "Parents don't want their kids to experience pain, so even the losing team gets a medal," says Josephson. Letting kids think that everyone wins every time isn't giving them a realistic view of the future. "Losses teach children to cope," says Josephson.
Be the cheerleader, not the coach. "The number one job of parents is to encourage the kids in their sport. No matter what level of expertise a parent has, he shouldn't give his child coaching advice," says Matt Daly, the director of tournament training at the Tennis Club of Trumbull, in Trumbull, Connecticut. "The more a parent tries to instruct, the more it can frustrate the kid." If you want to help your child practice, ask the coach for advice (or run your techniques by him) when your son or daughter is not around; your child will be happier not knowing that Dad is dissecting his swing, says Daly.
Start ballet before other kinds of dance. "Ballet is a good foundation for all other forms of dance. Grace and poise are established early on," says Charlotte Blume, owner of the Charlotte Blume School of Dance and director of the North Carolina State Ballet, in Fayetteville, North Carolina. "Young children exposed to basic ballet will perform better in every other type of dance, as well as in sports."
Don't watch practice. Whether it's during dance class or soccer drills, parents sitting on the sidelines are distracting to their children. "If the parents are around, the children aren't paying attention to what they're doing or to the teacher. They are wondering if Mom or Dad likes what they're doing," says Suzanne Pomerantzeff, director of the Academy of Ballet Arts, in St. Petersburg, Florida.
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Camp Directors Say:
Quit calling camp so often. "Everyone wants updates. But if the camp says to wait three days before you call to see how your child is, then wait," says Howard Salzberg, director of Camp Modin, in Belgrade, Maine. "Don't call Friday at 11 P.M. and again at 7 A.M. on Saturday. You make staff trip over one another, and, ironically, it slows down response time."
Be meticulous when filling out forms. "So many parents leave crucial information off the health and personality forms," says Salzberg. "Camp directors hate finding out at the last minute about allergies and anxiety disorders. Most camps will not reject a child with an emotional or medical issue. Be honest."
Don't take a vacation from medication. "Parents often think summer is the time to give a child a break from medication," like attention-deficit-disorder meds, says Lisa Samick, director of Camp Keshet, in New York City. "But a child will still be asked to follow rules and make new friends, and these are difficult for any child, let alone someone with special needs."
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Miscellaneous Professionals Say:
Sit in the middle of the airplane. "The middle of the plane—equidistant from the front and back—is quieter and less bumpy during turbulence," says Wendy Stroud, a former flight attendant for Delta Air Lines who lives in Dallas. "Also, a bottle during takeoff and landing helps to minimize the pressure in babies' ears."
Let them walk a mile (or a few steps) in their shoes. "Parents buy shoes too big because they are worried that their kids will grow out of them quickly. But the kids can't walk in them," says Kara Blazier, a sales associate at Pout...A Child's Boutique, in La Jolla, California. Have your child walk around the store to test new shoes. In addition, buy another pair one size up. You'll save a trip to the store in six months (about the time it takes to grow one size).
Order the kids' meals ASAP. "Order the kids' food when you order the adult appetizers. Then the kids don't have to wait," says Stephanie Taylor, manager of a T.G.I. Friday's restaurant in Phoenix. Kids also take longer to eat, so a head start means everyone finishes at once. She also recommends putting kids on the inside seat of a booth: "It's easier to keep them sitting down."
Give your babysitter a yearly bonus. Find a good sitter? "Pay her a bonus once a year or give her a $1 an hour raise after a while," says Genevieve Thiers, founder and CEO of sittercity.com, a listing of qualified babysitters nationwide. It makes the sitter feel appreciated and gives her an incentive to stay.