How To Be a Positive Parent-- Armin Brott-- 12/09/03

By Armin Brott
WebMD Live Events Transcript

Being a parent can feel like a cross between a prison warden and a traffic cop. We say ""no"" and ""don't"" to our kids so often, is it any wonder they say it right back to us? Parenting expert Armin Brott knows about turning those negatives into positives. He joins us to discuss parenting tots to teens.

The opinions expressed herein are the guest's alone and have not been reviewed by a WebMD physician. If you have questions about your health, you should consult your personal physician. This event is meant for informational purposes only.

Moderator: Welcome to WebMD Live, Armin. You have written a lot about fathers; what's your assessment of today's dads? Are we different than fathers from 30 years ago?

Brott: In some ways we're different and in other ways we're not. The ways we are not is that dads of 30 years ago had the same desires to be with their kids and to spend time with them as today's dads, but they had far less social support than today's dads do.

The way we have changed is that today's dads are much more aggressive with their employers, the legal system, etc., in demanding to be able to have an involved parental role.

Member question: How can I get my husband to be more active as a father?

Brott: There are a whole bunch of issues here. Generally speaking, men come into parenthood with a certain feeling of helplessness and a feeling that women somehow automatically know more about how to parent than they do. Then, when they have to go back to work after the baby is born, they don't have the chance to develop the skills that they need in order to be as involved as they would like to be.

So one of the most important things you can do is to give your husband plenty of opportunity to make mistakes. Don't ask him for help taking care of your child, because if he believes that he's helping, that puts him in a secondary role. If you go out, don't leave a big list of things that he has to do; let him figure it out for himself. Parenting skills are developed on the job. That's how you developed yours, and if your husband has a chance to spend time with his kids without you there to tell him what to do, he'll develop the confidence that he needs.

I go into this in a lot more detail in several of my books, including The New Father: A Dad's Guide to the First Year, and The Dad's Guide to the Toddler Years.

Moderator: What about dad's who decide to be stay-at-home parents while the mom works? I know a couple of dads like this and they have gotten more than a few derisive comments from friends and family members about their "Mr. Mom" status. Is this a growing trend and will those attitudes change in our lifetime, do you think?

Brott: Yes, it's a growing trend, and the attitudes, unfortunately, won't change in our lifetime completely, but I'm hoping today's fathers, who are the first generation to do this kind of thing, are raising sons who will feel more comfortable being stay at home dads if they choose to, and raising daughters who won't feel threatened by having a guy around the house who wants to stay at home with the kids.

One of the hardest things about being a stay-at-home dad is the feeling of being isolated and of not having any social support. Men don't feel comfortable going over to the group of women in the park and joining in. Unfortunately, men don't feel comfortable asking other men for ideas and suggestions, although that's what they should do.

Chances are, if you live in or close to a major metropolitan area there are some stay-at-home dads who live close to you. One place to find them is a web site called, which has many other resources for stay-at-home or primary caretaker dads.

Member question: Do you have any suggestions on how I can help my husband with his transition to being a stepparent? My daughter is 7 years old and loves him dearly but he seems to be having problems bonding with her, and seems to think his main role in her life is for discipline. Every attempt I make to suggest a more positive approach causes a fight.

Brott: If the biological father is still in the picture your husband may be somewhat reluctant to bond with your child because he's afraid of competing with her "real" dad, and he's afraid she may suddenly stop loving him. But whether the biological father is in the picture or not, being a stepfather or stepmother is a very difficult role, largely because you never really know where you are in the process; you never know how far you can go as far as discipline, where you can transition from being friend to being loved one.

It sounds to me like your husband is very interested in being a good and involved father, but he just needs time. Just as you can't expect kids to all of a sudden start loving someone who just landed in their life, you can't expect your husband to suddenly feel comfortable in his new role. Putting pressure on him to be more involved or feel something that he's not quite ready to feel puts an undue amount of pressure on him.

Moderator: Sometimes we joke about we all have to take a test to drive a car but nobody needs to take a test to be a parent. But in situations like this one, are there opportunities for suddenly new parents to learn how to take on this role? Classes, books, even family therapy? Would you suggest that?

Brott: I think all of those are good possibilities. There are some excellent books for stepfathers. I think the most important thing is for the couple to be very patient with each other and have clear and reasonable expectations that you can't expect things to happen magically, and you can't be disappointed when they don't happen.

Member question: As a father I am concerned about my two daughters becoming obsessed with body image. They are 7 and 1, but I already see the 7-year-old liking fashion and looking cool, which is fine, but I don't want it to become a negative issue for her. What are some things I can do to encourage a good physical self-image?

Brott: Encourage a lot of physical activity. There's nothing you can do to prevent her from seeing idealized images of women, but you can emphasize that those fantastic bodies don't just appear magically, that it takes a lot of work to look good. If she gets into sports, she'll learn to have pride in her physical accomplishments as opposed to only her physical attributes.

Also, at this age it's perfectly reasonable to keep her away from teen magazines and to watch what she reads as you're going through the grocery store checkout line, so that you minimize some of the impact of the images that are out there.

As a father of a daughter you have a very important role to play in her self-image. As your daughters grow older, your unconditional love and support of who they are physically and emotionally and your not backing away from them as they start going through puberty will make them more confident in their bodies and the way they look as they grow older.

Member question: How do you deal with children's unrealistic expectations at this time of year? I hate saying "no" all of the time, but they aren't going to get all of the gifts they are asking for. I keep trying to stress the season and experiences and family, but they seem pretty darn focused on gifts.

Brott: Here's one thing that I do in my family: By this point in the year I have a large box full of solicitations that I've received throughout the year from charitable organizations. I sit down with my kids and go through them and we talk about each organization or each cause and decide whether we should give money to that group.

The kids get to play an active role in determining which organizations seem more worthy and which ones don't. One of my kids always wants to give money to animal rights groups (she's a vegetarian) and another one wants to give money to the Heart Association because her grandfather had a heart attack. We've also given money to many children's groups, organizations that help the homeless, disaster organizations, etc.

Doing this kind of thing opens up the door for all sorts of very important discussions about other people's needs. Just seeing how many people need help throughout the year really drives the point home to my kids about how incredibly lucky we are to have a little bit extra that we can share with others.

That doesn't completely cure their gift greediness, but it at least slows it down some, and on a couple of occasions my kids have voluntarily offered to donate their presents to Toys for Tots or some other similar group for kids who don't have presents of their own.

Moderator: That raises the issue of creating good citizens. Obviously, telling your self-absorbed teen (we all were, I know) that she should help others because it's the right thing to do doesn't work. They have to buy into the idea. Do we just lead by example and hope it catches on when they are older, or does dragging them along to soup kitchens and making clothing donations make an impact despite their protests and pouting?

Brott: I think it makes an impact. Maybe not today or tomorrow, but the reason why I do this whole thing with my kids is because my dad did it with me.

Member question: My child just spent a week at school doing various "drug free" activities, like wearing funny hats one day to "put a cap on drugs" and wearing clothes backwards to "turn our backs on drugs." This was all well and good, but when I asked him about drugs and what it meant to take drugs, he had no idea (he's in fourth grade). I want to give him more detail about avoiding and resisting drugs, but I'm not sure where to begin. Any idea where to turn for help?

Brott: In most cases fourth graders have no clue what drugs are about, and making a big deal out of drugs and how dangerous they are, and how kids should stay away from them, only makes them more interested in something they would have ignored otherwise.

Keep gently talking to your kids about drugs and what they know about them, but don't push. It's like the child who asks his parents, "Where did I come from?" and the parents go into a 10-minute discussion of birds and bees and everything else when all the child really wanted to know was, whether he came from Chicago or Wichita.

Member question: What do you recommend as a means of behavior modification? I don't believe in any kind of spanking, but time-out sure doesn't seem to do much with a 6-year-old. Her mouth just keeps running (which is how she usually gets in trouble in the first place).

Brott: Although everyone talks about logical consequences, that's really what works, but not the consequence in and of itself; it's the actual implementation of the consequence. Your child probably has a very good idea about what the boundaries and rules are in your home, and you need to make it clear that she doesn't get any warnings anymore. If you violate one of the rules, you immediately have a consequence, and the consequence, if possible, should have something to do with the offense.

Giving your child five warnings and three final warnings and two more really final warnings just tells your child that she has about 10 times that she can ignore you, and you're not really serious about enforcing the rules. It's going to be a tough challenge to change things in your house, but it will be well worth it.

Member question: I feel like all I do is tell my toddler no all day long. What can I do to teach her what's okay to do or touch without so many no-nos?

Brott: Offer more choices. Instead of saying, "Don't touch this," offer something that is okay to touch. Don't give explanations of why your daughter shouldn't do something that are silly. If you say, "If you touch that, you could break a bone," and she doesn't end up breaking a bone, she's not going to believe you when you say no to things.

Moderator: Now a question that follows from all those "no's" we say to our kids as babies:

Member question: How can I stop a 2 1-2 year old stop from saying no when you ask her to do something?

Brott: You can't. At 2 1-2 your child has heard you say no probably 10 times more than you've said yes. At this age she needs to push against your limits, and her saying no to you is a way of establishing her own independence from you. And even though it's not very enjoyable, her insistence on saying no is actually a positive developmental milestone.

Member question: I have twin boys age 6 1-2 years old. The twins have difficulty focusing on a task and completing it. If I supervise one, he does it well and correctly. The other twin immediately feels the pressure and performs badly. The problem is the same if I focus on the other. I am a single parent and as such cannot stagger their study periods. How do I build up their self-esteem and get them to be independent from each other's success?

Brott: Don't expect them to do the same thing at the same time. Although you can't stagger their study sessions you can give each one slightly different tasks that he can succeed at. Seeing that his success is not going to be compared to his brother's success will help each of the twins be more confident in his own capacities.

Member question: Another question about my twins. They get very quickly fascinated with peers and especially bad behavior. They tend to try it out and at times I am stunned to see them behave in such a manner. Any suggestions on how to handle this?

Brott: This is a slightly more grown-up version of the toddler who says no. Your sons are continually trying to figure out where the boundaries are, and once they find one you have to let them know that they can't go over the line. When they do, they have to know there's a consequence for that behavior. It's important to have them understand that although Jimmy's parents may allow Jimmy to do certain kinds of things in their home, in your home the rules are different.

Member question: How do you deal with a 13-year-old boy who only wants to eat sweets and drink sodas? He is my stepson and his father has many food issues; he only eats meat and potatoes everyday and his son will only eat meat, no vegetables, no potatoes, no macaroni, no salad, nothing except junk food, which I limit what I buy. I buy fruit, yogurt, raisins, etc. He will not eat. He is very thin and complains of headaches all the time, which I am sure are related to low blood sugar. I have mentioned this to my husband but it is a constant battle. Offering him healthy food is a lost cause; he would rather eat frozen pizza three times a day.

Brott: This gets back to what we were talking about a while ago about health and safety issues and about the difficult position stepparents find themselves in. This is an issue that your husband absolutely must take over. Your stepson probably won't listen to anything you say, because he doesn't have to, which means that his father has to tell him what he can eat and what he can't eat.

It's especially important your husband gets involved as a men's health issue, because it sounds as though your son is developing the typical male attitude toward his body, which is a feeling of indestructibility, but the fact is that men live seven fewer years than women do and die earlier and more often of all the major diseases. So for your son to be eating an extremely high-fat, high-cholesterol, unbalanced diet is setting the stage for diabetes or a number of other health issues.

Unfortunately, your husband is probably on the same track, if he isn't there already, so start by trying to fix your husband's diet and approach to health, then help him help your son stay healthy.

Member question: Any suggestions on how to handle a teenager and the VOLUME of his music in a positive way? I'm tired of fighting about it.

Brott: Parents of teenagers need to transition from being hands-on parents to being advisors and coaches in their children's lives. That means giving your children a lot more flexibility and options to do what they'd like to do.

However, issues of health and safety are (and should be) nonnegotiable. So if you are in another room and your son's music is too loud for you, it's probably damaging his hearing, especially if he's wearing headphones at the time. At a minimum you could borrow a decibel meter (there all sorts of articles on the internet talking about maximum decibels before damage occurs) and put it in a health and safety issue perspective by saying, "You can listen to any type of music you want, as long as it doesn't hurt you or anyone else."

Moderator: What about when we don't approve of that music's content? How do we negotiate that bump in the road?

Brott: I think you can express preference, but there's really no way you can control it. Your child probably has a Walkman or a Discman and he'll listen to whatever he wants to when he's not in the house.

A better option would be for you to listen to the music he's listening to, closely, then you'll be able to have a discussion with him about what you think is wrong with it. It may not be as bad as you think, but if it is, the fact you've listened to it, and having a calm, rational discussion about why it upsets you, will get him to listen to you a lot more if he would have if you just dismiss it out of hand.

Moderator: Do you have any final comments for us, Armin?

Brott: I think that being a parent is probably the most important thing you can ever do. It's trying, aggravating, frustrating, and annoying, but it's also incredibly fulfilling.

It's important for both mothers and fathers to have a lot of opportunity to be involved parents, and that both have to support each other. When that happens, and kids have an opportunity to grow up with very involved father and mother, the kids do far better in every measurable area and the parents are far happier in their role as parents and as spouse. And marriages tend to last longer. So jump in and have a great time.

Moderator: Thanks to Armin Brott for being with us today. For more information on positive parenting, especially for you dads out there, read Father for Life, or any of Armin Brott's other books, including The Single Father: A Dad's Guide to Parenting without a Partner.

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