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Ask Dr. Mary

Boys and Books

Q. All the kids in my son?s "slow" reading group are boys. Last year, in second grade, there were a couple of girls in the group, but they?ve "graduated." Is it just my son?s particular class or do boys have more trouble with reading than girls?

A. You?ve described a typical third-grade situation. Even though both sexes start school at the same age, girls often mature earlier and are more ready for academic demands.

When your son first learned to read, he probably used "easy" readers, books with limited or controlled vocabulary. Usually during second grade, a child moves to chapter books that contain more challenging words and take longer to complete.

Although the initial thrill of knowing how to read has worn off, new readers still need to practice their skills. Unfortunately, especially for some boys, reading isn?t as exciting as playing baseball or a cool computer game. In addition, many of the chapter books just don?t contain exciting storylines that might capture the attention of a somewhat reluctant male reader. The result? A disproportionate number of boys seem to struggle with reading during these years.

You can help your son by looking for books that appeal to his interests. Suggest age-appropriate joke books, sports biographies, mysteries or outdoor stories that promise excitement. Newspaper comics, collectible cards and games on the back of cereal boxes are other ways you can interest your son in reading. For his birthday, order a subscription to Boys Life, Clubhouse or other special-interest publications. And because reading and writing are so closely related, encourage him to e-mail cousins or write to overseas missionary families who have kids his age. Unless there?s a diagnosed learning problem, practice is probably all your son needs at this point.

Activity Overload

Q. My kids are involved in so many activities, it seems as if we?re always in the car. I?m exhausted and so are they. How can we get off this activity merry-go-round?

A. If you say, "Tomorrow is gymnastics and flute lessons so it must be Tuesday," you?ve joined a huge generation of parents who are in danger of over-programming their children?s childhoods. In your well-intentioned attempt to stimulate your children and offer enrichment, you may reach a point where you?re stuck in schedule gridlock.

But there is hope.

First, take a look at each of your children individually. Focus on their strengths, weaknesses and interests. Then decide which activities will provide the most benefit for each child. Author and child development expert Dr. David Elkind suggests no more than three regularly scheduled activities or commitments for school-age children: one social, one athletic and one artistic. If your children are old enough to make their own decisions and are willing to live with their choices, discuss the issue with them.

Second, prioritize your own goals for your children. Consider what areas of development you?d most like to nurture in them: spiritual, academic, physical or social. Then answer these questions: "How do I want my children to benefit from their activities? What would they be doing during travel/practice/lesson times if they weren?t committed to these activities? How do these activities enhance their lives and our family life?

But be aware that slowing down will be an adjustment for your children. Children who have been highly scheduled go through a transition as they learn how to organize free time, use their imagination and creativity and compensate for boredom. Children who are accustomed to frequent switching of gears may miss the rapid-fire pace and feel restless. Others may resent a limit being placed on their activities or feel they are being punished when their activities are reduced. Help your children understand that you?re trying to improve your family life and encourage them to enjoy their unstructured time.

Although today?s families are given incredible opportunies for enrichment and learning, the key is balance.

Setting Limits

Q. I?m a single mom and I?m having a hard time enforcing rules with my kids. I do fine on the weekends, but sometimes during the week I?m just too tired to deal with every little issue that comes up. I know my kids need limits, but how can I enforce them when I?m worn out?

A. You?re wise in recognizing the importance of clear, consistent boundaries. When you give your children limits, you?re giving them a sense of security. Even though they may test those limits, they are aware of exactly what they can and can?t do. When you bend the rules or compromise, you confuse your child.

Here are three ways to make rule reinforcement easier for you and your children:

1. Simplify the rules. By making your expectations clear and concise, you can eliminate the issues that aren?t really that important. For example, you may be tempted to criticize your daughter when her bedroom is a mess, but is it really necessary for it be spotless every day? Situations like this aren?t worth arguing about. Your family needs guidelines that make life easier, not more frustrating.

Begin by prioritizing what?s essential to you and your family: Everyone is kind to one another, everyone puts dirty clothes in the hamper, everyone takes turns helping in the kitchen. By eliminating the rules that don?t matter, you?ll have more energy to follow through on those that do.

2. Enforce safety and health rules and don?t compromise. Everyone washes up before dinner, everyone wears a seatbelt in the car, everyone puts his or her toys away when finished playing.

3. Be consistent. If you make a rule, stick with it whether it?s the weekend or during the busiest day of your week. Your kids will appreciate the boundaries and in the long run, their behavior will reflect it.

Mary Manz Simon is an author, speaker and practical parenting specialist. "Front Porch Parenting," her daily radio program, airs on almost 200 stations.

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