Breastfeeding: Is There Ever Too Much of a Good Thing?

Dear Mr. Dad: My wife continues to breastfeed our two-year-old daughter even though she’s old enough to eat “real” food. I don’t have a problem with this, but some of our friends and even some coworkers are shocked that she’s still breastfeding. Is there a specific age at which you should stop breastfeeding? Are we committing some sort of social faux pas by trying to do right by our daughter?

A: Oh, boy, are you going to cause a firestorm. Deciding whether to breastfeed a baby and for how long, is something only the parents can decide. But, as you’ve noticed, a lot of people have strong opinions on the topic and they’re not afraid to share them—whether you want to hear them or not.

Let’s start with some background. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that, barring any medical problem, babies get nothing but breast milk for the first six months. Then it’s “as long as mutually desired by the mother and child.” Many pediatricians suggest that starting at six months, parents should gradually introduce appropriate food and simultaneously decrease breastfeeding. At the end of a year, most babies will be weaned. But there is absolutely nothing wrong with having a child nurse for longer than that—as long as you understand that the kind of nutrition if provides is mostly emotional.
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Low Testosterone: To T or Not to T

Dear Mr. Dad: My 13-year old son doesn’t seem to be maturing as quickly as his peers. His voice has barely changed, he’s not sprouting much facial or body hair, and he’s below average in height. He’s also overweight and seems tired a lot of the time. Lately he’s become obsessed with the idea that his problem is Low-T. He’s been bringing me magazine ads, pointing to TV commercials and Internet ads, and is trying to convince me that he needs testosterone supplements. Could he be right? I though low testosterone was only something that affects older men.

A: The answer to your question is Yes and No. Yes, he could indeed have low testosterone (frequently–and annoyingly–referred to as Low-T). But No (no, no, no) he should absolutely not start taking supplements or doing anything to “treat” the problem until he’s been properly diagnosed by a professional. And by professional, I mean a trained healthcare provider who will run blood tests (the only accurate way to measure testosterone levels) and who is committed to identifying the underlying issues and how to overcome them, rather than to selling you a bunch of pills. Stay far, far away from anyone (including advice columnists) who claims to be able to diagnose and treat low testosterone or other medical conditions without actually seeing the patient.
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The Redshirts Are Coming!

Dear Mr. Dad: My wife and I are thinking about keeping our five-year-old son out of kindergarten until he turns six. We have friends who’ve done the same thing and they say that it gave children a lot of advantages. But is it really a good idea?

A: What you’re talking about here is called “redshirting” and it’s all the rage these days. Basically, parents—like your friends—wait an extra year before dropping their kids off at kindergarten. The thinking is that if children start school later, they’ll be bigger, faster, stronger, and more mature than their classmates. Given that in many places kindergarten has morphed from being dominated by building blocks and crayons into a real academic experience, this could be an issue.

There are some benefits to redshirting your son—at least until herd mentality takes over and everyone keeps their kids home until age six. But until then, the extra year that redshirted kids have can boost their cognitive and social skills. As a result, your son will probably grasp academic concepts more quickly. However, some education experts are now saying that being older, bigger, and more mature may make some kids feel alienated from their peers—or may end up causing them to be excluded by their peers. Either one of those scenarios is a recipe for self-esteem problems that could last a lifetime.

As far as the long-term, solid research on the effects of redshirting are hard to come by, but there is some. The Harvard Health Blog has some great information on the topic and Education.com offers a good overview of the pros—and the many cons.  For example, keeping your child in daycare an extra year could be expensive. And while kids usually do reap some benefits in the early years, by the time they get to third grade, the playing field is pretty level. And some kids end up needing extra help during first, second, and third grades because they didn’t get as early a start as their peers (the right preschool could offset that in some cases).

The real problems turn up later on in your child’s education. Middle- and high school are both sensitive times for your son, and being the oldest kid in class often carries a stigma: until this whole redshirting thing started, older kids were the ones who’d been held back by teachers. That Education.com article points out that older kids are more likely to misbehave when in a group of younger peers.

Another question you’re going to have to answer for yourselves is whether or not redshirting is fair. In general, it’s more common with boys than with girls, with Caucasians than with minorities, and with the affluent more than with the poor. Given that kids already learn at different speeds, have different aptitudes and different attitudes, is it really a good idea to create even more divisions among students when we really need to be ironing out those differences so that kids can just be kids?

In the end, it really comes down to making a choice that’s best for your son. If, at five, he’s very immature, has social problems, and/or takes a long time to figure things out, that extra year could be just what he needs. But if he’s already advanced in all those areas, redshirting him could very well cause more problems than it solves.

An important note: We’ll be announcing the winners of our latest Seal of Approval awards soon at mrdad.com/seal.

Separating Church and Teen

Dear Mr. Dad: It’s been a longstanding tradition in our extended family to attend church on Sunday and then go out to brunch. However, now my 14-year-old daughter says she no longer likes church because she finds that services are boring. My husband says we should force her to go, but I don’t think that would work. What’s your take?

A: If Sunday services have been a family tradition for years, I can certainly understand your disappointment at your daughter’s refusal to go with you. As you can imagine, there are quite a few factors that might have led to this sudden change of heart. Chances are, though, that few if any of them have anything at all to do with religion.

Even under the best of circumstances, it would be truly earth-shattering (and very, very weird) if you and your daughter agreed on everything, and you approved of every choice she made.

To start with, at 14, your daughter is just getting warmed up for her big teenage rebellious stage. You remember that one from when you were her age, right? Part of becoming an adult means getting out there and forging her own identity, one that’s separate (and in many aspects, 180 degrees away) from yours. That means questioning (and often rejecting) the values, beliefs, traditions, and just about anything else that you hold dear. That’s how it looks from your perspective. From yours, however, your once-sweet little girl is morphing into a defiant teen with a mind and opinions (and, probably, a mouth to go with them) that aren’t even close to aligning with yours.

The good news, as we’ve talked about in previous columns, is that this is a normal part of the process of maturing, becoming independent, and learning to make her own choices and decisions. The bad news is that it may not be any fun—for either of you—for a while.

So what should you do? Well, you begin by not doing what your husband suggests. Forcing your daughter to go to church when she really, really doesn’t want to will backfire. Instead of getting her more engaged, you’ll be driving her away and she’ll dislike services even more than she already does.

Instead of criticizing your daughter’s decision, you and your husband need to talk to her about how important the services and religion in general have been to you personally. Have there been times when your faith has given you strength and hope in difficult circumstances? Or when members of your community have provided help and support when you needed them most? If so, share this with your daughter. If she can see the benefits and meaning that your faith and your community have given you, she might be more willing to reconsider her decision.

Her complaints that services are boring, however, are something altogether different. She may, in fact, be right. What’s the average age of people who attend services? If it’s mostly older folks or young families with small children, the sermons and community activities that may be perfect for those groups would be completely irrelevant to a teenager.

As a compromise, could you find a nearby church that offers a youth ministry and outreach programs geared to teens? I’m betting that she’ll be able to relate much better to that type of worship environment than to traditional services, and she’ll be hard pressed to find excuses not to go.

At the very least, your daughter will see that you’re flexible, reasonable, and take her opinions seriously—qualities even the most rebellious teenager will appreciate!

Hey, I Don’t Like Doing Chores Either

Dear Mr. Dad: Our 12-year-old refuses to do any chores. Anytime we ask him to help around the house, he always finds an excuse not to. Sometimes he even says he doesn’t feel like cleaning up after himself. My husband says we should ground him. What’s your take on this?

A: I’ll confess right here that the phrase “I don’t feel like it” coming from a child absolutely infuriates me. My initial reaction has always been something like, “Okay, no problem. But I don’t feel like doing your laundry or driving you to your friend’s birthday party this weekend or preparing your meals or buying you that new game you want. ”

The harsh reality for your son (and every other child out there) is that very few people are passionate about housework: we do it because we like living in a clean, comfortable environment. Like it or not, your son is part of a family and family members all chip in to do what needs to be done to keep the household moving smoothly. The adults have their responsibilities and the kids have theirs (what, exactly, that means will depend on age and ability).

In addition to making good sense, chores, say the experts, are excellent for children because they help them develop some valuable skills and habits, including responsibility, helpfulness, appreciation for hard work, and the satisfaction that comes from making a positive impact on the lives of others.

At the very least, your 12-year-old should be expected to make his bed, keep his room tidy, and clean up after himself. If you have pets, he should take part in caring for them. And there’s no reason he can’t help you bring groceries in from the car, set the table for meals, and load/unload the dishwasher.

I’m sure your son isn’t refusing to help out just because he’s lazy or mean. Is it possible that he doesn’t actually know what his duties are? Are his chores fair and age-appropriate? Have you given him so many responsibilities that he no longer has time for a social life?

The first thing to do is have a talk with your son. Explain to him that everyone in your family pitches in and plays a role in creating a home that runs smoothly. That’s non-negotiable.

Next, have him help you put together a list of all the chores that need to be done on a daily/weekly/monthly basis and roughly how long each one should take. Then let him swap some of the chores he hates for ones that take the same amount of time but that he’ll hate a little less. He won’t admit it anytime soon, but he’ll really appreciate the confidence you’re showing in him by giving him some say in all this. Plus, having made the choices himself, it’ll be harder to gripe about them later on.

One more thing: avoid the urge to micro-manage his tasks or criticize his technique. For example, his dusting may not pass the white-glove inspection, but as long as he puts a genuine effort into it, don’t point out everything he missed. At least not in the moment. On the contrary, if he lives up to his responsibilities, praise him and thank him for his help. We all—adults and kids alike—want to feel needed and appreciated.

Finally, if he still refuses to do his fair share, go on strike. When he runs out of clean underwear or has to figure out how to take public transportation to meet up with his friends, he’ll have a sudden—and profound—change of heart.

Hey, Would You Please Close the Door?

Dear Mr. Dad. This is a little touchy but here goes. I have two sons ages 11 and 9. My oldest seems overly shy when it comes to changing clothes in front of other guys. My golfing buddy (whose kids are the same age as mine) and I occasionally take our boys to the country club pool. Because of pool chemicals, we insist that the boys shower and change clothes after swimming. The showers and locker room are communal. Even when it’s only our boys in the locker room they say my son showers in his swimsuit and then goes in a toilet stall to change. I talked with him in private and told him there’s nothing wrong with being naked in a locker room, but it hasn’t helped. Should I be concerned? My buddy thinks I should force him to change with the others to help him get over his shyness. Is he right?

A: Don’t listen to your buddy. Forcing your son to get naked in front of others will only make the situation worse.

Taking your son aside for a private conversation was great first step, but you’ll need to have another heart-to-heart (or two or three) to find out what he’s truly worried about. There are a lot of possibilities:

Is he shy or self-conscious? Some kids are just plain private. If he’s one of them, either let him keep doing his routine or have him shower at home. However, you might point out that taking a shower in his swimsuit might attract even more attention than just being nude. Also tell him that he’s in the majority: most people don’t like communal showers. In fact, it’s so common that many public schools have either installed private showers or banned showers altogether.

Is he different? Tweens are notoriously cruel to anyone who doesn’t seem normal (and their definition of “normal” can be pretty harsh). If your son is overweight or skinny, too tall or too thin, has straight hair or curly, he may fear that the other kids will make fun of him.

How mature is he? If your son is going through puberty and has spouted more chest and genital hair than other kids his age, he may feel embarrassed about his body. The same is true if he has less hair than the other guys. He needs to know that people mature at different ages and speeds. If you’re really worried, talk with his pediatrician.
Is he worried about hygiene? Locker rooms are breeding grounds for all sorts of fungi and bacteria. And showers—despite the fact that there’s a lot of soap around—aren’t much better. People aren’t supposed to spit or urinate in there, but we all know that plenty do.

Below the belt. Most males over the age of 10 feel the need to compare themselves with others. If your son is circumcised and many of the other kids aren’t—or vice versa—he may dread being different. If he’s ever had an erection in the shower (which is very, very common and can be triggered by something as simple as warm water running on his crotch), he may be mortified. And then there’s the daddy of all shower problems: size. This is another issue of people maturing at different rates. Chances are, your son is just fine in this area. You can reassure him that most of the other kids will be so worried about their own package that they won’t be paying any attention to his.