What to do when the writing's on the wall … in ink

Of The Morning Call

Q: ''What do you do when a 3-year old who knows he is only to draw on paper decides to draw on a wall with ball-point pen?

A: First of all, don't worry too much, Family Project panelist Marcie Lightwood says. ''This is age-appropriate behavior,'' she says. ''We can teach him that his action has consequences,'' adding, ''We all can learn from this. We can prevent it from happening again.''

If it does happen again, don't scream or show emotion in disciplining the child, the panel says. Reacting like that could provide incentive for him to do it again. He knows it will get to you.

TIPS FOR WHEN YOUR 3-YEAR-OLD WRITES ON THE WALLS• Don't become emotional.

• If you are sure the child understood it was against the rules to draw on the wall, assign a consequence: A good one would be to have the child clean the wall (with plenty of parental help, of course).

• Keep pens, pencils, crayons and markers in a special place — out of reach of the child — for a while and supervise the child when the child is drawing to avoid repeats.

• This is a good opportunity to teach consequences and build a strong relationship for the future, when there is sure to be more boundaries testing.
RESOURCES"Positive Discipline A-Z, Revised and Expanded 2nd Edition: From Toddlers to Teens, 1001 Solutions to Everyday Parenting Problems," by Jane Nelsen, ED. D. (Prima Lifestyles, $16.95)."Raising Resilient Children: Fostering Strength, Hope, and Optimism in Your Child," by Robert Brooks and Sam Goldstein (McGraw-Hill, $14.95)."Touchpoints: Your Child's Emotional and Behavioral Development: Birth-3: The Essential Reference for the Early Years," by T. Berry Brazelton, M.D. (HarperCollins, $18.95).
Panelist Roberta Zelleke says that if you can't control your anger, ''it's better to walk away'' momentarily.

Zelleke says you might even want to admire the drawing a bit before cleaning it and explaining that walls aren't for drawing.

Later, the panel says, you can have the child clean the wall with plenty of parental help.

Children have to know ''I can count on Mom or Dad'' for a consequence when they do something that is not allowed, Continenza says.

But before handing down any consequence for a 3-year-old, the panel says, make sure the child really understands what is allowed and not allowed in the house.

Your question says the child ''knows'' he's not supposed to write on the wall, but was this expressly pointed out to him or do you figure he just picked up on that rule?

The first time it happens, Lightwood says, the ''child's actions could be innocent exploration or creativity.''

One thing is for sure, Continenza says, the child ''has shown he can't use pens without supervision.'' So do your best to not leave pens or pencils lying around,'' Zelleke says. ''Maybe just have a special writing place. Some children are very impulsive.''

Vogler suggests letting the child draw only on paper — not even on chalkboards, because that could confuse him — for a while.

Panelist Marcie Lightwood says the parent has ''a piece of this, too.''

''I'll bet you regret leaving the pen where he could reach it … who knew your child was moving into a new stage of mischief-making?'' she says.

And Zelleke recites the often experienced parental concern that ''if your child is quiet for 15 minutes, is your child doing something inappropriate?''

Something to watch for, panelist Joanne Nigito says, is ''if a child is constantly challenging the limits.'' If so, it's time to wonder if ''the parent is giving the child enough choices to have control of their life. If a parent is always saying no, the child is going to push limits to get power back in their lives.''

''Maybe the parents have inappropriate rules around the house,'' Zelleke says, or are always telling children ''don't wear your shoes in the house. That's when a child wants to break loose.''

''Some people are overly hung up on how their house looks,'' she says. ''That's not an appropriate environment.

''If you put material goods above your relationship with your child,'' Lightwood says, then stop. ''What's more valuable here?'' she says.

There are plenty of ways to let children have choices without creating destructive or harmful situations, the panel says.

''There are power struggles that you will have with your children,'' Nigito says, ''and when you give them choices about things in their lives that they CAN choose then the child will feel that some sense of control over their lives is present and feel their own power so that they do NOT have to fight as much with the parent over other things.''

For example, Nigito says, ''what clothes to wear, or what drink to have for dinner, or do they want to read a story before bed or watch a video? All these choices are within the parents' limits.''

''Sowing the seeds of responsibility now and preserving a positive relationship even when your child does wrong will mean that you both have a pattern to follow when more serious questions come up later,'' Lightwood says.

Zelleke sums up this way: ''Celebrate their creativity without crushing their spirit. Make appropriate drawing space available. Supervise well and in 15 years you will be laughing about the time your child drew the whole family on the wall!''

familyproject@mcall.com

610-820-6562

The Family Project is a collaboration between The Morning Call and parenting professionals brought together by Valley Youth House's Project Child, the Lehigh Valley's child-abuse prevention coalition.

CONTACT THE FAMILY PROJECTOffer comments, suggest topics or ask questions. E-mail: familyproject@mcall.com. Mail: ''The Family Project,'' c/o Linda O'Connell, Assistant Managing Editor, Features, P.O. Box 1260, Allentown, PA 18105-1260. Phone: 610-820-6562.

THE TOPIC TEAM

Parenting experts and guest panelists who helped with this installment of The Family Project:

Wanda Mercado Arroyo, parent involvement coordinator for the Allentown School District.

Denise Continenza, family living specialist for Penn State University's Lehigh County Cooperative Extension, South Whitehall Township.

Marcie Lightwood, program coordinator for Project Child, a program of Valley Youth House.

Joanne Nigito, registered play therapist and parenting educator, Bethlehem.

Bill Vogler, executive director of Family and Counseling Services of the Lehigh Valley, Allentown.

Roberta Zelleke, Assistant Director of Early Head Start, Community Services for Children, Allentown.

PARENTING CLASSES

Project Child offers ongoing parenting classes Mondays at 7 p.m. at the Project Child office, 2200 W. Broad St., Bethlehem. Fee: $15. To sign up, call 610-419-4500, ext. 373, or e-mail projectchildlv@aol.com. Parents who are overwhelmed can call the Project Child/Valley Youth House Parent Line at 610-691-1200. It is a 24-hour confidential, free information line.

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