Ages 0-5: Making Tough Parenting Calls

Stephanie Cain knew she was in for a fight.

“Emma was drinking milk, which would make her feel full, so she wasn’t getting enough nutrition and she wasn’t gaining enough weight. If she kept it up she would slowly lose the ability to identify when she felt hungry, which could lead to eating disorders,” Cain says.

As a result, their pediatrician had declared a moratorium on milk. According to the Durham mother of two, the first time Emma asked for milk after that appointment and her parents said “no,” the toddler “lost it.”

Says Cain, “Reason and logic doesn’t work on 2-year-olds, so while we told her what was going to happen and why, she didn’t understand nor care.”

Cain and her husband stayed strong despite the tantrums, begging and wheedling. At Emma’s most recent doctor’s appointment, she had gained enough weight to be back on the growth charts. But that doesn’t mean the milk battle has ended.
“While withholding milk is easy in theory, it was just as difficult as we thought it would be in practice,” Cain says.

Don’t negotiate if there isn’t a choice

Abra Carroll Nardo, a licensed psychologist at Orenstein Solutions clinical practice in Cary, advises parents to understand the importance of not negotiating with their children on issues that are not open to discussion.

“Parents really are in a better position to know what is right in these cases, and so I think it’s important that parents learn to project confidence and authority,” Nardo says.

There are times when offering a child choices is appropriate. But (if it works) there are other times when, for safety or health reasons, children can’t have what they want.

“When you offer choices to a child, you are teaching them that certain things are somewhat negotiable. In actual fact, there are certain times when I believe negotiations are not really in order,” Nardo says.

“Saying to a 3-year-old that there is a choice when it comes to whether or not to follow doctor’s orders teaches them that they might know better than the doctor, or than Mommy. I don’t think this is actually true,” she says.

Feeling torn by difficult decisions

A Cary mother of two, Jennifer Tavares is familiar with how hard it is to enforce what the pediatrician recommends when it causes discomfort. Her then 9-month-old was developing some poor sleep habits and required being rocked to sleep. Her pediatrician advised her to let her son learn to fall asleep by himself, resulting in nightly drama.

“He cried so much that he would make himself sick and throw up over the edge of the crib. When we spoke to the pediatrician, he told us that we should not go in and comfort him or clean him up when he got sick because this would encourage him to continue using that to get us to come in. I could definitely see where the pediatrician’s advice made sense, because going in to comfort him had not been working so far,” Tavares says.

Although this was a difficult time for Tavares and her husband, they watched as each night their son cried less and less until he fell asleep on his own.

“Sheltering your child from discomfort prevents them from learning an important life lesson, and I really believe that this is a disservice to them,” Nardo says.

And although it wasn’t easy for the Tavares family, this approach worked. “Within a week, he was able to put himself to sleep, and we knew we had made the right decision by letting him cry it out,” Tavares says. “It was a very hard time, but you have to realize that as long as your child is in a safe place, letting them work things out for themselves will help them in the long run.”

Trust yourself

Often, the most difficult thing about these tough calls is that they can cause parents to question their ability to parent, but they shouldn’t. Nardo draws the analogy to the airlines’ safety videos where passengers are encouraged to put on their own oxygen mask before that of their children or neighbor.

“You must make sure you’re able to be strong so that you are in a position to do what is best for your child — even if you may need to watch them feel brief discomfort,” Nardo says. “You may be feeling great struggle inside, but remember that is your parental emotions kicking in. You love your child, and that is a good thing.”

Robin Whitsell is a freelance writer and mother of three who lives in Chapel Hill. She can be reached at