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BINTEL BRIEFA rambunctious child is driving Mom nuts. What can she say besides ‘Stop’ and ‘Don’t’?

Bintel offers 9 ways to cope with a ‘vilde chaya’ — wild child — right out of a Maurice Sendak story

A Bintel Brief, Yiddish for a bundle of letters, has been solving reader dilemmas since 1906. Send yours via email, social media or this form.

Dear Bintel, 

My 6-year-old yells out everything he says, puts his fingers in his 2-year-old sister’s ears, wanders around instead of sitting still at the table, doesn’t know when he’s standing or sitting too close to another person, and in general, doesn’t have a very good idea of where his body is. I’m constantly asking him to move out of the way or tripping over him. When he talks, it’s about Roblox or Minecraft, subjects that make no sense to me. 

I feel bad because everything he hears from me is a variant of, “Stop,” “Don’t” or “Move out of the way.” I add please and thank you, but in the aggregate, it doesn’t matter. I’m also seven months pregnant, so I’m not going to get less irritable soon. 

I mostly am not losing my temper, although he startled me yesterday by running headlong into a closed door, making a loud noise. I yelled at him, and he cried. 

He’s pretty good-natured and doesn’t seem to be noticing, which in a way is even more annoying, because no matter how many times I tell him to stop a certain behavior, it makes no difference. I want my kids to feel like I’m warm, attentive, supportive — not always disapproving. But I feel like he must notice at some level that I’m always exasperated.

Always Annoyed 

Dear Always Annoyed,

Your letter brought to mind something I recently learned about the late, great children’s author Maurice Sendak. His book, Where the Wild Things Are, was inspired by a Yiddish expression, vilde chaya — “wild child.” 

Wild Things features a boy named Max who becomes king of the monsters while “having the time of his life,” as Sendak put it. Read the story with your son and let him act out the monsters’ roars, teeth-gnashing and eye-rolling. I bet you’ll both relate.

I raised two rambunctious boys myself, and I look back on those years when they were wild things as exhausting — but also joyful and fun. These days, I spend a lot of time with a boisterous 6-year-old great-nephew, and I enjoy his exuberance, too — though I might feel differently if he were running into walls instead of showing off his dance moves.

But I have a high tolerance for chaos, so I shared your letter with a dozen moms, dads, grandparents and teachers of 6-year-olds to get a reality check. Some said the behavior you described sounds typical. Others said they’d worry about a kid who bounces off the walls like that. 

We all agreed, though, that it doesn’t have to be this way. Here are nine ideas for channeling your son’s energy, moderating your own reactions and getting outside help. 

1) Consult the experts. Speak to your son’s pediatrician and classroom teacher. Do they feel his behavior is within the range of what’s normal? Might he benefit from psycho-educational testing and intervention? Be sure to ask about free services.

One mom told me her son had a mild sensory processing disorder that made him seek out the kinds of physical sensations that come from crashing into things or wearing something tight. She bought him a body sock, which she said “lets the kid get inside and push the material around — instead of pushing people.” He loved it, and it helped.

2) Say more than “no.” A kindergarten teacher offered this strategy for when your son exhibits “undesired behavior”: “Sit down with him, at his level, and calmly say what he should do instead and why. For example: ‘Putting fingers in your sister’s ears makes her feel uncomfortable, so give her a high-five instead. Running into the door can hurt you and it scares me, so you need to walk. Let’s practice doing that.’” Kids respond best when they understand “the reason behind the correct behavior, along with consistent modeling and praise.”

But don’t feel bad about keeping your son safe. As one dad said to me, you wouldn’t feel guilty about stopping him from running into the street. So don’t feel bad about saying, “Don’t run into the door.”  

3) Limit screen time. I don’t know if he’s playing the video games he’s babbling about or if he picked up lingo from other kids, but use a timer to put guardrails around his time online. Then fill his mind with other things — songs, rhymes, animal names and sounds, dinosaur trivia — and soon he’ll be chattering about that stuff instead.  I’ve known 6-year-olds who memorized the New York City subway map, who did math problems on command, who built Lego designs by looking at the box, who knew every type of construction vehicle. Their minds are like sponges at this age, so take advantage of that nerdiness. And provide activities that engage body and mind: clay he can knead, puzzles to piece together, blocks he can build into towers and knock down.

4) Where’s Dad? You never mention the father of these children or another adult/partner. Whoever shares parenting must step up, at a minimum, by playing with the kids; helping out at mealtimes, bath and bedtime; taking them to the park, and reinforcing limits on screen time and other behaviors. If you’re a solo parent — or even if you’re not — enlist friends or family to help, too. I welcome all invitations to spend time with my five great-nephews, ages 5 months to 6 years. I don’t consider it babysitting; I consider it fun. You could also hire a local teenager as a mother’s helper.

5) Sign up for activities. My kids went to after-school and day camp at our synagogue. Sports, games, crafts and just plain running around with other kids allowed them to get their la-las out and try new things like karate or woodworking. If your shul doesn’t offer kids’ programs, look for a YMCA/YMHA, JCC, sports academy or gymnastics school. Many cities and towns have free or low-cost kids’ programs at pools and parks in the summer. And don’t forget libraries and bookstores, which often host story hours. 

6) Go outside. Sometimes a kid who can’t sit still just needs space and fresh air. I’m a firm believer in a couple hours a day of outdoor time, regardless of weather. Get good old-fashioned rubber boots and rain slickers and go puddle-stomping on a rainy day. In nice weather, set your boy free on the playground. If you can’t make it to the park, sit on the porch, in the backyard or in a lawn chair on the sidewalk and challenge your son to simple contests: “How many times can you jump in a minute? How far can you run by the time I count to 10?” Play old-fashioned games like Simon Says, Giant Step and Red Light, Green Light (you sit, he runs). Sidewalk chalk, bubbles, jump ropes and bouncy balls await at the Dollar Store.

7) Find a playmate. Do you know a parent with a 6-year-old? Switch off playdates. Two kids together will be less work than each one alone, plus you’ll have built-in breaks. This will also help your son develop better social skills. 

8) Deputize him. Tell him you’re counting on him to be a good big brother and a helper. Teach him to play patty-cake and sing “Wheels on the Bus” with his sister. Show him how to husk corn or snap beans for supper. Let him help you sort laundry into the right drawers. Give him a broom to sweep leaves to the curb. Kids that age are surprisingly capable and often prefer “grown-up” chores to putting away their own toys.

9) Pay attention. It’s OK to draw boundaries when he’s in your face and you feel like you can’t breathe. Make a circle with your arms, have him do the same, and ask him for that much space. But he also needs snuggles and undivided attention. Find a half-hour every day, before bedtime or when his sister is napping, to cuddle and read a story. He might back off other times if he can count on that special time with mommy, just the two of you.

Beg to differ? Send your advice for Always Annoyed to [email protected], or submit a question of your own via this anonymous form.

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