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Books

'Mother's Almanac' author stresses communication

(CNN) -- Best-selling author Marguerite Kelly was a recent guest in the weekly Author Chat, taking questions about her bestseller "The Mother's Almanac Goes To School". Here is a transcript from the hour-long chat session.

Kelly: Hi all!

Question: Marguerite, how many kids do you have?

Kelly: Four -- or to put it another way, I've been a mother for 155 years ... "The Mother's Almanac Goes to School" is all about kids from 6-12 -- how they grow, how they think, how they learn, and how to get to know them and enjoy them, because they tend to hide their little lights under a bushel in the middle years.

Question: What kinds of tips will parents find for sending their children off to school if they read this book?

Kelly: It's to keep calm about it and treat it as a wonderful experience, like going to the beach. You give a child time to talk about things. Particularly after they've gone to bed, because you're talking in the dark. Children say more in the dark.

Since I'm a mother, the book is aimed at mothers, but an awful lot of dads read my stuff.

Question: To write a book, one has to claim a certain amount of expertise. What's yours?

Kelly: I'm basically a reporter who's been researching and writing about children and families for 29 years -- 19 in the Washington Post as a columnist -- 3 books, 900,000 copies in print and a column in "Family Life".

Question: OK. So writing is evidence of expertise? I'm not slamming you, but I could write about raising children, too. What are your basic tenets of raising children?

Kelly: My basic tenets I put in a Mother's Prayer at the end of "The Mother's Almanac Goes to School", which is a tidy summation, I think. I believe you give kids respect, most of all, and demand it in return. Then you give them the shelter and money and clothes they need, but only in modest amounts; you expect them to work, not to be paid, but because you're on the same team, etc.

Question: Are uninformed or unexperienced "views" to be respected? Or should they be corrected?

Kelly: I don't particularly respect uninformed views -- for myself, I interview psychiatrists, teachers, doctors, etc., every day -- but I do respect the opinions of parents. In their hearts, I think they know best about their own children.

Question: Marguerite, do you have any advice about Chelsea?

Kelly: I wouldn't presume.

Question: Marguerite, in your view, what is "the state of the American family?" Good? Bad? something else?

Kelly: Actually, I think the American family is in better shape than its been in since the 60's -- not all of them, by a long shot, and the ones that aren't are in really bad shape, but for the rest -- the priorities are in order. The family is first again.

Question: Marguerite, we still have a 50 percent divorce rate, I don't think we had that in the 60s.

Kelly: I know the divorce rate is very high, but just under 50 percent; (it's) beginning to go down as research now shows how tough divorce is on kids.

Question: Marguerite, why do children shine more for their teachers, than for their parents?

Kelly: Kids try terribly hard at 6-10 to be just like their friends (while their friends try to be like them), and conformity is king. They are at school, at camp, at day care during their prime time and the only way you can see their sunshine is to hang out on their premises sometimes. At home they're rushing to go out and tired when they get home.

Question: Why do little girls turn into monsters at age 13?

Kelly: Because their hormones are carbonating like crazy, and because they don't know who they are any more than you do, and also because they're usually not treated with as much respect as they should be -- intellectually. Parents forget that they have views too.

Question: Marguerite, is there an inherent difference between male and female babies that you can articulate that is not a product of socialization later in life?

Kelly: You can look at newborns at the hospital and I swear the baby boys and baby girls move about differently. Girls are flirting at 3 months.

Question: That's a very different view than is popularly perceived these days... Many claim that sex roles are completely socialized, and not a product of brain chemistry ...

Kelly: You'll find that new research is refuting that opinion.

Question: Marguerite ... What are your views on spanking or not spanking children?

Kelly: I think most parents have succumbed to spanking a few times; I know I did. And when I got more sense, I didn't. Parenthood takes practice.

Question: Marguerite, what would be your preferred method of swift consequence for the purposes of discipline, in lieu of spanking?

Kelly: The one thing that gets to a kid most is to look very, very disappointed in him. And don't engage. Don't argue. Don't negotiate. You either say, "I'll think about your request," and do that. Or you say no. And mean it.

Question: What should a parent avoid most when raising a child in the middle years?

Kelly: Keep in touch with your kids. It's easy to slip apart, because 7 to 9-year-olds can be kind of boring. How good your communication is between 6-12 will decide how well the teen years go.

Question: Do you believe in corporal punishment?

Kelly: No, because I'm not an extremist, in any direction.

Question: Aside from the usual causes, what do you think is at the root of the youth violence problem in North America?

Kelly: I think youth violence is so serious because the kids are unsupervised so much, and so unenjoyed. Parents think they need to make more money than they do. Kids want time with parents most of all.

Question: Why do middle children "need you more than ever" at that age?

Kelly: Not middle children -- children in the middle years, between 6 and 12.

Question: Marguerite, I'd also really like to hear you address the issue of how we treat our elderly, the extended family having virtually no value, and it's absence having any effect on children.

Kelly: Having taken care of my aging in-laws as a bride (21!), I guess I don't think of the elderly being as abandoned as you do. Certainly there are some excellent, and even affordable facilities for them today.

Question: Marguerite, there are some, but most "facilities" are pretty dismal in Northern California. The ones in Florida are horrible. Have you visited any of these, and would you take your children to visit relatives living in a place like this?

Kelly: Yes, I do go to see old people -- relatives, mostly -- frequently. I brought my 13-year-old granddaughter to sing to one of them last month. I like to put the generations together.

Question: Marguerite, what percentage of children who are homosexuals when they reach adulthood are "born that way"?

Kelly: I think just about all homosexuals are "born that way" and research is bearing that out.

Question: Masters & Johnson also did research on homosexuals about 20 years ago and came to the opposite conclusion ... do you therefore feel that their study was less reliable than recent ones ... that study was the most comprehensive ever done.

Kelly: The homosexual research seems to be centered currently on the early trimester in utero, and some effects then. I did talk to one of the leaders at the Kinsey Institute, which did an 11-year-study on all studies on homosexuality, and none of them held up. The research then all turned to biological issues.

Question: Especially where I live, there seems to be a rather growing and heated debate about the role of sex education in our public school systems; what are your thoughts on this subject?

Kelly: I don't think sex ed. will ever be taught to the approval of parents until parents are taught how to teach it to their children themselves. It's a great gap in the market. Parents are totally intimidated about teaching sex to their own children.

Question: We hear a lot of society blaming the current trends in TV programming, music and other pastimes for the moral decay of our young people. Do you believe that every kid has problems stemming from TV viewing, or do problems only arise in children who's minds are already susceptible?

Kelly: I do think that the entertainment industry -- and the media in general -- has a lot to answer for.

Question: Any thoughts on the "teletubbies?"

Kelly: I like teletubbies, because they go so slowly. There's excellent research to show that children respond much better to television shows that are slow -- like that and Barney and Mr. Rogers, than to fast-paced frames. Sesame Street is too fast for many kids, and it's gotten faster.

Question: Yes, even Shari Lewis was said to "speed up her show" in later years, because of "kid's today".... I take it you would say that Kid's today, maybe, don't have any "shorter attention spans" than any other generation?

Kelly: Fast-paced shows have shortened the attention spans of children. I think we can lengthen them again.

Question: Good evening Marguerite. How do you discipline children who have grown to be much bigger than you?

Kelly: You give them a kiss, tell them you think they're wonderful -- and be so polite when you tell them what to do -- the same technique for all the years.

FYI: Teen-agers have had a very bad press. I think they are so terrific -- and did you know? Only 20 percent of them ever rebel, and then not for their whole adolescence.

Question: Marguerite, I absolutely agree with you. It can, however, be rather intimidating when there are certain things they would rather do to know how to react and take care of the situation.

Kelly: I think kids can't be expected to be as wise as they think they are. That's why we call them kids. I do think kids need supervision -- of some sort -- until they're 16: (They need responsibility;) a job after school; cook dinner once a week (if a 9-year-old can play Nintendo he can make a tuna fish salad), something to keep him out of trouble besides homework and an empty house.

The reason kids need supervision until 16 is because they don't internalize their conscience until they can think very well in abstractions -- and that's about the mid-teens. Until then they don't think about consequences.

Question: Do you agree that parents should start at a very early age teaching their children the art of wise decision making, learning independence?

Kelly: I believe in independence for children, absolutely. This gives them confidence. And I think they need to be taught how to do basic things -- small skills -- especially in the middle years. Competence is the core of self-esteem.

Question: How do you define independence and at what age?

Kelly: Independence is the gift parents give children to think for themselves, do as much as they can for themselves -- and told no when they must.

Thank you! I loved your questions.

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