Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.
Dear Care and Feeding,
My daughter was born with a condition that caused the bones in one of her legs to not form properly. It was amputated above the knee when she was 2, but with her prosthetic, she can do most of the things her peers can do. She’s now 9 years old and very active and outdoorsy. Her disability has always been part of our daily lives, and we sometimes forget she has a disability. It’s not really a limitation for her. She knows this as well and will often indignantly correct people like her grandmother when they assume she can’t do something due to her disability.
This summer she went to several summer camps; one of them was a camp specifically for kids with limb differences, and the others were more general day camps. She’s very outgoing and she doesn’t usually have a difficult time in social situations. It came as a shock when we got calls from the most recent camp asking if certain activities were OK, including kayaking and hiking, which she’s done a million times. After talking to our daughter, we learned that she’d been using her disability as a way to get out of doing things all summer, and this was the only camp that bothered to follow up.
As her father, I want to understand why she felt the need to fib rather than be truthful. I believe that it is important for our daughter to learn that she doesn’t need to hide behind her disability and that it’s OK to just say no if she doesn’t want to do something. The summer camp wasn’t going to force her to do those activities if she’d just said she didn’t want to—her older brother’s been before and is terrified of heights and they’ve never made him go on the hike. I feel like using her disability as a crutch will hinder her growth and independence. Since it worked at all the other camps, I’m worried she now has a tool to get whatever she wants—tangentially tie something to her prosthetic leg and then get everyone flustered trying to accommodate her for an issue that doesn’t warrant it. My wife says I’m taking this too seriously—am I? My wife thinks our daughter is perfectly within reason to use her disability to get out of doing things she doesn’t want to, even if it isn’t true, which I totally disagree with. How can I help my daughter feel comfortable treating her disability the same way at camp as she does with her grandparents?
— No Excuses
There’s a lot to unpack here. I think the first thing to remember is that your daughter is entering the age where she is becoming a lot more self-conscious and focused on her image and what other people are thinking of her. Disability or not, your previously self-assured little kid is turning into a pre-teen, with all the social pressures that come with it, and so you’re bound to see some new behaviors crop up seemingly out of the blue. That’s developmentally appropriate and to be expected.
Second, that self-consciousness has a particular bend to it for kids with disabilities. I spoke to a friend who works in disability advocacy and programming and has a disability himself. He explained that kids with disabilities are much more likely to doubt their abilities than test their limits in social situations, the way their peers might. One of these reasons is the self-consciousness factor I mentioned above—all kids worry they are different, but kids with disabilities know for a fact that they are.
Another reason, though, is that as they venture more out of the home and toward independence, certain accommodations are no longer available. Things that happen naturally within the family to help them are now things they must explicitly ask for. For example, parents might instinctively read museum signs to a kid with a vision disability or choose specific seats in a theater if they have a kid with a mobility disability. When these accommodations aren’t naturally made available, it can make a kid more conscious of their disability, and they may choose to opt out rather than ask for help. So, it might be worth some introspection to think about whether you do things for your daughter that she might not be comfortable asking someone else to do in a novel setting like a camp.
While I agree with you that using the disability as a scapegoat for activities she just doesn’t want to do can be problematic, you also want to avoid her feeling like she has to opt into everything in spite of her disability. You don’t want her to internalize the idea that she has to be amazing to prove that kids with disabilities are “just as good” as anyone else—which is a lot of pressure. Talk to your daughter and find out why she declined these activities. It’s possible that she didn’t feel like doing them, and using her disability was an easy excuse. But it’s also possible something else was going on that made her feel unable to participate or speak up for herself. As she grows up, help her find her voice in these situations. The unfortunate reality is that people with disabilities are often marginalized, their needs overlooked and dismissed. They have to be self-advocates for a lot of things the rest of us take for granted.
On that note, one final thought: I understand what you mean when you say you forget she has a disability. It’s not a characteristic you always think of when you think about/interact with your daughter, and you don’t treat her differently because of it. I appreciate that. But be careful with phrases like this. Having a disability can be an important part of one’s identity, much like race. And thus, saying things like “I forget you have a disability” or “It’s like you’re not even disabled” may feel similarly problematic to “I don’t see color.” I suspect you’ll see your daughter grappling with this part of her identity as she matures, and you don’t want to accidentally seem like you’re erasing or ignoring that part of her lived experience in an effort to make her feel “normal” or comfortable. Your job is to make sure she loves herself and is confident enough to fight for what she needs as she interacts with the wider world. Good luck!
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Dear Care and Feeding,
My husband and I have three kids: a 13-year-old daughter, a 12-year-old stepson, and an 11-year-old daughter. We’ve been married for nine years, so our kids cannot remember a time when they weren’t siblings. They’re also all very close.
My son decided that he wanted to start learning guitar. He never really learned much music before, except for what he did in school, so he’s essentially starting from scratch. He’s very dedicated and practices the amount that his teacher tells him every day, and in his free time, he’ll sometimes pick up the guitar and try out some other stuff on his own. He’s not very good yet. His sisters constantly mock him but also are always complaining about his playing. He rolled with the joke when it started, when it was just the younger one, who’s partially deaf, taking out her hearing aids whenever he started practicing. But it’s gotten blown out of proportion—to the point where if he’s going to do his practice, now during the summer, both of them will go outside with headphones and sit on the porch reading or scrolling on a phone until he’s done. It’s not like he’s impossible to listen to, he just isn’t good.
Both girls are now demanding that when school starts again, he only practices on the weekends during a certain time when both of them expect to be out of the house for various activities. I think it’s ridiculous. We live in a small house, so there’s not anywhere where you can completely escape the sound of the guitar, but in the girls’ bedroom with the door completely shut, if the girls were wearing headphones they wouldn’t be able to hear it at all. My son has started to let the negative comments get to his head too, despite our reassurance that he’s only been practicing for two months. My husband thinks that some of what the girls have been saying has merit, but I think it’s just a joke that’s been blown out of proportion and the kids need to know when to stop.
Your daughters are both right and wrong. They’re right in the sense that listening to a beginner musician can be pretty dreadful, regardless of the musician’s talent. My sister was a very good violinist as a child (still is) and I disliked listening to her practicing. It might not be as annoying a sound to you, because it’s your kid and you have a musical version of blinders on (as you should!), but I can understand their discomfort. However, they’re wrong in how they’re behaving. If being in their room with the door closed is a viable option, that’s case closed as far as I’m concerned.
Sit down with the girls and tell them in no uncertain terms that they are not allowed to undermine their brother and his hard work again. Nor will you be setting specific times when he is “allowed” to play—that isn’t how you cultivate joy in music. (Homework time could be off-limits, but that’s about as far as I would go.) If they want to go to their rooms or the porch when he picks up the instrument, they’re welcome to, but with no huffing, door slamming, or big show made of their departure. Seeking your own space and comfort is fine, but using that to hurt loved ones is not. They are old enough to understand the difference.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
We are really close to my brother-in-law and his family. He is my husband’s brother and best friend, and I dearly love his wife and their three girls (ages 6, 4, and 2). I have a 4-month-old daughter and I am so excited for our kids to grow up together. The problem I have seems so selfish and silly that I almost feel bad writing… but I need advice. My nieces are fairly messy. I don’t imagine it is abnormally messy for young children, but it presents a problem when they come over. They are very comfortable in our home (which I treasure) but they typically end up running right to my daughter’s nursery and taking out all her toys, shoes, and clothes—sometimes literally dumping things onto the floor. I don’t mind sharing toys, but they’ve damaged toys that are either passed down from my side of the family or new and something I want to stay nice for my daughter when she is old enough to enjoy. Again, I don’t fault them for this; I just don’t want my daughter’s things ruined before she can enjoy them.
I thought about discretely putting away the relatively few things I don’t want ruined, but unfortunately, they are their favorite toys at my house (a linen doll, a jewelry box, an old family heirloom teddy bear, etc.) and it would be obvious when they asked for them that they had been moved. For this same reason, I don’t want to be upfront with my in-laws because it feels silly to be petty about material possessions that bring my nieces joy. I am so torn though, because the things belong to my daughter. Plus, I also am a little tired honestly of cleaning her room every time they leave. My SIL tries to help and leave it picked up, but it isn’t usually done very intentionally (which I get because getting three kids to pick up and leave is impossible) and leaves extra work for me. It seems like a silly problem, but it is causing stress surrounding their visit.
—Selfish in Sioux Falls
It is not at all selfish to want your daughter’s belongings to stay intact for her. Kids are whirlwinds of chaos, and unless you’re going to micromanage their playtime (which I do not recommend), you need to assume things will get broken and messy. Therefore, you need to make the precious items off-limits, either by restricting access to her room, or by removing these specific objects from reach (if not sight, at least for now). Maybe the kids will be disappointed, but that’s OK. Your nieces are not entitled to your daughter’s possessions. You can keep the explanation breezy if they ask (“The jewelry box is fragile, so it’s not something we are going to play with right now”), or you can be more upfront with them (“There are some toys that are really important to me, and I want them to stay nice and neat and ready for baby when she’s old enough to enjoy them. So, they are going to stay on the top shelf for now, which is off-limits.”)
Meanwhile, invest in less important toys that the nieces can play with. Secondhand stores and neighborhood buy-sell pages are great ways to amass an impressive cache for little cash. My guess is that if you have a bunch of new playable toys, their desire for the off-limits items will fade.
I wouldn’t worry about your brother- and sister-in-law, either. Do they let their kids play with all of their heirlooms? I highly doubt it, so why would they expect it from you? I think most parents enter another person’s house praying their kids don’t destroy something; they don’t assume the hosts’ house is their kids’ personal mecca. It’s your choice whether you talk to them proactively or not, but I have to hope they’ll understand either way.
Finally, regarding needing to clean up after your nieces’ visit, that is just a part of life, unfortunately. Yes, the kids can “help clean up” before they leave, but at their age, it’s more about practicing that habit than doing an effective job. You’ll be straightening up after their visit just as you would after an adult party. It’s the price of opening your home to others.
Dear Care and Feeding,
Is there a good way to describe being touched out to help someone that apparently doesn’t experience the concept understand it? I’m currently a stay-at-home-mom to our two kids under 3, and while I’m incredibly thankful for and glad to see my husband at the end of each day, some days I just can’t be in contact with him after a full day of the kids climbing all over me, etc. This is a problem for him because he is incredibly into physical contact. After the kids are both in bed and we’re sitting in the living room he will always sit on the couch I’m sitting on and put his feet/legs/head in or across my lap—or at the very least sit close enough for me to have a hand on his back, leg or arm. Then he wants me to rub or scratch whatever body part I’m in contact with.
Most days I don’t mind, I know he’s had a long day, missed being with us, and connects with me that way. But maybe once every two weeks I just can’t. The thought of being in contact with another living thing in any way makes my skin crawl. I’ve tried explaining that I just need my own space without anyone in it, repositioning myself so I’m not in contact with him and completely moving to a different piece of furniture. All of these get pouty responses from him and sometimes a joking accusation of not actually loving him. Is there a better way I can describe this phenomenon that I know I am not alone in? Or is he just choosing not to believe me?
—Stay in your Bubble
Since I don’t know what you’ve already tried, I have to sort of take a shot in the dark here, but hopefully, something will stick.
Idea one: too much of a good thing. Since physical touch is his love language, and thus something he has very positive associations with, one approach is to pick something else he loves and describe being over-exposed to it. Some ideas: “It’s like hearing one song by the Rolling Stones on repeat all day long, and then someone wanting to sing it to me.” “It’s like I’ve been in a pool all day long, and I just got home and I want to sit, dry on the couch, but now you want to go back to the pool with me.”
Idea two: It’s not you, it’s me. He’s not the only thing you’ve “rejected,” I’m sure, so draw that parallel. “You know how, at the end of a date night or after attending a wedding, the first thing I do is take off my heels? Because my feet hurt and have been constrained all night. That’s how my body feels after a day with the kids, so when you want physical contact, it’s like you’re telling me to keep the heels on for another two hours. It doesn’t mean I don’t like the shoes, I just don’t want them on my feet at that moment.”
Idea three: palate cleanser. When you go to a wine tasting, the sommelier has a jar of coffee beans or something else nearby. You sniff the coffee between tastings to sort of reset your sense of smell and taste. A period of no-touching is kind of like a sensory cleanser—something that interrupts and resets the touched-out feeling.
I’m sure this is a frustrating situation for your husband, but remind him that it is temporary. As your children grow, the less physical contact they’ll need, and the fewer no-contact nights you’ll have. And gently point out to him that it’s unkind to make himself into a martyr simply because you stated a need of your own. Final thought: Although being “touched out” isn’t the same kind of sensory overload that someone with a sensory processing disorder might experience, I think the experiences live in the same ecosystem, so to speak. Check out these accounts of what sensory overload feels like; you might find an analogous description of how you feel, or you could share the link with your husband to illustrate that this really isn’t about him, any more than sensory overload is about a single trigger. Good luck!
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