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,
I’m a progressive parent living in a liberal city full of progressive, gentle-parenting enthusiasts, and although that’s how I would describe myself, too, my 4-year-old loves fighting games. To be clear, he’s not actually fighting his friends (no punching, nothing physical, etc.), he just wants to make his toys battle, or pretend to be an “army guy” or a police officer putting people in jail. And, of course, he wants every stick to be a sword. This type of play isn’t allowed at school, which I totally understand, but I also feel like it’s horrifying the other parents in our circle. Is it OK to let him indulge his inner fighter at home? Or is it better to shut this kind of play down everywhere?
While war play can be jarring to us adults (who are all too familiar with the real-world implications of violence and weapons), developmental psychologists seem to agree that this kind of play has value in helping kids communicate, problem-solve, assign morality, cooperate, and prepare for adversity—and it isn’t inherently bad on its face. In fact, it’s ubiquitously normal. This article gives an overview and a few citations from the academic side of things, and the book Play, by Stuart Brown, gives a delightful and fascinating look into all the many kinds of play and how it prepares and shapes us for life.
That’s all fine academically, but in practice, what should you do? Well, how do you feel about lightsabers? Laser cannons? Thor’s hammer? As a parent, I find those far less threatening than imaginary guns, which is how I know my discomfort isn’t really about the war play, but about what the weapon means in my adult context. So, I don’t outright prohibit weapon play; I just put some boundaries in place.
Marriage and family therapist Hal Runkel wrote about that kind of approach in his book Scream-Free Parenting (tenth anniversary revised edition). His teenage son was allowed to play violent video games where the bad guys were aliens, but he wasn’t allowed to play games depicting violence toward humans. He admits this was an arbitrary rule, but it made him and his wife more comfortable and still allowed their son to engage in media that was of interest to him. This is what he wrote on the topic:
Simply put, I do not want to shame any naturally occurring fascination; I want to find a way to steer that fascination toward the most productive expression. Take fire, for instance. In the right context, it literally powers our world. It cooks our food, warms our homes, fuels our industries, and so forth; it makes life possible. Outside the right contexts, however, and left unguided, it is incredibly destructive.
Does this make fire bad? Of course not. The question we should be asking, however, is this: What am I doing to teach my children about the proper handling of fire, whether at the campsite or at the outdoor summer BBQ?
I really love that metaphor and the lesson it can teach about finding nuance in how we parent around scary topics. So, in your case, you might think about setting boundaries like those above, that the bad guys can only be non-human, or that no gory deaths may occur, etc. You could also make baseline rules about how imaginary guns are never aimed at other players and teach your son to recognize when his play might be making others uncomfortable. Guardrails like this can let him explore without crossing too many comfort lines.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
These days, because of inflation, our family has begun to change our diets a bit. My 12-year-old, however, has been struggling a lot with it. Because veggies typically eaten raw (romaine lettuce, peppers, salad greens, etc.) have become more expensive, we’ve switched to eating a lot of steamed vegetables, and she hates it. She will gladly eat salads and raw veggies of pretty much any kind, and she doesn’t have a problem with eating healthy foods in general. It’s cooked vegetables, however, that really set her off. Any time I give them to her, she picks at her plate for at least an hour, and it has become really frustrating.
She explained to me that she hates the squishy and mushy texture of cooked vegetables, as well as the smell, but nobody else in our family, including my younger child, has a problem with it. Apparently (she could be exaggerating), she has wanted to throw up while eating them, so that may give you a sense of her discomfort. I’ve explained the reason why we’ve switched to eating fewer raw veggies, and while she understands, I really wish she would stop behaving like she’s eating some kind of poison when I serve her dinner. My husband and I put effort into preparing dinner, and I’ve begun to interpret her behavior as ungrateful. She’s 12! She should be able to, for lack of a better euphemism, suck it up. What should I do?
— Eat Your (Cooked) Vegetables
Your daughter isn’t alone. Do a Google search for “I hate steamed veggies” and you’ll find plenty of like-minded folks out there. And while “sucking it up” is a fine expectation for someone to eat food they’re not excited about, I think in your daughter’s case it may be unrealistic and unfair, if we take her at her word. (I hope I don’t have to explain why “Everyone else likes it” isn’t constructive, either.)
I’m sure your daughter understands the reasons for your grocery strategy; she just wants to enjoy her food—and that is understandable. My theory is that you might be overcooking and under-seasoning your veggies for her palate. If you’re microwaving them, shave a minute off the cook time and see how she does. Try sautéing or (my favorite) roasting rather than microwaving. And while I’ve always found olive oil, salt and a dash of pepper bring out the best in my cooked veggies, this website has a few other options to consider when it comes to seasoning and enhancing your veggies. Enlist your daughter’s help by taste-and-texture-testing different cooking methods and flavor profiles. You could even turn it into a game by giving the rest of the family scorecards at each meal to rate the veggies you prepare. Essentially, I think you need to switch your mindset away from food enforcer and into food detective, and work with your daughter rather than against her.
Finally, double-check that your processed veggies are really giving you the cost savings you think. Some produce, like carrots, might actually be cheaper raw than their canned and frozen varieties or counterparts. You can dig into the data from the USDA on your daughter’s favorites and compare against what you see on your grocer’s shelves. Maybe you’ll luck out and find a few raw veggies you’ll be able to throw her way.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
My daughter is 5 and she’s absolutely adorable. I know all parents say that about their kids, but it’s true. She is very cute and uses that to get away with stuff. It’s unintentional for now, but I can imagine it could become intentional quickly.
My husband and I aren’t the sorts of parents who find it impossible to say “no” to our daughter, and most of her preschool teachers aren’t either. But grandparents, aunts and uncles, older cousins who babysit, one of her substitute preschool teachers, and other adults she’s regularly in contact with have a hard time saying no to her. These are people who had no issues saying no to my son when he was her age. As an example, the other day my mom brought over cookies—one for each person, which she was quite clear about. And the moment my daughter asked for a second cookie, my mom caved and gave my daughter hers. I’m afraid that my daughter will soon discover, if she hasn’t already, that she can get what she wants from people virtually just by looking at them. How can I mitigate this? Should I bring it up with our relatives? I feel like talking to my daughter about it would backfire tremendously.
—Please Say No
Absolutely bring it up with your relatives. You’re right that talking to your daughter would only confirm overtly what she already knows instinctively—and would encourage her to deploy her superpower even more. Plus, it’s not her fault you’re in this situation, so it’s not her responsibility to correct it.
In my opinion, this is the perfect scenario in which to deploy the oft-ridiculed Mass Family Email. Share with the group that you and your husband have noticed that your daughter is getting away with murder, and everyone in the family is helping her hide the weapon. Use a healthy dash of humor and self-deprecation to mollify the group as you ask them to help you two nip this pattern “we all share” in the bud. You might also point out that if you have noticed the pattern, your son probably has too, and no one wants him to think his sister is more loved or pampered than he is. This email can lay important groundwork so that if (when) you must correct someone in the moment, it won’t feel so punitive or catch them off-guard. Trust your gut, you’re on the right path.
Dear Care and Feeding,
I’m 63 years old and wear hearing aids; I’ve been wearing them for almost four years and it has been life-changing for me. However, I still struggle to make out conversations in large crowds or extremely noisy situations. I also cannot hear when people mumble or speak very softly, especially if there is other overbearing noise going on. When I politely ask people to speak up, my very close long-time friend frequently ridicules me as if it’s my fault the person is speaking so quietly. On top of that, she speaks in a manner that gets increasingly softer; while I’m sure she doesn’t realize she is doing it, I have to constantly say, “I didn’t hear the last half of what you said.” She gets very irritated that I am imposing on her to speak at a normal level.
Is this some sort of weird micro-aggression? For the life of me, I can’t understand her behavior toward my disability. Especially since she is prone to injuries and at least once a year has to be accommodated for months by all her friends while she recovers. The problem is not my hearing aids—I have gone back annually to check if my hearing loss is increasing and it’s not. I would be a wreck without her friendship, but her ridicule is causing me to stay home sometimes instead of being with her. I am so embarrassed every time she does this to me. I have tried to explain that I don’t like her out-of-line comments to people about my hearing, but she ignores me.
— Eager to “Hear” your Answer
Your friend is being quite insensitive and downright mean by making fun of you for your disability. It sounds to me as if she feels inconvenienced by you, and since she can’t actually change your disability, she is trying to shame you into changing your behavior. Putting it bluntly, I think on some level she thinks that if you can’t hear, it’s your own darn fault and not her or your acquaintances’ problem. That doesn’t sound like a friend to me.
I really want to tell you to find a new friend, because I’m not convinced that she will be willing to change. However, I respect that you say you’d be a wreck without her, so we’ll give her the benefit of the doubt. The next time she makes fun of you, call her out—even if it’s in front of other people (especially if it’s in front of other people, actually, because then she might have the grace to be chagrined). Point out that this is a consistent pattern with her. Ask her if she would make fun of you if you were using a wheelchair or had a stroke. Let her know that the next time she does it, you will leave—and follow through on your threat. If you do wind up leaving, put communication with her on pause for a week or so. If she’s a good enough friend that she misses you and apologizes, then maybe you have a reason to give her another chance. If, on the other hand, she doesn’t seem to mind that she was in a “time out,” that tells you that the friendship has run its course.
Disability is something that most, if not all, of us will deal with in our lifetime, either directly or with a loved one. (While one in four American adults has a disability that affects their life, that number grows to two in five among adults 65 or older, according to the CDC). We all need to be inclusive and extend flexibility and patience to others. Ultimately, your friend isn’t behaving the way most of us would expect a 4-year-old to conduct themselves. She needs to do better. You have a right to expect and demand that.
More Advice From Slate
My oldest child is in third grade. He’s in an established gifted program at our public elementary school and gets perfect grades (knock on wood), but he seems to have a lot of time to himself. Yesterday, for example, he read Mr. Popper’s Penguins and at least one Calvin and Hobbes treasury at school, start to finish, on his own time.