Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here.
Dear Care and Feeding,
I have three boys, who are 2, 4 and 6 years old. Overall, I think I’m a reasonably good parent—setting and enforcing boundaries, instilling values, planning ahead for situations, talking about expectations in what we are about to do, etc. But I feel like we are a wild tornado of chaos in any non-kid-oriented public situation. Waiting in line at the airport is absolute torture with the older two fighting, then wrestling, then knocking over one of the line poles while the 2-year-old tries to run away. Similarly, waiting for the bus is me constantly yelling at them to stop it and stay away from the road while other kids wait calmly. In restaurants, the kids are too loud and usually have to be separated, and at least one thing is always spilled.
They each behave great on their own and at school. I can manage their behavior at places where I can enforce immediate consequences, but at places like an airport or restaurant where I have to accomplish other things and we can’t stop for a consequence, I feel like it quickly spirals, usually with fighting between the oldest two and general toddler-ness from the youngest. What am I doing wrong and why can’t my kids just calmly behave in public like all the other kids I see just chatting with their parents in line?!? I’m tired of the stink eye I get for people thinking my kids are totally out of control (which is sometimes true!) when usually they’re great kids.
—Help Me Tame the Tornado
There are some simple things you can do to curb some of this behavior, if you aren’t already doing them. The first is to bring stuff to occupy the kids’ attention. They’re roughhousing, running, and playing with each other because they’re bored and their playmate is right there. Fidgets, thumb puzzles, coloring, Hot Wheels, and puzzle books can all be your allies. Overpack these items—I have a friend who brings a literal backpack of travel toys wherever she goes with her kids. If you make these toys unavailable at home, the kids might then be motivated to play with them when they do have access say, at a restaurant. Try physically separating them whenever possible, too. This might mean wearing the toddler in a carrier at the bus stop or sitting between the strongest instigators at a restaurant.
You may also need to take an honest look at whether you have established a consistent method of correction and consequences at home. For example, you say you set and enforce boundaries at home; how do you do this? What are the consequences for misbehaving? Most of the literature on this topic will tell you that the way to prevent kids from misbehaving in public is to have an established system of correction when they misbehave at home. So, if you haven’t already set rules that extinguish unwanted behavior before it escalates, or provide consequences when necessary, start now; you can then use that same system in public. (I like the method described in I-2-3 Magic by Thomas W. Phelan, which has a chapter all about misbehaving in public.) Despite what you write in your letter, you might need to factor in time for a consequence, especially as these new habits are being instilled. That might mean leaving earlier for the airport, etc.; it might also mean avoiding restaurants for a while. It doesn’t have to be all crime and punishment, though; you can pair this discipline technique with some of the expectation setting that you say you already do—this article has some tips on that front. Good luck!
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Dear Care and Feeding,
I’m trying to get a sense of whether my concern about a child in my life is overblown or not. My best friend’s sister, “Samantha,” has a 6-year-old daughter, “Eva.” Samantha has her daughter during the week, and Eva’s father has her on weekends, school breaks, and a few vacations over the summer. During the summer, Eva also goes to her grandparents’ house very frequently. I’m not a parent, so I genuinely can’t even begin to wrap my head around how hard it must be to raise a child alone five days a week. I have a pretty close relationship with Eva—take her out to lunch, babysit regularly, etc. She’s always been a very good, smart kid, but has recently really started to act out. This obviously could just be her age, but Samantha routinely screams and cusses out Eva for the most minor things, and those are just the things she’s willing to say in front of me or in public. I have no idea if things are worse behind closed doors.
Samantha works from home at a very well-paying job that requires her to be on calls all day, so during the summer, Eva just sits at home watching TV all day long and gets no interaction with anyone while Samantha is working. Samantha says she won’t put Eva in any summer activities during the workday because “it’s a waste of money.” I can’t confirm this, but from what both Eva and Samantha have told me, her father basically does not spend time with her, and instead smokes weed and watches TV while she is there. I’m really worried about Eva; she gets no social interaction outside of her parents and grandparents when she’s not at school, asks me about the calories in her food when she comes over, sits at home all day watching TV, has meltdowns similar to what I would expect from a toddler.
Is this just a matter of minding my own business and trying to be a stable presence in Eva’s life, or should I try to talk to Samantha about my concerns? I know Samantha loves her daughter and is probably just burnt out, but I can’t help but worry.
—Worried and Wondering
It’s hard to know when to say something and when to mind your own business when it comes to a child’s well-being. I do think your concerns are valid; I would be similarly uncomfortable and concerned if I made your same observations with my friend and her child. Of course, plenty of good parents cuss and yell, and plenty “ignore” their kids for periods of time. But it’s the sum of observations that has me troubled (with the important caveat that none of us knows what happens behind closed doors, positive or negative).
I’m curious what your best friend has observed; this is their sister and niece, after all. Are they on the same page as you, and has this been discussed within the family? I would probably poke around there, because they may have context you lack, including whether anyone has already tried speaking to Samantha.
It seems like you and Samantha may have a close enough relationship where you can broach this topic. If you do, I would frame it as concern for both her and her child. Keep the initial observation or question gentle but to the point (“You seem really stressed lately, is everything OK?”, “Eva seems really down lately, have you noticed the same thing?”) and let Samantha’s receptiveness and response guide you. Hopefully, the conversation will flow, in which case, you can be clear that you’re worried for both of them because you love them both. Ideally, Samantha will be open to the chat, but if she doesn’t immediately engage, I would back off. It can be really hard for any parent to take unsolicited advice, however well-meaning, from a non-parent, and I would hate for you to lose the relationship with mom or daughter.
If, after reading this response to your letter, you don’t think you have the tools or the relationship to have this conversation, that is OK too. You can continue to be a positive role model and sounding board for Eva, even if intervening isn’t in the cards right now.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
“Taylor” had a great year in first grade last year—he is on track with academics, made friendships, and is enthusiastic about new after-school activities. He also had a good time with camps this summer, so structure and pickup/drop-off are still familiar to him despite the summer break.
This summer, his dad and I officially got a divorce, which had been a long time coming. We both had serious partners before the divorce; we just remained together for financial reasons. It’s amicable, co-parenting is going fine, and we live less than a mile apart now. Taylor seems to be handling it OK, and we’re handling things as they come up. Except for one thing: he says he’s scared of going back to school because he’ll have a new bus schedule for our 50/50 parenting split.
We explained that if he gets on the wrong bus, it will still be OK, that someone will pick him up, and that the end-of-day monitor has his bus schedule. Taylor is still really upset about it and mentions it every time we see a back-to-school display or he transfers between his dad and me. What can we do to reassure him?
—New Year, New Custody
Dear New Custody,
You and his dad live less than a mile away from each other, so pick one stop and let him use it for all bus rides home. Whatever parent doesn’t live at that spot will just have to drive to get him. Yes, this is annoying and inconvenient, but Taylor is still really young, and no matter how amiable a divorce is, it is still a world-changing event for a kid. Go easy on him through these early months of his new life. There is plenty of time for him to become more confident and independent as a child of two households.
If that is truly not a workable solution, then I might try a wristband system. Buy two colors of jelly wristbands and keep a stash at each house. Make one color a “Dad house” bracelet and make the other color represent your house. Label them with a permanent marker for extra clarity. Each morning, put the correct bracelet on Taylor so that he has a constant reminder of where he is going at the end of the day. I would also give him a means to get a hold of you if he somehow gets it wrong; keeping your phone numbers in his backpack or knowing the neighbors who are home, for example.
Taylor is looking for safety and stability in what has suddenly become a more unpredictable daily life. Do what you can to accommodate him, even if it takes extra work.
Dear Care and Feeding,
I have something genuinely terrible to admit, so feel free to toss this letter in the trash and scoff at what a horrible parent I am. First off, I’m a stay-at-home mom. Life is really lonely; my husband works and all my family and friends live pretty far away. I have a 10-year-old boy, “Ryan,” who’s physically and intellectually disabled. He will never walk, have proper motor function, be able to learn above a third-grade level, or live on his own. I do love him to pieces, but honestly? Taking care of him alone is a lot of work, and as he gets bigger, it won’t get easier. At the same time, I’m resentful of my own child. As horrible as this is, I will never be “free” of him. I will be stuck taking care of him for a very long time. I will never get to watch him experience milestones, and his differences alienate me from other moms with neuro/physiotypical children. I feel like I’m in this cage where my son is my only companion. Because of his many allergies and issues, it’s very hard to leave the house for pleasure and we rarely do.
I’ve tried talking to therapists, but each one has told me some version of “You’re a horrible mother and you need to suck it up.” I’ve tried leaving him with a babysitter, but I can’t find anyone reliable. We can’t afford a special caretaker and we don’t trust the care facilities in the area (they have horrible reviews). Essentially, I want to feel gratitude for my son and be more content with my situation. Can you help?
—Bad Mother in Nebraska
Dear Bad Mother,
I wish I could give you a hug, because this is not terrible to admit, and you are not a horrible parent. Your letter immediately took me back to a similar one I answered in April this year. I’d encourage you to scroll down to the comments because you’ll find many folks in the same boat there. In fact, one of the commenters suggested finding a therapist who specializes in PTSD for caregivers, which is being recognized as an outcome of the kind of life you describe; I thought that might be some promising advice.
This might be going a bit afield, but how much of the parenting does your husband take on? Is he committed to giving you chunks of time throughout the week where you can do your own thing? Sometimes people fall into the trap of thinking that if one partner works outside the home and the other partner is a full-time parent, those duties are equal “buckets” of work. However, parenting isn’t a 40-hour gig; it’s a 24/7 one, and typically it’s the stay-at-home-parent that continues to fulfill parenting roles even when both adults are present. You have to consciously break this cycle and “clock out” as a SAHM the moment your partner is home, at which point you share caretaking equally. Maybe this is already happening in your home, and if so, that is excellent. But if not, it’s a great place to start to give you a little more “you time.”
You and your partner may need to have a serious conversation about what the long-term plan is for your son—not only what will happen to him when you both are gone, but what your lives will look like for the next several decades. If you are committed to caring for Ryan his whole life, but you need to find ways to make that more palatable, that is a great and valid choice, and maybe some of my advice above will help with that. But if you do not think you are up to the task, then you may need to discuss the possibility of relocating, even if it feels extreme. Good residential and day programs do exist out there, which could give Ryan meaningful enrichment and give you the balance you feel is missing in your life.
Ryan’s needs matter, but yours do too. And if you get nothing else out of this letter, I hope you take away the fact that your feelings are OK, and you are still a good mom.
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