Care and Feeding

Get Your Fingers Out of Your Mouth, Arrrrrgh

Advice for dealing with a little nail-biter.

A little girl with her fingers in her mouth.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Thinkstock.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Email careandfeeding@gmail.com.

Dear Care and Feeding,

How can I get my 4-year-old daughter to stop biting her nails? She gets them right down to the quick and it looks painful.

—A Real Nail-Biter

Dear ARN,

Well, I’m 35, and the only thing that’s ever worked for me is “buying an expensive jade cocktail ring and wanting to be able to show it off in public without people recoiling at my horrible mangled hands,” which isn’t really great advice for a 4-year-old. The conventional options, of course, include: the gross-tasting stuff your daughter will get used to, bribery, constantly pushing her hands away from her mouth until you feel like you’ve lost your mind, and telling her that’s how you get worms.

As it happens, I recently had to take a crack at this with one of my own kids and can recommend getting her a chewy necklace. These ones look like a piece of Lego, you can run them through the dishwasher, no one at school has ever batted an eye at it (a teacher told me she has started recommending them for hair-chewing and sleeve-slurping as well), and after a few months of redirecting them to the necklace, the habit was broken (and eventually the necklace became unnecessary).

Keep an eye on your daughter’s general anxiety level: Many of us who are truly committed oral fixators do it to deal with stress, and it may be easier to fix the behavior if you can isolate some contributing factors at play. Or she might just love the taste of man-flesh! Best of luck.

Dear Care and Feeding,

How do you manage dinner and bedtime in a reasonable amount of time and as little chaos as possible? I have a 13-month-old and a 3-year-old. I can’t figure it out!

I get off of work around 4 p.m. and then I drive to get my kids from my mother-in-law. By the time I have nursed the baby, had the toddler go pee, loaded up the diaper bag, and wrestled children into car seats it’s about 5. We’re home around 5:20 or so, and then we unload and I get the kids set up with some toys or a movie—let’s be honest. It is a screen for the toddler about 99 percent of the time. However, everyone is melting down at this point and trying to get dinner on the table is a nightmare. I’d say it is usually about 6 p.m. by the time I can even really start cooking. Then with trying to get dinner served and kids to eat we are looking at being done with that around 7:15 or so. I try to get the kids bathed and ready for bed, but my husband gets home from work right around then and they go nuts when he walks in the door. By the time everyone is ready for bed we’re always approaching 9 and it is TOO DAMN LATE!

—Just Go to Bed!!!!

Dear JGtB,

You and your husband both work outside the home and have two kids under the age of 4. It sounds like things are going pretty much as these things go. In my experience, much parental frustration—on this issue, and every issue—comes from the idea that other people must somehow be pulling all this off more successfully than you are. I am happy to inform you that they aren’t. This is largely how this goes! People come home from work late, kids go to bed late, children torment each other, etc. Some days you will be impressed simply to have survived. My advice, therefore, is mainly to separate yourself as much as possible from the idea that you are failing to do something that others find very easy. This is just a legitimately hard thing, and it will not go on forever.

I do, however, have a small amount of more concrete guidance for you: Children do not need baths every day unless they have rolled in mud, screens are a great balm to the process of table-setting, and you are not required by law to have a home-cooked meal on the table every weeknight. Lower your standards whenever possible, I say. My husband and I are both grazers and have no interest in sitting down for family meals, and have simply incorporated our children into our existing system. They know they have to do it when at other people’s homes, and rise beautifully to the occasion, but you can easily have them packed off to bed at least 45 minutes earlier if they’re gnawing a stick of beef jerky or tossing back some almonds while you read to them.

You have so many years to work on this stuff, but right now you are in basic survival mode. They are not yet forming long-term memories! You’re doing fine. Vigorously slash your effort in half at every turn. And if it’s helpful (it’s been great for me), remember that you and your husband are on the same side of the war against your small children. If your stated goal is “let’s get these kids to bed so we can practice being married again,” it can offer a dash of romance and motivation and the sort of forced teaming that, for better or for worse, gets you meaningful results.

More Care and Feeding:

Should I Let My Husband Drag My Kids to Church?

My Daughter Prefers Me to Her Dad. I Don’t Blame Her!

I Love My Affectionate, Messy Kids, but My In-Laws Are Paranoid About Germs

Dear Care and Feeding,

My daughter came home from school the other day and announced that the tooth fairy has apparently upped her rate to $10 a tooth. Is this for real? What are parents supposed to do in response to this level of price-fixing?

—Call Me Aaron Burr for the Way I’m Dropping Hamiltons

Dear Aaron Burr,

My first thought is that your daughter is running a con on you, which is always beautiful to see, and to be encouraged. “Uh, yeah, $10 a tooth and… five points on the back end. Merchandising rights, too.” Sure, kid.

Yeah, some parents are really running prices up on the rest of us, but 10 bucks is fantasyland. (It is absolutely possible some damnable ninny at your daughter’s school is paying this exorbitant rate, of course.) This handy primer suggests that the average fairy payout for a tooth in 2018 is $4.13, which is down slightly from $4.66 the previous year (an all-time high!). Some try-hards are out there leaving toys and games in addition to cash! What a time to be alive.

Please, hold the line in your home! No one should be paying five bucks a tooth. Being from Canada, God’s own country, I feel bad for Americans because leaving loonies and toonies under pillows is so much easier than carefully wadding up paper money. My personal recommendation is to band together with several like-minded friends, go in on a sack of Susan B. Anthony silver dollars, and dole out one per tooth. It seems like it’s worth more than it is, it’s vaguely educational, and you can offer to buy them back at your own price should the child balk at them.

Dear Care and Feeding,

After 11 years of emotional and mental abuse I finally put a healthy distance between myself and my now–13-year-old twins’ father. I am the sole managing conservator, I only communicate with him via email to control abusive rhetoric, and have exactly and only as much of a relationship with him as I am required to by law. He sees the twins every other weekend and some holidays. I only casually inquire about how visits are and what they did, but otherwise try not to interfere in the twins’ relationship with their father.

My problem is this: He will outright lie to them about his own past in order to save face, putting me in the position of either going along with his lie or being the seemingly petty person who tells them the truth. Two glaring examples: He wasn’t accepted into the Air Force because he failed a drug test, but told our daughter it was for “health reasons.” After getting two DWIs, he lost his commercial driver’s license but told our son he “gave it up because it was too expensive to renew.” What should I do?

—Sick of His BS

Dear SoHBS,

Congratulations on having taken the steps necessary to distance yourself from your abusive ex-partner. He sounds like a real peach. I am afraid my advice is likely to be somewhat deflating, but since his lies seem more in the line of harmless fabulism, like Big Fish but not at all charming, it’s probably not worth challenging. You don’t need to sign on to his fantastical claims, just say “Oh?” in a vaguely distracted tone when your kids bring it up and go on with your business.

(You knew exceptions were coming, and you were right!)

1. If the kids ask for clarification on statements he has made which concern you, it is not necessary to say “Oh? I guess I forgot that I set his priceless aquarium on fire because I never appreciated it.”

2. If the lies pose danger going forward, a la “Dad says you can drink Sterno if you pour it through a coffee filter first,” go ahead and set the record straight.

The kids are 13. You have them the vast majority of the time. I am confident that you are the parent with the most significant ability to shape their experience of the world, and that their father will be eventually remembered for what he is. Will it be aggravating to inwardly roll your eyes when they drag home tales of the Purple Heart he won in the Crimean War? Very much so. But I think it’s best to ride it out until they’re grown. Detach, detach, detach. The more detachment you can achieve, the more emotional separation you’ll get from this man. There is no doubt in my mind that he wants to goad you into engaging him in conversation on these points. Please disappoint him.

Before sending you off to ignore him and focus, as the French say, on your own onions, let me just ask you if you currently believe your ex to be sober, or if not sober, safe to drive the kids around? The fact that two of his identified lies are in the realm of substance use gives me some pause. If there is any doubt on this point, probe further. Best of luck!

—Nicole

Nicole Cliffe lives with her husband and three children in Sandy, Utah. She is the co-founder of the Toast and has written for the Guardian, Christianity Today, New York, and the Morning News.