Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dear Care and Feeding,
My daughter is 18 months old and is showing a preference to be with me rather than her dad. For background, we both took separate three-month leaves to be with her as a baby, and we each have a few days a week taking care of her alone while the other is at work, so we have each established plenty of one-on-one time together. The difficulties come when we are both home with her and she squirms away from Dad and hollers for me. My husband then throws up his hands and claims that I am “spoiling” her and that’s why he can’t deal with her.
For example, last night he was trying to feed her dinner when I came home from work. He still spoon-feeds her the same kinds of mushy foods she had at 12 months, when she has moved on to eating a variety of finger foods. When I do meals with her, she wears a bib and sits in her high chair, and I place food on her tray. I sit with her for company and to dish up more food at her request. He prefers to have her on his lap, spoon-feeding her, and gets annoyed if she touches the food or gets it on her clothes—but refuses to put on a bib. He also insists that she finish every bite. So I walk in to this dinner scene, and predictably she immediately wants to run to me. We then went through this dinner dance for almost an hour of her wanting to hang out with me, her dad trying to coax her back onto his lap by alternating begging and threatening, me encouraging her to eat but also trying to suggest to my husband that he put her in the high chair and have a more rational meal time. Finally I have to leave the house and go sit on the porch until he convinces her to finish dinner.
Another example: She is very curious and investigates everything within reach, as is appropriate for an 18-month-old. I have addressed this by putting away dangerous and delicate objects, and making sure she has her own drawer in the kitchen with her scoops, bowls, etc. that is OK to play with, rather than constantly trailing her to say, “No, don’t touch that!” My husband thinks that she just needs to learn what is off-limits so he leaves things out and then cautions/scolds her about touching them.
In watching him parent her, and seeing how he parents his much older son from a previous relationship, he clearly has control issues and wants her to simply do as he says. I am worried that is setting up a lifetime of conflict.
I am struggling with how to respond in these moments. Ideally, we would have some sort of pause button and could go quietly discuss various parenting strategies and approaches on our own, then return to the situation and address our daughter’s needs. But we have to deal with it in real time. I try to balance dealing with her immediate needs and explaining to my husband what I think is going on in her mind. It’s also tempting to throw in some editorializing on his parenting methods but I really try to restrain myself knowing that I am not helping her at all by highlighting the divide. I know what she needs is to see firm, consistent, and lovingly unified responses from the two of us, but it is so hard when we have such different tendencies and we haven’t made much progress on finding common ground. It seems too simplistic (and unhelpful) to conclude that I’m right and he’s wrong, but I believe treating her with respect within loving boundaries is the best approach, and I’m not necessarily willing to compromise.
—The Great Debaters
I got three letters this week from parents of 18-month-olds, which I think is a tribute to how, at that age, blobby babies really develop personalities that can knock you back on your heels and increase the complexity of your parenting.
There’s a lot going on here! I do not want to Captain Hindsight you, so this is more a comment for other readers who might find it helpful: If you want to have kids with someone whose parenting style bothers you (as suggested in this case by the letter-writer’s belief that her husband’s now-grown son is burdened by control issues), that’s something you need to have serious conversations about.
The reality of raising kids with a partner is that it’s a hell of a lot easier than raising a kid alone, but you’re going to butt heads and disagree about things. Serious mistakes aside, it benefits your child to have parents who do not always parent the same way. We talk a lot about the united front, and I am a firm proponent of backing up your spouse, but also the world has many different kinds of people in it. Especially as your kids get older, it’s fine—important, really!—for them to see natural human variation, especially as it impacts their experience of the universe and its reactions to them.
Consistency is more important, as you have observed, with very small children, so it’s often worth getting on the same page with how you’ll handle particular situations. Some of his parenting, as you describe it, isn’t great: trying to make a toddler eat every bite, getting annoyed when there’s a mess. (Good luck with that.) Some of what you describe is a perfectly normal difference of opinion: extra childproofing versus observation and redirecting. I think he’s taking spoon-feeding a bit far with an 18-month-old, but if she’s feeding herself for you, she’s getting the fine motor skills anyway. It’s not the end of the world. He may really like the closeness of having her on his lap! Different strokes.
Because your husband has already raised a child to adulthood, and you are new to the baby game, he’s not going to love being told what he’s doing wrong. I actually discourage “in the moment” interventions and/or commentary: If he’s already getting frustrated, it’s only going to heighten the situation. Go ahead and leave the kitchen while he feeds her! If there’s something you really have a problem with, bring it up at a calm and relaxed moment—“Hey, I was thinking…” or “How should we handle…”—so it’s a more collaborative conversation and less a critique.
This is not going to get easier! These are small problems. If you and your partner have big parenting differences, you need to develop a strategy for negotiating them now, so the framework is in place before one of you thinks she should be locked in a tower and the other thinks she’ll bring in the best dowry at 17. Give him space to parent his own way (literal physical space as well as emotional), but try to do a better job honing your radar for what’s damaging and what’s just different.
Finally: Your husband took three months off work for this, his second child. Maybe he feels like he missed out on a lot his first time around. You should talk to him about that! If he wants to be a more hands-on dad to your daughter than he was to his son, that could really impact his feelings around the perception your daughter “prefers” you. Make sure he knows that most kids pick a new favorite parent with some regularity, and this is not the women of the house building of an enduring Game of Thrones alliance against House Dad.
More Care and Feeding:
Dear Care and Feeding,
What advice do you have for teaching kids to be flexible? My 4- and 6-year-olds want total consistency and I understand the comfort of that, but also want them to learn to roll with the punches. We try to mix things up on them occasionally, letting them know in advance, and they still get freaked out by change. For example, I had an early meeting so dad drove the kids to school. We let them know twice last night, yet my 4-year-old daughter cried all morning because she wanted me to drive her. Do you think that telling them stories about how we are flexible in our days would resonate? Other ideas?
—Change Is Good!
This is a delicate balance. Letting your kids get too used to a consistency that the world refuses to offer us can create a bunch of hothouse flowers. I have an autistic kid who’s very fond of (and thrives on) routine, and so I appreciate your dilemma. (For the purpose of your question, I will assume your kids are neurotypical and just kinda dramatic, because otherwise my advice would be very different.)
Your instinct to talk about what flexibility you need in order to live your life is a good one, as is praising your kids for when they—surprise!—survive a minor change in plans. In fact, I recommend trying to downplay changes to routine a bit; it’s easy to shoot yourself in the foot by looking grim and saying “I know I said we wouldn’t have to stop for gas, and I am very very very sorry … but we have to stop for gas.” Kids are pretty good at surfing the general vibe. If you feel like you’re letting them down by switching something up, they’ll figure it’s a big deal.
Next time Dad’s driving them to school, try not giving them two warnings the night before. It sounds callous, but honestly, often a breezy “Here we are! Daddy is driving you today! Have fun!” is more effective than getting all emotionally tangled up in an outsize reaction. Give it a try! You’ll have more information afterward, either way.
Dear Care and Feeding,
We recently joined a gym with child care hoping to make more time for fitness. Our normally pretty social 20-month-old is not having it with being left in the day care, even though he would love it if he just calmed down and enjoyed the new toys and other kids. Should we give up and try again in a few months? Let him cry it out and hope he comes around to being OK with it? Try to stay with him until he feels comfortable there? Since it’s only for a few hours a week and totally optional, I can’t decide how much effort I want to invest it making it work.
—I Just Want Half an Hour to Work on My Quads
Kids who breeze through other social situations often find gym day cares baffling; there’s constant turnover as people come and go, the door is always opening and closing and kids looking to see if it’s their parents arriving to spring them. It can just be a lot. Ask the staff what they recommend, as they’re the ones in the trenches: Sometimes staying the first visit and then fading out is good, sometimes they’ll tell you he’s clearly not feeling it, and sometimes they’ll tell you, “They are all like this the first week.”
If you have a gym buddy who also has kids and can sync up to your schedule, that might help a lot in establishing a routine. Otherwise, I would try some other forms of exercise (the ol’ jogging stroller!) that you and your kid can both enjoy.
Dear Care and Feeding,
I work from home, so my 18-month-old stays home with me, meaning she spends very little time around other kids. We’ve been to a local kids’ gym a couple of times, and she just started a 10-week swimming program last week, but even then she spends a lot of time just checking out the other people and kids. How worried should I be about socialization? How much time and effort should I put into getting her around other kids?
—Baby and Me
She’s fine. Between kids’ gym and swimming, don’t sweat it. Her interest in her peers (and acquiring their germs) will build over the next year or two.
I’m more interested in your needs! That’s a lot of time alone with a toddler. If you could use the break, definitely look into the vast array of Mommy/Daddy and Me groups and opportunities in your area. Heck, I used to take my oldest daughter to Walmart because it opened at 5 a.m. and we could groggily tool up and down the aisles, making chit-chat with other early birds and seeing more than our own four walls. You may be as a happy as a clam, but just in case you’re feeling itchy, getting out of the house is rarely a bad idea.