Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Email firstname.lastname@example.org or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.
Dear Care and Feeding,
My wife and I have a dilemma: My mom lives just downstairs from us and is 90 percent awesome with our 5-year-old son. She helps with school drop-off and pickup, does a few hours of child care on the weekend, and is always ready to randomly babysit whenever we need.
The 10 percent: Our son is a picky eater. He eats about five things, and in an attempt to get more fiber in his diet, my mom was giving him peanut-butter-oatmeal cookies at breakfast. We put a stop to that and have been making suggestions for what she can give him that are more aligned with what we consider healthy, but whenever he goes down to visit her, he gets banana bread, trail mix with M&Ms, lemonade (not cut with water or seltzer), and other things we would consider “sometimes” foods. But they are “all the time” down there.
We are divided on how to address it—so far, our suggestions for alternative foods and talking with her about our concerns and why we have them haven’t been effective. But I’m reluctant to be overly directive, because she does so much for us. The notorious “free” babysitting strikes again! What can we do?
—Too Many Cookies
I applaud you for realizing that this is indeed a Cost of Free Babysitting situation. I’m afraid my ruling here is going to be pretty heavily Team Grandma, as I believe you already know, but there are things you can do to help.
Allergies are sacrosanct, and there is no excuse for even an unpaid caregiver to feed your kid a known allergen, but beyond that point, we’re in “pack food for her to give him or lighten up” territory. That’s not so bad, because you can pack food for her to give him. And honestly, a few hours on the weekend? A snack before or after school? Just let it slide. Trail mix is fine, even with M&Ms. He can get his lemonade diluted at home. Banana bread? Homemade banana bread? Sounds pretty good for a growing boy who doesn’t like to eat more than five things!
If this were part of a general pattern of ignoring your wishes with your son, I might be able to muster some indignation, but you yourself are very clear it’s just the food. I think this is a good opportunity to practice acceptance and count your blessings.
In conclusion, I would love someone to make me peanut-butter-oatmeal cookies, so please tell your mother that I am not getting enough fiber in my diet.
Dear Care and Feeding,
My son, like an increasingly large number of kids, was conceived via in vitro fertilization as opposed to the more … canonical method, and I was wondering how and when to explain this to him. It was still my husband’s sperm and my egg, but I’m sure he’s going to find out eventually that his arrival took a little more heavy lifting than “normal,” so what’s the best way to handle that convo?
—Broken Baby Maker
I am not at all sure he will “eventually” find out! First, children are really beautifully incurious about the details of your sex life, especially as they age. Second, if there was no third-party assistance in terms of, er, raw materials, is this really so different from “ … and then after Daddy ejaculated, I lay on my back with a pillow under my butt for 15 minutes to maximize the chance of his sperm reaching my egg”?
I think you can move forward happily in silence, and only volunteer your IVF journey a) if directly asked or b) in the course of a naturally occurring conversation about infertility or c) when explaining how his cousin who has two daddies got here. If you just want to talk to your son about it, go nuts! If so, when you’re having the usual birds-and-bees conversation, I would add in a simple line: “And if the sperm and egg have a hard time meeting up, like they did for your dad and me, a doctor can give them a little extra help.”
Congratulations on your son! When he’s fully grown, you can explain how many shots you had to get in your butt in order to conceive him and use that guilt to extract better presents for your birthday.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
Our 2-year-old daughter is really struggling to adjust to her new twin sisters. All the books and twin dolls and conversations we carefully primed her with have seemingly been for nothing: She’s miserable. We try to include her in everything, to make her feel like a big help, etc., and we’re spending all the one-on-one time with her that we can (newborn twins!) but she’s having tantrums daily, especially when she sees me holding one or both of the babies. She wants to be held all the time. Distractions don’t really work either—she usually says “No” and goes back to screaming.
What can we do? Is this normal? Will it stop?
—Three’s a Crowd
Aw, jeez. What a cluster. I won’t get into a big thing about how 2 is a real rough age to suddenly absorb the presence of not one but two usurpers, because, well, you already know that. We’re in the desert of the real, now. Let’s tackle your individual questions: Yes, this is extremely normal. Yes, if not stop, exactly, it will get better in time. And you really didn’t do anything wrong: It’s always a good idea to buy the books about being a big sister, where babies come from, how to look after babies, how you’re still special, etc., but they do not adequately prepare your child for jack squat. My mother to this day will tell you that they did everything short of having Mr. Rogers show up in person to explain what was about to happen to me, and yet when I was presented with my little brother I narrowed my eyes and said, “I thought you were bringing home a puppy.”
Here’s what I recommend doing now: Much as I encourage parents to think of themselves as being united on one side of the eternal war between you and your small children, you can’t go wrong making your child feel that you and she are united against the babies. Babies cannot get offended! You can say whatever you want in front of them. Right now, your daughter feels like she has to be positive about what’s obviously the worst thing ever to happen to her. That’s gonna bubble over into a lot of tantrums.
Sit down next to her and, with an exaggerated sigh of relief, tell her how tired you are: “The babies take so much work, not like you, Annabelle! It’s so nice to spend time with my big kid. I know we love the babies so much, but (conspiratorial smirk) sometimes I’m glad to have time with you. What do you think is the most annoying thing about the babies?”
Kids know how they’re expected to feel about babies. And your kids love you and don’t want to let you down, even when they’re horrible toddlers. Tantruming is very often (definitely not always!) a thing that happens when kids either don’t know how to say what they’re feeling or feel like they shouldn’t say it. Carve out some time every day to share what sucks about the babies! I know you have some shit you can say! They never sleep, they puke constantly, they cut into your Dora the Explorer time, they take attention away from you, etc. Get your big kid on your team. The babies won’t mind.
Dear Care and Feeding,
I need some advice: I have a 3-year-old who is constantly blaming bad behavior on inanimate objects (dolls, cups, string, etc.). For example, she will hit me with a doll, then say, “I didn’t do it, Elmo did.” I’m fine if this is a stage she’s going through, but what should my reaction be, if any? Should I address it or ignore it? Are there natural consequences to this? If I keep ignoring it, will she continue to do it into adulthood?
—Elmo Didn’t Do It
I’m sorry, I’m laughing delightedly at the idea of your eventual grown child being caught in bed with her best friend’s husband and trying to pass the blame onto Elmo. No, my man, she will not continue to do this into adulthood. This is classic 3-year-old nonsense. They’re little hobgoblins. What are you gonna do? Just ignore it and proceed as you would if she hadn’t tried to farm out the responsibility to a ball of yarn. It’ll be fine.