Care and Feeding

My Toddler Has Become a Camel

My kid is really into spitting everywhere right now. How can I get him to stop?

Drooling kid.
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@slate.com or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My toddler is spitting everywhere! He’s really enthused about spitting his spit, drooling water or milk out of his mouth, etc. It’s gross! Right now, I’m making him go outside when he’s spitting, and we’re just not going to have milk until he’s done with that. I left him briefly alone with a milk cup and came back to find his face, his shirt, and my rug covered in a fine spray of milk. What am I supposed to be doing here?

—Make It Stop!

Dear MIS,

Didn’t you just wish someone had picked that exact moment to materialize by your elbow and say, “Cherish this, they grow up so fast!” so that you could hand her a damp rag to clean up his adorable mess? Sadly, we live in the real world, and the timing is rarely in our favor.

You’re doing great, let me point that out first. You’re not flipping the heck out or making a big scene (toddlers, like Andy Cohen, thrive on drama), and you’re trying to institute a natural consequence: no more milk.

My advice is as follows:

1. Make sure he knows that milk is being withheld because of his current behavior. You don’t need to say it in a dire tone, but when he asks for milk, you can say sadly, “Sorry, Alice Cooper! Until you can keep it in your mouth and swallow it without making a mess, you can only have water.”

2. Does he prefer being outside to being inside, generally? Because if he does, he may be gaming the system a bit by drooling his spit in order to get hustled outside. If that’s not the case, pay no attention to me.

3. He needs to clean it up himself. I know, I know, it usually causes you more effort than just doing it yourself, but this can bear dividends with many different kinds of messes over the next few years. It’s not a punishment when we have to clean up after ourselves; it’s just the logical consequence of having made a mess. Provide paper towels and help him dampen them, etc., and resist the urge to swoop in.

If he has to do something boring each time he spits/drools intentionally, even if it’s just being frog-marched over to get a Kleenex to wipe his own face, he’ll stop. Maybe not today! But soon. Your face is as blank as a new canvas. You betray no interest in his drooling ways. You make him clean it up.

You can do this.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I’m looking for thoughts on how to help my 6-year-old cope when an adult gets upset with or corrects him. My son is very smart and social and generally a very happy and outgoing kid who doesn’t usually struggle with emotions, except when a parent or teacher seems to be upset with him. It doesn’t have to be yelling; any kind of stern voice in response to a minor defiance or failure to listen will cause him to burst into tears and become very upset (he will refer to a stern voice as “yelling” every time).

I’ve tried to explain the difference between these concepts, and I stop what I’m doing to hug and comfort him and remind him that I love him, but the behavior continues. It’s not a new behavior: He’s always been like this, but I had thought by now he would be starting to grow out of it. How do I help him take this in stride better?

—Oh, My Sweet Summer Child

Dear OMSSC,

I wish to welcome your son to the ranks of people who cannot be sternly criticized in any way without falling apart. We are legion. Most of us, being adults, have had to develop our own strategies for toughening up a bit (joining the Army being the Hail Mary play when all else fails). It’s a long journey! One of my kids responds to any stern rebuke by saying, “I am mad!” and exiting the room to fume quietly in the corridor until he feels ready to return. Ideally, he’ll have worked through that before his first performance evaluation as an adult, and so will your son.

I encourage you to sift through your books and games and preferred shows for examples of characters being told not to do something and draw attention to how they responded. Ask him how he would tell someone to stop doing something wrong: What if someone broke his toy? Have him act it out. Model taking that feedback respectfully. There’s a reason we practice difficult interactions in the bathroom mirror and with friends.

It makes it easier that he’s not generally a very sensitive or overly emotional kid. Those kids usually grow up into the loveliest people, but for parents it can be a bit much to have to deal with floods of helpless tears because a character in a book stubbed his toe, and it’s much harder to fight a basic personality type than a specific behavior—sensitivity versus trouble accepting criticism.

While you’re working on this in general, I would have a quick word with his teachers or any authority figure who is routinely in his Critique Zone and just let them know to err on the side of going in soft, because a mild rebuke will more than get the job done. It can be hard to moderate your general manner when you have 80 wildebeests who are like, I DON’T HAVE TO LISTEN TO YOU, YOU SMELL and then four kids who are like, I am a gentle orchid, you will crush me if you blow on me, but I have to imagine the adults in question would rather not have to deal with your kid’s tears if there was a decent workaround.

Dear Care and Feeding,

Do you have any advice for trying to work from home with a baby? Advice that isn’t “hire a nanny” or “it’s impossible”?

I’m a freelance writer, so my schedule is flexible, thankfully. My baby is currently 2 months old, and we have some child care lined up starting at the end of August but with pretty limited hours. We’re looking for something better, but in the meantime, like it or not, I’ve taken as much unpaid time as I can and I now need to muddle along for a few months with him in tow.

—I Know, I Know, It’s a Mess

Dear IKIKIaM,

I am delighted to be able to soothe you a bit! My official answer may indeed be “it’s impossible,” but my practical answer is “you’ll manage.”

Since you’re a freelancer, and therefore do not have to meaningfully answer constantly to a hovering boss, you’re in a much better position. Most bosses who allow work-from-home setups require evidence that your children are being looked after by someone else during your work hours, and for good reason. You, however, have the freedom to arrange your day in a manner that suits you, and (most importantly!) a 2-month-old is a billion times easier than a 2-year-old.

Two-month-olds, like cats, sleep a billion hours a day (just not at night, when you want them to). If you haven’t looked into baby-wearing, get a used sling (try on some that belong to friends and family to get a sense of what works for your body and doesn’t annoy your baby) and practice wearing him around and kinda swaying a bit. My babies wanted to be swayed/rocked/bounced to sleep in the sling and would then be fine with me sitting down and typing. (You may want to experiment with a standing desk, by which I mean putting your laptop on the kitchen counter, etc. … not paying 600 bucks for a formal setup.)

People sometimes think that scheduling for babies means preparing your baby for a career as a man in a gray flannel suit, but if you break it down more gently into baby wakes up, I feed baby, I read baby a book, I wear baby in the sling, I put baby down to nap, it becomes a reassuring routine that adds a bit of flow to your day. Oh, he’ll throw a wrench into it plenty of times (blow-out poop while he eats, can’t nap because he’s popping a tooth, is upset because of a new thing and insists on being carried for a full day), but generally he’ll welcome it. More importantly, it helps you chart your day—not in terms of “at 10 a.m. I can do this,” but in terms of “once we’ve done these things, I’ll get time to do this thing.”

Sometimes it won’t happen like that. But sometimes he’ll take a longer nap or decide he’s content to listen to you typing away, and you’ll get bonus time.

Now, my greatest secret of all: Baby brains at this age are so plastic-y that if you want him to get relaxed and snoozy when he hears you typing, start using your phone to record a loop of you typing and play it while he eats and while he’s falling asleep—it’ll become a soothing noise to him. You could honestly do it with a jackhammer if you were patient enough; after all, the womb was a very noisy environment.

It’s just a few months; you’re going to get through this like a champ.

Solidarity, my freelance sister.

Dear Care and Feeding,

At what age is painting fingernails/toenails OK for kids? I used to love painting my nails, and for a while my stepdaughter and I bonded over it. I’d let her pick colors for both of us, and I would let her paint my nails however she wanted. She was 7, and we only did bright, little kid colors.

My husband asked me the other day if I was going to paint our younger daughter’s nails, and I was kind of shocked because she’s only 1½ years old. But it got me thinking about when it would be appropriate because I honestly have no idea!

—Birth Is Too Early, I Think

Dear BITE IT,

It’s always fine, once they can ask for it themselves. It doesn’t have to be treated like a kind of adult sexualization signaler; it’s honestly more like getting your face painted at the fair. What you do want to avoid is harsh acetone removers on little kid nails, etc., and instead use water-based, nontoxic polishes from companies like Suncoatgirl, which basically just peel off after a quick soak in warm water. They last a couple of days, which is the equivalent of a month to little kids, and there’s no harm, no foul.

Play away, and don’t be afraid to let your future sons mess around with them too. Everyone can enjoy a splash of color.

—Nicole