Care and Feeding

Can We Give Our 17-Year-Old a Bedtime?

Or has that ship sailed?

A woman holding an alarm clock and a teenager carrying a stuffed animal.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos 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 teenage kids (17 and 15) are having a true free week with nothing official to do before high school starts. My husband and I are discussing whether there should be any bedtime. I feel like sometime soon (maybe now) they are almost adults and should make their own bedtime choices. My husband thinks they should still have a bedtime of 10:30. What are your thoughts and experiences with bedtimes for older teens?

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—Asleep at the Wheel?

Dear AatW,

I’d say let it go. Your husband is way out of pocket trying to give a 10:30 bedtime to a 17-year-old. Of course, we would like our kids to get enough sleep, but at these ages it’s not really something we can enforce unless we want to go full-on Draconian Dictator. If your concern is that your kids will stay up all night on the internet, you can always turn off Wi-Fi for certain hours—most routers and ISPs have parental control features—and that should help. (If you really want to get crazy with it there are also apps like OurPact which allow you to turn off access to all apps on their phones, too.) Without the siren call of infinite scrolling, they’re free to stay up as late as they want—but with the only options available being weight-loss infomercials or the collected works of Leo Tolstoy, they tend to suddenly see the value of a good night’s sleep.

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But the real truth is that you simply can’t control when a 17-year-old, or even a 15-year-old, goes to bed. Your best shot is to create circumstances that are conducive to sleep. Quiet the house, turn off the kitchen lights, turn off the screens, and let nature take its course. Beyond that, the time for parent-enforced life skills lessons is rapidly closing. They will learn what they need to learn when they need to learn it, if they want to. Good luck.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My 4-year-old has been sucking her thumb to get herself to sleep every night since she’s been weaned. At her dentist’s suggestion, I put Mavala Stop (the bitter acetone) on her nails to prevent thumb-sucking. Understandably, she is livid. Her crying isn’t the typical tantrum kind, it’s the “Daddy why are you doing this to me?” kind. I feel awful about it because other than for cosmetic reasons and that her dentist is adamant about it, I can’t think of a better explanation for why I am putting her through this. Any advice?

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—She Bites Her Thumb at Me

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Dear SBHTaM,

Ugh, this really sucks. (Sorry, I shouldn’t have opened with that.) It’s a terrible feeling to make your child whom you love so much feel such deep disappointment and betrayal. And yet you sell the gravity of the situation short by referring to the reasons to end thumb-sucking as “cosmetic.” In some cases, the overbite can force overall skeletal changes affecting the alignment of all the secondary teeth, causing a host of dental issues that pile up over the ensuing years. I mean sure, a person can live a perfectly happy life with these problems but if you have the resources to intervene early and make a difference, why wouldn’t you? Your dentist is already seeing worrisome signs, hence the suggestion.

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One thing I didn’t see in your letter is what your conversations with your daughter have been like about this. Surely “advanced oral skeletal displacement” is too elaborate a concept for her, but have you simply told her, “The dentist knows that if you are still thumb-sucking when your permanent teeth come in, your teeth will be crooked and hard to use for a long time.” Not that that’s going to make her stop feeling upset immediately, but it gives her some chance to be a part of the conversation. And that, I think, is the key. You want her to be in on the decision to stop thumb-sucking if you can. The feeling of betrayal is intensified if she feels like you just decided for her, never allowing her agency.

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Now that she knows how bad the acetone is, I might suggest using it as a bargaining chip. Let her know that if she thinks she can stop the habit without it, then she can. Let her try for success, and make it easier for her to reach it. If she’s still having trouble, you can go to a Band-Aid, which works with some kids. You can also try regular gloves, boxing gloves, thumb guards, or this thingy that prevents a child from bending her arm at night. And if these things—combined with the positive reinforcement of a sticker chart or reward for making it through the day—don’t work, well then you always have the bitter taste of negative reinforcement as the nuclear option.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I am 33 and child-free, but I am an auntie to my best friend and her partner’s son who is now 3. I love hanging out with them. I babysit when I can, come over for dinners, and take the little one to the park and the beach. His mother and I grew up on the same block and have been close since elementary school. I love their family as if it were my own.

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But here’s the problem: I can’t help noticing that his speech seems to be developing slowly! He isn’t able to say that many words, and the ones that he does say, he struggles with pronunciation and gets frustrated when we don’t understand him, which happens all the time. His hearing has been tested, and it’s fine, but his speech still lags. While I know that kids develop skills at different levels, I feel pretty convinced that what is happening with him is outside of the ordinary.

My question is, should I bring this up with his mom? She’s like a sister to me but the one thing about her is that she’s been very high-strung and anxiety-prone since we were kids. I might even call her hypervigilant. I’m afraid if I even mention it, she’ll totally freak out and start obsessing. And if I’m wrong, which I very well could be, then it would be totally unnecessary. Should I keep my mouth shut or say the hard thing?

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—Freedom of Speech?

Dear FoS,

What makes this difficult is that the importance of either decision feels so great. On the one hand you want to be supportive your friend’s child, who to you is family. So you want to intervene and head off trouble where you can. On the other hand you want to support your friend, which means you don’t want her stressing out and suffering. You are a good friend and she is lucky to have you.

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But this calls for a decision tree. A series of “what if” questions. How useful is your information at this point? Not the information about whether or not your friend’s kid has a developmental delay—that is most certainly important. But how useful is your information coming from you? You are not a child development professional and though you love your friends, you are not particularly qualified to flag the child’s behavior. So your information isn’t that there is something wrong with the child, your information is that you suspect there is something wrong with the child. So what is the purpose of sharing that suspicion? Is it to send the mother into action? OK, so she goes into action. Now what? If there is indeed a delay, of which you are not certain, the most likely causes are oral motor skills issues or something broader like autism. Hearing problems have already been ruled out. Does sounding the alarm well before you are sure fix any of these issues? Probably not.

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On the other hand, what happens if you don’t share this suspicion right now? Won’t it still come to light? You describe her as hypervigilant, so my guess is that if there’s an obvious problem it’s not likely to escape her attention. Even non-hypervigilant parents are obsessively looking for reasons to believe their baby is not operating correctly. By the time our son was two we had spent at least one week convinced that he had every developmental issue we had ever heard of. The likelihood is high, in fact, that if you’ve noticed something, she has as well, not to mention the co-parent, preschool teachers, relatives, and other caregivers. The thing about a speech or language delay is that everyone notices it because it has to do with whether or not everyone understands the child.

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And finally, you pose the ultimate “what if” question in your letter. What if you tell her and you are wrong? Now you have created an unnecessary stressor, putting strain on her life and parenting and quite possibly on her friendship. No, dear writer, no good can come of you sharing your paranoia with at this precise moment. My advice is to wait six months. At that point one of two things will have happened: If what you fear is indeed real, then it will have become obvious enough that you are no longer alone in your observation. If it isn’t real, then that, too, will be abundantly clear.

If after, all of my reasoning, you still feel like saying something (which I can understand) I might suggest the Socratic method. The next time you have trouble understanding the boy, casually ask mom if other adults have trouble understanding him too. (This doctor suggests that nonrelated adults should be able to understand about 75 percent of what a 3-year-old says.) You can also ask when it was that he had his last pediatric visit. If she’s thinking about this (which again I’m sure she is) this may open up a discussion on her own terms. Finally, I might suggest casually and privately bringing it up with the co-parent, if they are more chill than mom. It’s a tough situation and I wish you good luck.

—Carvell

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