Care and Feeding

Keep Away From the Car

My mother is a terrible driver. Can I tell her the road is off-limits when caring for my child?

Grandma behind the wheel.
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 friends have a son, about 5 years old. They enforce little (if any) discipline on him, and he throws a hissy fit if they try to “make” him do anything. They tell him to pick up something he threw; he ignores them. Dad picks it up in a couple of minutes. They tell him to go to bed; he ignores them and keeps doing whatever he is into. My fear is that they are teaching him that he can get away with anything by ignoring the rules. Specifically, I am concerned that he will never learn that no means no, i.e., that they are raising a rapist.

Should I say anything to them? If I do, it would only be once, and I wouldn’t harp on it. They are NOT people who would be okay with this outcome, and/but I don’t want to stomp on my relationship with them either.

—Oh, Hell No

Dear OHN,

This news cycle has us all on edge, but I cannot urge you strongly enough not to say this to your friends about their generically disobedient 5-year-old son.

He’s 5. They’re always doing the thing they’re not supposed to be doing, and the process of fixing that is rarely instantaneous. It’s more like, “OK, over the next month, let’s really get serious about cracking down on him picking up his own toys.” You also only see him being parented when they are with you, a time in which many people choose to give their kids a bit more slack to avoid having to discipline them around others.

None of this really matters. Does it sound like they’re loosey-goosey parents? Possibly. Will they have to course-correct if it keeps going on? Most definitely. Does this mean it would be remotely appropriate to suggest they are raising a rapist? It does not. It would almost certainly end your friendship, and they would (rightly) think you are behaving outrageously.

Because this question is so off-the-wall, and you’re so clearly emotionally invested in it, I just want to make sure that things are going OK for you in general. If you have anxieties or traumas or anything else you’ve been putting off addressing, now would be a great time to have a trained professional to help bounce things off. The world is a hard place to live in.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I’m currently pregnant with my first child. My mom has always been a bit of an erratic driver: tailgating without realizing it, turning her head to look at roadside sheep, getting in the car with a dinner plate, mug, and cloth napkin to eat as she drives. Once she got in a bike accident because she was cycling while eating a hamburger. I worry about her but have always resigned myself to it and tried to help where I could: offering to drive when we’re riding together, having her sleep over rather than drive home at night, talking her out of long solo trips.

While I sometimes bite the bullet and get in the car with Mom at the wheel, my partner and I are clear that we don’t want our kid riding with her. I know that she struggled with deep postpartum depression after I was born, which mostly expressed itself in fears that I preferred my father to her. My divorced parents remain on polite terms and continue to live in the same town. I’m very close with both of them but have struggled since childhood with my mom’s subconscious fears that I love my dad more. My father is a great driver, and it would really help for him to occasionally be able to bring his grandchild somewhere, but I know that any double standard would kill my mom. What is my move? Do I institute a blanket ban and live with the logistical snarl that creates? Do I make a secret exception for my dad and hope my mom won’t find out?

(She will.)

—She Just Can’t Drive

Dear SJCD,

The one piece of information I feel we’re missing here is what, if anything, you have said to your mother about her driving or your concerns about it. It sounds like you’ve spent a large portion of your life managing your mother’s emotions, which is … exhausting … and also that you’ve been doing it since you were yourself a child, which can make it very difficult to switch patterns later on.

I am asking this question, but I do not think it really matters that much for what you need to do next. If you did have a come-to-Jesus talk with her about her driving and your expectations for her driving with your child in the car, would you feel confident enough to let her back behind the wheel with them? Probably not, and she does not seem like a person who would react appropriately to this conversation anyway.

Tell your father he is allowed to drive your kid. You can ask him to keep it under his hat if you want, but I think you’ve both spent enough time protecting your mother from her feelings (as real and unpleasant as they must be). If she finds out, she finds out, and if she confronts you, I guarantee that you can say, “Mom, we don’t think you’re safe behind the wheel, and Dad is; I’m sorry, but that’s our decision as a family,” and she will not, in fact, die.

My one other comment, which I do try to raise when having the “I don’t want my parent driving my kid” conversation, is to take a minute and think about whether you think she’s safe to drive on the roads with other people’s kids who also want to get to their destination alive. Now, in your case, it sounds like she’s a bad driver but isn’t suffering the vision impairment or other issues of age or illness that would warrant dropping a dime to anyone else. Just something to keep in mind for the future. It’s going to be okay.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My parents are making me crazy. They watch my daughter a lot—every day after school—which is amazing. But they feed her a lot and have us over for dinner once a week, and the food messages they’re giving my kiddo are driving me bonkers. First off, I’m overweight and pretty much always have been. My kiddo is not overweight. She is a SUPER picky eater who will also rebel for the sake of rebelling at various times.

So where does this lead us? Well, I have come to realize that my parents comment on every single food any of us eat. Most foods are “junk” foods unless they are chicken breast, vegetables, or fruit. Even lettuce is unworthy because it’s just water. And because she’s 6, most of what my daughter likes to eat is what they consider junk. So if we are eating out and she orders buttered noodles, it’s a little comment about her getting junk. Or she’ll get mac and cheese and they’ll say, “It’s so unhealthy good!” Part of it is that they seem to justify the junk food they eat by commenting on the fact that it’s junk, but it’s had a profound impact on my terrible relationship with food, and it makes me see red when they do it with my daughter.

I asked them a while ago not to call foods junk, which had zero impact. Most recently, they wanted to take her out for ice cream, and I said, “OK, just don’t comment at all on the merits of whatever she chooses.” When I picked her up, all she and my mother could talk about is how big the ice cream sundae was. So apparently my mom didn’t comment on the sugar, just pointed out that it was huge. Or we went out for dinner and I ordered potato skins, and when my daughter didn’t want one, my mom commented that that was really for the best. Is there any way to get through to my parents? Now on her own my daughter is classifying many foods as junk. I hate the impact it’s having on my daughter, and it’s also really, really rough on me as I try and have a decent relationship with food.

—It’s Just Food

Dear IJF,

Gosh, I can’t imagine how you wound up with some less than ideal associations with eating, growing up with Lucille Bluth and an enabler for parents.

You’ve had the talk. You’ve had it a few times! It remains to be seen if the talk would have more impact if prefaced flatly with “We have started to look into alternative child care options for Jonquil. We simply can’t continue letting you talk to her about food and junk and portions like this.” It’s great that they look after her, and there are plenty of things worth ignoring in exchange for free child care. I don’t think this is one of those things.

No going out for meals, no time together spent around eating, and feel free to get up and leave immediately, each time things start back up. There’s no magical script to get them to stop doing something they know you don’t want them to do; there’s only making the consequences of their actions sharp and consistent.

If you’re feeling punchy, you can always remind them that they badgered you about all of these same things, and it failed to transform you into their slim dream child. Unfortunately, I can pretty much guarantee they would say you’re overweight because they didn’t harp on you enough. Definitely don’t decide to just suck this up. You’re a better mother to your daughter than your mother was to you, and that’s a great gift. Keep fighting.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My brother is in the closet with our mom, and I’m pretty sure my kid will eventually out him. I’ve known for ages and support him and believe wholeheartedly this is not my business and not my place to get involved, but little kids are not known for discretion. My mom won’t cut him off or anything, but she’ll be upset; he’s out where he wants to be out with his friends and at work and just doesn’t want to deal with the drama of going through this with our mom as well.

My kid is 5, and even if he could keep a secret, I wouldn’t want him to have to. Right now, sexual orientation isn’t exactly on his radar, though he knows people have all sorts of different families and some have two daddies or two mommies. We spend a lot of time with both my mom and my brother. My kid talks constantly and notices everything. How can I be a good ally to my brother and a good parent to my kid in this situation?

—We Met Uncle Josh’s New Special Friend Ted!

Dear WMUJNSFT,

Thank you for having reasonable expectations of how good a 5-year-old is at keeping a secret, i.e., not at all. Happily, this is very much a brother issue and not a parenting issue! Please ask your brother exactly what you’ve asked us: With the knowledge that Tarquin loves to talk and notices everything, how would you like us to handle it if he accidentally spills the beans to Mom?

It may be a relief when it happens, eventually, or it may be extremely upsetting, neither of which you have control over. All you can do is your best to follow Uncle Josh’s wishes in this matter. Ideally, he may decide it’s time to rip that Band-Aid off before your mother goes into a pearl-clutching tantrum in front of your son, but he may also be content just letting the situation unfold.

—Nicole