Care and Feeding

My Boyfriend Doesn’t Like It When I Scold His Son

We’re considering getting married, but what kind of parents would we be together?

Woman scolding a young boy.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by zdravinjo.

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,

I’ve been with my boyfriend for a little over a year. I have no children, but he has an 8-year-old son whom he has 60 percent of the time. His son is a very sweet, great kid. Like all kids, he can occasionally be ungrateful or demand things be his way, which in itself isn’t a big problem. My boyfriend, however, doesn’t seem consistent in dealing with these issues—and often creates them.

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Here’s the most recent example: We went to a laser light show in our hometown on Friday night. We had a wonderful time and did not get home until 11 p.m. When we were winding down for bed, my boyfriend said, “Too bad we didn’t get to carve a pumpkin tonight”—joking around, I guess, because we had discussed carving a pumpkin the night before but were up too late because his son forgot to do his homework until the last minute. His son then got very upset and wanted to carve one right then. I told him it was too late and we would do it in the morning before he left for his mom’s.

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He remained pouty, and I said, “You should be grateful that we took you out and you had a fun time tonight.” I admit I was tired and know that was a poor choice of wording. My boyfriend looked at me and said, “All right, you two, knock it off,” and put his son to bed. I was upset that he said that, especially because this was certainly not a heated situation. I did not confront him about it and just went to bed myself.

Another situation happened in the summer when we planned to go on a hike and then the playground. His son wanted to go to the playground first, and my boyfriend and I had already decided it was best to hike first so we didn’t lose daylight, as the playground is well lit at dusk. He then said to me and his son, “You two work it out,” and walked off.

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What do I do in these situations when we’re not a united front? We’ve recently talked about getting married, but not understanding his parenting style or my place in it makes me uncomfortable about moving forward. I’m also afraid these situations will set his son up to resent me, the “bad guy.” We’ve discussed having children of our own, but I certainly know my parenting style would be very different from his. Is this a deal breaker?

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—Worried

Dear Worried,

Let’s set aside the question of your boyfriend’s parenting choices for a minute. You say the two of you have talked about getting married someday, but have you sat down and discussed what role he currently wants you to have in his son’s life, or how he sees that role evolving? I get the sense from the scenarios you’ve described that he doesn’t relish the idea of you disciplining or rebuking his son. (I know I personally wouldn’t appreciate anyone telling my kid he’s ungrateful when he’s just being a garden-variety overtired whiner.) Is that something you’re OK with? Do you think you will be OK with it forever?

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Mild inconsistency is a very benign sin for a parent, especially when you admit he’s generally raised a great kid. It’s not something that would automatically render it impossible for you to ever co-parent. But you simply cannot any longer put off a clear talk about whether he’s looking for a co-parent.

Don’t wait for the next disagreement in order to have this conversation. That will make it a thousand times trickier. Have it this week.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I’m a divorced mom with an 18-year-old son, two sons in elementary school, and a 20-year-old nephew who is living with us while he attends college nearby. The issue is with the 18-year-old, “Warren.” He is constantly arriving late and leaving early from school. He attends an alternative program, and even though he started his senior year behind on credits, he’s not doing the extra work he needs to be doing to graduate on time. He struggles to hold a job. He keeps late hours with his friends and seems more focused on listening to podcasts and smoking pot than anything else. To make matters worse, he leaves messes all over the house, takes things of mine without permission, and is in general rather rude and inconsiderate. When I tell Warren that I don’t accept this behavior, he resorts to shouting, cursing, and name-calling. His bad temper has resulted in more than one broken cellphone and a broken laptop. My younger sons often witness this behavior.

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I’m struggling because I want to provide him with the care and support he needs to be successful and complete his high school career, but his teachers and I have serious doubts about whether he’s taking school seriously enough to graduate this spring. My ex and I have both tried addressing this, and Warren has gone back and forth living at both our houses several times now. The agreement when he came back to my house was that this was the last stop, and he had to be focused on school in order to stay. That hasn’t happened.

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I know if I kick him out he’s just going to move in with my ex’s mother (who is a career enabler). I’m afraid he’ll drop out of school and end up with no education, no job skills, and no idea what it takes to support oneself in the real world. Most of all, I’m afraid he’s going to grow up to be unhappy and full of regret about the choices he’s making now.

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I don’t want to do this for another seven to eight months while my son lies to me about his intentions to graduate. My house is in chaos. I feel like I’m being taken advantage of. I want so much for my son to be happy and successful, but right now just the thought of him brings me enormous stress.

—Desperate

Dear Desperate,

I am so incredibly sorry that you find yourself in this situation. It’s a parental nightmare, and as much as we like to think otherwise, it can happen to anyone. I think your chief concern at the moment needs to be the well-being of your younger children. It’s time for a come-to-Jesus talk with your son, complete with an excruciatingly clear outline of what standard of behavior is necessary if he plans on living with you through high school. Don’t get hung up on asking for too much. Your goal is for him to succeed, not fail.

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Here’s a possible list to bring to him:
• He can’t have or do drugs in your home.
• He must clean up after himself.
• He cannot damage anyone else’s property.

This list will be more effective with a timeline to monitor compliance, and I urge you to share that timeline with your ex.

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If he comes in late and whines and is generally the possessor of a bad attitude, let it slide. You don’t want to have to waste a lot of emotional energy on policing his moods. But if he doesn’t bring himself to toe the very reasonable line you are drawing in the sand, he’s gotta go. Make sure he knows that, and that you will formally evict him if he fails. (Look up your state’s laws on the matter; he’s almost certainly a tenant at this point, regardless of whether he’s ever paid a dime in rent.)

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If he goes to live with his enabling grandmother, it’s out of your hands. He’s an adult. Let’s hope he’s willing to make any effort whatsoever to stay in your home.

Dear Care and Feeding,

Before I even ever thought of being pregnant, I knew that I would name my first child Nikola Tesla, with the plan of having lots of nicknames to choose one that would fit them after they were born. I settled on Tes because no one would really guess the meaning, and it seemed gender-neutral. After my son was born, his dad told me it was important to him that he be called Nikola, so that’s what we did. After my son turned 6 months old, his dad and I split up and he decided to call him Niko (the nickname I most loved and wanted to use). Eventually I started alternating between Nikola and Niko with a few other pet names. Now our son is almost 2, and if you ask him his name or what he wants to be called, he says Tes. If you call him Tes, he lights up.

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This has been going on for a few weeks now. So do I call him Tes? Do I ask others to call him Tes? Do I send out a social media announcement? Do I talk to his dad before doing any of this?

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—What’s in a Name?

Dear WiaN,

This is not a real problem. There is no need to make a sweeping announcement that your 2-year-old has a mild preference for a particular nickname. Call him whatever you like.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I have two kids, one in the third grade and the other in sixth grade. On various occasions they have both come to me in tears because of their frustration with a video game. How am I supposed to respond to this? It is my inclination to tell them to cut it out because, what can I say, it’s a freaking video game. I suspect there’s a way I can respond that acknowledges their frustrations but puts them in perspective, but I’m stumped.

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—It’s Just a Game

Dear IJaG,

So many of the situations that cause us as humans to get worked up are, at their core, silly. I care passionately about and have been known to shed tears over events in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but I am fully aware that it’s not real.

When the kids come to you in tears, you can say, “That sounds frustrating.” If they press on, you can say, “If the game makes you too upset, perhaps you might want to play something else?”

It doesn’t sound to me like this is a daily or even weekly occurrence in your home. If your children are otherwise mostly emotionally healthy, I give you permission to not care about this situation in the least and to offer the blandest of sympathies.

—Nicole

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