Care and Feeding

My Friends Let Their Toddler Stay Up Way Too Late

When I come over to watch a movie, I don’t want to stay up coloring with this kid until 10!

Man angry about his friend’s child
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I’m not a parent, so I’m not sure if there is a polite way to discuss this with some close friends of mine. These friends have a lovely toddler. He is a delightful kid. However, when my friends invite me over for dinner or to watch movies on the weekends, their son is always up pretty late (for a toddler), and until he goes to bed, all socializing revolves around him.

When I go over to watch a movie, I’d like to know that we might start it before 9 or 10 or whenever they put him to bed that night. Also, sometimes I don’t want to watch Paw Patrol and color with him until he’s ready for bed. But if he is awake, all of us are basically entertaining him.

Is there a polite way to say, “I’d love to hang out more, but I don’t actually always want to play trucks with your toddler for two hours before we start watching Hereditary?” Especially if I’m coming over after 8, which is later than the bedtime of my other friends’ little kids?

—Unfashionably Late

Dear UL,

There is, in fact, a polite way to say it, and it goes a little something like this: “I think starting a movie at 9:30 is gonna be a little late for me. I have an early day tomorrow. I’ll come over to hang with you guys and play with little Reighleigh for a bit, but then I have to go get my beauty rest.”

It is not unreasonable to decide that their bedtime arrangement is too late for your taste. It is unreasonable to think they should change that bedtime arrangement to accommodate your taste. When people have children, those people’s lives will, of course, revolve around those children. I mean, that’s just the way it is, and I hope you can just accept that. It doesn’t matter if you or I think the kid’s bedtime should be earlier. The point is, this is what the parents believe works for them (or what they can manage), and so it’s what they’re doing. Everyone else needs to get in where they fit in.

So maybe movie night with these folks is not a thing you can do for the next year or so. If you’re a long-term friend you can live with that, I would think. Things will be back in place soon enough. The kid will one day learn to go into his room, shut the door, read (or whatever) until he falls asleep. But for now, if you are willing to, I would advise coming through with an attitude of seeing how you can help with their new reality. You will reap the rewards later. If that doesn’t work for you, then maybe your friendship with them needs to take a back seat for now.

Good luck.

Dear Care and Feeding,

Our son is friends with a boy who has a history of bullying him—making fun of him, excluding him, pushing, punching, and otherwise physically hurting him. This escalated at the end of the previous school year. They are in the same class again this year (it’s a small school) and everything started out fine, better than last year—our son adores this boy and they are inseparable. However, he has started hurting our son again. The problem is, although we’re working with the school to make sure our son stays safe, he keeps turning back to this boy! He really wants to be his friend! He’ll tell us that the boy was nice to him, so it’s OK to play with him. How can we protect our son when he won’t avoid this boy? Our son has other friends, but it seems he would rather play with his bully. Is this a defense strategy on his part? Should we forbid him from playing with this boy? We’re just at a loss for how to protect him when he insists on playing with the person who hurts him!

—Bully by the Horns?

Dear BbtH,

Ugh, this is such a painful situation, and I know it so well. I’ve been in your position before, and I’ve been in your son’s position. (I hope I’ve never been in the bully’s position, but one can never be too sure.)

While you don’t like the experience your son is having, your son is fine with it. For now. He may not be fine with it forever, but intervening and forcing him not to play with someone he genuinely wants to play with would just make you the bully instead of this kid.

I think this is a teachable moment, and like most good teachable moments, it can be played slow. Through general, lighthearted, ongoing conversations with your son, find out why he’s motivated to keep hanging out with this guy. Does he feel like he can placate the kid and protect himself by befriending him? If so, this is stuff you can talk about, letting him know that this is not a great basis for a friendship. Maybe he doesn’t know that someone making you feel bad is bullying. You can talk with him about the expectations we have of our friends, how in most cases we can choose not to be around harmful people. Or maybe he just thinks the kid is funny and cool, and it’s just not a problem for him, no matter how much it is for you. The point here is that you get to talk with him, slowly, over time, and without judgment, in a way that lets him explore his own ambivalence about the situation—if indeed he feels any. But what you don’t want to do is respond to the feeling that your kid is being strong-armed by strong-arming him some more. That’s a bad move at any age.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I caught my 16-year-old in a great big lie, but he will not fess up! He’s just digging a deeper and deeper hole. He’s got an “answer” for everything, but I wasn’t born yesterday!

Still, I keep second-guessing myself. I desperately want to believe him and to not have to face the reality that my kid is being a disrespectful liar who has made some seriously bad, potentially dangerous choices.

How do I navigate this? I’d hate to punish a generally good, trustworthy kid over a misunderstanding. However, I don’t want to reward lies and bad behavior.

Also, how does one teach a teenager that parents often have really good reasons for their rules? I’m not sure how I can be any more transparent and direct with this kid. I’ve told him that ultimately this all boils down to trust and communication, but obviously my strategy isn’t working.

Apologies for any typos. I’m very upset right now.

—Liar, Liar

Dear LL,

Make sure your oxygen mask is secure before assisting others. You wrote to me in a moment of anger and I fully understand and totally relate to that. And you don’t want your kid to be a liar, which I also get. Being lied to is disrespectful and frustrating. And it of course raises doubts about your kid’s ability to operate in the world, which is a parent’s worst fear.

But I can assure you that no matter what’s going on, no matter what the lie is about or how serious it is, your best parenting will not happen while you are at a fevered pitch. The situation can wait until you are calm, and it must.

OK. Once you’re calm, check this out: Whenever you suspect a kid is lying but have no proof, that’s an awesome situation, because it’s one of the only times it’s ever appropriate to engage in my very favorite parenting technique: mind games. You get to say things like “You know, every lie you tell a loved one is like a little tiny stain on your soul. You may think you’re getting away with something, but each lie makes you doubt, just a little bit, your own value and self-worth, and I can tell you, son, over time, that’s a terrible way to live.”

“Mom, I’m not lying!”

“Oh honey, I didn’t say you were!! I was just sharing something with you that I’ve learned from my own life. I love you. Dinner will be ready soon.”

Then you float gently out of his room and let him TELL-TALE HEART HIMSELF INTO OBLIVION.

Most good parenting of teens doesn’t come from telling them what to do but in making space for them to explore their own feelings about their choices and think more deeply about their consequences. It’s a slow process and doesn’t make for immediate results. But it does make for clear growth and emotionally capable and mature people.

—Carvell