Care and Feeding

I Hate Playing With My Kids

Am I a bad mom because I can’t endure one more game of “imaginary restaurant”?

A young mom looking annoyed as a child's hand reaches toward her with a toy.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Damir Khabirov/iStock/Getty Images Plus and goodmoments/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

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 hate playing with my kids. They’re 3 and 6, and I find it torturous. They beg and beg till I give in, and within five minutes I’m snapping at them and having to use breathing exercises because I just want to scream and punch walls. I hate myself for not being a better parent. I cuddle them and read to them and fix their boo-boos, I help them with homework and take them for walks and check on them at night, but I hate pretending to be a cat or playing Twister. All the books say that they need quality time with parents. Am I screwing my kids up for life?

—Bad Mum

Dear Mum,

Not liking playing with your kids doesn’t make you a bad mom. Kids at that age can be boring as hell. I haven’t met a parent in all my life who hasn’t complained about the interminable monotony of folding oneself on the living room floor only to be served wooden sandwiches and plastic fruits from the same incompetently run, bullshit-ass “restaurant” time and time again. It’s normal to dislike such a thing.

You should also know that hating yourself is never good, never helpful, and never necessary. If you need to change something, you change it. If you don’t, you don’t, but let us work to do away with the self-hatred. Not only is it not great for you, but it’s also not great for your kids to have a mom who talks about herself that way. These kinds of attitudes are never kept within. They bleed out and impact all of our relationships whether we intend them to or not.

So what I’m going to say should not be taken as a criticism but as an observation, born of experience. You need to work just a bit on your patience. It is not necessary to enjoy these absurd games, but it is very important to make a good-faith effort to show up for them as much as you can and with a good attitude. As you point out in your letter, this quality time has a purpose; it is one of the parental sacrifices we make. Play like this is annoying because we have to slow down and be with ourselves. (Lord knows these kids aren’t providing any substantial entertainment.) We don’t have a phone or a deadline or an email or a reality show or a book to occupy us. We just have the kids. We’re not used to that kind of simplicity, and it’s weird and hard. But I believe it’s something you can and should get better at with practice. See if you can make it 10, then 15, and then 20 minutes just sitting with them, playing along, and not snapping while they bore you to tears. Then when you reach your endpoint, you can gently excuse yourself—before you feel like screaming.

It’s not easy. If it helps, keep in mind that sooner than you think, they’ll be the ones doing their level best to get away from you. When that happens, you may not miss these infernal games, but it’s quite possible you’ll feel badly about having been so impatient.

If you missed Monday’s Care and Feeding column, read it here.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

Any advice on getting a teenager to live up to her potential? Mine is currently flunking classes left and right in her first year of high school. (I mean, she passed gym, so … yay?) According to her teachers, she’s perfectly capable of being on the honor roll if she would just separate herself from some toxic friends. Apparently she alternates between joking around and fighting with them throughout each class.

Our approach so far includes both carrot and stick. As long as her grades are bad, she’s on “restricted status”: very limited time with friends and her boyfriend outside of school hours, and all the apps on her phone are blocked during school hours. If her grades improve, we’ll lift the restricted status and get her into a photography class, which she’s interested in. We also try to be diligent about checking homework, but she doesn’t often have much, as has been confirmed by her teachers. The problem appears to be primarily based in her inability to focus during class, and I’m at a loss about how I can influence those hours. Lectures on the importance of doing well in school have proven fruitless, unsurprisingly.

—Teenagers Are the Worst

Dear TATW,

This idea of getting kids to live up to their potential is often well-meaning and so often misguided. You may feel like she has the potential to get good grades, and in some alternate reality she may totally be that kid, but she is not right now. There really is no sense in comparing who she is to who you have imagined her to be. She sounds like a great kid and a smart kid who is really not that into school. As a parent, I would be worried and stressed about this. And I’d definitely want to do something about it. But you can’t just make this go away through a specific combination of carrots and sticks. If you could, you probably would have.

Instead you can talk with her about her goals in life, namely the one goal you probably share: getting her out of your house. You can make a clear connection between grades and having the option to get out on one’s own. You can hear her out when she tells you why she’s not doing the work and why it doesn’t matter to her; you can offer your own experience for her to consider. Your tools to motivate her externally are not working, so there’s no reason to believe they suddenly will change her direction for her. She must find her intrinsic motivation, and you must help her.

I would also question whether her inability to focus is related only to lack of interest (which is understandable) or to a broader attention issue. That’s where you may want to bring in professional help, especially if she’s exhibiting other signs of ADD or ADHD. But overall, the key thing is to meet her where she’s at and make sure she knows that your love for her is not based on her performance at a task she may very well find stupid.

Maybe the one thing I would fully disagree on is the photography class. It’s the one educational thing she’s willing to show up for. Let her have it.

Good luck.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My husband, 13-year-old son, and I are going to visit my mother-in-law in a few months. My son has not seen her since he was a preschooler, partly due to distance but mostly due to her behavior. We are fairly certain she is mentally ill, but she is high-functioning and has never been diagnosed. Her symptoms include things like claiming that her phones are tapped and the neighbors are watching her. In addition to what seems to be mental illness, she also regularly makes racist, homophobic, and other upsetting comments in front of others and did so when she was around my son years ago. Examples include stating that she never met a black person who wasn’t lazy and that Jewish people are greedy. She pointed at a dumpster and told my son, “That’s where some people put their babies.” When I would ask her not to say things like that in front of our child, she would react with shock and anger.

So we have not seen her for years, because it seemed clear she could not control her behavior—though I’m not sure if she is even aware that this is why. But my husband has maintained regular contact. He thinks she has calmed down a great deal, and she is getting old. So we are going to visit. We are staying at a hotel, not at her home, so we will have some distance. My question is, how do we prepare my son—a very perceptive, sensitive, left-leaning boy—for her possible bizarre or inappropriate behavior? She may do nothing wrong, or she may be out of control. We just don’t know.

Help!

Dear Help,

First of all, let me state that your mother-in-law may have mental health issues and she may be racist and homophobic, but her mental health issues do not make her racist or homophobic. She’s that way just because she is.

I would avoid talking up Grandma’s behavior too much before they meet. You mentioned it’s unpredictable, and you don’t want to terrify the kid and make him stressed out for no reason, only to have her behave perfectly reasonably the whole time. You can simply say that sometimes Grandma’s nice, but sometimes she can be a little strange, and that if he has any questions about her behavior, he can pull you aside and ask you.

Now, if she acts up, I think 13 is old enough to be, basically, honest. You can tell your son that Grandma is a little weird sometimes and a little racist, but that she’s not always that way. You can tell him that she does mean well most of the time and she does love him, but that some of the things she says and does are flat-out wrong. You can and should totally pull him aside to say, “Hey, you know what Grandma said wasn’t appropriate, and here is why.”

There can be an impulse (understandable, of course) to cut out any family member who presents any kind of problem, especially if these issues are political. But you’re not asking that question, so I won’t address it. For better or worse, this is your kid’s grandparent, and your family has made a decision not to cut her off. Your son will begin to know how to share a world with people who don’t think, talk, and behave the same as him, and that will be a valuable lesson. Be honest and kind with both of them, don’t forget your own values, and I think you’ll see good results.

Also, the hotel is a very good move.

—Carvell