Care and Feeding

JOHNNY DO IT!!

Our toddler wants to do everything, so every moment is a meltdown. How do we survive this phase?

Photo illustration of a young child crying. The child is surrounded by various winter outerwear.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by 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,

Our son is 19 months old. Until a month ago, we would have described him as sweet, silly, extremely adaptable, and spirited yet low-key. In the past few weeks we have entered the “Johnny do it!” phase with a vengeance. He is nearly unrecognizable. He won’t drink milk he didn’t pour himself. He won’t let us put him in his high chair, get him dressed, bathe him, even open a string cheese for him.

Obviously he can’t do any of these things himself, so our mornings and evenings (he’s in a wonderful day care—they say he hasn’t changed at all) feel like one long meltdown. We are working hard to help him through this phase. Showing him the steps to complete everyday tasks like putting on his Velcro shoes; giving him every opportunity to do things independently and praising him like crazy; modeling asking for help. Still, we end up in these awful meltdowns multiple times a day.

We know this is a normal developmental phase. What we’re struggling with is: Where is the line between (a) giving him as much freedom and independence as possible to build confidence and avoid meltdowns, and (b) setting boundaries so he knows he doesn’t just get to do whatever he wants for himself? Are we crazy to be letting an 18-month-old pour his own water from the kitchen sink and drink from the cup without a lid, since that’s the only way he’ll drink water (yes, he spills a lot)? Should we just be filling his sippy cups for him and letting him freak the hell out about it until he gets the message and falls in line?

—JOHNNY DO IT

Dear Johnny’s Parent,

It’s remarkable, isn’t it, how little comfort “this is completely normal, developmentally speaking” is when you’re in the freaking shit. You know what else is completely normal, developmentally speaking? The slow physical decline of your body followed by death and putrefaction, and few of us find comfort in that, either.

I think you’re handling it pretty well already, but my general advice is to hold firm on doing the tasks both a) that you know he cannot manage and b) for which the consequences of the task being done terribly will involve injury or a colossal mess. (By this metric, no you are not crazy to let him get his own water. He’ll improve soon.)

Make sure he helps you with any of the messes that result from his ridiculous overconfidence, of course. That’s going to be a big help in ultimately getting his reach back in line with his grasp. May I also cautiously encourage you that the kids who put parents through the “ME DO IT!!!” mill will be, in a few years, a great comfort when other people’s perfectly-capable children are still standing around limply insisting that someone else put their coats on and open the car door.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I have a potential fail in the making. Typically, our 5-year-old and 3-year-old take turns with the TV. The other day, our 5-year-old had chosen a show and was watching it when it had to be turned off for dinnertime. After dinner he asked if he could finish the show and I said sure, telling our 3-year-old that he could have a turn after the 5-year-old. I went back into the kitchen while they watched and when the video ended the 3-year-old said, “Daddy it’s my turn.” So, after finishing what I was doing, I went in to let him choose his show.

But because another show had already started, the 5-year-old melted down saying that a new show had started and his turn wasn’t over. So … after trying to patiently work through it for a minute, I got upset and said “You don’t get to choose a TV show for a whole week” because when you’re mad the words don’t come out right. I meant to say “tomorrow” or “a day.” So one day passes and the 5-year-old asks if he can have a turn and I say “Yes, that’s fine, but remember what happened when you behaved the way you did,” etc. Am I going to regret this because I caved on my initial and obviously overly harsh punishment, or was that the right move?

—My Mouth Was Writing Checks My Parenting Couldn’t Cash

Dear Check-Writer,

Hahahahahahahahahaha! OH, the delicious empathy I feel for you in this moment. “You’ll never pick an episode of the rebooted DuckTales in this town again!”

You blew it with the initial “whole week” threat, and then you were saved by the grace of God or, depending on your beliefs, the conveniently goldfish-esque memories of the young. Don’t get me wrong, you were saved by a power that came from beyond, either way.

You got a mulligan! Enjoy it. This one incident will not turn your child into a monster.

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

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My friend and I have sons that are a few months apart in age, and when they were younger they played together often. But, as things go, as they grew older they grew apart due to different interests—my son is extremely athletic and her son didn’t prefer those activities, so they found other friends with no hard feelings. My son is now 11 years old. He recently joined a new soccer group in the region and is loving every moment as it has always been one of his favorite sports. He has become fast friends with one kid in the group, and they are spending more and more time together—great news! The drawback: His new kid’s best friend is my friend’s son.

I am not one to interfere with my kid’s social life (unless necessary) but this bothers me. He loves his new friend and they get along well, but I am worried about my friend’s son and the possibility of him being left out. He doesn’t play soccer, or any sports at all, and has very little in common with the activities that my son and his friend do when they get together. Because of the current dynamic they have spent time together as a group and it’s slightly awkward. They don’t get along great as a group as their activities focus on sports, already a point of tension, or video games (my friend’s son’s interest, mine hates them). I would normally encourage other interests, but no, I am not going to encourage video gaming. Am I overreacting here? Is this how friendships happen as they age?

—Uncertain Social Secretary

Dear USS,

There’s a lot going on here! Let’s just tease out a few threads. There is no mention here of your actual friend’s opinions on how things are going. Does she report that her son feels left out or shunted to the side? I don’t think you have enough insight into his daily life to get worried about his hypothetical loneliness right now. Why not give your friend a call and casually ask how lil’ Benji is doing these days? He may be happy as a clam and have new friends of his own that are perfectly content to play Fortnite instead of soccer. Or he may be a little sad! ASK, don’t assume.

I am also a little intrigued by “No, I am not going to encourage video gaming,” as though it’s some form of urban street-fighting and not the most popular thing kids do for fun in 2019. It’s totally fine not to want your kids hooked on gaming, but if I were as concerned as you are about your friend’s son being left out, I would probably set up a twice-a-month play date for my generally outdoorsy and active kid to play video games for two hours with his old friend.

I do feel you’re getting a bit overly emotionally invested in this situation, so let’s have you place that call to your friend and consider lightening up a bit about video games. You’re self-aware about this entire … thing … and I think you’ll eventually find it’s going to be part of the natural rise and fall of kid friendship.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I am ready for you to call me a fuddy-duddy, but I have a situation I just can’t get past. My husband and I have been close friends for over 15 years with Beth and Harvey, who live down the street, and our kids have been running in and out of each other’s houses since they were ambulatory.

Last week, we were over at Beth and Harvey’s for dinner, and after the kids went to bed, they exchanged glances and proceeded to tell us that they have started to explore “swinging” recently and if that’s “something [we] want to explore” they’re “open to it.”

Obviously, I had us in our coats and out the door within about 30 seconds, and I haven’t picked up any calls from Beth since. My question is about the kids: We’ve been finding excuses to keep them from going over to Beth and Harvey’s since the fateful dinner (my husband is equally shocked, but less upset and betrayed than I am) but that’s going to wear thin soon.

What do I do? We go to the same church, so we can’t pretend they don’t exist.

—This Is Not The Ice Storm

Dear Not Joan Allen,

You go over to Beth and Harvey’s with a casserole (go preheat your oven now, please), and apologize for having overreacted out of surprise. You tell them that, as you’re sure they picked up, you and your husband are extremely not into swinging. You’d rather it not ever come up again, as the topic makes you deeply uncomfortable, but you don’t want this to interfere with your longtime friendship.

Then you let your kids play with their kids as you always have, and never bring this up again.

—Nicole