Care and Feeding

A Novel Approach to Parenting

Is it bad to buy my son a book every day to reward good behavior?

A happy child with a new book.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo 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,

We have two sons, 6 and 4. My wife is a stay-at-home mom, and I’m a technology executive. Both my boys love books. My 6-year-old reads like a 7- or 8-year old, and my 4-year-old reads like a child in kindergarten.

Assuming my 6-year-old has a good day—eats his three squares, does his math and reading comprehension sheets (my wife used to be a teacher), and generally behaves—he asks me to buy him a new book every evening from Amazon. On average we are spending $10 to $15 a day on books, which luckily is not a financial imposition.

My wife thinks I’m being indulgent, though. No doubt we are lucky and perhaps I’m spoiling him, but isn’t this the kind of passion you want your kids to have? I’ve agreed with my wife we should go to the library more instead of buying books, but generally I don’t want to do anything to lessen his enthusiasm for books.

For $10 to $15 a day we can sustain his intense interest in reading. But should I start cutting back on the book purchases?

—Bibliomaniac

Dear Bibliomaniac,

Your wife says you’re being indulgent, and it’s clear you agree. I do too. In buying him these books, I don’t think you’re teaching him a lesson about reading (he’s already learned that), but something else altogether.

You’re teaching him that basic, day-to-day decency will get you something in return. But standard behavior doesn’t merit reward. And rewards that come daily are meaningless anyway. You stress that your family is fortunate, which says to me you probably want your kids to grow up understanding that themselves. I know that you’re buying books daily as opposed to toys, but think about it—could you blame them for taking this to mean that the day is not complete without buying something for themselves? It’s hard to teach kids this—hell, it’s hard for adults to remember this—but not everything worth having can be bought.

It’s great that you want your boys to love reading. But there are better ways to foster this than excessive, everyday spending. I would develop a plan around books—weekly library visits, writing and illustrating their own works of art, attending readings at your local bookshop, swapping books with friends, donating titles you’ve outgrown, and having them reading to each other and to you and your wife. I don’t think breaking your daily Amazon habit will affect your sons’ love of reading.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My son is very small for his age and looks very much like a baby despite being a toddler. We have recently discovered a pituitary anomaly and are working with doctors to determine what, if any, action needs to be taken to address it. However, it has become a sore spot for me because other parents always find the need to comment on it as if it is a horrifying thing.

People often start the small talk with a typical “How old is X?” and as soon as I respond they recoil or gasp before stating that he looks to be 12 to 15 months rather than 2. It has gotten to the point where I almost avoid spaces with other parents because for some reason these conversations sting. I don’t want to disclose (and shouldn’t have to disclose) his medical history, yet I find myself wanting to. Am I being too sensitive?  How should I address the other parents?

—If You Can’t Say Something Nice …

Dear IYCSSN,

Of course those conversations sting! I’m sorry you’re going through this. Having your peers react as though this is horrifying instead of merely difficult is not helpful.

Perhaps it would be helpful to think of the fact that your son will take his cues from you. How would you want him to respond to the less-than-kindness of strangers?

You are correct that you need not disclose your son’s private information to nosy strangers or even well-meaning friends and family. I would settle on a canned answer that firmly communicates that you have little interest in discussing this: “We think Henry is absolutely perfect,” or “Everybody’s different, but we couldn’t adore Henry more,” or even, as needed, “I’m not interested in discussing Henry’s size, thank you.”

Seize the upper hand. These answers should shut people up quickly, with the added advantage of reminding you what you already know: that your son is perfect and that’s what matters most.

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

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My husband’s brother passed away a few years ago, leaving behind a wife and two sons. The boys are now 11 and 6. Their mother has always been very controlling about their food intake. No sugar, few carbs, lots of comments about weight. The boys are not allowed candy or sweets. The only exception is a tiny piece of cake with the frosting scraped off at their own birthday parties. Even then, she usually takes their plates away after a bite or two and announces that they are full.

Not surprisingly, this has backfired pretty spectacularly with the 11-year-old. He spends all his money on candy. If she takes his money away, he trades toys for candy from other kids. Her response has been to redouble her efforts with the 6-year-old in a very troubling way. She has told him that he is diabetic and he could die if he eats sugar!

We have talked to her about how damaging this lie is, to no avail. She thinks she’s saving him from being fat and responds with all the health impacts of being obese. We approached her family, but they have similar hang-ups about weight and don’t see anything wrong with what she’s doing.

I think we have a few options here. We could tell him the truth directly, although this could destroy our relationship with her. She could retaliate by preventing us from seeing the boys again. We could do nothing, but this makes us complicit in the lie. We could alert his school or pediatrician. Or we could call Child Protective Services. What to do?

—Very Concerned Aunt

Dear VCA,

I’m so sorry for your family’s loss. The situation you describe is a difficult one, but I must disagree with your sense that you have a few options. Your sole option seems to me to discuss this with your sister-in-law, which you have done. I think, unfortunately, the matter is settled.

Don’t get me wrong: I think what she’s doing is pretty harmful, and as you are yourself not surprised to see, it has backfired predictably once and will likely do so with your younger nephew. But I don’t think this rises to the level of abuse, or requires outside intercession, or is something you should take it upon yourself to discuss directly with your nephews. Your sister-in-law has the right to raise her children as she sees fit; undermining her parental authority could cause a bigger rift, which would be a shame since your nephews probably really need you in their lives.

Dear Care and Feeding,

When my daughter was a toddler, my husband passed away unexpectedly, leaving me to raise her alone. She is now 18 years old, smart, accomplished, and compassionate. I am so proud of her!

Over the years, my former sister-in-law has been very generous and helped me a great deal, both financially and with child care. I am very appreciative of her help, but we have butted heads several times over boundary violations on her part (buying my daughter things without asking me, offering unsolicited parenting advice, etc.).

Two years ago SIL wanted to buy my newly licensed daughter a car for her 16th birthday. I said no. It is not safe for teenagers to be driving around by themselves, and her stepdad and I can take her anywhere she wants or needs to go.  Both my daughter and my SIL were very annoyed (as was I), but it all simmered down.

I was horrified last week when my SIL arrived at my daughter’s high school graduation with a luxury car with a giant bow on top! She had bought her a very expensive car without even speaking to me! To make matters worse, my daughter was in on it. They went together and ordered the car two months ago. My daughter’s name is on the title. She actually owns this car now. The deal they struck is that my daughter is responsible for half the insurance and any tickets she incurs. My SIL will pay for half the insurance, gas, and maintenance.

I want my daughter to sell this car and save the money. She has never driven without an adult in the car, and I am not comfortable with her doing so now. I took the keys from her for the time being. She has accused me of “stealing her car.” I am terrified of her taking this car to college in the fall, driving around on unfamiliar roads with other kids in the car and getting hurt!

I am considering withholding her tuition money until she sells the car, but my husband thinks that will backfire. Alternatively, I could try to convince her to leave the car here when she goes to school in the fall and sell it while she is gone. Help! How do I get rid of this car?

—She’s Driving Me Crazy

Dear SDMC,

Ugh, what a mess. First of all, let me say I think your concerns are well founded. You know your kid best, and if you feel she’s unprepared for the very adult responsibilities of a car, you’re probably right.

The car is the lingering symptom of the real problem. While I don’t doubt your sister-in-law means well, what you describe is a pretty big violation—one in which your daughter was complicit, no less, though I’m willing to cut your teenager some slack because she is that: a teenager. I think you will feel truly better once you’ve helped both these women understand that. They were wrong to do this behind your back, and an apology is owed before you can move forward to a real solution.

I don’t think you should make your daughter’s tuition into a bargaining chip. Instead, I would express to her the concerns you lay out above (I’m sure you already have), and stress that as her parent you feel you must come to a solution about this car. Selling it might be a bit drastic, but there’s no reason she can’t leave the car at your home, assuming she’ll be back for school breaks and maybe even next summer. The car is brand-new; it’ll be fine.

But you’ll need to provide some kind of timeline, some point at which you feel your daughter has proven herself responsible enough on the road to take her car with her. Maybe figure out what that looks like (she takes a refresher driver’s ed course or does all the family driving during breaks, etc.) so you have an actual benchmark for your daughter to work toward.

Your sister-in-law owes you one. I hope that she is helpful and backs you up on this so your daughter sees it as logical and not punitive. With time, everyone will get what they want: Your daughter will get her car, your sister-in-law will get the satisfaction of being an amazing aunt, and you’ll get some peace of mind knowing your daughter is slightly more prepared to handle her new car.

—Rumaan

More Care and Feeding

My husband and I are expecting our first child, and the day cares we’re considering have long waitlists. We’d have an advantage if we joined the church one of them is part of, but we are atheists. To further complicate things, my husband’s parents would like us to baptize our child in their church, which is different from the day care church. We don’t know which, if either, is the right thing to do. What do you think?