Care and Feeding

How Do I Get My Mom to Stop Criticizing My Parenting Style?

She’s old-school tough and I’m millennial gentle. Is there a way to bridge the divide?

Photo illustration of a mom and daughter happily wiping their faces after eating while an older woman looks on with visible frustration.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by usas/iStock/Getty Images Plus and  fizkes/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 am a 32-year-old mother to a beautiful, inquisitive, and whip-smart 4-year-old daughter. Her father and I both come from “traditional” households where children were to be seen and not heard, expected to accept whatever our parents told us to do or believe without question, and were punished swiftly for any insubordinate behavior. However, that is not how we want our child (and any future children) to be raised. We allow our daughter to ask questions, to challenge us respectfully, and to express what is on her mind much more often than not. We want her to be autonomous, while empathetic and concerned about the world around her, and we’d like to think ours is a feminist household.

During a recent visit to our home, my mother was horrified to see me prepare an alternate meal for my kid after she told me she didn’t like what I’d made for dinner. She remarked that we allow her to behave like “a grown ass woman,” instead of a child, and that we will have a difficult road ahead of us if we don’t put her “in her place”—right in front of the kid!

I absolutely know that we can be indulgent at times, and that the way we speak to our daughter—with respect and honesty—is not really the norm for most parents, but I feel like we are doing pretty well with our approach. We also refuse to engage in physical discipline, which my mom finds insane.

Our girl is confident, articulate, and sensitive to others. The only real criticism my mom can offer about what we are doing is that it is different than her own style of child-rearing. How do I get her on board with our take on parenting without making her feel like I’m a bad mom—or, worse, that she was a bad mom? Yes, I am rejecting her way of doing things, but I also feel like she did what she knew and acted much like her own mother. The world has changed, and we’re trying to evolve with it. Can I bring my elderly mama along for the ride?

—Modern Mom

Dear MM,

Many of us millennial parents have a decidedly more progressive approach to parenting than some of the boomers who raised us. We recognize and reject the absurdity of children being silent little worker bees who should tidy up, go to school, and do as they are told without being able to challenge the world around them, as well as the ineffective and unhealthy nature of corporal punishment. So many of our elders can’t connect to the idea of disrupting destructive, unpleasant norms because they were trained to contort to them or else.

Gently explain to your mother that your family has found a rhythm that works for you all, and what may seem like the absence of discipline or boundaries is simply a different way of enforcing those ideals than to what she may be accustomed. Share with her one of the countless studies that makes it plain that spankings do not work and may do serious long-term harm to a child, even if they are not particularly brutal.

It is unlikely that your mom will convert to an entirely different way of viewing the work of a parent at this stage in her life, but she can and should respect your choices without interference. Explain to her that when she challenges your parenting in the presence of your child, she undermines your authority—which runs counter to her belief that kids should have unwavering respect for their parents, right? You can allow her to ask to speak to you privately and discuss parenting pedagogy when she has a concern, but it’s wholly inappropriate for her to do it in front of her grandchild.

“That’s just the way things are” isn’t a worldview, it is an admission of defeat made by more people than those who are willing to fight for change. You aren’t raising a child to accept the world that was handed to her, but to make it better for herself and others. Even if your mother can’t summon enthusiasm for your way of life, she must, at the very least, be willing to respect it. Kudos to you for being radical enough to parent as you see fit.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My 11-year-old daughter Madison went to a weeklong camp and met a girl named Suzy, who quickly latched on to and kind of developed an unhealthy obsession with her. On the third day there, Suzy gave her a note that basically said she was bisexual and attracted to her. Madison didn’t know how to react; she told the camp leaders, who basically advised her to simply ignore her.

Suzy refused to leave my daughter alone. Madison was so upset that she left camp early, but ended up going back for the last two days. Leaders promised to keep them apart, so when Suzy continued to pester Madison, they sent her home a day early.

After she left, Suzy sent Madison some texts (they’d exchanged phone numbers at the beginning of camp) that seemed manipulative and weird for an 11-year-old. We blocked her number and thought she was out of our lives for good. But I just found out that they will be going to the same middle school this fall. Do I bring this up with a counselor at the school, or should I wait and see if there’s an issue? I’m worried that they could be in classes together, and Suzy’s obsession could be renewed. There’s also a part of me that is worried that we took a young girl’s somewhat inappropriate actions and blew them out of proportion. Help!?!

—Suddenly Suzy Reappears

Dear SSR,

Only you can answer your last question. Here are some things that you can consider in order to decide.

I’m curious as to what the “unhealthy obsession” may have looked like. Did Suzy trail behind Madison like a lonely puppy dog (or an awkward kid trying to win over her crush)? Did she say anything weird or creepy? Was she aggressive? Did Madison attempt to let her know she was disinterested in her romantically, or that she wanted some distance from her? I ask that not to suggest that your daughter is responsible for how this other young lady conducted herself, but because I think it’s worth considering with regard to the question of whether your reaction was over-the-top or not.

Not gonna lie: I expected the text messages [Editor’s note: The letter writer included a screenshot of messages sent from Suzy to her daughter] to read a bit differently. I do see how you could read this as Suzy attempting to bait Madison into responding, only to then guilt her into continuing a conversation. However, whether the intention was manipulative or genuine, these messages are very much in alignment with the natural panic that a kid might feel after being not only rejected by her crush, but also punished for attempting to spend time with her.

This is certainly a tricky situation. Regardless of Madison’s sexual orientation, it can be quite uncomfortable to have someone confess their attraction to you. It’s often uncomfortable for adults; an 11-year-old is even less prepared to handle something like that with ease.

Of course, an 11-year-old would likely be just as inept when it comes to expressing their attraction. Suzy could be the Roger Ailes of sleepaway camp, a socially awkward kid failing at navigating her unrequited crush, or something somewhere in the middle. I have no way of knowing where she falls on that spectrum, but I think you and Madison can (hopefully) figure that out together.

You cannot waive away any inappropriate or unwanted behavior simply because Suzy is a girl.
However, when it comes to having a conversation with a counselor about what transpired this summer, the stakes may be a little higher than if she were a boy.

Do you know what was communicated to Suzy’s parents about the issue between her and Madison? It is possible that they do not know that their daughter is bisexual, and I’d say, considering what we know about how same-gender-loving children are too often treated by their families, that it is only fair you consider that when deciding to speak to a school official or not.

Again: If Suzy has behaved inappropriately, then you must prioritize protecting Madison and making her feel safe in her learning environment. But if this was, instead, a matter of a kid lacking social graces, then we maybe can hope that she learned her lesson after getting sent home from camp and being met with radio silence when she attempted to apologize (or “apologize”).

What does Madison feel about all this? Does the thought of being in school with Suzy make her anxious or scared? Does she find her annoying or threatening? Would she feel comfortable telling Suzy that she’d simply prefer not to be friends?

They are going into one of those grades where socializing is a daunting task, and the possibility of either or both of them turning classmates against the other is a very real thing. Would Madison be inclined to tell her buddies all about Suzy and what took place at camp, or would she be capable of keeping her distance while remaining mum about it? (That’s a hell of a thing to ask a tween, I realize.) And again, was this the sort of behavior a kid would want to warn her friends against or an annoyance?

It may be the case that Suzy was out of line, but Madison feels empowered to move on without a counselor. Or perhaps you will come to feel that you’ve overacted and yet still want to involve the school to prevent further issues. Or, again, somewhere in the middle. All this to say, take the time to do some soul searching alone and with Madison, figure out just what this child did, and the answer will become pretty obvious. Good luck!

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

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My kid is 2 and is not yet sleeping through the night. During his bedtime routine and when he wakes up at night, he often asks for a snack. It feels like a stalling tactic, but I don’t want to be a jerk and deny him food. Thoughts?

—Full of the Bedtime Blues

Dear FotBB,

Is your son getting enough to eat during the day? Try offering him a little more food at dinner or giving him an additional snack in the late afternoon. If he really is hungry, he may not be taking in enough sustenance to meet his needs. Also, are these yummy snacks that he’s excited to eat, or something he wouldn’t be interested in eating if his tummy—or desire to stay awake—wasn’t asking for it?

Don’t let your boy go to sleep starving, but don’t give him any more reasons to delay bedtime either. The late-night snack may be a trick, but it also may have become a comforting ritual for him. Try replacing the nibbles with a glass of milk or a cup of Sleepytime or peppermint tea. Get a special nightlight. Tell him that it’s not good for him to eat if he isn’t hungry, and encourage him to be as honest as possible about what he’s feeling that is making him want to stay awake.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My daughter is 13, and we have a few family friends that we spend a lot of time with. In our group there are two other girls her age and one 16-year-old, “Debbie.” Debbie and my daughter have known each other almost 10 years, and they get along very well. However, Debbie has been recently diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, and the combination of her illness and high school schedule often keeps her from coming when the families get together.

As a result, my daughter has tried to befriend the other two girls in the group and get to know them a little better. This hasn’t quite worked: Whenever she walks into a room, they run right out. When confronted by her and Debbie, they claimed to have done no such thing. However, the girls confided in Debbie that they think my daughter is stuck up and complained that on a group trip to Colorado, she accidentally threw a snowball at them.

These two kids used to be a bit on the heavier side, but have slimmed down after adopting healthier eating habits with the advice of a doctor. But when my daughter eats dinner or a snack in their presence, they make negative remarks—i.e., “You’re gonna eat that much?” “That has sooo many calories,” and “Aren’t you fat enough already?” For the record, my daughter is the recommended weight for her age and is very active. This has gotten so bad that my daughter eats in the bathroom when they come over. Also, my daughter likes wearing name-brand clothes and these girls see her in them and have begged their parents to get similar items, which is sending her some mixed messages.

We’re all Indian, and the two young ladies make negative comments about my daughter being dark-skinned. This is already a source of insecurity for her, as her parents and younger brother are all lighter than she, and she’s recently been looking at ways to naturally lighten her skin.

I want to teach my daughter to be proud of her appearance, but I don’t know how to get these girls to stop. At first, her father and I thought it would blow over, but it’s been a year now. When the girls’ parents were informed, they defended themselves by blaming our daughter for how they treat her. We see these people a lot—at least once a week—and even take vacations together. I don’t want my daughter to be miserable. What can I do?

—Mommy in the Middle

Dear MitM,

Are there other friends for you on the market? Because this set comes with a major set of problems. These are not the last friends on earth, are they? Tell me, because I’m struggling.

I understand how difficult it must feel to have a tightknit circle that may be hard to replace or duplicate (especially if you all are the only Indians/POC in your community), only to find that your kid doesn’t enjoy spending time with their families. However, I think it may be more traumatic for her to feel like her parents are choosing their buddies over her and/or are willing to sacrifice her comfort for their good time. Which is exactly what you all are doing right now. 

Certainly, you know how sensitive the complexion issue is and how hard colorism can be for darker women and girls, in particular, who are confronted with a lack of sufficient positive media representation of people who look like them and, at times, negative comments from family and peers about their skin tone. How could you put your daughter in a position where she has to endure such a thing in a social setting … in addition to harassment about her body and eating habits?

Since spending time with this crew is so critical to you, could you at least teach her some comebacks so that she can defend herself? (I’d go with “Undercooked jerks,” or perhaps “You could use a little of my color, you look like you died last week.”) And the fact that they covet her penchant for name-brand threads doesn’t change or mean a thing. Perhaps they find your daughter to be aspirational or enviably attractive, but there’s no “mixed message” here, as they seem to be hell-bent on taking her down a peg and making her as insecure and miserable as they seem to be.

Why is this friendship circle so important to you? Why can’t you find time to hang with your crew without subjecting your kid to this torture? Is this some sort of midlife-version of suffering a bit of taunting to sit at the cool kids table, except you’re sacrificing your daughter’s dignity instead of your own?

Your child is talking about finding ways to lighten her skin, and your use of the word “natural” here scares me because 1) there is no “natural” way to change your complexion, and 2) I’m wondering if “natural” may be the compromise you made with her—that you may allow her to explore holistic approaches to skin bleaching so long as she doesn’t use toxic bleaching creams or other chemicals to do it.

This has gone on for a year, which is more than enough time anxiety around eating to have been planted right along with the (perhaps) preexisting anxiety your daughter feels about being the darkest member of your family. I’m not holding these two kids responsible for your daughter’s self-image, but know that it is likely to be informed by the fact that you, her own mother, have subjected her to this treatment at their hands. Wanna talk about mixed messages? How can you tell her that her brown skin is beautiful—you do tell her that, don’t you?—and that her body is healthy and good, only to force her into constant interactions with people who berate her with contradictory messages? (P.S.: You mention that your daughter’s weight is appropriate for her age and height, but I hope you realize that these girls’ words would be no more acceptable if she were heavier.)

We aren’t talking about her being taunted for being the sole girl of color in a top-performing school or in a small community where there’s no other school to go to (for the record, I think POC parents need to stop subjecting their kids to that shit, too). We are talking about putting her in social situations where she is mistreated so that her parents can enjoy fun with their own peers. If my tone here is hostile, it is because I am hostile about this and very worried for your daughter.

It’s long past time for you and your husband to confront your (so-called) friends about their mean-ass kids. If they are unable to correct this behavior, you need to find time to spend with them away from your children. You also need to find ways to surround your child with peers who respect her and enjoy her company. Period.

—Jamilah

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