Care and Feeding

Do I Have to Talk to My Baby Constantly?

Honestly, I just don’t have that much to say! But now I’m worried he’s speech-delayed because of me.

A woman talks to her baby.
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 or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I have a wonderful 15-month-old baby boy. He is pretty much the easiest baby (according to grandma, possibly in the world): He began sleeping through the night at two months, eats pretty much anything I give him (except avocado!), is super curious, and loves when I read to him.

From the time he was born everybody told me how I needed to be speaking to him constantly, describing what I am doing, how I’m doing, why, etc. However, I am a very quiet person, and I find it quite difficult to keep up a conversation basically with myself. I will be honest, I don’t describe what I am doing, why, and how, all of the time, and when I do it, it is out of guilt, and it doesn’t feel sincere. If he’s watching me do something I will explain, and he will listen, and pay attention, and it feels like genuine interaction, but if he’s doing his thing, I will just keep to myself and not interrupt his play with mindless speaking.

But I am afraid that my lack of conversation with him has affected his speech. He hasn’t said his first word yet. He babbles a ton, and if he sees or hears a dog, he tries to imitate it. I’ve even gotten compliments of how great he is at self-entertaining, which I absolutely love because I see other friends’ children and their need to have a parent behind them constantly. So I feel like what we are doing is working great for us. We are also a multilanguage family, so he hears Spanish and German in the home in addition to English.

—Do I Need to Talk to Him Constantly?

Dear DINtTtHC,

There are really two questions here: Is my baby’s speech delayed, and if so, is it my fault?

Let’s start with the second: You’re doing fine. Most of us feel like goofballs narrating our day as it happens to a baby who cannot possibly understand or care that you’re currently separating the white sheets from the striped dress shirts. It makes you feel like you’re being interviewed for a commercial. We could all do more than we do, and if this is on your radar to the extent you’re asking me about it, I imagine you’re actually doing it about as much as the rest of us. You’re not propping him up in front of screens while blowing elaborate smoke rings and thinking the child … how tiresome.

As to the first, call your individual state’s early intervention program. It varies by location, but in my county, after a few weeks, a nice person will arrive at your home and play some games with your kid and ask you some questions and then tell you if there is a delay that entitles you to free services or if your child is within “normal” parameters. I requested early intervention for one of my kids, who was, in fact, 15 months old and mostly disinterested in talking. They missed out on services by about one point and then immediately had a language explosion a week later.

If that call seems frightening, talk to your pediatrician about your concerns first. It’s nice to already be on the list, though, especially if wait times are longer in your area, and you can always cancel if your pediatrician thinks everything is up to snuff.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My second-grade daughter today told me she and two other little girls in her class were gently reprimanded by a specials teacher for wearing tank tops (not spaghetti straps, two fingers’ width). I didn’t get a call to bring her new clothes or a note home or anything, so I checked the dress code and according to the student handbook, yes indeed tank tops and muscle shirts are both prohibited. There’s a few other items I take issue with—bans on bike shorts, short skirts, “clothing that advocates disobedience to society.”

How would I go about challenging a school dress code? Just from talking to a few other moms, I think I would generally have support from the community, but it’s a conservative suburb in the South so ideas about “modesty” and “tasteful” run deep.

—Harper Valley PTA

Dear Dolly,

There are some variables in play here. Public school or private? Are the code guidelines heavily weighted toward female modesty or fairly gender-neutral?

The first step in either case is to talk to your child’s teacher about your concerns. If you are at a private school, the bureaucracy may be simpler to navigate, but you may simply (and not unreasonably) be told that you chose to send your child to a school that had a particular dress code outlined in the student handbook and you can go kick rocks. That doesn’t mean you can’t push back and join the parents’ association and make a fuss! You’ll just have to decide how much you care and how you feel about how the code is or isn’t enforced.

Start with the teacher, then go from there.

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

• Discuss this column in the Slate Parenting Facebook group!

Dear Care and Feeding,

I am widowed with three boys. My in-laws live out of state, and we visit them three times a year, since we are financially able to, and we always stay with them. My father-in-law has uncontrolled diabetes among a host of other health problems. He is often in pain from neuropathy in his legs and feet.

A week ago, my 5-year-old twins were wrestling and one accidentally hit my father-in-law’s leg. He hit my son so hard that he flew six feet back and hit his head on the stone fireplace. I immediately packed our things and left. Now my entire in-law family is upset and saying I should forgive my father-in-law and continue the visits, but I have no desire to. For what it’s worth, my kids love going. Should I go but get a separate place? Not go for a couple years?

—My FIL Is a Dick

Dear MFIaD,

What an awful thing to happen. I’m so sorry. I would encourage you to give the situation a little time. It’s been a week, and emotions are still very high. It’s possible that in a month or two you’ll decide that just as your son did not mean to bump into your father-in-law’s leg, your father-in-law did not mean to hit your son while reacting to the sudden, agonizing pain of severe neuropathy and would give anything to take that reaction back.

Your children love their grandparents and visiting them; their grandparents have lost their child and are now terrified they’ve ruined their relationship with you forever. I hope that doesn’t happen. However, I did not watch a man toss my small son across the room onto a stone fireplace, so it’s easy for me to say that.

Take some time. It’s encouraging to me that your in-laws want forgiveness and not to pretend you overreacted by leaving. If there’s to be reconciliation, there will need to be a genuine apology and a real conversation about what happened.

Again, I am very, very sorry.

Dear Care and Feeding,

After 40 years together, my husband’s parents finalized their divorce four months ago. It was an acrimonious and painful process for the whole family. Part of that is our fault. We didn’t do a good job setting boundaries with either parent, and both of them did everything they could to use their adult children and their spouses as pawns in their war, up to and including leaning on us for emotional support, oversharing, asking us to choose sides, and enlisting our aid—unwillingly and unknowingly—in hiding money from each other.

The first big family event since the divorce will be our child’s birth and subsequent baptism. I don’t want them present for either event. I don’t trust them to be in the same room with each other without making a scene, and I resent being put in the situation of choosing who attends what. Moreover, my husband and I won’t be in any state to play referee. We just want to focus on welcoming our daughter into the world and bonding with her. I’d rather they schedule separate visits once our daughter is a few months old. Until they have more time to heal and get over the divorce, I think it’s best to keep everyone separate. My husband is reluctantly on board with this plan, but he is also much more vulnerable to their guilt trips and tirades.

So … how do we tell them the plan? This will be their first grandchild, and both my in-laws have rigid expectations about family and religion and are quick to take offense. It doesn’t matter how hard we try to acknowledge their feelings while offering compromises or explaining our own hurt, they are furious if they don’t get exactly what they want. When things get really bad, they give us the silent treatment—though I don’t think they realize how much we enjoy it when they do. So am I right to exclude them from these two life events, or am I just trying to punish them for the pain they put us through? If I am right, how do we tell them what we want and stick to it in the face of their inevitable anger? If I am wrong, how do I navigate their attendance at these events when I’d rather them be anywhere else?

—Guilt Trips ’R’ Us

Dear GTRU,

You really do not like these people, huh? Well, they sound … difficult, as Dr. Spaceman once said about Squeaky Fromme.

Obviously, you can’t have them at the birth. You don’t have to have anyone at the birth who isn’t a literal beam of radiant support. But you don’t have to tell them ahead of time; just say, “We had the baby! Her name is Grace, here is a picture, she weighs 7 pounds, we’ll let you know when we’re ready for a visit.”

Then, you know, turn your ringer off and enjoy your baby. I would invite them to the baptism, but I would make your husband read them the absolute riot act about what acceptable baptism behavior is and warn them that if they act up they won’t see her until she graduates from kindergarten.

Try not to act from a place of glee; just treat them like squabbling toddlers who respond, like the rest of us, to good and bad feedback for our actions.

Have a lovely pregnancy and do not let this familial nonsense let you spin your wheels about how people might act to the extent you focus on it and not your baby. It’s very easy to get sucked into the nonsense.


More Advice From Slate

I have two young kids for whom my husband and I rarely buy toys because we already have way too many. We also have a large extended family, and when we celebrated my son’s birthday last month, we again were overflowing with toys from all of our family members. We’re so lucky that we have people in our lives who love our kids and want to express that by giving presents (in addition to showing love in nonmaterial ways, of course), but I really want the gift-giving to stop or at least slow down. How do I tell them?