Care and Feeding

I Thought It Was a Haunted House for Kids!!

It was not.

Terrified little boy surrounded by creepy hands, a snake, and a screaming zombie woman.
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? Submit it here or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I messed up. My 4-year-old loves the scary displays at the mall, so I took him to a haunted house that I thought was kid-friendly but was less David S. Pumpkins and more Saw. I shielded his eyes and ran out as soon as I could. However, the damage was done. He told me he saw “a killer killing a boy with knives, lots of blood,” and other horrible things. I tried to tell him it was all fake, and the good guys came and rescued everyone. But still he has those memories of the scary house.

I feel like the absolute worst parent in the world. How do we move past this? Have I scarred my child forever?

—Worse Than Jason’s Mom

Dear Worse Than Jason’s Mom,

It’s going to be fine. Don’t bring it up directly; respond to his questions accurately and clearly; and the next time he’s scared by something in a kids movie (I had nightmares for months after The Last Unicorn), you can casually say, “Remember that haunted house? It’s all just make-believe.”

If you overparent on this one, I guarantee you’ll only extend the fear. Don’t ever be dismissive of his feelings about it, but also don’t bring it up too much. Tell him about something that scared you as a child. Check in with his teacher to see if he’s acting out at school, and eventually this will just be a thing he brings up at family dinners when he’s an adult: The Time Mom Brought Me to the Murder House.

Dear Care and Feeding,

Several months ago, my friend’s elementary school–age child, Sara, endangered another child’s life after purposely distracting the supervising adult so she could play her fun new “game.” Had another adult not stumbled upon them, the other child likely would have died. There have not been any other issues, and I’m generally hoping this is a one-off incident.

I decided not to leave our child alone with Sara. This has been complicated, as we used to have Sara stay overnight but cannot do this any longer as we can’t guarantee an adult’s presence at all times. My question is how to deal with this long-term. Do I eventually allow sleepovers again? I don’t want to punish Sara forever, but I’m honestly not sure what would convince me there isn’t a risk.

—Mother, May I Play With Danger

Dear MMIPWD,

I am sure I speak for the commentariat when I say that I truly wish you would have explained the exact nature of Sara’s “game.” Snake pit? An elaborate escape room with spikes at eye level? Russian roulette?

In the absence of this information, I’ll tell you this: You are responsible for the health and safety of your children. You are not responsible for Sara. Your mom instincts seem right on track here to me. If your daughter misses her, take the two of them to the movies. Sleepovers? Hard pass.

She may grow into a perfectly “normal” person, to the extent any of us are, but your daughter does not need to be the canary in that well. I also recommend asking your child’s teacher (if they share a class) to keep an eye on how Sara interacts with your daughter.

Kids usually do not come with “homicide” buttons installed, so I would also keep an eye on Sara’s parents and see if anything there seems … off.

No sleepovers.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I have a wonderful 3-year-old son I am co-parenting with my soon-to-be ex-husband. Our relationship ended badly, fraught with emotional and psychological abuse. He started cheating on me when I was six months pregnant, and we split up about two years later when I finally found the evidence. He is now dating the woman he cheated with, and she spends time with my son and spends the night in their home for several days at a time. They live across the street from me, but I haven’t seen the girlfriend since my ex and I split up.

Even two years later, it still stings and makes me sick to think about them playing house with my son. Now my ex is saying that she will be attending events, like soccer games, school events, and my son’s fourth birthday party, and I am just going to have to get used to it. The thought of this throws me into a downward spiral. I don’t think I should have to spend any time with this woman. I don’t want my contentious relationship with my ex and his girlfriend to impact my son, but I am thinking about just hosting a second party for him, which the girlfriend will be explicitly not invited to. From what I’ve read, this type of thing is typically not healthy for the child. And I don’t know what else I can do to avoid this woman if she is going to show up to events I will be attending. Do I just have to suck it up and spend time with this woman?

—Scorned

Dear Scorned,

I’m sorry: You do have to suck it up. This is the partner of your child’s father, and she needs an invite to anything child-related you would otherwise invite your ex to.

I would be furious. I would angrily text my friends. I would constantly evaluate her outfits and mild social missteps and hold them in my heart like precious treasures. But I would still expect to see her at the birthday parties.

Because otherwise, eventually, your child will notice and begin to feel as though he has to “pick a side.” Don’t do that. Be gracious and warm and appoint a friend you can say all the things you are feeling to.

Right now you can say they’re “playing house.” That’s a bit dismissive and may not be adequately preparing you for the likelihood that they will marry. You do not have to like her, but you have to be able to speak to her civilly.

Don’t be the one who makes it awkward for your child. Kill them with kindness.

Now, depending on the extent of the abuse you suffered at his hands, you may very well not want your ex at these events. That’s fine, at which point you have no obligation to invite the girlfriend either. Think about who really screwed you over, and try to do so dispassionately, if possible.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My toddler is 2½, and in the past month, they have begun doing things in 10s. For example, going down the slide 10 times, rocking on the rocking chair 10 times, jumping up and down 10 times, taking 10 drinks out of the cup, or licking the spoon 10 times. I am not sure if this is normal toddler behavior, as this is my first child, or whether this is something to be concerned about. My husband and I generally don’t bring any attention to the behavior as it happens, but privately we have been wondering if it is indicative of some underlying condition and whether it is something we need to address, or whether it is just a phase.

For what it’s worth, our toddler is a 28-week preemie who is fully caught up on all milestones and has already been discharged from early intervention, but we’re also wondering if this could be a side effect of all the overstimulation from our very long neonatal intensive care unit stay.

—I Mean, Counting Is Good

Dear Counting Mom,

It’s not really “normal” toddler behavior, or, rather, if it keeps up longer than a month or two, it’s not really “normal” toddler behavior.

I’m thrilled he’s been through early intervention and that you’ve been watching milestones with your sweet preemie, but I would ask your pediatrician for a referral to a developmental pediatrician. These appointments can take a long time to get, so make one now, and you can cancel it if the behavior ends. He might just be very proud of being able to count to 10!

Listen to your gut, listen to the professionals, and pay attention to whether your son enjoys these behaviors or feels obligated to do them and becomes upset if interrupted mid-count. This could be nothing at all or an early sign of something you will want to pay attention to. Either way, I’m glad you wrote in. Keep me posted.

—Nicole

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