Care and Feeding

Aunt Mia Gave My Toddler a Loud, Annoying Toy

And I’m burning up with rage.

Aunt Mia blowing into a party horn and making an OK gesture next to a toddler playing the drums.
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,

We recently held an early birthday party for our toddler. We are quiet people and typically avoid throwing big parties, but my partner is leaving for the next year for work and we wanted an opportunity to visit with friends and family before their departure. I was blunt on the invitation: no gifts. We have a variety of reasons for this request: Some items are off-limits (no toy guns/weapons, loud obnoxious toys raw my nerves); we live in a small home and don’t have room for extra things; we don’t want our kid to fixate on stuff; and we don’t want to be the bad guy if a toy falls in these no-go zones.

I keep a list of things I think my kid will like and share it at the request of others. I’ve deposited any flat gifts to my kid’s 529 plan for college, note as much in thank-you cards, and I have let inquiring family members know this is an option. My family is good at respecting this boundary; my partner’s aunt Mia is not.

Aunt Mia is the matriarch on my partner’s side. Aunt Mia arrived at the party and handed my child an unwrapped, loud, obnoxious toy that my kid LOVES. I could not find the words in the moment and ended up saying nothing when I should have said something. I’m sure it was obvious I was upset. Aunt Mia told my partner that it’s not a gift—it’s a toy from her own toy room, which is filled wall to wall with toys. She has complained about the volume of toys she has accumulated for her grandkids. The last time we visited, she told us to take some toys, and we both, separately, gave a firm no, citing our space issue.

We took the batteries out of the gift, but I’m irritated. Aunt Mia has a habit of crossing boundaries, and others in the family have alluded to this as well. To the extent I can, I want to nip this in the bud before the holidays roll around. For what it’s worth, I think it’s great to give and receive secondhand toys, but we want veto power before our toddler falls in love with any toy.

I have yet to send out thank-you cards for those who attended and arrived with flat gifts in hand. What is my script to Aunt Mia here? Is it appropriate to write something out? Do I drop small and clear lines with every family member at some point and hope they and Aunt Mia shift their gift-giving culture? Do I put a big offensive memo on my Facebook wall? I feel like setting a boundary about just about anything else is less offensive than telling others what toys they can and can’t give your kid.

My partner avoids conflict; I asked them to say something to Aunt Mia, but they demurred.

—STOP

Dear STOP,

I think that a lot of this is Aunt Mia yanking your chain (extremely successfully, I might add), and the rest of it is you being unclear and also a touch rude. You’re putting “no gifts” on invites, but you are open to gifts, just quieter gifts, and you have a list of appropriate gifts, in case someone says “I know you said no gifts, but what if you didn’t mean it?” and also money (“flat gifts” is a new one to me) is welcomed and goes in the college account? We need to get you a more consistent message.

You also have literally zero power over what people give your kids. You can toss or donate it once they leave (or before, if you want to REALLY get your point across), but there will always be an Aunt Mia. No Facebook post will discourage an Aunt Mia.

Send Aunt Mia a thank-you note for the present, unless you managed to thank her in person, which … seems unlikely. Your partner needs to step up—MOST of us do not enjoy conflict—and email her the list of Approved Presents you for some reason have sitting on ice, since you know she’s going to bring something, and if she plays along, problem solved, and if she brings your child a full-size drone that plays “Immigrant Song,” write back and we’ll talk about bringing down the hammer of clarity.

I know this has to be a very challenging time for your family, with your partner about to leave for a year, and I think keeping a sense of humor over the Aunt Mias of the world is harder right now than it usually would be.

At least it wasn’t a puppy.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My sixth grade son is in Scouts, enjoys it, and wants to be an Eagle Scout one day. But my husband, my son, and I are having some challenges with the other kids and parents in Scouts, and I need your advice.

Here is some background: We are liberals from the North, and we live in a conservative, rural small town in the South due to work. We home-school, and our son is an only child. Scouts are one of a few different activities our son does for peer interactions.

Since completing Cub Scouts and becoming Scouts, my son and his peers are expected to be independent in managing their group dynamics and planning the group’s activities. Sometimes, some of the other kids play “keep away” with my son’s personal items to amuse themselves, and it is deeply upsetting to him. We encouraged him to talk to his “patrol leader” (the kid in his age group who was elected leader) about this, which he did, but the patrol leader was dismissive and rude. (In fact, he had been one of the kids who does this “game.”) At the last campout, my son got fed up when telling another kid to stop did not work, and he went to the kid’s dad, who immediately took action to stop the situation. However, the adult troop leader told my son he should have talked to the “senior patrol leader” first (the teen elected to be the leader over all the Scouts in this troop). My son will do this next time, but what should my husband and I say or do to help our son navigate this situation?

As for the other parents, my husband and I find it difficult to deal with some of them, especially the ones who go on camping trips. We are very different from each other, to say the least. We have dealt with other parents in charge being very poor planners (a big problem on a group camping trip), discussing their political views at length (very uncomfortable!), making offensive comments, and in one case screaming at us. One dad also drives dangerously, which is a problem since we are all supposed to drive in a group to and from campsites. After the last camping trip, my husband and I spent a lot of time venting to each other about these other parents. The thought of the next camping trip fills me with dread. Aside from sometimes excusing ourselves to go read a book, what else can we do?

There is another Scout troop in town, and we do sometimes talk about switching groups. We might still find ourselves needing to handle similar dynamics, though, so any advice you can offer I would appreciate.

—Trouble With Scouts

Dear Trouble With Scouts,

Switch your damn Scout troop, and if that one also sucks, bail out and join a Little League team. How have you lasted this long?

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

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I’m a nonbinary trans person who lives in a sizable city. Most days, I look pretty gender-nonconforming, and I’m also on low-dose testosterone, which is gradually shifting my appearance away from what most people would consider “the norm.” Because of this, I often get stared at by babies and little kids when I’m out and about—on the train, in stores, on the street, etc. I don’t necessarily mind—I know they’re only curious!

My instinct is usually to smile back at them, since I generally like kids and I think it’s good for them to have positive interactions with real-life trans people. My main concern, though, is with their parents. Will they think it’s creepy that I’m interacting with their kids? Unfortunately, I’m all too aware of the awful ways queer and trans people are often (falsely) seen as deviant, overly sexualized, and even potentially preying on kids. Part of me worries that even if I’m just being distantly, appropriately friendly to these kids, I’ll be opening myself up to transphobic violence (though nothing has happened yet). How do you think I should handle this? Am I being creepy if I smile at kids who stare at me? Am I putting myself at risk?

—Odd One Out

Dear Odd One Out,

Smile away. Transphobic violence is very real, and, unfortunately, the sort of people who would engage in it do not need the “excuse” provided by a brief convivial smile in exchange for a child’s inquiring stare. I do not think this is putting you at more risk than just living your life.

Kids, as you know, stare at all manner of unfamiliar things (people using wheelchairs, people of unfamiliar races, bald people, fat people, people with cool tattoos, etc.). A kind smile is exactly the appropriate response. If a parent responds with any stronger sentiment than “Honey, it’s rude to stare,” mosey on along to another aisle.

Congratulations on starting testosterone. It’s a big step and I hope one that brings you joy over time.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I’m a young female graduate student in a male-dominated field. I jumped at the chance to do my graduate study with a woman (this may never happen again in my career!), which so far has been great. My boss is pregnant, and her plans for maternity leave have me, as they say, “in my feelings.”

I 100 percent recognize that she should be able to take maternity leave, that she deserves time with her new child, that it’s an incredibly difficult and stressful time in her life and she needs the space to deal with that. I also know that child rearing tends to put women behind in academia, and I feel fiercely protective of her over that. And yet grad school is such a pressure cooker. I’m working 80- to 90-hour weeks, being underpaid for my labor, which will primarily benefit the academic reputation of my boss. She will be gone for the vast majority of the run-up to my qualifying exam in March. Feeling like she’s about to up and leave us without supervision and support is alienating. She can’t put us under the supervision of another professor—we just have to figure it out for a while. It feels like an admission that we care about these things more than she does.

I know this is unreasonable. Right now, as with all grad students, my life revolves around my work, and I know (I know!) that her life must necessarily include other things, or she would spend her entire working life in the ivory tower. I don’t think it’s internalized misogyny—I’d feel this way about any professor going away for such an extended period. How do I reconcile these things? How do I get to a place where I’m not resentful about doing the work while she raises a kid? How do I be exclusively happy for and supportive of her?

—Congratulations, But

Dear Congratulations, But,

You don’t have to be exclusively happy for and supportive of her! You can be quietly resentful. Most people in their working lives will wind up needing to pick up slack for a colleague on maternity leave, or one who has taken a leave of absence to look after an aging parent, or one who is on chemo. There’s no need to pretend it’s a delight and a privilege to be overworked and stressed during that period.

I want you to be warm and supportive in your interactions with her because it’s not her fault. Complain to your friends about your workload, lean on your contacts and colleagues in the department when things genuinely become too much (it’s ridiculous that you’re expected to go without any guidance into your qualifying exams), and recognize that this is part of living in human society—you’re not always going to like it. Ideally someday you’ll get to enjoy the other side of the situation.

Grad school is extremely stressful. Extremely. Academia is a nightmare. This is an objectively bad situation. You have enough on your plate navigating it without adding on the unnecessary burden of feeling like you should be happier for your professor. Give yourself permission to be annoyed, and yet carry on.

I’m cheering for you.

—Nicole

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