Care and Feeding

My Kid Loses His Dang Mind at Christmas

How can I get him to behave at the most wonderful time of the year?

A little boy takes a defiant pose in front of a Christmas tree.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Johner Images via Getty Images Plus and Paolo De Santis/EyeEm via 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,

My 6-year-old loses his dang mind around holidays and his birthday. He is a sweet, smart little boy who is usually pretty well-behaved, but when we near Christmas or his birthday it’s like he loses impulse control. He picks fights with his younger brother, screams while his baby sister is sleeping, slams doors, throws toys, generally doesn’t follow our instructions, that kind of thing.

Advertisement

The most annoying thing is that he likes to “play dumb” to test limits. For instance, today my husband was trying to get him back in the house after being out at a store and he just stood there at our gate refusing to come in. My husband asked him why he wasn’t coming in and my son very seriously said he “forgot how the gate works” (massive eye-roll).

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

I feel like this stems from being overwhelmed by excitement and anticipation for an event he loves, and I’m sympathetic that he’s just having big feelings he can’t quite manage. On the other hand, it’s hard for us to get excited about him receiving a bunch of holiday or birthday gifts when he’s making life harder for the rest of the family. We do the usual stuff—timeouts, revoking privileges with devices, etc. It doesn’t seem to get through. How do I work on this with him?

Advertisement
Advertisement

—Chill Out, Kid

Dear Chill Out,

I do love a dramatic child. I really do. I bet he’s going to be a very colorful adult and have many delightful friends, all of whom are like “Derek is … a lot around the holidays.”

This is kind of the upper acceptable limit for being like this at age 6. I, as a child, like many children, would get slightly histrionic about the end of birthdays/Christmases, and my parents would drag out The Berenstain Bears and Too Much Birthday and I found it deeply insulting. I believe I self-corrected the behavior to avoid being patronized by an extremely regressive book about bears who cling to gender norms. You could try that.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Have you tried saying, flat-out, “if you keep behaving terribly in the weeks before gift-getting occasions, we will get you fewer gifts?” Because if you haven’t, I think you will find it to be useful. You might, in fact, have to follow through and give him fewer gifts and then say, “I know that before your next birthday, you will work on this.”

I get it. I really do. It’s so exciting at 6! And time seems to stretch out eternally, especially due to the holiday-industrial complex insisting it be so. He’s going to grow out of this, but you might have to play a little hardball once.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Dear Care and Feeding,

A question a few weeks ago from a parent upset that another restaurant patron was disciplining the writer’s child for running around motivated me to write to you. I was recently on a three-hour flight, seated in the middle, my husband in the aisle seat on my right. Behind us was a family: mother, father, child. The child, a girl, maybe 4 or 5 years old, was all excited about the trip; she talked vivaciously and kicked the back of my seat whenever she got really worked up. The parents made no attempt to stop her from kicking.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

At first I was willing to bear the kicking, but after an hour or so, I decided I’d had enough. I hadn’t formed a plan whether to ask the parents to intervene or to talk directly to the child. When I turned around, I was looking her square in the face, so I said (and I admit I could have struck a more friendly tone), “You keep kicking the back of my seat and it bothers me. Could you stop?” And she did. She was still for the rest of the flight. And quiet as a mouse.

My sister—like the letter writer cited above—used to get upset when other people disciplined her children. As a nonparent I’m wondering now whether I should have spoken to the parents first.

Advertisement

A friend said I could have switched seats with my husband, but that would have put him in the same situation. I guess I could have offered to trade places with one of the little girl’s parents.

—What Should I Have Done

Dear WSIHD,

Sounds like you essentially did do the right thing, and everything resolved itself tidily as a result. Next time, go in with a slightly friendlier tone.

Advertisement

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

• Discuss this column in the Slate Parenting Facebook group!

Dear Care and Feeding,

I just found out yesterday I’m 5 weeks pregnant. It is an exciting thing, and I hope it sticks! But I am overwhelmed by a desire for guidance: I am the first in my friend group to try and have a kid; I’m not telling my family for a while, and I just haven’t been close enough with any pregnant people to have much wisdom about this stage of the game.

Advertisement

Like, it struck me that I’m going to have to cancel a hot springs trip I had planned because I looked it up and yes, pregnant people, especially early-term, probably shouldn’t soak in hot water. But what if there are things that are major no-no’s that I don’t know about? I don’t drink or smoke, I exercise, I take my prenatals and calcium, I am getting my first OB-GYN visit set up. What else should I be doing? What else should I avoid?

—Clueless

Dear Clueless,

Stray cats pull off successful pregnancies every day. I know you can do this. Also, it’s great to admit when you have no idea what you’re doing and to ask for help. That’s most of parenting, right there.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

I have the perfect book for you. It’s Expecting Better, by Emily Oster, a health economist who became pregnant with her first child and was intensely frustrated by the lack of info on why some things are bad and how bad they are, statistically, and it’s extremely interesting and sourced to death and also engaging!

You have already started doing the things your OB-GYN will tell you to do, but the doctor will also, in that first meeting, give you a very large folder of papers that cover numerous other things. Don’t drag race! We talk a lot about deli meat, but you’re way more likely to get listeria from bean sprouts! You can still have a cup of coffee!

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Congratulations. You are going to be great at this.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My child is in fourth grade, and a bit of an existential worrier. Things like, what if the Earth got hit by another meteor like the one that killed the dinosaurs.

A classmate’s father suddenly and unexpectedly passed away very recently. I’m concerned that my child will worry about death. I don’t want to lie and say that it won’t happen because it could (unlikely, but still possible). In addition, we are not religious, so there are no spiritual takes on the situation that would provide comfort. How can I ease a child’s fears about death?

Advertisement

—How Do I Field This?

Dear HDIFT,

Advertisement

If I could solve the issue of (Wo)man’s Fear of Death, much less Child’s Fear of Death, I would have the most successful TED Talk in all the land.

Death is objectively terrifying. Bookstores have entire shelves devoted to various ways to grapple with the unrelenting knowledge that one day we will all be dead, none of which work even a little bit. I don’t even like to think about the heat death of the universe, even though that is honestly just a conjecture and I’ll be extremely personally dead long before it happens.

I’m religious, so I get to cheat with my children and be like “Heaven! Gonna see that parakeet again!” but we have no damned idea what happens when we die. Fourth grade is a pretty normal time to start the lifelong process of just … dealing with that shit.

Advertisement

Personally, I think that in these circumstances you’re best off going with the Circle of Life talk. It’s not much, but it’s essentially true, and it’s all we’ve got. Sunrise, sunset. The leaves come in the spring; they fall in the autumn. We need to make room for the new babies.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Lemme know what works (nothing is going to work). Your kid will probably think about death a lot and be frightened. As Jane Cannary once said on Deadwood, “Aw, is that so? That is too bad! Join the fucking club of most of us!”

Do not say that part to your kid. Focus on how unlikely it is that you will die at a young age (break out the actuarial tables, if necessary) and that someone will always be there to take care of him.

Advertisement

We should also get a little notice before the meteor, but honestly, that’s much, much worse.

Have a great week, secure in the knowledge of the inevitability of the grave.

—Nicole

More Advice From Slate

My husband and I are not particularly well-off, but we are incredibly proud of our daughter, who has worked her butt off and gotten into our (excellent) state school as well as a handful of prestigious private colleges. The rest of the family thinks we should help pay for private school by cashing out our 401(k). Truly, I do not love the idea of her leaving college with that kind of debt, but I’m extremely hesitant to put our savings on the line at this point in our lives. What would you do, in our place?

Advertisement