Care and Feeding

Enough Already

I’ve had it with friends who insist on separate meals for their kids.

A kindergarten-aged child looking at his dinner plate in disgust.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by pinstock/E+ 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 wife and I feel that preparing a meal and sitting down with our young kids to eat together is a valuable thing. We refuse to be short order cooks or prepare separate kid-friendly meals, but always try to prepare something that the kids like. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but for the most part our kids are good eaters and our dinners are enjoyable.

We spend a lot of time with other families, in situations where one family is responsible for preparing a meal for the group. Many of our friends’ kids are picky eaters, and this is reinforced by parents who prepare or expect special kid-friendly meals in addition to the main meal.

We’re happy to relax our routine in almost every way for these hangouts, but I am not comfortable going out of my way to prepare a second meal. This always leads to problems. If I’m cooking, their kids make a scene about the food being disgusting—or the parents just bring along kid food that they prepare or that I am expected to prepare. Without fail this special kid meal becomes a thing, even if my kids like the regular meal.

My wife is more gracious than I am, and I’m pretty sure the right answer is to just be accommodating. But to me, eating a meal as a family and hosting friends is an important social event where kids are learning how to exist together in the world.

Preparing a separate kid meal signals that they are more special than everyone else, or that they never have to be anything less than completely satisfied. It says that in group situations, the welfare of the group comes second to their happiness and that there is no expectation to be polite or grateful to your host.

I realize that this is a sort of over-the-top framing. I also realize there is a counterargument here about being an accommodating host. But accommodating picky kids strikes me as different than being mindful of legitimate dietary restrictions, which is an important act of putting others first. I think it’s somewhat rude to expect other people to prepare a special meal for your picky kids and it breeds a sense of entitlement that really bugs me. What do you think?

—Just Eat Up

Dear JEU,

I could not agree with you more. Mealtimes are a wonderful human rite. It can be a great pleasure to share them with your kids. They can also be instructive, teaching your kids to situate themselves within a larger group or even, simply, the basics of etiquette that will serve them well as adults. I’d go further: I find food a great joy, a deep pleasure, and teaching your kids to enjoy meals is a bit like teaching them to value art or appreciate music, a way to have a rich life.

This is a hot button topic. Every letter I answer about food, I see a million responses about sensory processing disorders, or gluten intolerances, or the importance of teaching your kids volition (forcing them to eat broccoli is teaching them to be put-upon! Maybe it’s outright abuse!).

I have little tolerance for these arguments. Yes, some kids reject foods to which they have a sensitivity, and if they’re too young to have the language to explain this, their intransigence can seem arbitrary. Yes, honoring those sensitivities (or, of course, allergies) is non-negotiable. Sure, taste is subjective and some people just don’t like fish, or tomatoes, or papaya, or what have you. But what parents of that kid who only eats chicken tenders seem reluctant to admit is that just giving them chicken tenders is easier on their family. Not everyone has sensory processing disorder!

I don’t blame them—parenting is demanding, and sometimes you give up a battle. That’s fine, if you only ever eat at home, or are prepared for a decade of packing chicken tenders every time you leave the house for a meal. But it’s appalling to let your kid describe the food they’re being provided as disgusting—not acceptable at home, and certainly not when you’re a guest. If you’re going to indulge your child’s pickiness, that’s your choice, but it’s incumbent on you to be sure this doesn’t manifest as rudeness. It’s your family’s problem to solve.

I guess I’m mixed on when your guests bring along their own kid meal. It’s still rude on the face of it, but these are your friends. I get that it’s disruptive and irritating, but you’re willing to relax for the sake of having fun, so maybe you should just make the rule that it’s fine if they want to bring pasta with butter on it (sad), but they ought to bring enough for all the kids.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My husband and I have a baby and a toddler. As children do, they wake up ridiculously early (about 5 or 6), and the baby is still nursing a couple times a night. Waking up so early every single day is brutal and exhausting, especially since I do it alone.

My husband has opted out of early morning wake-ups because he is not a morning person. He doesn’t go to sleep at night until 1 or 2 a.m., and then he wakes up around 9, and needs to drink coffee alone for at least an hour before he feels able to engage.

Prior to kids, I woke up a bit before him each day, but I’m not by nature a morning person either. I understand that mornings suck, but my opinion is that it comes with the territory when having young children. Am I wrong to expect him to adjust his sleeping schedule to fit with the new habits of our family? I’ve suggested he take a sleeping aid to fall asleep earlier, but he’s opposed to that idea.

—Too Many Night Owls Here

Dear TMNOH,

Wow. This letter. OK.

You are not wrong to expect your husband to adjust his schedule; it is one of the imperatives of parenthood, or adulthood more broadly. It is not possible for a parent to “opt out” of early mornings unless their partner makes it so. There are good reasons you might do that: if he’s handling the late nights (unlikely, since you’re breastfeeding), if he works brutally long hours, if it’s his birthday, if you’re feeling extra generous for whatever reason. If one partner is ill, or an insomniac, or what have you, sure, it might make most sense for them to “opt out” of early mornings.

But staying up late like some kind of idle teen, and then unwinding for an hour every morning with a cup of coffee? Your princess of a husband needs to grow the hell up. He needs to figure out how to put himself to bed, how to wake himself up, and how to get enough sleep, or how to survive on what he manages to get, despite having two little alarm clocks on hand. Until he does, you don’t have two babies, you have three.

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

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Dear Care and Feeding,

We have two children. They have two biological grandparents: my husband’s father and my mother. I was previously married but remained close with my former mother-in-law, whom I’ve now known for close to 15 years.

My husband and I have embraced her as a bonus parent and grandma to our kids. She is one of the few people who shares our values and is intentional about her role in our lives. It’s unique and we love it! But my mother does not. She acts angry, bitter, and selfish about our kids showing her affection or liking her gifts more because she’s the grandma.

We aren’t trying to diminish my mother’s role but aren’t willing to suddenly tell our kids to stop calling bonus grandmother “grandma.” Our 4-year old is very talkative and will freely talk about bonus grandma to my mother, angering her further. I expect this to add fuel to the fire as the years go on. How do we smooth this out with my mother once and for all?

—No Such Thing as Too Much Love

Dear NSTaTML,

This is such a lovely story. The bonds you choose are every bit as important as the ones to which you are born (or wed, I guess). Your mother could take a lesson from her grandchild, who knows, at only age 4, that love is not a matter of family trees or wedding certificates.

I think you should tell your mother directly: I sense you’re unhappy about the kids’ relationship with other grandma, but you shouldn’t be! The kids understand that you and other grandma are both equally important in our lives, and anyway, love is the one thing you never run out of. Please don’t be rude or short with her or when her name comes up, she’s a big part of our lives.

You could, if you were feeling generous, come up with a separate term of endearment for this other woman. It might preserve the peace if it’s the honorific that’s truly annoying your mom. But I hope that if you’re clear with your mom about this, she’ll be able to see this is pointless and get back to enjoying the affection of her grandkids. Good luck.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My 5-year-old son and his classmates play with these spinning tops called Beyblades in the cafeteria during their extended day program. He left two tops and his launcher on his backpack to go to the art room, and when he returned, they were gone.

I know some of the kids who were actively playing Beyblades when I picked my son up, so much to his humiliation I asked if they borrowed his blades or knew where he left them. The kids quickly called out two kids who were not there as known Beyblade thieves.

I am sad for my son, who lost his new Christmas present through a combination of negligence and theft. I don’t know the accused thief. My son’s current plan is on Monday to ask the kid these kids named to give his toy back to him. It’s not a big enough deal to raise to a teacher or a parent, and I think there is a good lesson to be learned about keeping an eye on his stuff. I guess I am just looking for some advice on how to coach him through the situation so he can stand up for himself but also prepare him for the fact that he probably won’t get his toy back.

—Who Stole the Beyblades From the Cafeteria?

Dear WStBFtC,

I’m sorry to hear about this. We’re also a Beyblade household, so I know what they mean to some kids and that they’re not cheap!

I disagree that this doesn’t rise to the level of parent or teacher involvement. The teacher can make it clear that if kids are bringing in toys, they need to be responsible for their property, and respectful of others’. And if you know which kid may have taken your son’s toys, you are within your rights to send the parents a note or a phone call—“Caden lost his new Beyblades and had a sense that Robert might have gone home with them. I’d appreciate if you could look into it! I know these things happen, but those were a beloved Christmas gift.”

A reasonable parent will investigate. You might not get them back, but you’re still able to try. This kind of thing happens among kids, and while it is important for your son to learn how to take care of his things, it’s as important for his peers to learn they can’t help themselves to other people’s property. Good luck!

—Rumaan

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