Care and Feeding

Too Close for Comfort

How can I get my suffocating MIL to back off?

Photo illustration of a grinning grandmother clutching a child too closely to see the child's face.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by nd3000/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. In addition to our traditional advice, every Thursday we feature an assortment of teachers from across the country answering your education questions. Have a question for our teachers? Email or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

This week’s Ask a Teacher panel
Brandon Hersey, second grade, Washington
Katie Holbrook, high school, Texas
Matthew Dicks, fifth grade, Connecticut
Carrie Bauer, middle and high school, New York

My nearly 2-year-old has been cared for full-time by his grandmother since I went back to work a few months after he was born. For me, the benefits are solely financial, as my mother-in-law is unusually sensitive and can be volatile. She is also very clingy. For instance, she demands hugs and kisses from my usually uninterested son (he can be a cuddler at times—no developmental issues there) and goes so far as to count how long his hugs are. She will actually say to him: “That was only nine seconds; let’s do that again.”

His eventual enrollment in kindergarten—still years away—is already a sore subject for her. She has tried to talk us into agreeing to let her home-school him. When we refuse, she says she will follow him wherever he goes as a volunteer, or she’ll get a paid position at the school.

My question is whether or not, when the time comes, I should express to his teacher that I have concerns about his grandmother possibly becoming involved at the school? I’m afraid of looking crazy myself. My husband acknowledges his mother’s issues with a lack of boundaries, but is less concerned than I am. He thinks it’s the kind of thing that we have to let play out, and then talk to my MIL when problems arise. For him, the possible benefits of having someone on-site at the school to advocate for our child outweigh the risks, whereas I don’t think our kid needs full-time surveillance at all. He is also optimistic that the fear of not having access to our son if she acts up will keep her in check. I don’t think putting my foot down now is an option, but I am considering it. I would love to hear a faculty perspective on this.

—Wanting to Draw the Line

Dear WtDtL,

Wow, this is quite the situation. I think the solution you’re looking for lies somewhere between your and your husband’s perspectives. If I were your son’s teacher, I would really appreciate you sharing the dynamics of his and your MIL’s relationship. I’ve experienced a few overeager parents throughout my career (she would certainly qualify as an overeager grandparent), and it can definitely be overwhelming.

I think you need to make your boundaries very clear, and you and your husband should be in lockstep about these. It seems like you’re already doing that concerning the idea of home-schooling. I’d encourage you to continue doing that regarding her volunteering or working at your son’s future school. If you both don’t feel comfortable with her having that level of involvement at your son’s school, make that clear to her now rather than waiting. You’ve got roughly three years before he begins kindergarten. Given the depth of your MIL’s relationship with your son, and her belief that she will play a central role in his life at school, you need to begin the conversation now about what that transition to school will look like.

While in some cases there could be benefits, I can tell you from experience it’s not always great having a parent or grandparent work or volunteer regularly at school. I’ve even had second graders ask me to tell their parents not to come to school as often. Kids need space to grow and become independent, and often school is the primary opportunity to do that. I think it’s wonderful that your MIL is very involved in your son’s life, but setting clear boundaries early is key in making sure their relationship is a healthy one.

—Mr. Hersey

How do middle schoolers handle moving? My son is in sixth grade, and he’s very happy. He does very well in school, and he has a truly great group of friends. These boys are smart, funny, good kids. They make my son laugh, they share common interests, they support one another. I couldn’t ask for better for him.

My husband and I are considering a move. The problem is we don’t have to move. My husband is reasonably happy at work, though itching for a change. I am relatively happy with where we live. But we never intended to stay here long-term. When we think about our lives, we’d love to live in another part of the country—one that better aligns with our love of the outdoors and a more relaxed pace of life. We’re both feeling a bit restless. A good work opportunity has come up for my husband in a part of the country we’d like to move to and where I can easily find work in my field. That said, it’s not a once-in-a-lifetime job opportunity—the kind where it’s just too good to pass up.

It is heartbreaking to imagine telling our son that we would be moving, taking him away from his friends, because his parents are a little restless. (I recognize that friendships change over time, though everything indicates with this group that they’d be in it together for the long haul.) He is social but can be a little reserved at times, and I’d say average in terms of connecting with and making new friends—that’s to say not terribly extroverted, nor terribly introverted.

As parents, we probably let our life revolve too much around our kids, without enough focus on ourselves. Occasionally we look at each other and say, “Are we really going to let a 12-year-old dictate our life?” But neither of us moved as kids, and both of us think of moving as pretty awful for kids. How traumatic is it for middle schoolers? Would he make really good new friends? Will he hate us forever? How have you seen kids weather this kind of change emotionally? Should we just stay put?

I should add that we have other children, too, who are younger—they are in a place in their lives where I feel the move would benefit them for different reasons, and they’d weather the change much better because of their ages and their personalities.

I’d love any insight you have to offer. Thanks.

—Itching for Change

Dear Itching,

How do middle schoolers handle moving? Unfortunately, not very well according to research. Even expected transitions, like moving from elementary to middle school, are correlated with negative outcomes. Middle school can be a difficult time for making and even maintaining friendships.

Anecdotally, I certainly know kids who moved as adolescents and flourished in their new environments. While moving during this time is risky, disaster is not a given. It’s entirely possible that he would also benefit from access to the outdoors and a more laid-back pace. Maybe he would find his way into an equally wonderful friend group—I am in no way discounting that possibility.

But middle school is a tough time to be the new kid. I would expect a rocky transition. Adolescence is a time when kids naturally start to pull away from their parents. Your son is only 12, so he may not be there yet, but it’s possible he would resist your help in adjusting. However, I doubt that he would “hate you forever,” especially if you have a good relationship with him.

Weigh the pros and cons—how would this move benefit your entire family? I think it’s normal for family life to center around your kids’ needs. Big kids like your son need good friendships. They also need happy parents. If you decide to stay, I hope you and your husband find other ways to address your restlessness. Moving certainly presents a risk. Only you can determine whether or not it’s one worth taking.

—Ms. Holbrook

Please, please help. I share a 9-year-old son with my ex-partner, and we share 50/50 custody. My son has ADHD, mild dyslexia, and a mild sensory disorder. He has never enjoyed school and has a history of bucking authority, seeking attention through positive and negative behavior, and a tendency to lash out. For months, I’ve wanted to get him into therapy. He’s now on the waiting list to get into a well-known clinic, where he will hopefully be offered therapy. But the waitlist is months long. We had him evaluated there years ago, and he was supposed to get ADHD therapy. My ex took him to a handful of sessions, but stopped it without telling me. I should have reenrolled him then, but I didn’t. I’m kicking myself now.

My son’s antics over the last three months have drastically spiked. In the last month alone, he has threatened himself and others, is supposedly targeting kids who are afraid of him, and won’t stop yelling in class. If he is removed to the hallway, he continues to yell to get attention. He won’t stop talking about spells and magical curses that he wants to use on his enemies at school to hurt them. He’s waving chairs around, jumping on desks, growling at and pushing kids. This behavior is shocking and frightening. His teacher said she worries about whether the other kids are safe around him. There have been two parent requests to keep my son away from their children.

My son doesn’t act this way at home, church, or playing sports, etc. In other settings, he just displays more typical ADHD symptoms of being impulsive, fidgeting, and sometimes being loud. Something is clearly triggering him in the classroom. (The school counselor once mentioned there may be a personality conflict with the teacher.) The school calls my ex or me every day to talk to my son to try to calm him down. If asked why he’s acting this way, he gives nonsensical answers or simply says, “They made me mad.” These phone calls are interrupting my work, feeding my son’s need for attention, and shaming him in front of his classmates.

When my son has these outbursts, he’s not sent out of the classroom. He was sent to the office only when he threatened to harm himself, but the principal, vice principal, and two guidance counselors were all unavailable, so another teacher talked to my son. Last week he threatened another student with a sharp object, and the only action taken was a message sent home after school.

I don’t feel like the teacher is being supported in her classroom. I don’t feel like my son is being supported. An Academic and Research Center meeting a few years ago (at the recommendation of the aforementioned clinic) resulted in the school saying no, it’s too much paperwork, we’ll accommodate him without it.

It’s important to note that my son has a completely different home life with my ex than at my house. Lack of rules, exercise, etc. They are also currently reading books about magic and spells, with no plans to stop despite my son’s behavior in school. Nothing new has happened at my house, but it’s impossible to ask my ex about their life. I’ve tried.

I’ve talked to my son until I’m blue in the face. He knows that he can’t act this way at school, is remorseful at home about it, then turns around and does it again. He has trouble generalizing and applying what he has learned. For what it’s worth, his grades are not affected by this behavior. He is willing to do his homework. My son at home is kind, caring, and loving. He definitely has issues going between two houses, but this aggressive kid at school? This is not the son I know.

What do I do? I’ve called the school and asked them for a better plan to help everyone involved, and I didn’t get a response. I feel like this is ridiculous. Clearly my son needs help. What action can I take with the school? I wish I knew what was triggering him. I want everyone to feel safe at school. Please help me.

—Who Is This Child?

Dear WITC,

This sounds like an incredibly difficult situation. Your son obviously needs support that he’s not yet receiving.

My greatest concern is the response that you’ve received from the school thus far. “Too much paperwork” should never be a factor when making a decision about a student’s well-being. Frankly, the fact that the administrator told you as much is also concerning to me. Denying services to a child because of the work it would require is unethical, despicable, and possibly illegal. Saying as much to the child’s parent is plain stupid, and to me, a signal of the school’s utter disregard for you and your son’s needs.

I’m also astounded that the school’s response to your son threatening another student with a sharp object was a message sent home after school. For the safety of your son’s classmate and your son, threats like this must be taken seriously and handled with extreme care.

Even the fact that school administrators have you speak to your son during the day to calm him down is a terrible idea. It only serves to reinforce the notion that he can receive the attention he likely craves and manipulate the decision-making of adults by behaving badly.

My advice to is simple: You need an educational advocate. You need a person who understands the law and the possible services available to your son. You need someone who knows the right questions to ask and who can expertly determine what the school should be doing to support your son. You need someone who can hold the school accountable for their actions.

Based upon the information you’ve provided me, it’s clear that the school is failing to support your son appropriately or keep him safe, and I don’t think you can go this alone. I think you need an expert to help navigate the system and ensure that your son is supported and safe in the most appropriate way possible.

Depending on where you live, your state may have a Parent Advocacy Center that can guide you in locating someone who can help, but a Google search will do the trick, too. Simply search on the term “educational advocate” and the name of your state and you’ll find listings. Some educational advocates focus on special education legislation and others work more broadly. You may want to hire one who specializes in special education because you may be heading down that road, but they can advise on this better than me. You can also ask parents in your community for a recommendation.

Depending on where you live and your financial circumstances, this may cost you some money, but I think it’s essential based upon the information you’ve shared. Too much is at stake here. You are going to need a guide, and perhaps in some moments, a bulldog, to help you guarantee that your son receives the support that he so clearly needs.

Good luck.

—Mr. Dicks

I am a ninth grade social studies teacher and have a fellow teacher, “Jane,” who has turned into my work wife. Our classrooms are next to each other, and we run a student organization together. She came to my wedding, and I’ve spent summer days at her pool, swimming with her kids.

The years have gone by, and her kids are not as young anymore. Now her eldest son “Mike” is a freshman, and I am his teacher. I didn’t even know that this was a possibility because they live in another county, but apparently as a magnet school, students from other counties can attend if they pass our entrance exam and pay a small fee. My problem is that I find I’m too influenced by that he’s my good friend’s son to be a good teacher.

Mike is fairly average—he’s not the best behaved nor the worst, he’s neither excelling nor failing. I can tell he is incredibly uncomfortable speaking to me, and I get it. Not too long ago I was in a bikini throwing him in a pool. I know I’m being too lenient with him right now with things like turning work in on time, or keeping his cellphone put away. A small part of what might also be holding me back is knowing Jane teaches right next door, and she can probably hear her son’s name spoken when I say it (his real name is Greek and quite distinctive). I didn’t get a Christmas card from her family for the first time in years, and it occurred to me that Mike probably told his mom not to send one to me. Any advice for how to navigate this relationship?

—Teacher and Friend

Dear Teacher and Friend,

It’s not easy to navigate the overlap when you’ve got both a personal and a professional relationship with a student. In this case, I think your hesitation to set the tone has led you astray, because it sounds like now you’re taking social cues from a ninth grader rather than the other way around, and listen: You do not want to take your social cues from a ninth grader. Middle schoolers get all the heat for their limited social graces, but freshmen are still doing a lot of growing, too. They’re often extremely quick to feel embarrassed or nervous, to perceive even perfectly normal interactions as dreadfully uncomfortable, to be uncertain and self-conscious in unfamiliar situations—and to be covertly looking for modeling and emotional leadership from the adults in their lives, despite how much they may indicate otherwise. Mike may well be incredibly uncomfortable to have you as his teacher. (He may also be a typical 14-year-old boy. It’s not unheard of for them to be inscrutable or inexpressive.)

If your hunch is right and Mike doesn’t know how to navigate the shift in your relationship, as a trusted, familiar adult in his life, you have an important opportunity to show him the way through it. I think right now, your status as family friend has become an elephant in the room, which, in a way, confirms to Mike that this scenario is indeed mortifying. I’m sure that’s not what you want, so it’s time to take the reins and guide this relationship to a more easygoing place.

Step one: Get out of your own head about all this. You’re almost definitely overthinking it! I would not, for example, give the rationale for the lack of a Christmas card one more inch of real estate in my head. Nor should you keep stressing about whether Jane can hear you addressing her son through your shared wall. You’re his teacher—it’s your job to speak to him! You haven’t given any indication of Jane’s personality, but since you’re close friends of long standing, I assume that she’s a reasonable, rational friend, mom, and colleague. She went out of her way to enroll her son in your school, and in doing so, knew you could become his teacher. I certainly hope she’s now expecting you to work with him as you would any other student. All this angst is getting in your way; let it go.

Step two: Check in with Mike. Keep it warm, breezy, and low-stakes. Remember—you’ve known this kid, and he’s known you, for years! I’d simply ask to chat with him for a minute: “Hey Mike! Can I talk to you for a second before your next class?” And then: “I just wanted to check in and see how you’re feeling about being in my class and working with me as your teacher. I know it might feel like a funny transition since you’ve known me as a friend of your mom’s for so long.” He might be incredibly relieved that you started the conversation, and open right up about his discomfort and uncertainty. He might stare at a fixed point above your head, shuffle his feet, and mutter one-word answers. He might be surprised, and express that there’s no problem at all. Whatever it is, you’ll be able to stop guessing about what’s on his mind. You can also be transparent with him: “This is also the first time I’ve had a family friend as a student, and I think I need to do a better job of making my expectations clear to you.” Ask him to keep his phone put away, remind him of the deadlines, and send him on his way.

Then, let Jane know about your conversation. You’re on new and slightly uncertain ground between ‘dear friend of many years’ and ‘parent of a student,’ but again, I’d try to keep it low stakes. “Hey, how’d your day go? Oh, FYI, I talked with Mike a bit today. He’s seemed a little uncertain of how we should interact in the classroom and I just wanted to make sure all was well. I think I’ve been slipping a bit with keeping him on task and just tried to reset a little.”

It’s always a little weird when our private, personal lives collide with the professional relationships we establish with the many, many kids and parents that pass through our classrooms, and I think everyone chooses not to acknowledge it sometimes. (Who among us has not darted into an aisle at Target in order to avoid greeting a student while carrying a box of tampons and a sports bra from the clearance rack … ?) This isn’t a grocery-store-in-sweatpants run, though—it’s an important personal relationship and an ongoing professional situation. You owe it to everyone involved to sort it out, and I think you’ll also find that the whole thing feels much easier and more minor once you address it rather than fret about it.

—Ms. Bauer

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