Care and Feeding

Playing Favorites

My baby’s grandparents openly favor another grandchild, and I’m devastated.

Photo illustration of an elderly man riding a scooter and a toddler riding a scooter.
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,

My baby boy is the first grandchild for my parents and the fifth for my partner’s. Even though he’s only a few months old, there is already a significant difference in how he is regarded by each set of grandparents and extended family.

My parents are head over heels. His paternal grandparents seem like they can’t be bothered to even refer to him by name—they usually just call him “the baby.” There have been incidents that indicate the grandparents have a favorite grandchild. This cousin is always present on our visits. His tantrums are accepted cheerfully, and his problematic behavior (including treating my baby as a toy he demanded be handed over) is celebrated.

How do I navigate my own feelings about the unfair treatment my child receives now, and how do I make sure he doesn’t grow up aware of the inequality? My partner is committed to our son growing up around his cousins, but this will put him in the position of noticing unequal treatment. I can’t get past my feelings about his older cousin being allowed to manhandle “the baby” as his grandparents and parents applaud his behavior. I’m starting to want to tell a 4-year-old off, despite knowing it is not his fault.

—Babies Are Cute, Too

Dear Babies,

It’s intoxicating to fall in love with your brand new baby. It’s powerful and overwhelming and so all-consuming. Of course you want everyone to see that this baby is as perfect as you know him to be, but you’re his parents and no one can quite see him as you do.

Though your own parents are head over heels, well, a first grandchild can do that. It’s not fair, exactly, but the first kid or grandkid, or first girl after a long line of boy cousins, is often especially doted upon. I think that’s what’s happening here.

I don’t think your in-laws are communicating disrespect by calling the baby, well, “the baby.” I think that’s not uncommon in families where there are already a handful of little ones toddling around. Because he is the baby! Some people are suckers for babies (I’m one), but others just find it easier to connect with kids when they’ve got some personality and are able to chat and play. Even beyond that, your son’s older cousins have the advantage of a bond with their grandparents that’s a couple of years old.

Your nephew’s tantrums and other behaviors probably seem horrifying in contrast to your placid newborn, but I suspect they’re just run-of-the-mill stuff. It’s not unusual for little kids to want to hold or play with babies younger than they are. You’re in protective new parent mode—as well you should be! Babies require that, but I imagine that a few years from now, should your son have a little sibling of his own, you’ll probably let him hold that baby.

Your in-laws might have a favorite grandchild, but they also might not. Comparing your little bundle to an active big kid is just not possible. I wouldn’t worry too much about his grandparents’ possible favoritism upsetting your little one. You can’t know how their relationship will evolve over the coming years. Continue to see them and foster that bond. I think you’ll be surprised.

Don’t tell your 4-year old nephew off. Let him “hold” the baby (with your assistance) and let him enjoy being around his little cousin. Don’t worry if your in-laws seem cool to the baby. I have a feeling this will all look very different in a couple of years. Hang in there!

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Dear Care and Feeding,

Like many toddlers, my 20-month-old is invested in trying to delay bedtime. After some trial and error, he’s realized the most effective tactic is to continually ask for one more book (mostly by sign; he’s not that verbal yet). I have no problem saying no to snacks at bedtime, but one more book hits me where I’m weakest. I’m a huge reader, and want my son to become one as well.

I’ve also read the hundreds of articles about how reading to your child is the best thing you can do for them. So I tell him “OK, one more book,” and then cave the next three or four times he asks for just one more. Finally, I run out of patience and want my adult time sans toddler, so I tell him no and put him to bed. How do I set more reasonable boundaries when my inner voice keeps saying “You can never read to a child too much. Don’t you want him to love reading?” I will note that my husband has no such inner struggle and cuts him off at three books mercilessly.

—Sucker for Reading

Dear Sucker,

Congratulations! Your son is very bright and has figured out how to charm you into a delayed bedtime.

You have many opportunities to foster a love of reading in your kid. But you also deserve some adult time! What we do in my household is select a handful of books for that night, and once we’ve gotten through the pile, that’s that. Stand firm! Once you do, your son will probably tell you he needs a cup of milk, or a banana, or that he needs to look out the window, or call grandma, or whatever. (I don’t even read to my big kid anymore, and he still tries to delay bedtime by asking what I’m planning on cooking for breakfast, or what my favorite color is, or if I had a nice day.) I’m sure your kid loves story time, but what he most loves is outwitting you on bedtime. Nice try!

Dear Care and Feeding,

My partner and I recently moved into the first floor apartment of a house; there is one apartment above, occupied by Louise and Peter and their 5-year-old, Max. Max is rambunctious. We get it! He’s 5! But we can hear him running around all the time. Sometimes he’s jumping and landing with a thud. I’ve once or twice thought something was about to come crashing through the ceiling, it’s that forceful and loud.

It starts around 6 a.m. and doesn’t abate until what I am guessing is Max’s bedtime around 7:30 p.m. Under different circumstances, we might go to Louise and Peter and ask that they keep Max from starting his playtime until I don’t know, maybe 7? He has woken us up repeatedly. But our dog is an occasional barker—especially if she sees folks walking their dogs or if there’s someone at the door. So it’s not like we don’t generate noise, though we try to quiet the dog as quickly as possible.

My partner has asked Louise if they can hear the dog upstairs, and she’s said yes, but it’s not a problem. So we feel this is the trade-off: Max barrels down the halls, the dog occasionally barks. But it’s a barrage; we try to ignore it, but it has sometimes brought about a headache from which there seems to be no escape—there’s no room in our place untouched by Max’s running around. We sometimes find ourselves shouting to make ourselves heard above the din.

My partner, who works from home (and thus hears Max all day long), has noticed that he has never seen Max outside the house unless he’s strapped into a stroller or attached in some fashion to Louise. And that Max sometimes pitches a fit outside, kicking over plants, and needs to be dragged back in the house or into the car. Normal kid behavior, but we want to be mindful of the possibility that Max may be neuroatypical.

Louise is a stay-at-home mom, and I’m sure she has her hands full. So it feels wrong to ask the neighbors to keep their kid from raising hell inside, and maybe because this kid in particular has a harder time staying still. But I feel a little nuts with all the noise coming from upstairs. Is there any way we can broach this with Louise and Peter without seeming like jerks?

—Keep it Down!

Dear Keep it Down,

To answer the only real question here, yes, you can broach this without seeming like jerks. But before you bother, ask yourself whether a solution to this problem really exists.

You don’t have a kid, so you perhaps cannot appreciate that asking a 5-year-old to be quiet for the first hour that they are awake is not an option. This is further compounded by your sense that Max might be a boy who is unable to actually sit still or keep it down—never mind that for most kids, that is a tall order.

You can’t reasonably ask your neighbors to carpet the apartment or enforce a later wake-up time, just as they can’t reasonably ask you to keep your dog from ever barking. If you still feel you want to broach this subject, you should have a tangible suggestion; I’m not saying those don’t exist, but I confess I’m unable to think of one. I don’t think a neighborly chat about this needs to escalate to discomfort or bad feelings, but it might—and that could compound the irritation you feel about the ever-present upstairs noise.

I’m sure this situation sucks. It’s one of the tricky trade-offs of apartment life. Your partner should invest in some quality headphones. The thumping might abate as Max grows up, or as the weather warms and he’s able to spend more time outside, but it might also be something that won’t ever change.

If you’re dead set on discussing this, I would go approach your neighbors with kindness and understanding. Don’t exaggerate the situation (the kid is not going to crash through the ceiling) and acknowledge that you both need to be good neighbors to one another. See if you can settle on some adjustments (again, I’m not sure I have great suggestions—no shoes in the house? No juggling bowling balls? More rugs?) and proceed with caution.

Dear Care and Feeding,

Three years ago, I fell in love with a wonderful man who is a divorced father of three. After we had been dating a year and a half, he introduced me to his kids and things went well. We have since welcomed a baby of our own into the family, and the kids adore the baby and vice versa. I feel lucky that everyone gets along so well.

The challenge is the kids’ mom. Though I have tried to reach out to her, she is cold and distant, and became even more so once my partner told her I was pregnant. Her resentment of the baby is palpable—she won’t look at him, greet him, or say his name, and has more than once tried to find a reason for his siblings to not attend his milestone events.

I can imagine that it is hard to see her ex with a new partner and baby. I never say anything bad about her in front of the kids. I can brush off her attitude toward me. But I don’t know what to do about her coldness to the baby. Aside from passing along some hand-me-downs (a start, right?), she essentially will not acknowledge his existence.

The kids are over several times a week and we live in the same neighborhood, so she is difficult to avoid. The baby is too little to understand what is going on, but it makes me sad to imagine him growing up knowing there is an adult out there who doesn’t like that he exists. I wish I could ask her to be nicer to him, but I can’t imagine that would be productive. Her divorce from my partner was acrimonious, and he also can’t see this conversation about the baby going well.

We don’t want to involve the other kids, but the oldest, an empathetic teen, has already picked up on his mom’s behavior. What do I say to the other kids if they bring it up? (I definitely won’t initiate the conversation; I don’t want them stuck in the middle.) What should I tell my son when he gets older? Is there anything I can do to make this better, or should I just keep my son away from her as much as possible and try not to think about it?

—Blending My Family

Dear Blending,

You’re in a difficult spot. You already know there’s a lot that’s worked out really well here—you’ve got a happy marriage and a warm relationship with your stepkids and a new baby whose big siblings love him. There’s much more silver lining than dark cloud here.

Your husband’s ex-wife has gone through an acrimonious divorce, but still lives near him, and is working at giving her kids a relationship with their dad as well as with you and their new baby brother. This is a lot to negotiate, and maybe she can be forgiven for finding it a challenge.

I think the fact that she sent along hand-me-downs actually is a big deal. It’s generous and not strictly required, so it may have been a way of her communicating affection without having to put a smile on her face and gush over the baby. I think you should remember that as a start—your words—and trust that it will get better from here.

You don’t say how old your son is, but he’s young enough that this doesn’t register. Think of it this way: His very existence might be something your husband’s ex is still processing. This woman isn’t a monster—if she’s brusque or disinterested in the baby, she’s probably just guarding her own feelings. I don’t hear anything in your letter that suggests she’ll be cruel to your son as he grows up; I don’t think you’ll need to explain anything to him or otherwise protect him from her.

I think you should stay the course. Continue to never say anything about the tension to any of the kids—it won’t help to involve them. You can’t manage her behavior, but you can manage yours. Make sure you’re as welcoming and kind as possible, even if that manifests as giving her whatever distance she requires. Make sure she understands that she’s welcome to be a bigger presence in your family life. I hope she comes around, but let her do it in her own time.

—Rumaan

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