Care and Feeding

Playing With Fire

My sister-in-law handed my 2-year-old a lit match.

A child's hand reaches for a lit match in an adult's hand.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Henadzi Pechan/iStock/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,

I was at my sister-in-law’s for a birthday, and after she lit the candles on the cake, she handed one of my 2-year-olds the lit match. He brought it to his face and watched it burn to his fingertips while she instructed him to blow it out. I yelled at her to blow out the match, and she did, just before it touched his fingers. Then she calmly stated, “I would never let him get hurt,” as if my freakout was unwarranted.

I was so gobsmacked I didn’t say anything. This seemed monumentally stupid, and I can’t stop thinking about it. Should I bring it up with her? But she has twin 1-year-olds, one of whom was recently seriously burned due to some parental negligence. I don’t want her to feel chastened, but at that same time I’m wondering if she might benefit from some advice about safer parenting techniques. Or maybe I’m blowing this out of proportion and we’re all letting toddlers play with matches now. I’m starting to doubt myself.

—Playing With Fire

Dear Playing With Fire,

What?! I can assure you we’re not letting toddlers play with matches now. Your sister-in-law was quite in the wrong, and you should have said something in the moment. But it’s not too late. Please tell her that this is unacceptable and she must be more careful, in her capacity as both aunt and mother.

I don’t even know what to think about this in the context of her own kid getting recently burned—this is the kind of detail that makes a letter seeking advice sound made-up. But on the off chance that this really happened, I can assure you that your sister-in-law feeling chastened is the least of your concerns—you need to ensure that your kids and hers are being safe. Please have that conversation soon.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My husband and I have been married for almost a decade, and it’s been a long journey (for me) to come to terms with shouldering the running of our household. I’m more particular about the cleanliness and organization, and I’ve come to understand how difficult my husband’s ADHD makes household tasks I assume are easy.

I can truly only change myself, and I’ve made adjustments accordingly. Seeing an ignored to-do list enrages me, so I … don’t make him to-do lists anymore. Fretting about how and when and where to ask for help with the dishes gives me anxiety, so I … don’t ask. I take on the lion’s share of the things that are important to me, and I let the rest go.

My husband has many redeeming qualities. He works hard outside the home for our family, supports my own career, and is a great dad and an attentive romantic partner. But is my passivity screwing up my kids? I have three girls, with one more on the way, and it’s important to me that they be raised with feminist ideals. But is the way I run my household setting them up for dysfunctional partnerships?

I have a hard time imagining explaining to my 7-year-old, “Mommy does all the laundry because she’s both conflict-averse and hates the way Daddy folds shirts … but it works for us!” I do think there’s value in not keeping score and in working hard even when it doesn’t seem fair (or feminist). But if I don’t say anything, are they going to internalize that it’s a woman’s job to do all the housework and family management?

—Good for the Gander

Dear Good for the Gander,

I agree that real partnership isn’t about keeping score—you shoveled the walk, so I’ll iron the clothes. Parity is probably an impossibility; maybe equity should be the goal.

I, personally, can’t understand how ADHD inhibits your spouse’s ability to, say, vacuum the living room. It’s wonderful that he’s hardworking and supportive of your career, but you describe dancing around asking for help because it makes you anxious. Why are you making allowances for his mental block around doing chores but not expecting him to help you alleviate your anxiety about those very same chores?

You’re right that you can only change yourself, but your husband should want to change himself, too—to be an equal partner in the life you’ve built for the five (almost six) of you. I think what you describe as your own “passivity” is closer to “dissatisfaction.”

You’re right that actions speak louder than words. I hate when men discover their own blind spots by virtue of being a parent to girls, but maybe we should take enlightenment where we find it. Talk to your husband! Tell him he should take on more around the house because it matters to you, because it’s part of being an adult, and because as a parent, he ought to lead by example. He should want children who don’t see the sink full of dirty dishes as Mom’s problem.

Maybe he won’t handle things up to your standard because he can’t, or maybe you’ve let him off the hook for too long. Make your peace with his failure to do things exactly as well as you might, and recognize that there’s value in him tidying the garage or weeding the garden in his own way. A tidy-enough garage or mostly weeded garden is better than nothing, and it will be a good lesson for your daughters and a well-deserved break for yourself.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I have an 8-year-old grandson, Kyle, who is a well-behaved boy who creates zero problems or issues for anyone. For the first six years of his life, his hair was cut by a barber. Two years ago, my daughter-in-law decided to handle this herself.

The rationale was not to save money—she is a successful lawyer, my son is a successful architect. My daughter-in-law has many skills, but cutting hair is not one of them. Lately Kyle’s hair has been getting longer and longer, to the point that he looks unkempt and uncared-for. When I asked my son why Kyle was not getting a haircut, I was told he refuses to let his mother cut it, and she refuses to allow him to go to a barber.

Kyle tells me that his mother does an awful job and the kids at school laugh at him. I agree: She does a terrible job. But his mother will not back down. Kyle continues to refuse to let her near him with scissors. As a child he can’t get to the barber himself. On speaking to my son, he says, “Happy wife, happy life. I don’t want to rock the boat.” What can I do? Taking Kyle to a barber myself would be crossing boundaries. My daughter-in-law has never been open to criticism. Kyle is distraught, looks neglected, and is very unhappy.

—Cut It Out

Dear Cut It Out,

I’m trying and failing to comprehend why any person with a demanding career would want to add “kid haircut” to their to-do list. Then I’m noticing that you lament your daughter-in-law’s inability to take criticism, and while I hate it when people say “happy wife, happy life,” I do think for the most part a mother-in-law’s job is to steer clear of nuclear family matters.

You could try once more to prevail upon your son to do something to help his own son. After that, drop it! If you go rogue and take him to a Supercuts, I suspect all hell will break loose. I feel for Kyle, but if he’s truly miserable, maybe one day he’ll just grab the scissors himself, or the electric razor, and freedom will be his.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I am in my early 50s, and my children are adults. Recently I offered to host a baby shower for friends who are much younger than I am and expecting their first baby.

I remember showers as being ladies-only events. I am a fan of the move toward having partners at these things, and I indicated that the party was for both of the expectant parents, and partners were welcome. One invitee responded that they would attend with partner and child.

I was surprised that they assumed children were welcome, particularly at the home of a person they do not know. I checked in with my friend, the expectant mom, mostly to find out how old this kid is, and it turns out the kid is 3, which I know to be a challenging age. I do not really have any friends currently with small children, and I haven’t had little kids in my home in over 10 years.

Is this a thing with parents now, that children come to showers, or parents assume that if they have an invitation that the invitation includes their children of any age? If I have already resigned myself to letting the kid come, is there a polite way to let these folks know that I don’t have a childproof home, I don’t have things to keep the kid entertained, and I expect not to have to worry about the kid getting hurt or my things getting damaged? Or is it OK in this situation to say that children are not invited? I reread the invite, and I don’t think there was any indication that it was a “family” event.

—No Kids, Please

Dear No Kids,

I do think today’s parents tend to make the assumption that all things are kid-friendly. And the simple truth is that they’re not! I can see how a baby shower, even one thrown at a stranger’s home, might seem like a naturally kid-friendly affair, though I do think it’s bad manners to presume rather than ask permission.

You seem like someone who takes good manners seriously (that is to say: someone considerate), and I think you have two choices:

1. “I’m so sorry you misunderstood, but Cleo and Tony’s baby shower will be a strictly adults-only affair.”

2. “I’m pleased to welcome you and the lovely Penelope to my home, though you should know she’ll be the only child in attendance, so please bring some toys as I have no activities or child care planned.”

I think either of these is perfectly legitimate. If your home is full of one-of-a-kind objects and you truly won’t be able to tend to your hostess duties with a toddler, however adorable, running about, send the former. If you’re just irritated with their bad manners but will forget them when the party for your friend is in full swing, send the latter.


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