Care and Feeding

I Can’t Get Any Work Done Because My 3-Year-Old Talks Incessantly

Smiling toddler girl in pigtails holding a phone up to her ear
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by ziggy_mars/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,

My husband and I are both “working” from home while looking after our 3-year-old and 4-month-old daughters. The baby is relatively easy at this stage and still takes two long naps during the day. But my 3-year-old requires constant interaction (unless she’s on a screen). I have tried buying various activities (lace-up cards, paints) as a way to keep her occupied, but she just wants to interact with people. I get it! She’s always been extroverted. She wants stories. She wants us to make all her toys talk. She wants to play Elsa and Anna. I do think she’s struggling with the change, and the worst of it is she’s reverted to sleeping in our bed (the doggy bed in our room didn’t do the trick and we’re too tired to fight it, which I know we’ll regret later).

I feel like I’ve indulged her with too much attention up until now, since we used to only see her a few hours every day, and now she can’t keep herself busy. And she talks ALL THE TIME. And asks a thousand questions. We try to explain we can’t always interact with her (and attempt to ignore her when she demands attention in unpleasant ways), but is there anything else we can do? FaceTiming with friends and family doesn’t work; she runs around in full showoff mode and can’t really interact via a screen that well. She wants to play with her little sister, but a baby isn’t much of a companion. She’s chased after our mail carrier asking him to come back again soon. Have I raised an attention-seeking child, or is this just her social personality? She also hasn’t really gotten the hang of empathy yet in a meaningful way (in terms of understanding how her actions effect those around her).

—Not a Playmate

Dear NaP,

You haven’t raised an “attention-seeking child.” You’ve raised a child. Her need for interaction is completely normal—and honestly at 3 it isn’t her job to be empathetic about your need not to interact. I, on the other hand, am very old, and I have plenty of empathy to spare.

This is all very hard, I know. I am really sorry you’re under this much stress. Taking care of an active, lively, imaginative toddler and a baby (no matter how relatively easy) while working full time—not to mention being cooped up at home—is a lot. But I’m afraid it’s not reasonable to expect your 3-year-old to be able to “keep herself busy.” At that age, children need interaction—it’s a fact of life (one you have been mostly spared, it sounds like, until now).

You have very few options here, if your work requires your presence and attention all day long, just as your child does. One possible one—if you don’t have to be in virtual meetings every minute of the eight-hour workday—would be for you and your husband to take turns working and being with your child. This might also make the storytelling and talking toys—and the thousand questions your bright little girl wants answered—feel like less of a chore; if you’re on for two hours, off for two hours, maybe you would even enjoy some of this as a break from your work? I know that some families who are rigorously sheltering in place have teamed up with another family doing so just as rigorously and traded off: one set of parents working while the other takes care of the kids, and then switching. But that too would require some flexibility in your job, along with identifying such a family and throwing your lot in with theirs.

In the meantime, try—if you possibly can—to keep in sight some gratitude. I don’t mean this in a scolding way. I really do mean that if you pause regularly to think about what there is to be grateful for, it helps (reciting my own list of things to be grateful for is one of the few ways I can get myself to fall sleep these days). You have a lot to be grateful for, even during (especially during) this impossible time.

I know this isn’t the answer you were hoping for, and I’m truly sorry about that. But there is no magical solution to the problem of being at home with children and a full-time job. You will have to do the best you can. You will be cutting corners, for sure—like every parent who is at home right now with their kids. I would just try, if it’s even a little bit possible, to cut more corners with your job than with your daughter. In the long run, you’ll be glad you did.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My partner, Sansa, and I have been together for seven years. During that time, I’ve always gotten on well with her father, Ned, and her stepmother, Cate. Five years ago, Ned and Cate had another daughter, Arya. Obviously there’s a big age gap, so rather than being a sister Sansa is more like an aunt—and so am I. I’ve been a part of Arya’s life since the day she was born, and I feel very close to her. Sansa and I have been having a lot of difficulties in our relationship lately (nothing dramatic, just realizing we’re growing apart and wanting different things), and being quarantined together seems to be underlining that. I think we both know that things are ending but are hesitating to formalize that because it’s really sad (not to mention logistically inconvenient right now). If/When we do break up, I’m worried about what this will mean for my relationship with Arya. Do I still have the right to stay in her life? How do I make that happen? She’s way too young for me to become her pen pal or the cool aunt she texts about stuff, but I don’t want to stay with Sansa for another five years just to make that a possibility!

—Family Not by Blood

Dear FNbB,

Let’s not talk about “rights,” which sounds like you’re itching for a fight. Let’s talk about love. You love this child, and you would like to be able to stay in her life even if you and your partner break up. (I am going to hope you were being dramatic when you spoke of staying in a relationship—for another five years!—that you believe is over, and from which you are ready to move on, just so that you can be around to be the cool aunt when Arya is old enough to appreciate that.)

It’s possible, if your breakup with Sansa is mutual and kind, that you can transition into friendship with her and her parents and thus still be a part of her little sister’s life (if not nearly as often or as intensely). You say you think you and Sansa are both on the same page, but I guess you won’t find out until you’re ready to talk to her about the state of your relationship. If you’re wrong about this—if Sansa is not ready to end things and feels she is being left—I would say there is zero chance that you will remain connected with Arya. And maybe that alone is a good enough reason to make every possible effort to have this breakup be a gentle, mutually respectful, non-blaming, non-rancorous one.

Lucky for you, since nobody is going anywhere right now, you have plenty of time to work through that parting. But if you already think there’s no way it will go well—that no matter what you do or say, Sansa will be hurt and angry—or if you have reason to believe that even if you part on friendly enough terms, her family will want to have nothing to do with you, then you are going to have to let go of Arya. I know this will be very rough for you. If it makes you feel any better—and I hope it will—she will be fine. As long as she is surrounded by other adults who love her, this will not be a devastating loss for this child. I don’t mean to sound coldhearted. I am in fact very sympathetic (indeed, I have been there; I know how hard it is to be cut off from a child you care deeply about when your relationship with an adult ends). If it comes to this, do your very best to remember that your grief will not last forever—and that you had a significant role in Arya’s life during her early years, which she will carry with her always, whether you ever again play a part in it or not.

Dear Care and Feeding,

We have a 6-year-old and live in a state that has a stay-at-home order. The people across the street also have a 6-year-old. Before COVID-19, our kids frequently played together. While we are strictly observing social distancing, the neighbors have a very different attitude. They have said, “If we get coronavirus, we get it.” They have other families stop by their house and the kids play together in their front yard. Meanwhile, we only let our child play outside if she remains at a considerable distance from others. Of course she doesn’t understand why the neighbors’ child can play with friends and she can’t. We have explained the concept of social distancing, but it’s not helping—not when she can see that others aren’t doing it. There have been a lot of tears and meltdowns. How do I talk to her about this without saying some very harsh things about the neighbors, whom I used to like very much? I’m feeling pretty angry with them right now. When this is all over, we’ll just be neighbors again. How do I get past this anger and resentment?

—No Respect for the Neighbors

Dear NRftN,

There are two separate problems here, tangled up together. The first one (how to talk to your daughter about this) will require the surgical removal of the second one (how angry you are with your neighbors and what you’re going to do about that “when this is all over”). So let’s remove the second one while we deal with the first one. The principle you are seeking here is the “every family has different rules and ways of doing things” one. It’s true that we usually use this in conversation with our children about much less important matters (that may seem at the time to be terribly important). I remember conversations with my daughter about the families across the street from us: One child wasn’t allowed to go on sleepovers or to wear sunglasses or to say “damn” or “hell”; another was forbidden to play with the Ouija board (the work of the devil) or to listen to certain of ’N Sync’s songs (and both of their families considered me peculiar because I wouldn’t let my daughter dash back and forth from their houses to ours across our busy street unless I was present to watch for cars, while their kids had been allowed to cross on their own since they were hardly more than toddlers—and I remember plenty of tears and meltdowns from my daughter at 6 about this very thing).

There is only so much your child is going to be able to understand—and, honestly, only so much I think you want her to understand—about what’s going on right now. I wouldn’t go any further than saying, “Most people are practicing social distancing right now, just as we are. But not every family follows the same rules, and as much as we wish they would follow social distancing rules the way we are, they are not. What they’re doing has no bearing on what we do.”

I’m not saying this will be easy. There will still be tears. But you might think of this as an opportunity. I assume you have already told her that you are practicing social distancing for safety’s sake, for her own protection and for the protection of others. Leave it at that and let her think it through on her own and work it out for herself. (I didn’t tell my daughter back then that I thought the neighbors were crackpots. She figured it out herself eventually.)

Meanwhile, you still have the other problem, don’t you? Even if you don’t (and I’ll say it again: don’t!) tell your daughter you think the neighbors are irresponsible, endangering themselves and the community, you are still going to be feeling it. Does it help to know you have a lot of company? So many of us are angry about those among us who are being irresponsible! Several of the students I teach have told me they are barely containing their rage at neighboring houses full of students who are throwing parties instead of social distancing. This rage—yours, theirs, mine—is hopeless and disabling. There’s nothing to do about it, nothing to do with it. The nihilists and catastrophe-denial crowd cannot be reasoned with; we cannot police them. All we can do is the right thing, and remind ourselves that we can’t control the behavior of others.

And since we have no idea when this is all going to be over, I strongly suggest you deal with this one day at a time. You’ll figure out how to be neighbors with your neighbors again when the time comes. There are a lot of days between now and then.

Dear Care and Feeding,

So, another lockdown question. My wife and I (both women) have one child, a 4-year-old daughter. Both she and my wife have various health conditions that would make a coronavirus infection very dangerous, so our entire family is on strict lockdown. We are making it work financially (we both work remotely, and my job is part time) and educationally (I’ve started home-schooling our daughter, and it’s going fine), so I know we are more fortunate than most, and we can sustain this lifestyle for as long as we need to. The question I have is this: Until there is a vaccine or herd immunity, I really don’t want to risk my daughter’s health by allowing any sort of unnecessary contact. But she’s 4 years old. I don’t want her to be socially stunted by being isolated from other kids for months. I’m trying to get her into Zoom or FaceTime, but I think she’s too young, and it doesn’t seem to be working for her. Do I keep trying? How can I get a 4-year-old into the idea of “virtual visits” with her friends? What else can I do to make sure her social development is OK? I’ve tried looking for guidance on this issue and haven’t found any. She seems happy so far, but we’ve only been in lockdown for a month. Help?

—Agoraphobic by Necessity

Dear AbN,

I’ve been telling people worried about their young children’s social development the same thing for weeks now, but I think it bears repeating because so many parents are so worried: She will not be stunted. She can do without other kids for now. She’ll catch up later—yes, even if this lockdown lasts for months and months. She’s only 4, and she is happy. As long as you and your wife are playing with her, reading to her, teaching her things she’s interested in learning, and just being with her, she’s going to be OK. (She certainly doesn’t need to be in virtual contact with anyone. If she’s not interested, don’t force that.) There are so many things to worry about right now. Do yourself a favor and strike this one off your list.

—Michelle

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