Care and Feeding

My In-Laws Keep Feeding My Kids Junk They Don’t Want

No more chicken nuggets!

Chicken nuggets and dipping sauce.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo 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,

We have two sons, ages 8 and 10, who are both good, healthy eaters. They are adventurous when it comes to food, enjoy their veggies, and with the exception of one or two random foods like okra and oysters, pretty much eat everything we do. The problem is my in-laws, who recently moved next door. Currently, we’re all quarantining together. (You may disapprove of this, but that is not what this letter is about.) I was raised to eat whatever my parents were eating, and we’ve chosen to do the same with our boys, but my husband’s family believes firmly in “kid food.” When Grandma and Grandpa are babysitting while we work from home, the boys are made special “kid meals” (turkey hot dogs, peanut butter and jelly, mac ‘n’ cheese, etc.) while the adults get pot stickers or smoked salmon fettuccine. If the 8-year-old asks Grandma for a half of an avocado or a slice of mango, he gets a banana or an orange instead. And she often tells them, “Kids don’t eat X, they eat Y.” The problem is they always want X.

My in-laws constantly harp on us for “treating our kids like adults,” but we find it a joy to not have to prepare two meals and to eat pizza with toppings other than cheese. The boys never complain to their grandparents, but they’ve expressed a preference to eat their meals with Mom and Dad. How do we address this issue? Are we really going to raise “weird kids” if we let them eat “adult food”? Is there even such a thing as “kid food”? If it matters, this is not a financial issue. My husband and I pay for all the meals and snacks his parents give our children. If you weigh in, they might listen. Thank you!

—No to Chicken Nuggets

Dear NtCN,

First, for what it’s worth, I do not disapprove of your quarantining arrangement (if you’re lucky enough to have a set of grandparents next door, and both families are otherwise self-isolating, I think you’ve hit the quarantine-with-children jackpot). Of course, the problem with sharing the care of one’s kids with their loving, well-meaning grandparents—or with anyone who’s not a nonfamily caregiver in your employ, where you get to make all the rules and following those rules is one of the terms of their continued employment—is that there are bound to be disagreements about the right way to raise those kids.

Let me say first that I agree with you completely about kids and food. I raised my daughter the same way you’re raising your kids, and my own experience suggests that if children are offered what their parents are eating from the very start—I mean, like, soon after solid foods have been introduced (as I recall, my daughter’s first post–rice cereal food was avocado, and I kept a hand baby food grinder on the dinner table and offered her little bits of mushed versions of whatever we were eating at every meal)—and are never introduced to supposed kid foods, they will indeed be adventurous eaters without ever thinking of it as “adventurous.”

I think your in-laws are lucky the kids are willing to eat any of what they insist on offering them. You’ve done a better job that I did in that area (my kid politely refused all offers of pizza, hot dogs, PB and J, American cheese, and Lunchables when at other people’s houses—and yes, she was definitely labeled weird/snooty by extended family members and the parents of friends, and at school she was mocked mercilessly for her “weird” lunches). I’m glad the kids don’t complain to their grandparents—you’ve brought them up very well—but it’s time for you and your husband to have a loving, civil, and kind talk with them (and sure, if it helps, quote me!). Try to remember that they mean well. They’re just doing what they think is right. Stress that you are aware of this, that you get it, that lots of kids prefer these sorts of foods, but that yours don’t and you want to encourage this. Thank them profusely for their help. Tell them you love them. And then hope it works—but don’t expect it to. Their continued pushing of “kid food” may be the price you have to pay for getting their help.

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

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Dear Care and Feeding,

Mother’s Day is here and this year, like every year, I have struggled with what to write in the card to my mom. When I was growing up, she was unpredictable, unreliable, and overly critical. On top of that, she developed an addiction when I was in middle school that exacerbated all of this. We stopped speaking for a few years after she made a scene at my wedding. Now I’m in my 30s. We talk and visit once a month, and we have begun going to therapy to try to repair our relationship. I know in my heart that my mother never meant to hurt me, but she continues to criticize me and to be unpredictable, and the more I learn about insecure parenting, the more I realize these wounds don’t heal easily. Mother’s Day can be challenging because I find myself wanting to make my mom happy and to fit in with what everyone else is doing (all those Facebook posts of people celebrating their moms, going to brunch with them, etc.), but I also can’t pretend that things were hunky-dory between us when I was growing up or even now. I don’t have a problem getting her a card and gift, but I literally don’t know what to write in the card. Anything I think of sounds detached, like a get-well card for a co-worker: “Hope you have a great day!” “Looking forward to seeing you soon!” I’m sure she notices how flat these messages are, year after year. But it’s not like I can write, “You were the best mom!” Are there any phrases that fit a situation like this?

—What to Say

Dear WtS,

I believe the phrase you are seeking is “I love you, Mom.” That’s all you need to say in a Mother’s Day card. The more complicated things—every single other thing you feel and think about your mom—are for you to work out, and maybe (I hope) for the two of you to work out together, ultimately. There’s no reason on earth to lie (she was not the best mom), but I’m willing to bet you do love her. So leave it at that.

And stay off Facebook today. No good can come of watching other people perform their own versions of love. (And for what it’s worth, a lot of what you’re seeing on Facebook is no more than performance. And even when it’s utterly heartfelt, it doesn’t present a full picture. Most people have complicated relationships with, and feelings about, their parents.) It sounds like you are very kind to your mother, despite everything. Be kind to yourself too today, will you?

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My wife and I are at an impasse regarding our 17-year-old son. Last summer, he worked as a lifeguard at the local pool and had a great time. He was all set to do it again this summer, but the pool will not be opening until at least July due to COVID-19, if at all. In the meantime, the father of a friend has offered to let him work in the stockroom of their store. Our son is bored and lonely, and desperately wants to accept the job. My wife thinks we should let him. Her reasoning is that he won’t be in contact with any customers, we have been assured that they maintain social distancing as much as possible in the stockroom, and she doesn’t want him moping around the house all summer.

But I am not comfortable having him work right now! We live in a medium-sized city, one of the largest in our state, and the threat from COVID-19 here is very real. Right now no customers are allowed in the type of store where my son would be working, but that could change as restrictions are lifted. Both my wife and I are working primarily from home, with me going into the office for about two hours a week when absolutely necessary. I hate the idea of exposing our son and ourselves to additional contacts with the outside world for a job that isn’t a necessity.

We do not need the income, and our son used the money from his lifeguarding job primarily for going out with friends, which is off the table for now. Our son is a very responsible kid, but I also don’t really trust any teenager to avoid the temptation to sneak in a quick visit with a friend during breaks or after work. I understand how much my son wants to take this job and why, as well as how much my wife wants to be able to do this for him, but I just can’t get on board. Both our son and my wife are upset with me. Am I being unreasonable?

—Mean Dad

Dear Mean,

I don’t think you are, no.

I understand that this is a question about which reasonable people can disagree, so I am not suggesting that your son’s friend’s father was wrong to make the offer, or that your wife is wrong for supporting this (and I feel for your son, whose loneliness and boredom cannot be easily dismissed). But if I were you, I wouldn’t be able to get on board either. I think it is an unnecessary risk, and I think the risk far outweighs the benefits. And because your son would be putting you—and your wife—at risk as well as himself, I think it’s worth putting your foot down, even if your family remains “upset with” you for some time. What’s happening now is hard. We have to deal with it. Once your son is over the initial disappointment and stops storming around the house or sulking, help him find some productive things to do this summer while continuing to stay safe at home. This kid—everyone’s kid—needs projects, creative outlets, safe ways to be in touch with friends, and something(s) to look forward to for when this is over. You and your wife can help him redirect his energies toward all of these, and away from the stockroom.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My husband and I have been sheltering at home in the New Jersey suburbs with our adult children who normally reside in New York City. Now that things have improved slightly in New York, they plan to return to their respective apartments. They will both continue to work from home, do not plan to take the subway, and understand how returning to NYC will require an additional level of vigilance for their safety. My question is this: At what point in the future will it be safe to let them return for a visit? I am 62 with well-controlled Type 2 diabetes and my husband is a very healthy 58. We’re really struggling to navigate this situation and would appreciate your perspective.

—Quarantine Conundrum

Dear QC,

How I would love to say, confidently, “In mid-July, no problem!” But no one knows at this point when it will be safe for people—even family members who love one another very much and hate to be apart—to gather indoors in close quarters when they have not been quarantining together. I can suggest, however, that rather than go indefinitely without seeing your children in person—a situation I now find myself in on both ends, as both my mother and my daughter live 500 miles away from me, and I’m struggling too—yours can make the trip from NYC to NJ (by car, please, not by train or bus) and visit with you outdoors, at a safe distance, and without physical contact. If they are not quarantining together in the city, I think they should travel separately, too. I’m sorry, I really am, not to be able to say, “It’s fine! Don’t worry!” I am worried. It’s not fine. And if making the trip from NYC to the suburbs for the kind of visit I’m suggesting feels like too much for them, I urge you to stay in touch virtually instead. I call my mother every day, which helps her feel connected to me even though I haven’t seen her now in months (and under normal circumstances I would fly to NYC to see her every eight to 10 weeks). My daughter and I FaceTime and talk weekly (every day would be a bit much for a 27-year-old under any circumstances) and text frequently. We are all doing the best we can. Please don’t take unnecessary risks, no matter how sad it makes you to do the things you need to do to keep safe. (This last sentence is a message for you and for everyone else reading this column.)

—Michelle

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My husband and I want to have our first kid soon. Before we start trying, we need to figure out how to handle my mother. We aren’t close at all, but she’s learned that there will be a kid eventually, and she’s become obsessed with moving near me. What should I do?