Care and Feeding

My Partner Says It’s Cruel to Sleep-Train Our 2-Year-Old

I just want some sleep.

A little boy with a stuffed animal sleeps.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by olesiabilkei/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 partner consistently undermines and undoes my efforts at sleep-training our 2-year-old. His heart breaks when our son cries, and he races to him, often while our son calls out to Daddy to rescue him.

If I try to talk him out of going to our son, he says our son is being “traumatized” by being left in his crib. I’ve read lots of articles on sleep training, and have a book that I follow. The methods work—until Daddy intervenes on nights when it doesn’t work quickly enough. He says his instincts tell him that our son needs him, and he feels he must listen.

He legitimately does not have time to read the articles or books I send him. (He’s in a demanding university program and does the majority of housework.) We are both working full time from home, and our toddler’s day care has been closed since May. A piece of relevant info might be that Daddy does morning routine and Mommy does evening, and we trade off on afternoon nap duty depending on work schedule. Naps are a nonissue. Can you help us?

—Sleep Struggle

Dear SS,

My fellow columnists and I receive hundreds of letters about sleep. It’s one of the most vexing issues for parents of young kids, and I normally skip over them. The pros and cons of crying it out or maintaining a family bed are well known, hashed out on parenting forums and playground chatter, and I think most parents have already settled on what they think and simply like to jockey over it like kids in debate club.

I’m answering your letter because it’s not really about sleep but the imperative for parents to communicate. I know these are insane times, with so many of us balancing work and child care; I’d argue that in such moments it’s all the more important for parents to talk to each other.

I know your husband is busy. But he’s got to make the time to discuss with you how you’re going to negotiate your son’s troubles with bedtime. It’s all the more imperative that he do so in a way that respects the division of labor you’ve agreed upon. If evenings (and bedtime) are truly your responsibility, he ought not to interfere in how you manage those. At any rate, you need to talk about this and not let your husband’s instinct to protect your kiddo from trauma derail the work you’re doing to help him learn to sleep nights.

For the record, I’ll say I’m firmly pro–sleep training. We let our older son cry it out at 4 months, and it definitely felt inhuman, but after two nights, he mastered it and slept happily on his own until … well, he’s 10 now, and he still rolls into bed without a fuss every night. We attempted the same with our younger son, but he’s wily. Some kids are.

In my opinion, sleep training is not traumatic. What might be, though, is parents who cannot come to healthy agreement without undermining each other. So talk it out. Good luck.

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

Discuss this column in the Slate Parenting Facebook group!

Dear Care and Feeding,

I’m father to two amazing boys, 6 and 4, and everywhere we go, every other kid is a “friend.” Everyone at preschool is a “friend” (fine), everyone in my 6-year-old’s class is a “friend” (little weird, but OK), complete stranger children we encounter one time and one time only at the playground or the mall are “friends.” When did this become a thing?

I want to teach my children kindness, love, and empathy, and I want to teach them that all humans deserve these things, friends, enemies, and strangers alike. But labeling every single person in the world a friend seems like it both devalues actual friendship and expects children to treat everyone like friends at an age when they’re only barely beginning to grasp the concept. This seems like a bad idea, at best confusing and at worst actively detrimental to learning social behavior. Is this just another crazy fad for helicopter parents, or am I wrong and this is actually good parenting?

—Not My Friend

Dear NMF,

If you want to teach your children kindness, love, and empathy, I can’t see why you object to them using the designation friend for every kid they encounter. I’d wager your sons are bright enough to understand the difference between the kid who happens to be on the swings next to them one afternoon and a playmate they spend time with regularly. And what is the difference, really? Wouldn’t you want to raise children who treat all their peers with kindness and respect, with warmth and, well, friendship?

Helicopter parents are so called because they hover over their kids’ lives, interfering in their social development, solving conflicts that kids ought to be negotiating themselves. Ironically, I think you are the one being a helicopter parent here, wanting to interfere with something wholly innocuous because you see it as a problem.

Slate needs your support right now. Sign up for Slate Plus to keep reading the advice you crave every week.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I have three young kids, two of them young elementary age. Computers were something they’d played games on but had never used for lessons. When classes were canceled, we checked out a laptop from school and told the kids that this was a tool, not a toy, and that we didn’t want them playing on it. The documentation I signed specified damage fees ranging from $50 to $200. I told my kids that if they broke the laptop they would be paying the fees out of their own bank accounts.

This morning, I got up and found them playing on the computer with the USB mouse sitting nearby, unplugged. My 6-year-old had tried to jam the mouse in upside down, and now the USB port is damaged.

I reminded my child about my warning: that this wasn’t a toy and any damage would be paid by them. Now the moment is coming. Am I being unfair or unreasonable to expect my kid to pony up? I understand that I’m the one who signed the agreement, but I think this is a good opportunity to teach about responsibility. I’m open to paying the fine myself and allowing them to work it off through various household chores. This isn’t the first big thing that’s been broken since school was canceled, but it’s the first one that didn’t belong to us.

—Tech Wreck

Dear TW,

I’m all for trying to inculcate a sense of responsibility in your kids. But I think 6 is very young to be trusted with an expensive and sensitive piece of equipment, particularly one that doesn’t belong to you. Kids are clumsy, and impulsive, and young. They mess things up. It’s part of being a kid.

If anything, I think you dropped the ball here. The computer is an irresistible diversion, and the best way to avoid damaging it would have been to keep it somewhere safely out of reach when classes weren’t in session.

I think there should be some consequence—you’ll have to decide whether that’s no computer anymore, unless it’s for school, or whether something lighter seems more appropriate to you (no dessert, curtailed screen time, loss of some other privilege, etc.). But I think you should pay the fine and remember that responsibility is a lesson that takes time to master.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My son recently turned 5. A few months ago, his cousins introduced him to a cartoon that has guns. This is a popular show, and it has a spinoff aimed at younger kids that has no violence. I’ve been letting him watch the little kid version of the show, but my husband has allowed him to watch the older kid version from time to time.

Now, our son’s play incorporates a lot of gunplay. We don’t allow toy weapons, so he makes “blasters” out of Legos, clay, sticks, his fingers. I’ve talked with my son about how I feel about guns. He knows I don’t like them and don’t think it’s fun to play pretend because real guns hurt and kill people, something we’ve had explicit conversations about. We’ve talked several times about what he should do if he’s ever at a friend’s house and finds a gun, or if another kid gets their hands on one (age-appropriate but honest conversations).

My husband thinks it’s harmless and that I should back off on harping about playing pretend guns. I’ve stopped intervening when I see him running around the house pretending to shoot, but I tell him it’s unacceptable to pretend to shoot me (which he’s done a few times) or other people. I’m going to continue to hold firm that toy weapons aren’t allowed in our house, and we’ll continue to discuss gun safety over the years, but is this pretend play as harmless as my husband claims? I know it’s probable that his obsession with this show is just a phase, but I have brothers, and pretend gunplay continued well into their teens. It’s just that 5 seems so young for this kind of thing!

—No Guns Allowed

Dear No Guns Allowed,

For starters, you and your husband should make a more consistent policy about this show—either your son is mature enough for the big kid version of it, or he’s not.

Perhaps you should truly discuss the issue of your kid and toy guns while you’re at it. It’s clear that your opinions diverge, which is fine, but you ought to establish what your family’s parameters are.

In my household we observe the same rules you mention—no store-bought toy guns, but plenty improvised with sticks and Lego; no shooting at grown-ups but plenty of racing around taking out imaginary bad guys. Kids are going to play the way they want to, whether you sanction that or not, and indeed your disapproval of something will make a kid all the more interested in it.

It’s not helpful for your husband to request you stop “harping” on something that’s important to you. But you might determine it’s fair in this case to let Junior’s love of pistols continue unchecked in favor of continued open conversations about gun safety and responsibility. That feels like a good compromise to me, but I’m not one of the involved parties here. Good luck.

—Rumaan

More Advice From Slate

When I was pregnant with our first child, I cried my eyes out constantly when my husband and I found out we were having a girl. I confessed to my husband that I was worried she would hate me like I hate my mother. How do I generate a healthy relationship with my daughter and avoid these pitfalls as she grows older?