Care and Feeding

My Perfectionist Wife Keeps Doing Our Kids’ Chores for Them

She knows her standards are too high for children, but she can’t stop stepping in. How will they ever get better?

A set of hands washing a dish.
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,

My wife and I have four kids, (2, 6, 9, and 11). She’s a great mom, and the kids love her. She’s also a huge perfectionist, which stems from constant criticism from her parents all throughout her life. She’s been in therapy as long as I’ve known her and is doing great, except for one problem. We have all of our kids (except the youngest) do chores, but sometimes my wife gets frustrated at the quality of the housework my kids are doing, and then she just takes over herself. The kids aren’t doing a bad job on their chores on purpose, they’re doing on par with their ages and skill level.

For example, my 11-year-old is in charge of washing dishes, and every once in a while, there’s some grease or food stuck on a plate or dish after they’re done washing it. So now whenever my son goes to do the dishes, my wife hovers over him and after a few minutes of him doing it, she’ll tell him to go play and then she does it the way she likes. I pointed this out to her, and she asked me if I wanted to eat off of dirty dishes. Obviously not, but I think it’s important for the kids to feel pride in their work and that’s impossible if she steps in and does everything for them.

The same thing happens with vacuuming, dusting, cleaning their rooms, putting away groceries, the list goes on. What can I do to support my wife and my kids?

—Quality Control

Dear QC,

Well, first of all, congratulations, you are right. She is wrong, which is fine and has a perfectly reasonable explanation and she is working to overcome it. It’s a hell of a rod to fashion for your own back. She may be completely willing to go Full Martyr Mode and do everything exactly the way she wants, but it’s doing a disservice to your kids, who are actually very fortunate to have a parent who wants them to take responsibility for household tasks so they will not be terrible roommates and partners in adult life.

It’s time to sit down and talk this out. Tell her what you’ve told me (I’m sure you already have, but sometimes having the conversation at a neutral time, as opposed to when she’s scrubbing the grout, can really help it seem like a Meeting of Minds and not a confrontation). I think the key is going to be making a list of all the things your children are currently doing and saying, “Look, I understand that it’s very hard for you to see some of these things done in a way that isn’t quite to your standards, but they’re not going to get better at it if they’re always hearing they’re falling short. What things are your absolute no-gos?”

I think you may wind up in a situation where she can say, “OK, seeing slightly greasy dishes is what I cannot live with, but I think I can cope with the cans of beans being on the ‘wrong’ shelf.” Since you’re actively asking for ways you can support her and the kids through this, I suggest you say that when your kids are doing the dishes, she should go read a book, and you will do a spot check/supervise the dish-doing. Come up with a code word or phrase for when she is starting to inwardly freak out about the quality of a kid chore (perhaps “I think I’m going to read a book”) and then she can exit stage left and you can either pitch in (if it’s actually a distinctly mediocre job) or let the kid finish the task to the best of their abilities.

It’s going to be hard for her. But the kids are going to get better at chores this way, which they absolutely will not do if the current state of affairs continues. They are never going to do everything to her standards, and that is the emotional work she will have to work on. I don’t want this system to be a way to raise kids who will also have hospital-bed-corners standards that they will struggle with. She’s not happy being this way. They won’t be either.

To recap: a calm conversation at a neutral time, with check-ins over time. She practices vacating the scene. If she can’t physically sleep until the vacuum pattern is adequate, don’t do it in front of the kids. Offer to help supervise the tasks that matter the very, very most to her. Be patient, but don’t let her issues run the house. I’m glad she’s putting in the time to work on them, and I’m always thrilled when people have the self-knowledge to know they have to adjust their trauma-driven behaviors to live in harmony with others.

Keep me posted! I’m cheering for your family.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I’m pregnant with my first child. I have kind of an odd question. I hate video games. Not just the violence (although that’s a factor), but I just hate the video game personality. I knew plenty of kids who played them when I was growing up, and I can’t stand it. My younger cousins and my nephews play them, and it drives me crazy. Normal, cool, creative kids turned into zombies who only care about their next fix (time playing) and whine and beg until they get more game time. I know there are constructive games, and they can help with hand-eye coordination, but I just really, really hate them.

Is there a way to ensure my kid doesn’t become a gamer? My parents never let my siblings and I play them growing up, and while I occasionally play a game of Mario Kart, there was never any interest on my part anyway. I know that withholding or hiding the games will just make them seem more attractive, and there’s no way a kid in public school in the 21st century is not going to hear about video games (especially if we have a boy).

I know all that matters is that the baby is healthy, and there’s plenty of parenting stuff I won’t be able to control. I’d also rather them not be into anime or football or cheesy pop music, but that’s less important. I will put my foot down on the video games. How can I at least try to control this?

—No Gamers, Please

Dear NGP,

I answered this question during Tuesday’s live video, but I’m going to expand on it here for a larger audience.

I think you need to practice some expectation management. DARE officer voice: Video games are going to happen to your child. It could be at a friend’s house, it could be on a cousin’s tablet, but by the time your as-yet-unborn child is of video game playing age, video games are going to be even better than they are now. That’s just science.

I’m not going to bother trying to talk up video games to you. You do not like them. That’s fine! You do not have to purchase them for your child. If your child saves up their own money and wants to buy whatever apparatus is currently sweeping the nation, I suggest you do not make this a hill to die on, and instead have very clear rules about the amount of time they are allowed to spend playing them and what games they are allowed to play and the GPA they have to maintain. But that’s your call, it’s your kid.

What I recommend is to make sure your kid is exposed to a large range of fun and varied activities. It’ll take some work! Get them into outdoor activities (geocaching! Sports! LARPing, whatever). Read to them all the time. Get them a pet. Photography equipment. A chemistry set. Anything that works for your family and keeps your child happy and busy.

I do think you need to chill out a little. You may have a kid who doesn’t care about video games. You may have a kid who, despite all your disapproval, leaves home and likes to unwind with Prime Earth XIV: The Return of the Return of the Chitauri for a few hours after work with friends. This is a great time to think about how, when it comes to children, you get what you get; you can move the dial a bit on either end, but ultimately you are bringing a unique human being onto the planet, and they’re going to interact with peers and then we’re off to the races.

You’ll decide, when the time comes, what you can live with and what you can’t. As we all do. Try to enjoy the surprises that come with watching a blob become a real person. You won’t love everything, but it’s generally best to let it unfold as it happens.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I am dating a 54-year-old man (I’m a woman) who has three adult children. Following his divorce, all of his children sided with their mom, and none of them will speak to or acknowledge communication from their dad. The sad part is that they are mad at him due to parental alienation and lies from their mom, and the reality is that their mom was physically and emotionally abusive to their dad for 35 years of marriage.

The mom continues to play the victim, and even two years after the divorce continues to concoct vitriol about my boyfriend, and his kids just lap it up. Even when confronted with factual, indisputable evidence of their mother’s lies, his kids remain unchanged when it comes to their dad. I have two kids still at home who really love my boyfriend. While they don’t consider him a stepdad, they have a really positive and loving relationship with him. I know his kids will not call him for Father’s Day, and (as usual) this will devastate my boyfriend.

Is there something my kids and I can do for my boyfriend for Father’s Day that wouldn’t cross any lines or attempt to “replace” his biological kids? I want to thank him for the love and care he provides to us and help him feel appreciated because he is wonderful, but for some reason feel weird because it’s not “my” holiday to do so. Can you help me work through this?

—Father’s Day Fulfillment

Dear FDF,

I was so glad to watch this letter unfold, because I was afraid you were going to ask me if you could pester your boyfriend’s adult children to make an effort on Father’s Day.

I think it’s lovely and thoughtful to instead think about what you and your consenting children can do to make a person you love feel special on a complicated day. If I were you, I would give him a head’s up. I have no idea about the complexities of anyone else’s 35-year marriage and subsequent relationship with their estranged adult children, and you have only half a story (which may be extremely accurate), but it’s possible your boyfriend would rather pretend Father’s Day is Not a Thing. Lots of people in his situation would rather you just go for a nice hike together and make him something he loves for dinner and engage in slightly more exciting sex than usual afterward and not say a single word about the holiday in question.

So, therefore, my suggestion is to say, “Hey, the kids and I appreciate all the ways you enrich our lives, would you like us to make cards and celebrate you on Father’s Day, or would you rather we just have a nice normal day and not talk about it”? Surprises are often fun, but in a situation this murky, I’d let him take the reins on it. He may say, “I WOULD LOVE THAT” or he might say, “That’s so kind, but I would prefer not to acknowledge it.”

Then take your cue from that. You’re a thoughtful partner.

What Are the Best Age-Appropriate News Sources for Kids?

Dan Kois, Jamilah Lemieux, and Elizabeth Newcamp host this week’s episode of Slate’s parenting podcast, Mom and Dad Are Fighting.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My husband and I have an almost 4-year-old daughter who has a lot of big feelings, and I’m not sure how best to handle her frequent meltdowns. Her triggers are typical: not wanting to get dressed, wanting something that one of her brothers is using, etc. She will fall to the ground, sob, hide in the corner, and refuse to speak or look at us, which I assume is normal for her age.

My question is, do we need to talk her through this every time by discussing her feelings and explaining the situation to her? Or is it OK to just try to distract her by being silly to snap her out of her tantrum? It is exhausting trying to explain rational behavior to a preschooler (“I’m sorry it makes you upset, but you can’t wear a tank top and shorts to day care when it’s 30 degrees”), but at the same time I don’t want to teach her that being silly and avoiding the issue is how to deal with problems or hurt feelings. Her brothers are very chill kids who rarely get upset, so we just don’t know how to handle this.

—She’d Like to Thank the Academy

Dear SLtTtA,

Ah, the drama. One of my kids used to say, “I don’t want to be part of this family anymore!” at this age, over similarly low-stakes nonsense. We tried to leave the room before giggling but did not always succeed.

These tantrums are a bit much, but she’s not 4 yet and I suspect she’ll find her way out of this phase, as most people do (not all, and those people will have very popular YouTube channels as adults).

Don’t waste your time trying to talk her out of overly emotional responses to clothing, toy greed, etc. You also shouldn’t say things like “you’re fine!” because, well, she’s not, she’s sinking to the floor like Scarlett O’Hara. It’s generally better to stick to “I can see you’re upset, but you still can’t have his binoculars.” She has to do the necessary things, she’s small enough you can gently manhandle her into pants, so just do what you have to do to proceed with your day.

It’s OK to ignore tantrums. It’s most important to make sure you never, ever, ever, not once, allow a tantrum to change an initial edict. If she throws a complete fit over not getting something, wait until she is done, and say, “Throwing a tantrum is never a way to get what you want. Next time, ask nicely and you might get what you want.” And then try to, within reason, back that up by attempting to accommodate polite requests. It’s not always possible! Kids want all kinds of things they can’t have. But if your child has thrown tantrums all day and then manages to gird her loins to sweetly say, “Can I have some ice cream for dessert?,” I recommend saying, “You asked so nicely! Yes.” A kid this age doesn’t really have the concept of time required to pull off “no, you’ve been a pain in my ass all day.”

Take each freakout as it comes, never give into it, and then try to hit your own personal reset button when the good behavior moments come. Kids are not a science experiment, but they do respond to the basic tenets of “act a fool, get nothing” and “act decently, increase your chance of success.”

Remember, though, that it won’t always work, and it will take time. You can be as regular as a stopwatch and your kid will still be hot/tired/thirsty and absolutely melt down. It doesn’t mean you’re not on the right trajectory. It’s just child nonsense.

— Nicole

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