Care and Feeding

My Kids Want to Opt Out of In-Person Instruction This Fall

Should I let them?

A girl sits at a laptop.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by nd3000/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,

How much weight do we give the opinions of our children when it comes to their school schedule? This fall, I have one child going into second grade, and one into third. Our district has two options on the table: virtual learning or a hybrid model with two days of shorter class times and three days home with virtual classes. They both want to forgo in-person instruction and opt for virtual learning. They each have very different reasons for preferring to learn from home. My second grader doesn’t like school. They’re more of a free-range kid—one who has difficulty sitting still in class. My third grader, on the other hand, is afraid. They have some blossoming anxiety over masks, social distancing, hand sanitizer, etc., and is fearful about contracting the virus (which I understand!). But I want my kids to see their friends, I want them to have interaction with other adults, I want them to have some sense of community again (and I want to be able to work without interruptions again!). We will likely keep them home, but I wanted to see what you thought. What do you do when your kids have strong opinions about their future schooling?

—The Kids Aren’t All Right

Dear TKAAR,

What do you do? You listen carefully and take everything they say seriously, and then you make the decision that you believe is best for them—but it must be a decision that takes into account fully your genuine consideration of their needs as they have expressed them to you (in other words: You don’t just go through the motions of hearing them out).

In your shoes, I would consider this: Your second grader, like a lot of children their age, has the unusual opportunity to “do school” in a way that works with their personality and developmental stage; your third grader’s fear about going back out into the world squares with that of plenty of adults—including, no doubt, many of their teachers (i.e., many adults who are being offered a choice are choosing to continue to work from home). When you stack these matters up against the advantages of going back to face-to-face school, I don’t think there’s enough to gain to make up for your children’s day-to-day misery.

I want to make it very clear that I am not advocating for children getting the final say in important decisions such as this one. Fourteen years ago, I listened carefully to my own daughter’s considerable doubts about my plan to take her out a toxic school situation early in her eighth grade year and educate her at home until the following autumn, when she would start at a new school for ninth through 12th—and then I overruled her objections, because I concluded that the benefits for her, many of which she wasn’t yet able to perceive, far outweighed the costs. I have never been sorry I did this, and even though to this day she says, “I can’t believe you home-schooled me for a year,” I know it was absolutely the right thing to do under the circumstances with which we were dealing (and I believe in her heart of hearts she now understands that too—and will understand it even better later, when she’s a parent herself).

I also want to be clear that I am not dismissing your longing for all the items on your list. Every one of them makes sense and is important. But these are extraordinary times, and they won’t last forever. As hard as this period of our lives is for all of us, children have it harder still—and experiencing this crisis during their formative years is going to be part of what shapes them for the rest of their lives. I feel strongly that anything parents can do to make things easier on their children during the pandemic is worth doing, whatever the sacrifices it entails, as long as the parents feel they can handle it. (I want to be clear about that, too: When a parent weighs all relevant considerations, their own ability to manage, day to day, needs to be pretty damn near the top of the list.)

In your situation, my vote is with the kids’ preferences (which it sounds like yours is too—and that you’ve written to me because you’re wondering if you’re being a pushover, letting your kids weigh in to this extent). If friends and family give you a hard time about your decision—or if you yourself start second-guessing it even as your children thrive (relatively speaking, of course; nobody’s really thriving right now) come autumn—stay strong by asking yourself this question: When your kids look back at their childhood, what do you want them to remember about this year and your response to it? If the answer is that you respected and protected them, and saw them as unique individuals with needs you did your very best to meet, then you’ll know you’re on the right track, no matter what anyone says.

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

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My oldest daughter and son are 7 and 5. They both have very strong personalities and when they fight, they are bitter enemies; when they play, they are BFFs. Recently, a strange play dynamic has developed. I am sure it is a byproduct of being constantly in each other’s company for months, but it is very annoying. When they are playing, my son will abruptly declare that he does not want to play anymore and stalk off. My daughter will then throw herself into a frenzy. What ensues:

Me: That’s enough! Your brother does not have to play with you!

Daughter (stormy tears): No!!! He HAS to play with me!!!

Me: Do you need to play in your room by yourself for a while?

Daughter: No!!! This is all his fault!!

Me: I said, that’s enough!

Son (looking smug): It’s OK … I’ll play with you now.

They then return to their game as if nothing had happened … until the next time. As far as I can tell, one of two things is happening: 1) My daughter is successfully manipulating her brother into playing what she wants when she wants, or 2) my son is successfully manipulating his sister into throwing a fit and thus getting into trouble. Given their personalities, it could really go either way, but in the end, it doesn’t matter: It’s not a power dynamic I want between them. I also have a 3-year-old and a newborn, so it’s not always possible for me to be nearby monitoring them when they play. I’m not sure how to handle this situation. Send them both to their rooms every time it happens? Ignore it and hope that my lack of involvement makes the whole tiresome ritual too boring to pursue? Invest in more gin?

—Perplexed in Phoenix

Dear PiP,

Well, definitely invest in more gin (unless the drinking is getting out of hand, as it may turn out to be for many of the quarantined—but that’s another letter for another time). But seriously, mostly, invest in more chill. It sounds like both these kids are master manipulators (of each other and of you). While this skill may come in handy in the business or political world someday, this present-day nonsense is only being exacerbated by your insertion into the proceedings. Let them work it out—or not. If they end up screaming at each other, so be it (the screaming won’t last forever). If they go to their separate corners to sulk for a while, or get upset enough to decide they aren’t going to play together after all, maybe that’s what they actually need but can’t articulate. Or maybe your refusal to get involved will force them to negotiate on their own. Or—and my money’s on this possibility—yes, this tiresome ritual will fall apart without your predictable role in it.

I know it’s easy for me to say, “Let them scream” as I sit here at my quiet desk; I know the sound of their arguing, and in particular your daughter’s “frenzy,” will be maddening to you. But it seems like that’s what they’re betting on. (And this makes me wonder if it’s possible they have stumbled on to a way to get your attention when you’re busy with their younger siblings.) I think your only hope is not to react outwardly and to continue to go about your business. Leave the room if you can. And maybe—if you think I might be right about the possibility that they’re feeling slighted—see if you can figure out a way to give them each a little positive attention (slyly and not in response to being manipulated!). I do wish you fortitude. You have a lot on your pandemic plate.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My parents-in-law are lovely people and have welcomed me warmly into their family. They are witty, educated, and love their sons and grandchildren very much. They are also really nice to my parents, who live in another U.S. state and can only visit every so often. But (there is always a but!) they have this idea that the way they raised their children is the very best way, and are continually pushing unsolicited advice on me. Things like: keeping a house and a child a bit dirty is good for their immunity; education in school is not that important, as schools tend to ruin your children’s imagination; how to cure, well, pretty much any childhood illnesses with herbal remedies. All of this and more, over and over again. So far I have used the strategy of Peace and Diplomacy: I listen politely, nodding and mmh-mmh-ing, and then continue to do things my own way. However, the other day I could not take it any longer, and after a LONG session of them telling me how schools are damaging, in private I gave my husband a piece of my mind about their interference in our lives. Afterward I apologized and made it clear to him that I like his parents, I want to keep them close, and I respect them. But I am not sure how long I can keep this up before I burst again, and maybe even in front of them next time. I have two small children and am rather busy. The ice is thin!

—Tired Ears

Dear TE,

I feel your pain, I do. It so happens that my least favorite thing in the world is getting unsolicited advice. It’s infuriating, especially, when the advice is not only unhelpful but runs counter to your own belief system, temperament, or well-thought-out system (plus, of course: if you wanted their advice, you would ask for it). My paternal grandmother-in-law once sharply told me not to let my baby get “too attached” to me, “because what’s going to happen to her if you have to go to the hospital? Or die?” and I was only able to keep from giving her a piece of my mind by reminding myself that she was now a member of my family, that in her own way she meant well, and that no good would come of my saying anything beyond what I did say, as cheerfully as I could: “Oh, I guess she’ll deal!” On the other hand, I ended a friendship with someone who gave me a piece of unasked for and ugly advice (uglier than Grandma’s). As regular readers of my column know, I do believe in special dispensation for family members, as long as their intentions are good, however misguided.

There’s no way you’re going to be able to get them to quit giving you (the same old) advice. You can try, of course. You can say, “I appreciate your thoughts on this [whichever thing “this” is today], but we don’t see things the same way. I know you mean this with love, and I love you for it, but this advice is just not for me.” Give it a shot—but don’t hold your breath that it will make any difference. More productive, since your in-laws are going to be a part of your life forever (and—bonus points!—you actually like them!), would be to work on changing your response. In fact, generally speaking, I would say that it’s almost always more productive to try to change one’s own expectations and behavior than to expect others to change on one’s behalf. When it comes to family, I apply this reasoning a thousandfold. Teach yourself to tune out when the same old, same old starts up again. Think about something else entirely. When the spiel is over, you can say, “OK, thanks!” and change the subject. And in the old fake-it-till-you-make-it model of change, eventually you may be able to swat this annoyance away without even feeling annoyed.

And in the meantime, sure, take it out on your husband. That’s what he’s there for. Just remember to let him vent to you about your family when he needs to. (As I am forever reminding my husband: This is why we got married, isn’t it?—to have somebody to take things out on, and who forgives you for it?)

Dear Care and Feeding,

My kids and husband have started baking during quarantine. They do it every few days. I used to be the main baker in our family, and I am definitely enjoying getting those few hours to myself! The problem is that all they seem to bake are very rich, sugary things that used to be a special treat. I was recently treated to “s’more brownies,” which were double-fudge brownies with layers of marshmallows, caramel, and chocolate, sprinkles, and whipped cream on top. Aside from looking like a heart attack in a baking pan, it was pretty good. But two days later, they made a big Funfetti cake that was absolutely slathered in buttercream. Then it was cookies with M&M’s, Reese’s Pieces, and Kit Kats. I’m all for teaching kids to bake, and I don’t believe in completely restricting sugar, but this is becoming a little ridiculous! Normally I’d see if we could share with the neighbors, but our nearest neighbors are a pregnant woman and two elderly people, so it’s not an option. I don’t want to spend another week dealing with sugar crashes and feeling sick, but my family is so earnest and proud of what they bake! What can I do?

—They’re Baking My Heart!

Dear TBMH,

I know I keep saying this. But I’ll say it again: These are miserable, absurd, extraordinary times. Let them eat (and bake) cake. You can get them straightened out later. I am all in favor of anything that helps people (especially kids) get through this.

But if you really are determined to rein them in: try requesting that they bake something you’re “craving”—something healthier than what they’re baking now. If you request a whole wheat pound cake (my own go-to when I feel the need to bake—though I admit it’s not all that healthy, given the amount of butter and sugar involved), or something else that doesn’t involve Kit Kats, surely they won’t say no to you.

Still—I’d consider just going with the flow. This won’t last forever. It can’t—can it?

—Michelle

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