Care and Feeding

Is It Possible for Kids to Be Too Honest?

My little niece really tells it like it is—and it’s getting on my nerves.

Child pointing at an adult woman.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by castillodominici/iStock/Getty Images Plus and AaronAmat/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.

Hi everyone! I missed you so much. I was very sick. Not with the thing, with a different thing, and then I got an infection, but I am alive now, and ready to resume telling you how to raise your children. — Nicole

Dear Care and Feeding,

How does one interact with an exceptionally honest child? I am relatively new to parenthood and haven’t quite figured out how I want to parent my child. Honesty is obviously quite high on the list, but so is kindness. My wife’s niece is encouraged to “express herself,” and tends to say things to me that leave me confused and without a response. If my in-laws give me a gift, she will remove it from my bag and ask me, “Why are you taking this from our house? It’s not yours.” If I take a generous helping at dinner, she tells me “that’s enough.”

Most of it is laughable, of course, but a recent remark has made me think long and hard about how to raise honest children with the understanding not to vocalize every honest thought they have. We prepared a meal for our family and while having an after-dinner conversation, she interrupted multiple times to tell me she did not like the meal. Her parents did not apologize or discourage her from her remarks, which did bother me and put me in a difficult spot. Kids (and adults) have every right not to like things, so I’m not smarting over my cooking. The way I was raised, I couldn’t make such a remark for fear of getting “the look” from my parents.

How do you respond when someone else’s child says something brutally honest that doesn’t discourage the honesty, but makes it clear it was unnecessary or unkind? And how do I parent my own child to be honest but recognize that unkind thoughts should not be put into words and shared?

—Honestly?

Dear Honestly,

As to your first question, when someone else’s child says something brutally honest to you, you smile and slightly tip your head to the side like a confused dog, then you go home and laugh hysterically about it because it’s their problem and not yours. That part is easy! Congratulations. If they want to let their child act a fool, they can reap the whirlwind.

When it comes to raising your own children, realize that their default setting veers between Obvious Lies About Nonsense and Brutal, Unfiltered Honesty. Most of parenting, after keeping them fed and clothed and loved, is transforming that default setting into something that more closely resembles the social compact. It’s a complicated process, and it evolves with age.

Some good guidelines are to cover the big ones:

We don’t comment about other people’s bodies. If we are served something we don’t like, we don’t have to eat it, but we also don’t need to comment on it. We should tell the truth, but we don’t need to share every thought we have, especially if it might make someone else feed bad.

Start early, keep your expectations low, and build on what came before. And everyone: If your child starts trash-talking someone else’s cooking, shut it down the first time they say the risotto looks like cat vomit, even if it does.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I have three children: Isabella, Annabelle, and Tim. My older kids, Isabella and Annabelle, were always saying how little Tim does around the house. Quarantine has made me realize how right they have been. When the girls were little, my husband was especially strict about bathrooms. He forced them to be clean. When I say clean, I mean perfect. A strand of hair on the floor? PICK IT UP. A very small stain on the counter? Perhaps a bit of toothpaste? WIPE IT OFF. Years later, after he has changed his behavior, the girls are furious. They say we treat them unfairly. They say we never make Tim do enough work.

My oldest in particular has said a lot about it. She will not stop saying that we are sexist. And she may be right. We never made Tim do that. We don’t always give consequences. How do we get Tim to actually clean? He will never help the family. He always has to be bribed or threatened. The girls can just clean. How do we get him to change?

—Is My Daughter Right?

Dear IMDR,

(massages temples)

Of course your daughter is right. There’s a lot going on here. The first thing I want to address is whether your husband just changed his behavior, or changed his behavior and also talked to the girls about having had unreasonable standards for small children, which he now regrets. Tim needs to pull his weight, and we’ll get to that, but I think your daughters deserve an apology and that having their legitimate grievances validated will go a long way toward creating peace in your home.

Now, you need to sit down together and make a chore chart. You and your husband are also on the chore chart. Creating it together gives everyone a chance to grab jobs they prefer (there’s always one person who would rather load the dishwasher than unload it, etc.) while also coming closer to achieving a semblance of equality. Everyone who lives in a house should participate in its upkeep, which is why I personally prefer to separate allowances from tasks. Opinions vary!

You need to give Tim chores, and you need to give Tim consequences. It’s not his fault you haven’t treated him like your daughters, but I think it’s very important to acknowledge to your children that you haven’t, and that going forward, things are going to be different. There are parents who think that it weakens their status as parents to ever apologize to their children, but, in my experience, those moments can both build mutual respect and model healthy adult emotional behavior.

You messed up. We all do. Now you get to fix it. You will need your husband to be part of this process, or what you’ll actually be modeling is women apologizing on behalf of men and nothing will really improve.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

We have a 9-week-old, a 2-year-old, and a 4-year-old. Our middle child mostly ignores the baby, but when he does pay attention to her, he is kind and gentle. Their interactions are brief and sweet.

Our oldest is obsessed with our baby. He loves her immensely and is always being sweet with her, but it’s too much. He is always touching her, grabbing at her, trying to hug and kiss her. If I am feeding her, he climbs on to my lap, too, and will insist on holding on to some part of her. I understand that there is a lot of change right now, first the pandemic, then we moved out of state, and now a baby.

I’m trying to be as gentle with him and as understanding as I can. I tell him that he’s being very sweet with her and then try to redirect his attention elsewhere (I’ll put on a movie while I’m feeding or take the older two to their playroom). But it doesn’t work. I don’t want to yell at him for being so in love with his baby sister, but I also need him to listen to me. I feel like I can’t put her down for fear that he will accidentally hurt her. I have to keep eyes in the back of my head. Even if the baby seems unbothered by his attentions, it bothers me. I hate that he won’t do what I ask, and I suppose I would like space to bond with my baby while not having to also deal with my 4-year-old.

Am I being unrealistic? Should I just be happy that my 4-year-old loves her so much? Clearly, I had children very close together; maybe this is just part of the life I chose? Is there anything you suggest that could distract my son for a bit while also letting him know how happy we are that he loves his baby sister so much? My husband is at work and not an option to distract the boys during the day, though he does so when he’s home.

—Personal Bubble

Dear PB,

Let me first acknowledge you have your hands full. Three kids under the age of 5, including a newborn! Congratulations on putting food in your mouth and applying deodorant, you’re doing great.

Something that happens to a lot of people when they bring home a brand-new baby is that their (still very small!) older children seem to have grown into large, unwieldy adults overnight. You are still Full of Hormones, and it’s so normal to feel bemused and guilty about feeling a strong urge to protect the tiny one from the ones with massive heads and grabby hands. I can tell you’re happy your oldest son loves the baby, you’re just overwhelmed and “touched-out” and miss the kid who used to entertain himself for whole minutes at a time. All of this is so, so OK.

I’m not going to pretend it’s easy to magically “make solo time” for your 4-year-old. You have a newborn! I do think a lot of his baby-pawing is about being around you, which is the sort of behavioral regression you absolutely expect to see when a new baby comes into a house. Even if you’re annoyed, you’re providing attention, and attention is the currency of children, good or bad. I think that, if your newborn is amenable, you may find that wearing her in a sling will allow you to get her out of poking range and free your hands up to go for walks with your sons and pace around while asking them questions about their day and their toys and their books. I would also build in some designated “cuddling the baby time” where you can carefully prop everyone up in a safe place and let him love on her for a good chunk of time, under supervision.

My blessings are with you.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My daughter danced ballet throughout childhood and was very serious about it. She ended up going to college for dance at Juilliard and joined a dance company in NYC. Now she’s 25 and suffered a career-ending injury right before quarantine started. She’s staying with us right now since she has to take pretty strong painkillers and didn’t want to be alone in her apartment on them. Ballet has been her whole life since she was little, and she doesn’t know what else to do now.

When I tentatively asked her if she had any plans for the future, she said she didn’t know—she wanted to dedicate her whole life to ballet. She truly loves it and can’t imagine life without it. She’s just … listless. How can I support her right now? Are there any possible resources you can suggest?

—No Longer Dancing Daughter

Dear NLDD,

Oh, I am so profoundly sorry. What a crushing blow for any professional athlete or artist. She’s grieving right now, and she’ll have to go through that to come out the other side. If the injury occurred before the pandemic began, I think you could gently begin suggesting it might be time to look into her teletherapy options. She might really benefit from a sports psychologist, who will deal with a lot of patients who are being unwillingly transitioned by age or circumstance out of their passion (it’s not all “see the ball! BE the ball” in the world of sports shrinks). Can you write back in with your email address? I have a recommendation for a person I think might fit the bill. I do not receive kickbacks.

That may not be the best fit for her long term, but in her mind, she’s still a dancer, just one who can’t dance, and talking to someone who is better equipped to understand that might help get her through the initial crisis. If she’s not open to it, she’s 25 years old and that’s her choice. You can keep checking in, gently and infrequently.

It’s going to be a delicate balance. She does need to look forward and start thinking about the next phase of her life (I would absolutely encourage her to reach out to other ex-dancers from her company to ask them about how they transitioned into civilian life; it’s rarely a job that gets to last anyone a lifetime), but like any adult child catastrophe, your main tools are love and support. Again, I’m very sorry. I also hope her doctor helps her taper down from her painkillers carefully and slowly, as that will affect her mood as well.

— Nicole

More Advice From Slate

My husband and I have been married for just over a year. He is a hard worker and keeps busy doing little chores all the time. We’ve been running into a frequent problem lately, and it happened again this weekend. We were at a family vacation house, and the lawn needed to be mowed. It is a normal-size yard—kind of big, but not a field or anything. It took him five hours to mow. FIVE HOURS. He was on a riding lawn mower and went over it a zillion times. I swear—he’d go out with a pair of scissors to make sure it was perfect if that weren’t a crazy-person thing to do. I weeded the flowerbeds, but around hour three I started losing my patience. We were on vacation. I thought that the mowing wouldn’t take all morning (and some of the afternoon); he didn’t care if it did. He thinks I’m a jerk for complaining about him helping. I think he’s a jerk for unilaterally deciding to use up five hours of our weekend without talking to me about it. So, where do we go from here? We’re still frustrated with how it went down.