Care and Feeding

Oops, We Let Our Kids Go Feral During Quarantine

Is there any hope of bringing back discipline now?

Young girl eating cookie dough off of a wooden spoon in front of a tray of cookies.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by diane39/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.

Click here to read Open Book, a Slate series about the new school year.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I’m hoping you can help me wrap my head around shifting some bad habits that have developed in our household during the pandemic. We’ve been lax with our 9 and 6-year-old kids pretty much ever since schools shut down in March. There was a little bit of learning, but certainly not much. Then when summer hit, everything got way looser. Later bedtimes. More screen time. Less daily reading. Spoonful of cookie butter before dinner? Sure, why not. Then some more screen time.

My husband is an essential worker whose job as a manager is extremely stressful right now, and I’m working from home full time. Our anxiety and stress about *waves vaguely at the world* has caused us to underparent. We’re just too tired to be enforcers. And while I get that we’re all relaxing the rules, this feels extreme. I get overwhelmed when I think about bringing structure back, but I also feel deeply ashamed and afraid when I think about how feral our kids are.

School is starting in a few weeks (100 percent remote for the first two months at least) and I have a pit in my stomach every time I think about it. How do we get this family back on track?

—Overwhelmed in Omaha

Dear OiO,

Well, the past is the past. Let’s look forward together. You have kids, blessedly, who are old enough to have real conversations with, especially your oldest. Guys, we’re going to be moving back to more of a schedule soon, so we’re going to start working on a few things to make the transition smoother.

No one is going to enjoy this, least of all you, but it doesn’t matter because it has to happen. I don’t know how lax bedtimes have gotten, but lots of families are more chill about summer bedtimes, and kids can understand that “the school year” has different rules, however weird and artificial this “school year” will be for you for the next while. I’m not concerned about a spoon of cookie butter before dinner, or bed for that matter, as long as tooth-brushing is being done well.

In terms of screen time, you need to decide how much screen time will be acceptable during said school year, start tapering it down now, and, ideally, replace it with more books and activities so you don’t just have vacuums in your day. Children will naturally fill a vacuum with things you absolutely don’t want, if left to do so.

The more you can proactively talk about getting ready for fall, the easier it will be on everyone. Have the kids help you make some poster-board schedules. Everyone likes to feel invested in the process. Stickers and some school supplies go a long way. (I have found adult life to be superior to childhood in essentially every way except for the unbelievable high of going to Staples with a tiny budget and getting pencil crayons, which I am still chasing.) Don’t beat yourself up about the March–August slide into chaos. It’s happened. Pretend to be excited about the fall, and you might just fool yourself into getting a little stoked about the artificial fresh start. It’ll be easier to fool the kids.

My blessings are with you.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

How worried should I be about my baby being underexposed to “normal” things due to the pandemic? Before having one, I confidently proclaimed that my children would be comfortable with babysitters, going new places, and doing new things because I would make that a priority. COVID-19 had other plans.

Now my happy, curious 9-month-old is at an age where he’d clearly enjoy swim classes at the community center or even just trips to the grocery store—but these things have either ceased to exist or it would be against pandemic etiquette to take a baby along just for fun. We read and sing to him, take walks in our neighborhood, etc., but his world is just two parents and two cats!

We don’t have any family around, and he doesn’t have any kid friends. What if this goes on for a year or more? Are we risking missing a critical exposure window regarding the brain development that happens before the age of 3?

—No Errands Equals Delays?

Dear NEED,

Oh, my sweet summer child. Don’t worry about “before the age of 3” when you have a 9-month-old. Your 9-month-old is too blessed to be stressed. It doesn’t matter at all. Parents and cats? You’re doing great.

I get this question a lot, so I only answer them periodically, but, everyone: Your baby is fine. Your baby doesn’t need swim lessons this year. Reading and singing and neighborhood walks are great and sufficient unto themselves. If this goes on for another full year, you are going to go bonkers, but your baby will still be fine.

Enjoy your baby. Your baby has this under control. A 9-month-old does not need or particularly want “kid friends.” Me, I never wanted “kid friends,” but I was a real weirdo, doing book reports on The Gulag Archipelago and bumming everyone out. Three is a great age to start acquiring more serious peer interaction, and you have loads of time before that milestone hits.

It’s fine. Make a nice cup of tea. Watch Derry Girls. It’s on Netflix.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My daughter and her family live with us. She has a hyperactive 3-year-old and a baby. The problem is the 3-year-old. He likes to throw his toys around and at people. When playing he gets easily frustrated, slaps his own head, and throws himself on the floor. I have had several toys hurled at me.

How do I deal with this issue since I am not allowed to tap him on the hand when he does this, only his parents? I feel that this inconsistency will delay him learning that it’s not OK to throw things since I spend a lot of time with him because of his dad’s work and the new baby. Saying “NO!” just makes him giggle and do it again.

My daughter says she doesn’t want to end up resenting me for smacking his hands. My fear is that one of these days it will not be my head but the baby’s that gets the car thrown at it.

—Frustrated Babysitter

Dear FB,

The inconsistency is definitely a problem, though I don’t think the solution is for you to start tapping him on the hand. I think that since you are providing so much of the (free, I assume) child care to your grandson, it’s extremely reasonable to sit down with your daughter and her husband, and say, “Let’s find a way to handle the toy-throwing that works for everyone, so he always knows what to expect.”

What I recommend is just saying “we don’t throw toys at people” in a very calm voice and then … taking the toy away. The toy disappears. It comes back if he stops throwing toys. The key is that you all need to do this, and do it every single time. The thing about hand-tapping, etc., is it works until it doesn’t, and then people find themselves doing it more vigorously. Toy removal doesn’t have to escalate, it’s a one for one situation, and everyone gets to keep their emotional intensity at the same level.

It’s not at all uncommon for perfectly “normal” toddlers to slap/bang their own heads occasionally, since it’s very frustrating to have feelings before you have the emotional vocabulary to express them. But it sounds to me like your grandson is, in fact, a little more frustrated and possibly more hyperactive than most toddlers. I would, very gently, suggest that his parents drop his pediatrician a line about it. It doesn’t mean you don’t need to work on discipline and consequences, but if you have more than a garden variety “threenager” in the house, a little information and some probing of particular behaviors is never a bad idea.

If you ever get to a point where it doesn’t work for you to provide this much child care or to have your daughter and her husband living in your home, I encourage you to communicate that clearly and not bottle it up. Feeling imposed upon is the ultimate recipe for frustration, and that won’t do anyone any favors.

Should Parents Count Calories for Their 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 were lucky enough to welcome a healthy baby girl less than two weeks ago. One of his friends from college confided in him about 10 months ago that she had been trying for a baby for quite a while already with no luck. Back in May or June, she “checked in” to a local fertility clinic on social media and posted a few inspiring quotes. I sent her some hearts on Instagram at the time, which she acknowledged.

Since then she has not mentioned her fertility journey, which is totally fine; it isn’t our business unless she wants it to be. She has posted about strenuous hikes and trips to breweries since. She reached out to both of us individually after our daughter’s birth to say congratulations and inquire how we were going, etc.

We’d like to check in and see how she’s doing, but we don’t want to pry or say the wrong thing.  Is there anything we can say of comfort at this point or would any comment be overstepping? We’ve sent baby pictures directly to some other friends unprompted but have refrained from texting pictures directly to her since we don’t want to “rub it in.” We don’t want it to come across like we don’t care about her struggles by not bringing them up, but we also don’t want to say anything insensitive.

—Cautious Friend

Dear CF,

Thank you for being thoughtful! If I were you, I would drop her a line and just ask how life is, in general. During these weird times, I’ve exchanged lots of random “damn, the world is wild, how are you holding up?” messages with people I haven’t spoken to in a while. I don’t think it will seem odd or prying at all.

If she wants to follow up by mentioning her fertility situation, she will. You are carefully depositing the ball in her park. Continue not texting baby pictures, but go ahead and send one if she asks after your baby.

I wish you both all the best, and congratulations on your newborn!

—Nicole

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