Care and Feeding

How Do We Tell Our Friends to Leave Their Jerky Kid at Home?

A boy in a backward baseball cap holds up his fists.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Sophie Walster/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 husband and I are friends with a lovely couple. We have many things in common and enjoy hanging out with them. The problem is their kid. They have a son the same age as our younger son and the boys like hanging out with each other. At first that seemed like a great bonus to this friendship. But the longer we’ve been friends, the clearer it has become that their kid is a horrible person—rude, spoiled, insolent, a liar, and frequently downright mean to our kid (although our kid doesn’t seem to care and still wants to hang out with him). The parents do nothing to address his bad behavior. In fact, they coddle him. I know we need to mind our own business and not make comments on their objectively garbage parenting style, but can we distance our kid from theirs? Is it too weird to hang out with the parents and just never bring our own kid along? As a side note, we could leave our son with his older brother; they don’t have any other kids so we don’t really have an “adults only” option.

—Keeping My Mouth Shut Is Hard


So, what you are proposing is that you spend time with this “lovely couple” and their kid—whom you fiercely dislike—but leave your own child, who likes their monstrous child, at home with his brother? Yes, that would be weird. These must either be the most fantastic people you have ever met (even though you describe an aspect of them as “objectively garbage”) or you must not have any other friends. If the latter is the case, please get some other friends right away. I would suggest that you seek either friends whose parenting style matches your own or those who have no children.

In the meantime, since your willingness to spend time with these fantastic (but garbage) people seems to include a (grudging?) willingness to also spend time with their child, I’m guessing—you don’t come out and say it, but I assume this is the point—that what worries you is that their child’s behavior is going to rub off on your child’s, and that you have no idea what you would do if your well-behaved child ever started being rude or mean or lying (etc.). Perhaps this situation could provide a learning experience. Since you are present whenever these two children interact, if your child begins to imitate his friend, why not use that opportunity to practice good parenting by pointing out and correcting the meanness, lying, and so on when you see it exhibited by your son? Who knows? Maybe your objectively great parenting would then rub off on your friends.

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

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My good friend, “Sally,” has a 4-year-old boy, “Joey.” Joey has really sweet moments. He’s funny and smart (for a 4-year-old) and generally well-behaved. But Sally lets him get away with a lot more than I would let a child get away with, such as jumping all over the couch and standing on the coffee table, and demanding rather than asking when he wants something.

When she does ask him to stop doing something, she doesn’t follow through. She also doesn’t set boundaries with him. She lets him climb all over her, sit in the bathroom with her when she’s using the toilet, “help” with every single thing she does, etc. Which, fine, that’s her choice. (And her husband follows her lead.) The problem is that Joey acts the same way with other people. When I’ve come to visit, I’ve had to deal with Joey demanding to play a game on my phone, run at me full speed and slam into me, and try to follow me into the bathroom. I don’t want to sound like a grumpy child hater, and I don’t expect him to be a perfect pod child, but I’m not OK with some of this. Sally doesn’t bother correcting him when he acts like this toward me (or anyone else), although, to be fair, she seems to be perfectly fine when I do, even when it leads to Joey getting upset. However, she does sometimes instigate the behavior. Recently, when I was visiting, we went out for ice cream. Joey asked me what flavor I had, and I told him. Sally said, Joey, do you want to try a bite of it? And I had no choice but to let the kid take a big sloppy lick of my ice cream. True story.

So here is the ultimate question. Sally asked me what I’m doing on a particular weekend. I replied that I have no plans. She then asked me if I could watch Joey for the day, because she and her husband have a family matter they have to deal with, and will likely be gone at least six hours. I couldn’t say no, because I had no excuse, but I am dreading it. I feel like half the time is going to be spent telling Joey “no,” “stop,” etc. No, Joey, you cannot use me as a personal jungle gym. No, Joey, you cannot take a bite of my slice of pizza. Joey, stop climbing on the furniture. No, Joey, I will not get you water when you scream GET ME WATER in my face. I’m having so much anxiety over this! Do I talk to her beforehand about my concerns? Or do I just wait to see what happens, and if it does go poorly, what do I tell her? Do I tell her the truth, even though she might think I’m overreacting because she’s OK with a lot of these things? Do I lie and say, “Everything was great!” even as Joey is tugging on her saying, “She was so mean!” (the way he did when I locked the bathroom door one time and wouldn’t let him in, or when I told him he couldn’t keep my lip gloss). Please help!

—(Mis)Adventures in Babysitting

Dear MAiB,

Here we have a whole different kind of I-can’t-stand-the-way-my-friend-is-raising-her-child situation. First of all, some of what you describe (screaming demands into your face, running full speed at you and then slamming into you) seems to me pretty clearly behavior that Joey’s parents ought to work on, but most of it seems like a straight-up parenting choice that, although you disapprove of it, is within the bounds of reasonable decisions made by good and loving parents. There’s nothing wrong with your friend being OK with her child climbing all over her, letting him go into the bathroom with her when she uses the toilet, and “helping” her even when what he’s doing isn’t actually helpful, even though this is not the way you’d choose to raise your own child.

Your friend, however, doesn’t seem to recognize that the whole world (or even just her own little world) can’t fairly be assumed to live in this boundary-free environment she wants to create for Joey. What I don’t understand is why you’re going along with all this. Why on earth did you feel you “had no choice” but to let Joey take a slurp of your ice cream? When Sally asked him if he wanted some of your ice cream, that was your cue to let Joey and Sally know that you are a separate person with her own set of boundaries: “No, sorry, Joey cannot have a taste of my ice cream. I don’t like it when other people put their mouths on what I’m eating.” (If he has a meltdown over this, it’s Sally’s job to deal with it, not yours.)

And when she asked you to babysit, why didn’t you say no? You don’t want to sit for him. You don’t have to. And it’s not too late to call Sally and say, “You know, I’ve been thinking about it, and I can’t look after Joey that day—I’m so sorry. The truth is, though I love him, he’s too much for me.” If that feels too hard to say, you can say, “I just don’t feel up to the task.” (And if she says, “Don’t be silly. Of course you are!,” you can be firm: “No, I’m sorry. I am not.”)

You didn’t need an excuse when she asked you. You just needed to tell your friend the truth.

And when you’re truthful with her (and Joey)—about babysitting for him, about his being allowed to join you in the bathroom, about his taking bites out of your food or climbing on you when you want to be left alone, or climbing on your furniture—you’ll be teaching your friend Sally something about boundaries that she needs to learn. You’ll also be making a small deposit in little Joey’s memory bank, letting him know that not everyone wants to be treated the way Mama lets him treat her (and that not everyone is going to treat him the way Mama does). Try to see this as a win-win-win situation! You get to start standing up for yourself (I’m betting this will be helpful practice for you in other situations, too); Sally gets a much-needed wake-up call; and Joey learns a little something about the wider world, which will help him in the long run. So stop reading this column right now and pick up the phone and call her.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My wife’s mother died by suicide a month ago. We are obviously both grieving in complicated and imperfect ways—the only ways we can. I am an external processor and a therapist, and my instinct is to go deep into my thoughts and feelings. My wife is an internal processor (and she has also been understandably numb since her mom’s death).

We have a beautiful 8-month-old we adore. Even before lockdown and her mother’s death, the plan was for me to be the primary caregiver when my wife went back to work. That is our current arrangement, and I am working two-to-three days a week seeing clients remotely. My wife is working at 75 percent and has 1½ days during the week with the baby. She pumps during the workday, so that I can use this milk for our son on my days with him. Now, I know it’s no one’s fault that we are in quarantine while grieving this loss. But I feel rundown all the time. My wife is in a fog except when she’s working, when she comes alive and seems like herself. When she is on baby care, she’s aloof, distracted, on her phone, or still working (or at least that’s what I see or hyperfocus on). But every time he takes a tumble and cries I feel a wave of anger rise in me, wondering if she wasn’t really watching him. I know that this is unfair. She’s a great mom who is grieving the loss of her own mom. She is doing the best she can and that should be enough. But I am running the household on very low batteries. I have to ask for every single thing that I need help with. I know that this is not special. Every parenting duo has to figure out how to distribute the mental load and in this particular situation, of course it’s all on me. I should add we’re a queer couple. I’m a trans masculine, nonbinary dad. Gendered roles around parenting don’t really fit us. Usually our mental load is more equitably distributed based on capacity, skills, and interest. I feel guilty for feeling overburdened. But I’m grieving, too. I loved her mom and I’m still in shock. I’m planning to quit my job and transition to full-time primary caregiving at the end of the summer. But that feels like an eternity from now. How do I cope? How do I support my wife? It feels like the only things I’m doing well are loving my family, taking care of my child, and binging television shows after the household is asleep. I tell myself that there is no alternate reality in which this would be easy. That it won’t be forever, and that I want to be able to look back at this time and feel proud of the ways I stepped up to support my family during this loss. I worry that I am failing. Any encouragement, advice, or perspective is much appreciated.

—Grieving in the Time of COVID-19

Dear Grieving,

If the only things you’re doing well are loving your family, taking care of your child, and taking care of yourself in the only way you can think of right now after your wife and baby are asleep, you are doing very well indeed. And the current circumstances won’t be forever, and you will look back on this tremendously difficult time and feel proud of the ways you stepped up. That’s the encouragement you asked for. I mean every word of it. You are doing exactly what you need to do.

For perspective: Let’s keep in mind that no matter how sad you are about the loss of your mother-in-law, whom you loved, what your wife is going through is of a completely different order. A mother’s death by suicide is an unspeakable horror, one that stirs up a lifetime’s worth of grief and confusion. And as a therapist, you must know that a parent’s suicide is an extraordinary blow, one that is among the most difficult to recover from. It seems to me remarkable that your wife is managing as well as she is, just a month after her mother’s death by her own choice—and it also seems to me that she is using her work as a temporary, recurring escape from her grief and shock. Tending to the baby may in fact be the thing that makes her grief feel sharpest and hardest to bear. I am so sorry that all of you are going through this—and in quarantine, to boot. My heart goes out to you.

I’ve left my advice for last, even though that’s supposed to be my job. I’m afraid you won’t like it one bit. And I will preface it by saying I know that you are already exhausted and feel like you’ve got nothing left. But the end of the summer is not that far away (perspective is everything, isn’t it? I shall return to teaching and advising—all of it over dreaded Zoom—at summer’s end, and it feels like the time is racing by; I so wish I could slow it down). Between now and then, I think you’re going to have to shoulder more, not less, of the household burden. I’m not suggesting you take on full-time child care now, while you’re still working part time (or for that matter that even when you quit your job you be your child’s only parent!), but that you find a way to make peace with the fact that your wife cannot really be present for the child right now. If you can afford it, and you can find a way to do it safely, I would urge you to get some help with the baby on the days you are working, so that your wife has the support she needs when she feels unable to give the child her full attention (since it is still summer, perhaps you could find a sitter who could help with the baby outdoors?—which would be much safer than having someone in your home).

Most of my advice, however, revolves around this: Try your best to be patient. Everyone with an infant at home in quarantine, juggling work and child care and a relationship, is struggling. Your family’s struggle is much greater than many others, but this awful time will pass. Your wife will begin to heal; you will be proceeding with your previously arranged plan for you to be the primary caregiver while she works. Things will get better. I send my love to the three of you.


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