Care and Feeding

Is It Wrong to Let Other People’s Kids Look at My Phone?

I recently ran afoul of a “zero-screen family.” What’s the current etiquette?

Woman holding an excited toddler and showing him a cellphone.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by supersizer/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.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

We recently had a picnic with another couple and their 15-month-old. My 2-year-old son was sitting with me and did something cute, so I pulled out my phone to get a quick pic, and my son was delighted to see himself and me on the selfie screen.

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At the same time, the other baby came toddling up behind us to investigate, and I thought it might make her smile too, so I held up the phone for her and did the “look at that cute baby!” routine. Her father immediately (but politely) asked me not to do that because they are a zero-screen family, and I apologized and put the phone away, feeling crass and ignorant, like I might as well have puffed cigarette smoke in her face.

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They went on to explain that at home, they’ve never had the TV on when the child is there and so now they just don’t watch TV ever, and when a parent has work to do on the computer, they take the baby in another room, and when they do video chats with the grandparents they turn off the video, so the grandparents can see her but she can’t see them.

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Was I a total idiot? Is the screen etiquette something that everyone else knows? I absolutely would never have taken a photo of the baby girl, but I admit I didn’t think before showing her the screen.

—Crass and Ignorant

Dear CaI,

It sounds like they are taking the American Academy of Pediatrics’ “absolutely no screen time before the age of 18 months” thing seriously (although the AAP doesn’t count video chatting as “screen time” due to its interactive nature). That is their right as parents. They are also being intense about it. They could have said, “We’re trying to avoid screen time,” without giving you a litany of the other ways in which they protect their child from Black Mirror World. This suggests they’re defensive and also have had this conversation many, many times. You do say the father asked you “politely,” so I think that you’re projecting a bit of judgment on yourself when it may not really exist.

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So, no, you are not crass and ignorant. You did a completely normal thing, they got weird about it, and if you choose to hang out with them again, you can hide your phones.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My almost-5-year-old son knows his Uncle Pete lives in heaven. We talk a lot about Uncle Pete, who was my brother, and have many pictures of him in our home. Pete was struck and killed in a crosswalk by a distracted driver before my son was born. I know the question “How did Uncle Pete die?” is on the horizon.

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My child is a sensitive boy. I worry he will fear cars, streets, etc., if I tell him the truth. Any advice on how to explain this sensitive topic when he asks?

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—Grieving Mommy in Connecticut

Dear GMiC,

I’m so sorry for the loss of your brother. I think that you’ll want to go along with your son’s cues here. He (sadly) never got to meet his Uncle Pete, and will therefore have less curiosity about what exactly happened to him. When he does ask, I would tell him “in a car accident,” as it is both accurate and very common and something he will almost certainly be aware of by the time he gets around to it.

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When he’s older, you can explain in more detail that Uncle Pete was a pedestrian killed by a distracted driver, but I think “car accident” is completely sufficient for now, and this question may be a few years off anyway. Everyone should be cautious around cars, but I don’t think this will create a pathological terror of them.

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So, wait and see. And if you want to postpone the question, I would talk less about Uncle Pete until you feel better equipped to tell him about his death. Again, you have my sympathies.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I am the oldest child of three. I’m 12, my sister is 9, and my brother is 7. I know siblings often fight, and I’m not opposed to the occasional argument. But we have always been very physical. We are always hitting each other, screaming at each other, and giving the occasional tickle or wedgie.

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Now, I’m not saying I don’t do these things; I do, but quarantine has made the younger two fight a lot more. Lately, I have been a little better, trying to avoid fights and often blocking one of them from being hit. But we are always fighting, many fights a day, most physical. I can’t give out punishments or anything—I just want a way to stop this. Granted, we also don’t really remember all this stuff, but I really want to stop the physical fighting. We never bleed or get bruised.

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—Fighting Family

Dear FF,

Thank you for writing to me! I am glad you recognize that your siblings are too old for this, and that it’s not exactly setting a great tone for your current “constantly up in each other’s business” situation.

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Now, where are your parents? Your parents are the ones who need to be doing something here. If you are providing child care to your two younger siblings during the day while they are at work, you need to have them intervene and hand out consequences when they come home. If your parents are at home and do not mind Child Fight Club, you’re going to have to tell them that you mind, very much, and you want the physicality to end, stat.

In terms of what you can do prior to sitting down with your family: Stop getting physical, ever, with your siblings. Go into another room and close the door. Refuse to engage. You can also say an age-appropriate version of Danny Glover’s “I’m getting too old for this shit,” as younger kids tend to want to be older than they are, and it may have some impact.

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Best of luck, and please keep me posted.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I have a question about how to deal with my parents. I’m a 28-year-old independent woman who lives by herself. My parents, my mother especially, have always hounded me about my weight, regardless of my actual size at any given point. For as long as I can remember, they’ve thought I was fat even though I have fluctuated in weight. They are only happy when I am on a diet.

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Since the pandemic began, I’ve been working from home, so I stayed with my parents from March to July. I went on a diet there, and I actually enjoyed it and the feeling of losing weight (complicated though it may be). My parents were very happy with me and very proud of me. Since I came back, I’ve been putting on some of the weight again, and it has again become a point of contention between me and my mom.

On my therapist’s advice, I tried to set a hard boundary with my mom of no more weight conversations because I believe that’s always the thing that’s held me back from having a healthy relationship with food. I genuinely want to adopt a healthier lifestyle—I just feel like my mom and all her hounding over the years is preventing me from doing that. She stuck to the boundary for about a week, and then she and I video chatted, and later, she commented to me about how fat my face was starting to look again. I am terrified of telling her my actual weight.

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She said she promised not to say anything about my weight on the belief that I would keep up my end of the bargain by continuing to lose weight. She said if she had known I would gain weight, then my parents and I could’ve held me back at their house (I don’t know how, considering I have my own apartment and my own money). I have no idea what to do with this situation or how to continue setting this boundary. I know I will have to upset my mom at some point, but I was really enjoying how close we became over the past few months. Apart from the weight issues, we have always been close on other things.

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—Fatphobic Parents

Dear FP,

I’m so sorry. You are a grown woman, and you should not have to hear constant feedback on the state of your body from your parents. Your mother’s claim that she would have magically kept you in their home had they known you would put weight back on is a pretty clear signal that they have not really internalized that you are an adult who possesses autonomy.

I would start by taking a little break from talking to them (let’s say two weeks). In order to avoid them calling the cops to do a welfare check, I would tell them first that you are disappointed they couldn’t abide by the boundary they agreed to accept, and you need some time before you can resume normal conversations. It’s the truth!

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When you’re ready to talk again, end the call or video chat the minute anyone brings up your weight. “We’ve already discussed this. I should go” is a great option. In terms of your lifestyle, I tend to side with your therapist (who knows you a lot better than I do!) that trying to eat better and/or exercise feels like “giving in” to your mother’s incessant nagging. If you want to have health-related goals for yourself (not necessarily weight loss, though weight loss may happen!), you have to be able to separate those goals from your inner parental voice. Once we stop your parents from actually talking out loud about your body, that will come more easily.

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I don’t think you’ve actually “gotten closer” over the last few months. I think that being on a diet meant that your parents were able to turn off their How Much Does She Weigh brain and use that bandwidth for normal conversations instead. These are the conversations that I hope you will get to continue to have after your break. But it’s going to be impossible unless you draw a line in the sand on weight- and body-related commentary. If that seems hard, or you are worried about “hurting them,” think how you would feel if one day you had a child and your parents started messing up their relationship to their body like they did with yours. Think about how you would advise a friend if they had the weight-obsessed parents. Sometimes it’s easier to protect and love other people than it is to protect and love yourself. I don’t think you would tell a friend to suck it up.

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To recap: Send an email expressing your disappointment and need for a break (I recommend email so you cannot be lectured or interrupted). Temporarily set up your inbox so their messages go into a separate folder. Block their numbers for the duration of the break. Use the break to think about how you want to have the best relationship with your body, and what makes you feel good in your body. When you are ready, be ruthless. Your relationship with your parents simply cannot involve talking about your weight. It will involve several hang-ups and abrupt video chat cancellations, but I guarantee they will get the message in time. And don’t worry about hurting their feelings—they have hurt your feelings very badly for your entire life.

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They’ll be fine.

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—Nicole

More Advice From Slate

I’m a grad student in a very prestigious program in New York City. This year I received a generous fellowship, which will pay for not only my courses but also cover most of my living expenses. If it weren’t for this fellowship I couldn’t afford to stay in the New York or finish my studies. But I was shocked to find out that the money was coming from a wealthy donor whom I find morally reprehensible. The donor made their rather sizable fortune through shady and at times possibly illegal activities. I know the donor has become philanthropic to try to clean up a tarnished reputation. Even worse is that the donor personally picked me for the fellowship. I don’t know if I can live with myself if live off this tainted money for the next year, but if I don’t I can’t pay my rent. What should I do?

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