Care and Feeding

I Don’t Have Kids, but I Really Think I Can Solve My Friend’s Parenting Problems

Toddler boy sobbing
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Melpomenem/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,

I just got home from a weekend visit with my close friend, her husband, and two sons (aged 3 and 1). We have been friends for more than 20 years and visit each other regularly. This time, the just-turned-3-year-old was in a tantrum-throwing stage … about pretty much everything. It was an extremely uncomfortable weekend, though not because of the tantrums (I recognize that the developmental stage he’s at comes with big emotions that he doesn’t yet know how to handle), but primarily because of the parenting style of my friend and her husband. Many times in the two days, I witnessed one parent tell the kid one thing (no to a specific snack, short timeout for intentionally hitting his brother, TV must wait until after a physical activity), only for the other parent to override/ignore the first (gave him the snack, read him a book during timeout, turned on the TV).

As someone who has never raised a child (I miscarried), I recognize that I have no right to offer advice on child rearing. But would it be OK if I politely suggested that things might possibly be easier if the parents operated on the same page and supported each other? My friend is a very open-minded person who is great at both giving and receiving advice. If it is appropriate for me to say something to her, what exactly do I say? Or do I just keep my mouth shut and be grateful that I live a few states away? I have no intention of hurting my friend’s feelings. Quite honestly, both she and her husband seemed so stressed out and tired, I just want to kindly share my observations with the hope that their lives could be a bit less stressful if they operated as a team. I just don’t know if/how I should tell her, or if I should let it go.

—Wanting to Help

Dear Wanting,

I know you mean well, but there is absolutely zero chance that your friend doesn’t already know that “if the parents operated on the same page and supported each other,” things might possibly be easier. If they could do that right now, they would be doing it. Wading into their marriage and child-rearing quagmire will do nothing to help them but may well damage your friendship irreparably.

I’ve said this before, but I’ll say it again: Never give advice to anyone who hasn’t asked for it, about anything. Ignore the little voice in your head that tells you that you know something your friend/sibling/parent/colleague/neighbor doesn’t—that you’ve got the magic words that will fix a problem that you can see for yourself would be so easy to solve if only they did what you told them to do! This has never happened in the history of the world.

Now, if your friend calls you and says, “I’m at my wits’ end, Wanting. You’ve visited me! After the two days you spent seeing what we’re dealing with, do you have any ideas about how we could do a better job raising our older child?”—then fire away. And let me know. (Because never in the history of the world have I heard of such a thing either.)

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

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My 6-year-old daughter recently had her birthday party in Coronaworld (masks, hand sanitizer, social distancing outside in the front yard, a therapy llama visit). Everything was perfect, except the absence of her most favorite cousin. My SIL emailed me the week before saying she was too busy with the start of the school year and that because of another personal family matter, she wouldn’t make it. She really tugged on my heartstrings, and ultimately I felt like crap for being annoyed with her. She scheduled an alternate time to come visit, before the day of the party … with another family friend and her kids who were also invited but “couldn’t” come: a family friend who has a boat. I was not thrilled, but since my daughter has been pretty isolated throughout this pandemic, I said OK. And the visit went fine. And the party went fine, too. I was ready to move on … until I was scrolling through Instagram and discovered the real reason my brother’s family couldn’t make it: THEY WERE ON A BOAT instead. The picture was posted by our mutual family friend.

This follows a pattern recently of my SIL either “accidentally forgetting” or just plain flaking on other events with my family, ending in heartbreak for my daughter. I would just write them off at this point, but my daughter LOVES her cousin. Still, the lack of a reciprocal relationship with that part of my family just doesn’t feel worth it anymore. I have never missed any of my nephew’s/niece’s birthday parties. I’ve even gone to their dance recitals, martial arts performances, plays, and concerts. Our families used to be close, but addiction issues and political and socioeconomic differences have driven us apart lately. They are rarely willing to engage unless they need something from us (usually it’s a request that my spouse fix a broken piece of technology). I’m ready to write them off (honestly, nearly ready to write my whole damn family off), but I’m not sure how it will impact my daughter. Should I just ghost them back and start forgetting/canceling on their events as well? Do I try to convince my daughter NOT to hang out with her favorite cousin? Do I confront my SIL head-on? Am I being a big baby and reading too much into her behavior?

—Pissed-Off Party Host

Dear Pissed,

You’re not a big baby, and you’re not reading more into her behavior than she’s pretty directly communicating: She’s just not that into you. And I get that this is insulting—and infuriating (because she’s not supposed to have a choice about this, right?)—but let’s see if we can separate out some of the strands of this tight little ball of unhappiness on your part.

One is your outrage at the unfairness: You have put in the time to attend all of her children’s events, large and small; she can’t be bothered to attend her 6-year-old niece’s birthday party. It’s not very nice of her, to be sure—but why were you attending all these concerts and play performances, etc.? I’m hoping it was purely because you love your brother’s children and wanted to be involved in their lives and support them. If it was because of a sense of duty, or just what you imagined was the appropriate thing to do—well, you are out of luck, because your brother and his wife clearly do not feel the same way. And you can’t make them feel that way, either.

I’m going to try to shift your perspective a little, if I may (this is Strand No. 2). Think of all that time you put in for those kids not as something that needs to be paid back but as an investment in your relationship with the children—one that was meaningful to them and that they will remember. (Even if they don’t appreciate it sufficiently now, they very well may, looking back.) Next (Strand No. 3): See if you can uncouple your dislike for your SIL (which certainly appears to be mutual) from your daughter’s affection for her cousin. Is that reciprocal? Can you arrange play dates for the kids that don’t involve the adults? (“Oh, ____ misses her cousin so much! Would it be possible for you to drop her off for a couple of hours on Sunday so they can hang out?”)

Strand No. 4: Your contemplation of the nuclear option of cutting off contact not only with your SIL and brother but with your whole family makes it pretty clear that this is a bigger issue than the one you’re focusing on right now (as does your aggrieved mention of your brother and his wife never reaching out unless they want something from you). If your entire relationship with your family (of origin) is now a toxic one you need to pull yourself out of, taking your husband and daughter with you, that’s a different question entirely than the one you’ve asked. For the moment—and since this is what you did ask about—I’d concentrate on finding ways to maintain the connection between the children, even as you firmly put some distance between your mean-girl SIL and yourself.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

We are parents of an only child who is 8 years old, kind, funny, and a bit on the spectrum (Asperger’s) so doesn’t always pick up on social cues. In our area, our child is still required to do online schooling, so we’ve expanded our bubble to allow him to play with a neighborhood boy (about the same age, also an only child, and they can both benefit from some socialization). Yesterday, when the neighbor boy was over, I overheard him tell my son, “My father doesn’t like that you make random sounds.” It’s true my son does have a vocal tic when he gets excited. It’s also true that the neighbor boy isn’t the kindest of lads. My son responded with “Your father is insulting.” I’m not sure how to sit with the comment. Do I leave it and let the boys play/socialize because the social benefit outweighs the unkindness, or do I minimize their interactions given what seems to be an intolerance/dislike of neuro differences?

—Helping My Aspie

Dear HMA,

It’s true that it was unkind of your son’s friend to repeat what his father said (and it’s not great that the parent is teaching the child to be intolerant of others’ differences, that’s for sure). But it seems to me that your son handled this very well on his own. Given that this is a period of so much isolation, and considering that the neighbors are already in your bubble (and presumably not many others are), if the kids generally play nicely together and your son enjoys the time he spends with this friend, I’d leave it alone and let them continue to play together. For now. But keep an ear out—not only to monitor further expressions of intolerance but also to be aware of how your son is responding to them. I would say that occasional meanness or thoughtlessness that’s countered with a calm, factual response like this one is likely to do both boys some good over the long haul. Your son gets practice sticking up for himself, which everybody needs; the neighbor child learns that he can’t get away with being a jerk. Your son might even be doing some counterprogramming to help his friend grow up to be a better person than he would otherwise, given the example of his dad.

Dear Care and Feeding,

It must be fate that I found your column right when I’m trying a different approach with my parenting. I have four children, ages 8, 5, 3, and 2 months. I have to admit that I am a very impatient parent. I tend to react a lot, rather than think first and find a solution. I yell a lot. I’m not big on spanking, which is how I was raised. I think I yell to keep from spanking, because I didn’t know any other ways to parent. But now that I’m more aware of more positive parenting styles, it seems the damage has been done to my children. When they have conflicts, they yell and scream. I try to be positive and patient and talk things out now. Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn’t. But my question is: How do I break that cycle with my children? I feel like I have to “unparent” them and start all over. They’ve learned my bad habits—now I want to break them. I know it starts with me. I’m trying to be a better model of how I want them to be, but it gets very frustrating sometimes. Is there a better way?

—Break the Cycle

Dear BtC,

You’ve already found it. You’re being more positive and patient. Keep being more positive and patient. You can’t start all over, but you can certainly start now and go forward from there. They’ve modeled their behavior on what they’ve experienced up to now. Be consistent going forward (and don’t beat yourself up if and when you slip! Apologize to them for losing your temper, tell them you’d prefer not to yell at them, and cut yourself some slack—it’s hard to break longtime patterns and habits) and give them something new to model their behavior on. It may take a while, but they’ll catch on. Children look for cues about how to respond to frustration, dissatisfaction, anger. Keep trying to do better. Keep reminding yourself why you’re trying. If you need help along the way, you might consider taking an anger management class through an organization like the Parent Encouragement Program. My money’s on you, because you already know there’s a better way.

—Michelle

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