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 have a 4-year-old—let’s call her Alice—and an 8-month-old at home right now. I am a firm believer in the principle of “your child isn’t giving you a hard time—they are having a hard time.” I follow Daniel Siegel’s Whole-Brain Child advice in managing behavioral issues, big feelings, etc., and I have always and consistently done the “validate, listen, reflect” process with Alice. Understandably, when the baby was born, Alice had some difficulty, but she adapted well overall. Still, she’s a sensitive kid, and small things can send her into a meltdown (which I know is pretty typical 4-year-old behavior). The other day, after a long night with my teething baby, I was getting both kids into the car. Alice was struggling with a twisted car seat strap while I was getting the baby into her own car seat. Suddenly, Alice had a massive (earth-shattering, earsplitting) breakdown, screaming and crying about the twisted strap. And I was so exhausted and just generally stressed from the way life is now that I did the thing I try so hard not to do—I yelled at her. I shouted: “Please stop this! This is NOT a reason to have a meltdown!”
My daughter gave one big sob, and in about 15 seconds she was fine—she was happy!—and she apologized for her behavior. I apologized too, and we talked about what had just happened. Now I’m confused. When I use my positive parenting strategies, this sort of thing is at least a 5—to-10-minute emotional coaching session, with lots of crying, deescalation, hugs, logical reasoning, etc. So here’s the fundamental question: Why did she respond so quickly and bounce back so easily when I did the “wrong” thing? (I hasten to say that I am not going to begin yelling at my child in situations like this, but I’m wondering if my positive parenting needs a makeover with where she is developmentally.)
—Do I Need a Positive Parenting Upgrade?
I am a big advocate of positive parenting, and I raised my own child in this way. But here’s the thing about thoughtful, intentional, reasonable, “positive,” and gentle parenting: Sometimes a parent, like any human being, just reacts. And sometimes reacting means shouting in exactly the way you did. (For the record—or at least for readers who remember my declaration that I never once yelled at my daughter—when I reached the end of my rope, I would burst into tears. I didn’t do this on purpose, any more than you yelled on purpose. It’s just what happened to me when I lost it with my kid. It’s possible it was more upsetting to her than being yelled at would have been.)
The answers to your questions are: She responded so quickly because your reaction was so completely out of the ordinary that you stunned her into stopping in her tracks. But she bounced back so quickly because of the four years you’ve put in treating her the way you have. I don’t know whether you need an upgrade, exactly, but I would say she is old enough now (as she demonstrated, I think, by recovering from that meltdown so fast) that you can scale back on the back-and-forth that probably does draw these meltdowns out. I know (from experience) that this downshifting isn’t easy. But your daughter has reached the age of reason (or some reason). When she is not in the midst of a freakout, you can talk to her about strategies for handling her frustration (you’d be surprised how much a 4-year-old can do to handle her own frustration if she has the tools) and calmly remind her of them when the meltdown comes. You can also remind her (also at a time when she is calm!) about how and why you lost your temper that day.
Look, I know that people who think conversations with a small child—especially patient and sympathetic exchanges with one who is “misbehaving”—are a waste of time, and they may roll their eyes at this advice. But I do have the long view. And I am well aware of the difference in behavior, attitude, self-awareness, empathy, and compassion between adults who were treated with compassion and respect when they were children and those who were not. So my answer to your fundamental question is: Stay the course. You can simplify and trim it to make it more age-appropriate, but don’t beat yourself up if you sometimes snap at her. She’ll take it in stride because you’ve done such a great job letting her know that you love her and respect her humanity. And it’s good for her to know that you’re human, that your patience is not in fact inexhaustible, that human beings sometimes fall short of their expectations for themselves … and that there will be times she will have to pull herself together on her own.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
Our sweet, funny, VERY sensitive just-turned 4-year-old daughter loves animals—and is right on the verge of figuring out where the meat we eat comes from. To be clear, we have never deliberately hidden this from her, but she has never expressly asked about it, and there’s no good way to randomly segue into “By the way, your dinner used to be alive.” She avoids eating chicken and turkey, and we’ve realized this might be because they’re called “chicken” and “turkey.” She does eat (with great joy) meats that don’t have the same name as their source animals, such as bacon, steak, and pot roast, but it’s clear from her comments that she doesn’t have a lock on what they’re made of. (“Dad, wouldn’t it be funny if bacon came from a pig like the ones that oink?!”) At some point soon, the jig will surely be up, and it is not unlikely there will be a lot of tears, some deep existential horror, and feelings of betrayal directed at us. If that’s the case, she’s also going to feel sad and mad about her conflicting feelings about whether to eat some of her favorite foods or not. How can we address this honestly while minimizing her distress? It seems like we should be preemptive about it, but how do we bring it up? For the record, we will tell her about vegetarianism and would be happy to stop feeding her meat if she asked (while ensuring that she gets enough protein and other nutrients, of course). We also do make an effort to purchase cruelty-free meat whenever possible, but I’m not sure that “Hey, the pig had a pretty nice life until someone killed it so we could have it for breakfast” is going to impress her.
My initial thought, when I read your letter, was that it would be easy to find resources for you—children’s books that introduce this idea in a gentle way. And when it turned out that I couldn’t, at first I was surprised. (I found plenty of books for families that have already committed to being vegetarian or vegan, helping children to understand this decision and supporting it wholeheartedly in a world that favors meat eating; I also found books designed to persuade children that eating meat is absolutely essential, nonnegotiable, including one called I Love Going to the Butcher, which kind of freaked me out, and one called Everybody’s Somebody’s Lunch, about which I thought, “Well, that’s just not true.”) Then I realized that of course no one has written the book I thought you needed.
This is a hard subject—too hard and too contradictory for a children’s book. The most interesting thing I found to read when I did my deep dive is an essay by the writer Anastasia Basil—herself a vegetarian whose kids are meat eaters—about the principle of letting her children make this choice themselves, for which she has been praised, and about which she is ambivalent. As a nonvegetarian who struggles with my own choice to continue to eat meat, which is hard for me to square with my own love for and respect for animals (who am I kidding? It is impossible to square), your question brought my own conflicts right back up to the surface, where I know they belong. And I remembered for the first time in many years what it was like when my own 3-year-old stumbled into this conflict. One day, out of the blue, she said, “Isn’t it funny that this food ‘chicken’ has the same name as the animal ‘chicken’?” and I understood that it was time to break the bad news to her. She cried. My husband, always looking for teachable moments, followed up then and there by telling her that the bacon she loved to eat (she was meh about chicken) was a food form of pigs, and when she laughed (because how ridiculous was that idea?) he went on: Steak and hamburgers were food forms of cows, while the meatloaf Mama made consisted of the food forms of cows, pigs, and lambs. And she still thought he was joking, teasing her, because he often teased her in a way she considered too rough. (She even called it “Daddy’s rough teasing.”) And so I was the one who had to say, no, this time he isn’t teasing, this time he means it. And she howled. Sad and mad doesn’t begin to describe it. For a while, she not only swore off all food that had once been an animal; she was also suspicious for the first time of all new foods I introduced, making sure I swore that it had never, ever been a living, breathing creature.
Eventually her favorite once-alive foods crept back into her diet, at her request: bacon, salami, sushi. I remember we talked about the conflict between the pleasures of eating such food and the disturbing truth about it, which led to conversations about other difficult choices and the complications of being human. (There’s no philosopher quite like a 4- or 5-year-old.) We talked about how humans are designed, like dogs and lions and meat-eating dinosaurs, to be able to eat meat, that we have the teeth and the digestive systems for it, and also about my commitment to purchasing meat only if I knew the animals had been humanely raised. I told her, without going into details, that some animals raised for meat or for egg-laying are not treated well. I told her that some people think there is no way to humanely raise animals for food, which is one reason they become vegetarians or vegans.
Oh, and we read Charlotte’s Web about a million times, and we both cried buckets every time.
Charlotte’s Web, which happens to be one of my all-time favorite books, doesn’t exactly do the thing I foolishly hoped I could find and recommend to you, but it might be a way in to having this conversation before your child raises the question herself (because you’re right—it’s just around the corner), and it’s also a wonderful way to spend some time every evening before bed. I think she’s just the right age for you to read it to her for the first time. But honestly, if you wait until she asks you—or until she tells you, because she’s figured it out and demands to know why you didn’t tell her sooner—that’s all right too (and if this is what happens, you can respond truthfully that you were waiting for her to be ready for this hard conversation).
I know I don’t have to tell you not to dismiss her feelings when she discovers the truth about her meals. I do urge you to be truthful with her about how you feel about eating meat. I think being honest with our kids, always, is foundational to being good parents.
The bottom line, though, is that you can’t really minimize her distress, and, as much as we want to protect our children from pain and sorrow and conflict, we shouldn’t protect them from all pain and sorrow and conflict. If we do, they’ll never learn the coping skills all people must develop to deal with these feelings. The best thing you can do is sympathize with her and be supportive. If she tells you she is going to be a vegetarian from now on, talk to her about how you’ll have to make sure her nutritional needs are met by finding other sources of protein that she likes eating. (This could be a fun project, trying new foods and cooking together. I know it was for us.) Your job as a loving parent in this situation, I believe, is to support her decision, whether it lasts a few days, weeks, years, or forever.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
My husband and I (both men) are hoping to start a family within the next few years. We live in a state where marijuana has been legalized for recreational use, and while we’re not heavy smokers, we both occasionally partake. We particularly enjoy edibles, which often take the form of cookies and candy in weed-themed packaging. To adult eyes, these items are very obviously drugs, but to a kid, I’m sure it just looks like delicious, delicious candy. I’m sure you see where I’m going with this. Once we have kids in the house, how can we keep our stash secure? How can we model safe, responsible marijuana use for our future kids? I’m particularly concerned because the serving size of an edible is usually one small cookie or a thumbnail-size piece of chocolate, and I don’t think a toddler who found Dad’s Secret Candy is going to pay a ton of attention to the dosage.
—Concerned Cannabis Consumer in CO
At last, an easy question! Here’s an excellent rule of thumb: Don’t have children until you are mature enough to give up edibles that look like—and in fact are (also)—cookies and candy. You can have your candy back when your children are grown. In the meantime, find another way to ingest your weed. (Or, you know, give up getting high for a while. People have given up a lot more for the sake of their kids.)
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Generally speaking, when one parent or the other is periodically gone for a brief business trip, what level of parenting is acceptable? I’m talking about things like meals, screens, etc. In our family it’s usually two days tops, maybe once every two months.