Dear Care and Feeding,
My wife lets our 4-year-old son pee on the tree in the yard when he’s outside playing, rather than having to go inside. I think it’s weird. She says that’s what boys do. I certainly was not raised to just pee where I wanted, unless it was an emergency and there wasn’t a bathroom around. I know he’s young, but I’d prefer to not let this become a habit. Is this a battle I should keep fighting?
—To Pee or Not to Pee
OK, pee-pee Hamlet. For the record, I don’t think peeing on a tree is “weird.” Peeing outdoors is fun for all genders and ages. To me this seems very NBD. However, as with all low-stakes parenting conflicts between married people, the real problem here is not pee but consistency. You two need to present a united front—in general, not just about where it’s OK to urinate.
Living with two different sets of rules can be confusing for kids, and even scary. With that in mind, communicate, compromise, and don’t get pissed off over something so silly.
Dear Care and Feeding,
I have a friendly but emotionally distant relationship with my parents. Both of my parents are somewhat broken people, and while I knew I was and know that I am loved, I was raised in a chaotic home. My parents were often warm and even indulgent, but were also prone to emotional outbursts that included excessive corporal punishment for minor infractions when I was young (less than 8) and edged on emotional abuse as I became a teenager. I have always been a very sensitive person, so it is difficult for me to put some of these experiences in context (i.e., “Am I being too sensitive?” “Maybe it wasn’t that bad.” “I was not easy to get along with”). In high school, I developed an eating disorder and went through intensive therapy to recover. Through this therapy and continued therapy as an adult, I set boundaries with my parents and built an emotional wall where I can maintain a surface-level relationship with them while not requiring them to acknowledge or apologize for how I was raised (they have done neither). I try to accept them for who they are and keep my expectations low. This worked fine over a decade.
Now I am in my 30s and have a child of my own. She is around the same age that I was in my earliest memories of my parents’ chaotic/abusive behavior. In some way, I think I have excused my parents’ actions because they were “overwhelmed,” “kids are hard,” “I wasn’t easy.” The thing is, my daughter is hard, I am often overwhelmed, none of this is easy—but I would never, ever even think of hurting my daughter. The thought of it horrifies me. I imagine her in the scenarios that I experienced at her age and I am overcome with emotions—anger and resentment for my parents, sadness for myself. I don’t know what to do with these emotions, and it is affecting my relationship with my parents. I feel myself shutting them out even more than I already have. I feel guilty because they have no idea what is going on and more resentful because I don’t think they have even noticed. I want to confront them, but I do not think they would be receptive to a conversation because I tried that in my early 20s, thinking we would have an emotional moment and it would strengthen our relationship—but they denied wrongdoing, my mother was extremely hurt, my father shut down. Nothing ever came of it, and I’m not sure they are even capable of acknowledging everything that happened. It’s as if it didn’t happen at all.
For the record, they are very loving and gentle with my daughter, so I am not concerned about their relationship with her (though I am on alert for any signs of past behavior). I have always wanted a close relationship with my parents, and I still feel grief because I don’t think we can ever have that. How do I get past this, so I can at least maintain what I have?
—Still the Sad Kid
Your letter breaks my heart, and I just wanted to start my response by letting you know that I think the world of you. What you’re dealing with is so hard. You’re brave and strong, and you’re bringing that strength to your relationship with your daughter. It’s tragic that your parents could not find that same strength when you were a child, and it’s infuriating that they’ve been unwilling to address the wrong they did. That sadness and resentment you feel are valid. You don’t have to ignore those feelings, and you should not. They’re telling you something important, and you have to let yourself experience them fully in order to continue to heal. As you already know, healing is hard work. It’s also not always a linear process. You may feel like you had made progress that was undone after your daughter was born, when you learned firsthand that the excuses you’d made for your parents didn’t hold up. You found you had more to be angry and sad about than you’d previously thought. That doesn’t negate the work that kept your relationship with them tolerable through your 20s—it just means that there’s more healing still to do.
The good news is, while you are still sad, you are not a kid, Sad Kid! You’ve continued to live and thrive into adulthood, despite some very big obstacles. Whether or not you decide to involve your parents in the next step of your emotional growth, I hope you can acknowledge to yourself that you’re a wise, accomplished adult who’s in a position to take good care of herself and her daughter. Touch base with your strength and feel proud of yourself as much as you can. Try to give yourself what your parents could not: consistent, unconditional support.
Trying to maintain what you have doesn’t strike me as a workable plan or goal because what you have is making you feel terrible. One potential path is to try one more time to get your parents to reckon with the past—perhaps the addition of a grandchild to the equation may have changed things. You might try role-playing different ways this can go with a trusted friend or therapist and seeing how their potential responses make you feel before you decide whether you want to take this on. I personally love a big dramatic clearing-the-air blowout, but it’s not guaranteed to make you feel better or elicit the reaction you deserve—which, for the record, is genuine contrition and an ongoing commitment to making amends. On the off chance that’s not what your parents have to offer, you might end up feeling worse, at least in the short term. And while there’s a case to be made for a controlled demolition of the relationship, that might not be the right choice for you for any number of reasons. Feel it out. Be honest with yourself and try not to shy away from the immensity of these feelings. It’s tragic to love your parents and also understand that they are not capable of the kind of care you deserve. Take care of yourself. Let yourself grieve.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
I work for a program that provides a space for children to attend virtual classes while their parents are at work. It’s hard to get any 5- or 6-year-old to sit still and stare at a screen for hours, but there’s one child in particular, “Dennis,” who really goes above and beyond. He constantly shouts, runs around, scatters his papers on the floor, talks to other kids while they’re in class, inserts himself into conversations that don’t involve him, falls off his chair from sitting on it improperly, and plays with toys when he should be doing work. Even worse, his hyperactivity often gets the other kids excited and they’ll start acting up as well. I have absolutely no idea how to get Dennis to sit still for longer than five minutes. Most days I spend my whole shift yelling at him to sit down and be quiet. It’s exhausting and stressful. I’ve tried everything from moving his seat, to giving him worksheets between classes, to literally sitting right next to him. Sometimes it’ll work briefly, but never long term. I honestly believe he may have ADHD, but I realize it’s not my business to determine that. My supervisor has brought Dennis’ behavior to his mother’s attention, but she hasn’t said anything more helpful than “Yeah, kids that age are like that.” I know he’s only 6, and I’m not saying the other kids are perfect angels, but there’s a noticeable difference between how the other kids act up and how Dennis acts up. When he’s absent, it’s like night and day. I’m a part-time worker in my mid-20s, not a parent or an early childhood specialist. How can I get him to calm down?
—Menaced by Dennis
You can’t get Dennis to calm down. It’s above your pay grade, and it’s also not a realistic thing to expect of him. As I’m sure you understand better than most people, it’s not a realistic thing to expect of most 5- or 6-year-olds, even though some of them are able to tolerate what’s being asked of them during this period of distance learning better than others. It sucks that you have to be on the front lines of this; it’s a problem that’s much bigger than you or Dennis or this particular program.
See if you can start by mustering some empathy for this kid—he’s incredibly annoying, but he’s also suffering, through no fault of his own. You don’t have any obligation to do this, but in your shoes, I would try to advocate for Dennis to get schooling that’s appropriate to his developmental stage. Whether or not he “has ADHD,” he definitely isn’t able to learn remotely, and his school has an obligation to accommodate his learning style. Ask your supervisor for permission to talk to his mom, or get your supervisor to convey your specific concerns to her. Express willingness to communicate with his school directly. Ideally, Dennis will be able to get an individualized educational plan based on his needs; this is his right as a student. If this works—big if—he will no longer be your problem.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
I inherited a lake house from my uncle that could generously be described as a fixer-upper. My wife and I sunk a lot of time and money into it, and our family has been spending the summer there since our daughters were little. Our family loves going to the lake, and we really don’t take many vacations aside from going there and once in a while to Disney World/Universal Studios. But our 15-year-old has recently started complaining that we don’t take her anywhere “exciting” on vacation and that we should skip the lake and go somewhere else like Mexico or Europe, where her friends go. Obviously that can’t happen right now, but even if we weren’t in the midst of a pandemic, I don’t see the point of spending thousands of dollars to travel somewhere else when we’ve already spent a lot of money to make sure we have somewhere just as nice to go each summer. But I also don’t want to force her into spending two months bored out of her mind. Is there a compromise somewhere between a luxury Parisian vacation and the same lake house we’ve been going to since she was a toddler?
—Loathing the Lake
Is there a compromise somewhere between luxury Parisian vacation and the same lake house you’ve been going to since your daughter was a toddler? Um, let me think. Hmmm. Yes! Maybe you and your daughter can work together to come up alternative options, though it’s true they might not all be possible this year. She’s old enough to understand that you have a budget, and might even find working within it to be a fun challenge. As a bonus, she can maybe begin to understand that not everyone has a lake house, or a vacation budget, at all. If this does seem to be naturally dawning on her, you could even nudge her one step further and suggest sticking with the lake house and donating the money you’d have otherwise spent to a food pantry or a hospital that lacks PPE.
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My toddler is spitting everywhere! He’s really enthused about spitting his spit, drooling water or milk out of his mouth, etc. It’s gross! Right now, I’m making him go outside when he’s spitting, and we’re just not going to have milk until he’s done with that. I left him briefly alone with a milk cup and came back to find his face, his shirt, and my rug covered in a fine spray of milk. What am I supposed to be doing here?
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