Care and Feeding

If My Family Gets COVID, Is It on My Shoulders?

Multi-generations of a family gathered around a Thanksgiving table to take a selfie.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by 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 don’t know what to do about my family wanting to get together for the holidays. I live in what was once the COVID hot spot in the U.S., but currently our numbers are OK. My family (three separate households) all live in a state where numbers are steadily rising and are located in two of the top five counties with the highest numbers. When I was invited down for Thanksgiving, I explained why I wasn’t going and they told me they understood. So imagine my horror to learn that the whole family is still getting together (all three households!) for Thanksgiving, and that my mother is planning a birthday party for my soon-to-be 58-year-old father.

I don’t know how to talk them about this. My life has been so thoroughly changed (my career is on hold indefinitely; I’m basically a shut-in), while they act like nothing is wrong—business as usual. I am so angry, and not just at them, but at the attitude that they and others like them exude. If everyone just listened to the experts and followed the rules, we would be much closer to being back to normal. How do I not let my outrage out on them, but still let them know that they are being very irresponsible? I’m afraid if I try to talk to them about this it will turn into a big fight. There is a lot of history of them thinking that I am judgmental, or that I think I am better than they are, which isn’t true (and a lot of it stems from my choosing to move away). But if I don’t say anything, and they wind up all getting COVID, how can I live with that, not knowing whether or not talking to them about it would have made a difference?

—Angry, Worried, and Unsure

Dear AWaU,

Your family—all three households’ worth—is not unaware that we are in the midst of a pandemic. Like many others, and mysteriously enough to you (and me), they don’t care. Either they don’t believe it’s as serious “as it’s been made out to be” because they know people who’ve contracted it and not only didn’t die but have now fully recovered, or they think contracting the virus (yes, and dying of it) is a matter of God’s will—or they have some other misbegotten rationalization for not taking a global pandemic seriously, despite the fact that more than 11 million people have been infected and more than 250,000 people have died to date in the United States alone that we know of. The New York Times talked to some people who are shrugging off the threat who can probably stand in for your family, if you’re looking for explanations.

Nothing you say will stop them from proceeding with their plans. I know it’s frustrating. I know you’re furious at them. I know you’re frightened for them. But this is wholly out of your control. You cannot persuade them that you are right and they are wrong, and trying to do so will indeed turn into a big fight. I suggest you take a leaf out of their book (they politely pretended that they didn’t think you were being ridiculous when you told them why you couldn’t join them, didn’t they?). Say “Happy Thanksgiving.” Wish your dad a very happy birthday—maybe even order a little gift online and send it with love. Please try not to give yourself an ulcer over their (and so many other people’s) willful recklessness. I am absolutely positively certain that if they all end up getting COVID, it will not be because you held your tongue.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My 7-year-old has zero pain tolerance—or else she is the most dramatic injured child you’ve ever seen. I understand that I can’t know how she’s feeling, but two recent examples were a microscopic splinter (standing straight up and easily plucked out with tweezers) that caused a nearly 20-minute screaming and crying fit, and a fall on the driveway with screams so piercing that I was sure I was racing to a catastrophe (the result: some scrapes on knees and hands that did not even draw blood). She also has periodic growing pains or muscle aches at night, which I can sympathize with because I remember them from my own childhood. We give her ibuprofen, which addresses the pain pretty quickly, but the drama over the initial discomfort far overshadows the actual pain. She sometimes is sobbing so hard she basically hyperventilates, which then leads to more distress over her nose getting stuffy or not knowing how to calm down. She can sometimes be quick to react at other times when things go wrong, but nothing compares to the volume, length, and intensity of the episodes that involve injury or pain. You can imagine how I’m dreading the flu shot. Now when she gets hurt and I hear the wailing start, I find myself initially reacting with exasperation, which is not what I want or what she needs. So what can I do? Which of our reactions can or should I work on?

—Crying Wolf?

Dear CW,

Yours.

Because I believe there’s a feedback loop here, and if your frustration with your daughter drives your efforts to change her behavior, the loop is going to keep going round and round.

I have the distinct sense that your daughter is responding to a message you are sending, however unintentionally. To be sure, I don’t know exactly what your message is, because there’s not much information in your letter. But whether her outsize reactions to pain are the result of her having a much lower threshold for pain tolerance than you do (in which case, you will need to adjust your expectations so that they match her reality rather than yours) or, as I think you lean hard toward believing, her being “just” a superdramatic little girl (who may well grow up to be a superdramatic person—so you might have to adjust to that, too), your frustration and irritation are something you’ll need to work on. Can you be honest with yourself about the big picture here? Is there any chance that she’s overreacting because she wants more attention, more sympathy, or more something than she’s getting from you otherwise? Is this a metaphor for mismatched need/response?

Maybe it’s not. But even if her freaking out over the slightest injury—the sort of thing you believe she ought to be able to brush off—and your exasperation with her because she can’t or won’t brush it off are an anomaly in an otherwise healthy, happy series of interactions (and relationship), you need to figure out a way to respond differently. Try to react to her outbursts calmly and patiently, with kindness—and without succumbing to the drama (I will confess to being surprised that you were sure you were “racing to a catastrophe” when she fell in the driveway, given the amount of experience you have by now with her reactions to such falls). This should eventually help her to respond less hysterically to her own minor accidents. For even if she does have little tolerance for pain, she will have to learn to express herself somewhat less forcefully if others are going to respond compassionately. (For that matter, even if these are the histrionic reactions of a future opera singer or actor, she’s going to have to learn how to tone it down when necessary, and to keep in reserve the big reactions.) But before you can help her master her own reaction to her misfortunes, you will have to master your reaction to her. Good luck—I can tell this will be challenging for you.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My daughter “Mia” is 16 and is a fairly serious ballet dancer. She has been dancing since she was 4. There was a period when she was younger—fifth through seventh grade—when she struggled, when she transitioned from the basic movements and techniques she’d been able to learn and master easily to more difficult and demanding ones: She would drag her feet before class and complain constantly (though she still loved performances and spending time with the other dancers). My husband and I insisted she stick with it despite her constant complaints that it was too hard. She ended up learning these difficult techniques, and she came to enjoy dance again. She’s also very close to her dance friends, and these friendships outside of school helped her through middle school.

Recently, I was talking to a friend of mine with a sixth grader whose daughter is complaining about ballet not being as easy as it was when she was 9 or 10. I told her how we had to push Mia to keep dancing when it got harder, but how by high school she had come to really enjoy it again. My friend seemed shocked. She said that forcing Mia to continue was practically abusive, that kids should always be allowed to quit an activity they’re no longer enjoying. I haven’t talked to her since, but now I feel really guilty and confused. I always thought kids should quit sports or activities when something was really wrong—like they didn’t like/get along with the teacher or the other kids, or the sport truly was so hard that being good at it was totally out of reach (or for that matter if it was just too easy!). Maybe our parenting styles are really different? The fact is, I played soccer as a kid, and when the games got more competitive and practices got longer when I was in middle school, I quit—and then, by my freshman year of high school, I regretted it and wished I’d kept playing. I’ll admit that this experience was partly why I didn’t let Mia quit dancing when she wanted to. Was I wrong? Is it abusive to make your kid continue with something when it gets harder? And if this was abusive or even just a case of overly high expectations, can I do anything to fix it?

—Am I That Dance Mom?

Dear AITDM,

Unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all rule about when to let our children quit an activity they’re no longer enjoying. But so much of parenting is making decisions we’re not certain about, flying by the seat of our pants as we try to determine what’s best for our kids. And our kids are not some monolithic category: Every one of these kids is a complex and unique human being. Just like every one of us.

And we all bring our own childhood baggage to parenting, right? I’m glad you recognize yours. But I’m curious, too: Do you still feel regretful about quitting soccer? And do you wish, looking back, that your parents had made you keep playing when you didn’t want to?

I ask because I have my own version of this (as perhaps everyone does). I quit piano lessons when I was 13 or 14. The pieces were getting harder, I hated practicing, and I felt I had better things to do with my time. And I do regret quitting. But I nevertheless think my parents did the right thing, letting me stop taking lessons. If they had forced me to keep going, I would have been miserable, I would have hated them for it, and I probably would have ended up hating the piano too, long before I could come around to being grateful to have stayed the course.

Since Mia has come out the other end of her struggle with dance and now finds it delightful again, it seems you can be fairly sure you did right by her in this situation—that is, that your instinct about what she needed, versus what she thought she needed, was on point(e). But of course the best way to be entirely sure about this is to ask Mia herself.

And even if she tells you that she wishes you had let her quit—that as much as she’s enjoying dance now, she truly suffered through the years betweentimes—I wouldn’t lose sleep over it. We make a million decisions on behalf of our children, and we make many of them by balancing the long view against the short one. Don’t let anybody tell you this is easy, or that there’s ever one right answer that applies to all children in all situations.

Dear Care and Feeding,

We have a wonderful almost 3-year-old who is learning and growing well in every way. We initially were super strict about screen time but gave in with TV and now she is, of course, obsessed. We still haven’t introduced a tablet or phone to her, though, and while she is somewhat familiar with scrolling through photos (when we look at them together), she has no clue what YouTube is and doesn’t understand how to operate a tablet or phone on her own. I’m completely uninterested in letting her have either of these items at this point but am concerned that she will be behind in knowing how to use this type of technology. The majority of our friends with kids her age allow them to use a tablet at home/in the car (which is totally their preference! I’m not judging!) and their kids are extremely proficient at operating them. Am I crippling my daughter by not allowing her to learn how to use such devices at this point or is it something she’ll pick up once she’s introduced to them?

—Screen Time Loser?

Dear Screen,

You know, I am deeply sympathetic to the way we parents second-guess ourselves. And I think I’ve made it clear that those million decisions we make for our children before they’re old enough to make them for themselves are often complicated and nuanced and very hard: I feel everybody’s pain.

Or I thought I did. But apparently I’ve reached the limit of my empathetic imagination. You’re asking if you are crippling your toddler by not letting her learn how to use a smartphone? Right now? You’re afraid she will be hopelessly behind her peers if she doesn’t? I’m sorry—I find it so exhausting to even contemplate this question I’m afraid I have to go lie down with a lavender-scented cloth over my eyes.

—Michelle

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