Dear Care and Feeding,
I’m a mother to a 9½-year-old daughter. She’s thoroughly inquisitive and wants details about how babies come to be. She knows about vaginas and penises. She understands periods. She understands puberty. But I’m not sure if she’s old enough or mature enough to know about sex. She still believes in Santa Claus! My mother insists I should tell her. But I don’t think so. She’s an only child and I’m not sure she’s ready for that type of knowledge. How or when will I know if she’s ready?
—Not So Comfortable Parent
Dear Not So Comfortable,
What could being an only child or believing in Santa Claus have to do with this? It seems like you’re the one who’s not ready, but your mother is right: You need to talk to your daughter about sex. How do you know she’s ready? 1) She is 9½, 2) She already knows about puberty and periods, 3) They’re probably going to start talking to her about it in school next year anyway, and 4) She keeps asking you to tell her.
Of course, this won’t be a one-and-done chat—it’s a conversation you’ll have for years—but you’ve got to at least be willing to start, and do so in a way that centers her questions, feelings, and bodily autonomy. If you’re having trouble moving past your own embarrassment, I urge you to interrogate and work on that, not make your feelings or anxieties your kid’s burden. She should never have to feel embarrassed or, worse, ashamed to ask questions about sex.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
I have two daughters ages 10 and 9. The youngest is on the autism spectrum, recently diagnosed. She doesn’t usually require intervention in most settings, including school. She does, however, struggle in some social interactions with her peers, and also tends to wander off occasionally.
Both my daughters wished to attend summer day camp last summer and were placed in the same group due to their ages. We had already discussed the situation with the camp director, and she assured me that there was a place for children with disabilities. I told my 10-year-old to look out for her sister, and asked her to let their counselor know if her sister was struggling or getting distracted enough to wander. My oldest is very social and outgoing, and I was hoping she would make sure to include her sister, although I purposefully did not say that to her.
Recently I was discussing how well my daughter is doing with other parents and mentioned how much she had enjoyed day camp, adding that I was lucky to have her sister looking out for her. The other parents berated me over how unfair it was to have put such a burden on my older daughter. (Note: Both my girls had a blast at camp.) Now I am concerned that I did wrong, and may continue to do wrong, by my older daughter. I was the oldest growing up and was often charged with looking out for my siblings. I was never asked to be responsible for them, only help out the way most eldest children do. I would never ask more from my child than that. But my siblings did not have autism.
What is reasonable to ask of my nonautistic daughter in relation to her sister? Naturally my oldest is accustomed to her sister’s mannerisms and behavior and understands how and why our family has to do things a little differently than other families, but I also don’t want to put an unfair amount of responsibility on her, now or in the future.
—Mom to Both
Dear Mom to Both,
I’d really like to have some words with the other parents who were giving you a hard time, because there are definitely ways they could have registered any well-intentioned concern (like, you know, a simple question: “How does your 10-year-old feel about looking out for her younger sister?”) that wouldn’t have made you feel so crappy. Especially when you were expressing happiness over how well your 9-year-old is doing and what a good camp experience both your kids had! I know these little things aren’t always so little, and can feel like huge victories—your 9-year-old really wanted to go to camp, you knew her autism might make the experience more complicated for her than it might be for some, and she did really well and had a great time. And it sounds like your 10-year-old’s experience was just as positive! Honestly, the other parents’ berating you about this strikes me as a bit suspect—as if maybe some of them just really wanted to take the opportunity, while you were celebrating both your children, to remind you that your 9-year-old is different from some other kids and question whether you had a right to feel proud at all. UGH, like I said, I just wanna talk to them.
I don’t blame you for being upset or second-guessing yourself, but I don’t think you’ve done anything egregious. It’s totally normal for older siblings to be told to keep an eye out for their younger siblings. I do think you will want to be careful to not make your older child responsible for her younger sister’s safety or social experience, at camp or anywhere else, because that would of course make her feel it was her fault if something went wrong. But it seems fine to ask your 10-year-old (who does know her sister very well, better than anyone else at camp) to let the adult(s) responsible know if your 9-year-old might need more help or attention—this seems like fairly standard big sibling behavior, akin to what was expected of you as the eldest sibling. It’s also what any camper should do if they see another one struggling or doing something risky. From what I remember of camp, campers are generally encouraged to be safe, use the buddy system, look out for one another, and let an adult know if someone needs help.
I do think it’s good that you’re thinking about this, and how what’s asked of your 10-year-old could affect her and her relationship with her sister. Remember, you can just ask your kids how they’re doing and feeling about something—and you could follow up and ask about camp specifically, if you want. If your 10-year-old has feelings about your request to look out for her sister, hopefully you can draw that out of her. If she didn’t mind, but might like to be in a separate camp group from your 9-year-old next summer, that seems fair and worth supporting. If you think your 9-year-old might need extra supervision, talk to the camp director again—if the camp is serious about accommodating all kids, they should work with you to find an option that feels workable and safe.
As your kids get older, talk with both of them regularly about the larger issue of their relationship, and make sure you’re never asking your 10-year-old to be another kind of parent to your 9-year-old. You want to let them be sisters, because that’s what they are and what they need from each other! But also: Remember that their sibling relationship doesn’t have to look exactly like everyone/anyone else’s to be strong and loving and deeply nourishing to both. I think the fact that you’re already considering this question should help you establish an ongoing conversation with your daughters, listen to what they tell you, and hopefully do right by both of them.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
How do couples make their relationship work when they’re parents to little kids? This seems like a pretty basic question, I know. My partner and I have two kids under 4. It feels like we spend all of our emotional resources figuring out how to parent, and we have nothing left for us as a couple at the end of the day. I think we do a good job navigating the challenges of parenting together, but I feel like we’re distant now. We both have complex and demanding jobs (kids in day care), we don’t do date nights anymore thanks to COVID, and we spend our evenings reading the news on our phones. Do we need to work on this? Or is this normal, and we just need to survive until the kids are old enough to require less energy (does that happen, ever)?
—Roommates Not Spouses
Ha, well, older kids often require less physical energy, though I can’t promise you’ll suddenly have copious amounts of unused emotional energy. One way or another, I do think it gets easier—and then harder—and then easier, because parenting is all about those seasons, and as soon as you get used to a seemingly steady state, it changes again.
Speaking of seasons, I don’t think we talk enough about the reality of distances, peaks and valleys, in our long-term relationships. Of course, distance can be created because someone has done something wrong, or because of some other problem (I am sure our current hellscape has put a strain on many, many otherwise strong relationships!). But so often it’s just a natural byproduct of normal-but-stressful life; i.e., what you and your partner are experiencing: demanding jobs and demanding kids and not enough time in the day. The way you’re feeling is totally understandable, given how maxed out you both are right now. I really think the first step is to raise this with your partner—because you won’t know for sure what’s at the root of this, or whether you’re alone in feeling this way, until you talk about it.
When you bring this up, you don’t have to present it as a huge problem (unless that’s how you honestly feel, deep down, and how you want to frame it). You could just say something like, “I love you, and I love spending time with and feeling close to you, and it’s been hard to do that lately—can we talk about how to make more time for us and our relationship, even though we’re both incredibly busy?” I know it’s not always easy to talk about what feels hard or just off in a relationship, but it might actually come as a relief to be able to discuss this honestly. It could even bring you closer and/or lead you to some shared solution. Maybe that’s as simple as making a conscious effort to put your phones down (the news will still be bad tomorrow), set aside time to talk each day, and schedule more (at-home) date nights. Maybe it’s something else altogether—again, you can’t really know until you talk it through.
Even when we’re exhausted and feel we might have little to give, I think it’s always good for us to hear the simple truth that we are loved by someone who wants to feel and be close to us. I hope what you hear is that your partner cares just as much about your relationship as you do, and also wants to prioritize it despite how much you both have going on right now. And I hope that talking openly and honestly, with love and patience, eventually leads you to whatever kind of solution (or stopgap measure) may be found right now. If you find over time that talking and being more intentional about finding time for each other really hasn’t helped, and you’re still feeling distant—or some other issue or problem has arisen—then you can discuss options like counseling and where to go from there.
Dear Care and Feeding,
My mom was always a yeller. And I know my sister and I were jackasses who sometimes deserved to be yelled at. But it seemed to be her only disciplinary tool, and I feel like I’m going down the same path.
My daughter is 3½, mostly normal (for a toddler). I could go on, as expected, about all the ways she’s a mostly delightful kid, but the reality is I need help with when she’s not delightful. When she engages in what I’m pretty sure is normal 3-year-old behavior, the only thing I can think to do is scream at her to get her to stop. I’m bad at abstracts, so here’s an example: Today she asked me for a candy cane. We don’t have any in the house, so I said, “No, we don’t have candy canes, but next time I go to the store I’ll pick one up.” She immediately flung herself on the ground and started sobbing “I WANT ONE.” I tried explaining that we don’t have any, but what if we made some dinner together? She responded by ripping off her socks and flinging them across the room. I told her that we don’t throw our clothes on the floor, could she please pick them up and put them in the laundry basket. She screamed, “NO, YOU CAN’T MAKE ME.” I gave her a choice: Put the socks in the basket, or sit in timeout. She chose timeout and proceeded to shriek, “I WANT A CANDY CANE” for the entire three minutes. And this is where I broke.
Our house is not that big. I’d be content to let her scream her head off, but there is literally nowhere I can go to escape the screaming. This is a normal routine in our house—she does something, I attempt to intervene, she screams because she’s 3, and I scream to get her to stop screaming (no, the irony is not lost on me). I’d like to break this cycle, but short of leaving the house, which isn’t actually great in Chicago in December, I don’t know what else to do. Her screaming like she’s being murdered pushes me to my breaking point, and the only thing that I’ve found that snaps her out of the cycle is me yelling STOP SCREAMING at the top of my lungs. I’ve mentioned her tantrums to our pediatrician, but he and I believe they are well within the range of normal toddler crap. This is definitely a me problem and I’m just not sure what to do about it.
—Help Me Not Be a Yeller
Dear Help Me,
I know it can be hard to break the cycle when your parent was a yeller. I also think there’s a difference between raising your voice (mostly to be heard) and screaming at a child at the top of your lungs. Please, please don’t scream at your kid—it really freaks them out, it doesn’t work as a disciplinary tool, and everyone will feel completely lousy after. Children can’t quit the exact behavior you’re modeling, you know?
My first question when encountering a screaming kid is: Are they screaming because there’s a problem they have or a need that’s not being met, and they might not be able to identify and/or communicate with you about it? But it sounds like you and your pediatrician are on top of this and monitoring for now, so—assuming this really is within the realm of normal toddler tantruming—I’ll just leave you with the following: 1) Again, please don’t scream at your kid! 2) Don’t give in when she screams (for unnecessary things, I mean!), or it will never stop; and 3) Noise-canceling headphones. Your friend and mine, noise-canceling headphones! My kids aren’t screamers, and I still wouldn’t have gotten through a single month of pandemic life without mine.
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