Dear Care and Feeding,
Should I read my daughter’s diary? Before you say “absolutely not!” here’s a longer version, with context, of my question. My daughter is 10, in fifth grade. She started a new school in September, where she didn’t know anybody. As is totally appropriate for her age, I’m sure, she is telling me almost nothing about her life. Many of my questions get one-word answers. But every night, she writes in her diary. And while I don’t have any specific concerns other than the general anxiety that comes with parenting a fifth grade girl in today’s world, I think that if I read her diary, I’d get a sense of what is going on and would able to be a more supportive and responsive parent. She wouldn’t have to know how I know what kinds of things to bring up (it helps that she knows I have access to all of her online chats and emails and that I occasionally skim them—though I have never mentioned anything I’ve read, and, TBH, I very rarely even skim them). I have thought through what I would do if I discovered something concerning in her diary, and I feel confident it would be fine. I know that breaking her trust is a terrible thing to do, but at the same time parenting a preteen is SO HARD because of limited information, and she’s at such a vulnerable age for social and internal stress to develop that I am finding it very difficult to resist. I saw my teen cousins struggle with eating disorders, self-harm, and anxiety, and I remember how much I struggled with social dynamics at my daughter’s age. I’m really hoping you will tell me it’s OK to read her diary, even though I suspect you won’t. Is there a way for me to get her permission, or will even asking her ruin everything?
—Nosy in the Northeast
No. No, no, a thousand times no—you must not read your daughter’s diary. And you shouldn’t ask for her permission to read it, either. A diary is private. That is the entire point of keeping a diary. (So while asking her won’t “ruin everything,” it’s not a very loving thing to do.)
I have a few questions about your burning desire to peek into this private corner of her life. First, if you’re so worried, why aren’t you looking at the online chats and emails that you do have access to? Is it that you assume that she’s being guarded there, since she knows you may be reading them? Or are you not that interested in what she’s saying to others—you only want to know what she is thinking? Or is there something else at play here? Do you not want her to have any privacy? Do you believe that at 10 she is not entitled to it?
Second: Have you tried talking to her? I mean really talking to her? Not asking her a bunch of questions (of course you’re going to get one-word answers) but having real conversations with her—maybe including those in which you tell her about your own struggles at her age. And third (and fourth and fifth, etc.): Have you ever had such honest conversations with her? What are your interactions like—what have they been like for these past 10 years? Children tend to be more open with their parents about how they feel, what’s on their minds, and what’s happening in their lives, when they believe they will be listened to (calmly), not judged, not overwhelmed by their parents’ responses. If you haven’t laid such groundwork in the past, you have a lot of work to do starting now. And it can be done! Creating an environment that encourages one’s child to confide their worries (and share their joys) and that allows children to feel certain they can trust their parents and lean on them when they need to doesn’t happen overnight. But I 100 percent guarantee that reading a kid’s private diary entries is not the way to do it. Restrain yourself.
You say you have no specific concerns, which suggests you’re not seeing signs of anything worrisome. This makes me wonder if some of what’s going on is just your (understandable!) sorrow that your little girl is growing up. If the two of you have been close, and this silence on her part is something brand new—and shocking—to you, why not try being honest with her about how you feel (but leave out the part about wanting to read her diary—and don’t sound tragic about it or make her feel responsible for your sadness)? Tell her you miss those long talks you used to have, or the fun things you two did together. Ask her if there’s something special she might want to do—or come up with something yourself that you know will interest and please her. And do everything you can to create opportunities for her to let her guard down a little (long drives, when you’re not looking at each other, can often do the trick).
One technique that some parents have found helpful when a child is unwilling to open up in conversation is keeping a journal that parent and child write in. A friend of mine has found that this has worked wonders with her 10-year-old daughter; she says that although they have periods when she and her daughter write in their shared journal a lot, and months at a time when neither of them write anything at all, when they do write an entry “and then slide it under the other’s pillow without saying a word,” it is the most marvelous treat when it is discovered there. Sometimes these entries are as perfunctory as “I really didn’t like dinner tonight. Why do you always have to make stew?” Every once in a while, though, a simple question about how school was will yield a long, heartfelt answer about a fight with a friend. This would definitely be worth a try for you.
But whatever you do, do not indulge your own worst impulses.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
I love my family (parents, siblings, in-laws), but I wouldn’t say I am attached to them. I have lived abroad, and I’ve been OK with not seeing family for extended periods of time. Now I live across state lines, and I really value the distance from them and being able to control when and how often we see each other. I think this is a completely healthy and normal thing. My partner, on the other hand, is extremely close to his family and doesn’t understand why I’m not as close to my family as he is to his. This is causing a rift between us as we are now raising our own little family. I want to spend holidays at home making traditions and memories with our children in our home. He wants to spend every single holiday with his family. No doubt we should have discussed this when we were planning a future together, because we aren’t compatible in this department (and I knew that—I knew, for example, that when he first moved out to live on his own, he went home multiple times a week to see his family).
I love his family; I enjoy spending time with them. But his expectation that we spend every Christmas with them is not sitting well with me. I don’t possess that innate desire to see my own family, and I just don’t understand his. This causes me to wonder: Can two people with such different ideas/feelings about family togetherness stay happily together as a couple? Obviously we both value “family,” or we wouldn’t have started our own. And I know having a family and maintaining a bond with your birth family are not mutually exclusive (don’t people do that all the time?). What I’ve been telling myself is that if it’s that important to my partner to spend holidays with his family, I will suck it up—though I know I will be resentful. I should add that Christmas for his family includes a large extended family, and I hate the idea of making forced small talk with his cousins and being forced to participate in a Secret Santa gift exchange with someone I see only once a year. Am I being selfish? If I am, lay it on me, I need to hear the truth.
—Grinch in Miami
I don’t think you’re being selfish, but I do think you and your husband need to hash this out. It’s a pity you didn’t talk about it when you were dating—but it’s also no surprise. It’s hard for people to think ahead, to project themselves into the future and picture how their very different approaches to life are going to work in the long term.
But I don’t think this particular incompatibility dooms the two of you. I can think of lots of couples in which one partner is close to their parents and the other isn’t (my own marriage is one of them: I talk to my mother every day and to my brother at least once a week, and pre-pandemic, I visited my mother every couple of months; my husband goes months without talking to his family and years without seeing them). Families are different, and there are plenty of reasons some spend a great deal of time together and others don’t. What’s important here is not how differently each of you interact with your families of origin but how you work out your life together given those differences.
If you hate the idea of spending every Christmas with your husband’s family, you need to talk to him honestly about it. Emphasize how important it is to you to start your own family traditions, in your own home. If your husband is heartbroken at the thought of never going “home” for Christmas again, then try to work with him on a compromise (one year at his family’s, the next year just the two of you and your kids at home—or Thanksgiving with his family and Christmas at home). The details of the compromise matter less than the idea of compromise itself. And honestly, this is a much easier clash of desires/ideas to compromise on than so many others are. Couples who don’t figure out ahead of time whether they want to have kids or not, or how many kids, or how they’re going to deal with religion or money or where to live, or a whole host of other matters that are hard or impossible to split the difference on, have a much harder row to hoe.
This is not to say that what you’re experiencing is trivial, or that “easier” means easy. You may be sensing that this issue is indicative of larger issues—that your feelings and desires, and the time the two of you spend as a family, are not your husband’s priority, that the needs/feelings/desires of his parents and extended family are. So I would be prepared for this conversation to stir up bigger subjects than the one that’s on the surface. For many couples, a real transition will happen only over time, as priorities change and their own nuclear family begins to shift into first position. I will say that I made the decision/announcement early on that all holidays would be celebrated in my own home—that we wanted to make our own traditions—and that both my family and my husband’s were welcome to join us if they chose to (they rarely chose to). And I’m already encouraging my daughter and her fiancé to do the same thing.
But this may have been easier for us because we were in our late 30s when we married and had our daughter—and because, as close as I have always been to my family, I had already long established a separate household with its own rhythms (and, of course, my husband was not in the habit of going “home”). For a lot of couples, there can be some significant and difficult growing pains (which is why I’m hoping to spare my daughter this particular challenge).
I would like to offer a suggestion for when you and your husband sit down to talk this through. Pay attention not just to what you are going to do, but to why you each feel the way you do. You note that he doesn’t “understand” why you aren’t as close to your family as he is to his—and also that because you don’t have the same desire to spend time with your family, you don’t understand his. Can the two of you have a productive conversation that helps you to understand each other? (And not just one conversation but an ongoing life of such conversations?) People don’t have to think the same way, or have the same needs and desires—or be just like each other!—in order to have a marriage that works. The differences are often what makes life interesting. But to stay married, you do have to make an effort to understand each other—and to compromise whenever there’s a way to.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
My spouse and I have an ongoing debate about guardianship of our two elementary-aged kids. When our second child was born, we got ourselves together to make a will and discovered that we had very different feelings about which of our siblings would make the best guardian if something were to happen to us. In the end, we selected our kids’ grandparents as guardians, realizing that this solution was probably not a long-term one as the grandparents get older. Now we’re months into a pandemic and this question suddenly seems urgent again. The main problem is that the siblings that have children are, in my opinion, pretty reckless in the face of the coronavirus (flying across the country for vacations, for example, or attending indoor parties without any precautions). It’s the selfishness of these actions that bothers me in particular. There’s no pressing need to change our wills at this point in time, but I find myself stewing over what we should do down the line—pick a sibling that makes what I consider very bad choices? Pick one of the other single-and-childless siblings? Tap a godparent, despite the inevitable strain that would cause on relationships within the family? I realize I won’t be around to deal with the fallout should it come to pass, but I still feel a need to sort out a plan.
—I’m Not Dead Yet
I’ve talked before about choosing a guardian, but your letter raises a very specific question that didn’t come up then, and it’s one that I’m glad to have a chance to answer. To wit: Do not choose a guardian for your children whose child-rearing decisions you already know you’re not on board with!
Forget about the “inevitable strain” on relationships within the family if you name one of the children’s godparents—or for that matter anyone else who’s not a blood relative—as guardian. The only relevant concerns when you choose someone to take care of your children if you die before you’ve finished raising them are 1) whether you would want/trust your children to be raised by this person, and 2) whether that potential guardian is up for the task. And please, please, ask them. (Under no circumstances should you pull a Hollywood movie move and surprise your friends.)
But also—as I noted the last time I talked about this—be prepared to make changes down the line as your kids grow older and they (and their needs, and your needs on their behalf) change. The person you designate to care for your 8- or 10-year-old may not be the one you want to turn to when your child is 16. But whomever you decide on, you are absolutely right that you should have a plan in place now. This can turn on a dime from a theoretical discussion to an emergency one.
Not that I mean to be morbid. I’m sure you and your spouse will live long and happy lives and dance at your grandchildren’s weddings. But just to be safe, I’d say there is indeed a pressing need to change your wills. If you’re still comfortable with the grandparents as your children’s potential guardians right now, you can let that be—but do name the person or people who will step in if the grandparents are unable to do so. That needs to be in writing, notarized, and kept in a safe place.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
My niece and nephew, ages 4 and 2, are sweet kids. However, they are overindulged and borderline spoiled. Their mother almost never corrects them when they misbehave. She will occasionally make a halfhearted attempt, but will never follow through. The kids get away with everything and basically rule the house. When their father attempts to correct them, the kids burst into tears and crawl into their mother’s lap, and she will then reprimand their father for talking to the kids that way (when he was not being harsh or unreasonable).
I am trying to be objective, but their father is my brother. I have a good relationship with both him and his wife. But my brother isn’t going to take marriage or parenting advice from his little sister. I don’t feel comfortable saying anything to my sister-in-law, and she definitely isn’t going to appreciate interference from me. But the alternative is watching my niece and nephew turned into brats, and watching my brother get bullied stinks, too. I don’t know what to do, if anything. I know that you can’t tell other people how to run their lives and raise their children. Other members of the family seem to feel the same way I do, but we all feel powerless to do anything. Any advice would greatly appreciated.
Any advice will be appreciated—really? I sincerely hope you mean that.
Because my advice is: Mind your own business. Your brother is a grown-up human being who can advocate for himself if he needs to. The children are not yours to raise. And no one—no one, not even siblings (especially not siblings, and most especially not a sibling-in-law)—appreciates unasked-for advice about their marriage, raising their children, or their lives.
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