Care and Feeding

My Fiancé Treats His Kids Like Second-Class Citizens

A man in a checkered shirt putting a cookie in his mouth
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Grace Cary/Moment via Getty Images Plus.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I recently got engaged to a man who has two children from his prior marriage. The children are 7 and 9 and my fiancé has them part of the time, but they spend the majority of their time with their mother. At the beginning of our relationship, my fiancé set clear expectations: He wouldn’t introduce me to the children unless our relationship became serious; if it did, he would be making all parenting decisions. He said he’d had difficulties with his ex-wife around the issue of parental decision-making, and the conditions he set for us seemed reasonable to me.

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It’s only now—when we are engaged and I have moved in with him, and he and I have spent time with his children—that something has come up that troubles me. When his kids stay with us, he buys separate, lower-quality food items specifically for them. For example, we’ll have brand-name cookies for the two of us, and he’ll buy a box of store-brand cookies of the same type for the kids. If the kids get into the brand-name cookies, he’ll take them away and redirect them to the lower-quality items he has on hand for them. Even when we get takeout, he’ll get something more expensive for us and a much cheaper option for them. I’ve asked him why (neither of us are financially struggling; we can certainly afford to feed the children well), and he says that since kids don’t have developed palates yet, there’s no point buying the more expensive stuff for them. But I see them looking at what we’re eating, and it makes me feel awful. I’ve told him how I feel and he dismisses it, although he says if I don’t want to do this with our own future children, he won’t. (I am not entirely convinced of this. I think there is a chance he will treat them too like second-class citizens just because they are children.) He has been very clear about boundaries: I am to stay out of all choices he makes about his own kids.

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But I want to insist that he stop doing this. I don’t want his children to grow resentful of us and not want to spend time with us and their future siblings. Now I find that I am seriously questioning our future together—I’m filled with doubt over what I see as a serious character flaw. Is this normal behavior that I just haven’t come across before? Am I overreacting? I think about my own childhood, when my mother—a single, working-poor woman—made sure her kids had the best she could afford even if it meant that she had to go without.

—Concerned Fiancé

Dear Concerned,

I do not believe you are overreacting. I’m sorry to say that I think what he is revealing about himself through this behavior is something for you to be concerned about. I say this not only because his children may indeed come to the conclusion that they aren’t welcome in your home—and not only because, yes, if he believes that children’s “undeveloped palates” mean that the Oreos should be kept under lock and key (and snatched from them if they are foolish enough to defy him!), then he will certainly pull this nonsense again with those future children. I think he is demonstrating something ugly about himself—something small and ungenerous and unkind and unloving. When people tell you something about themselves, it behooves you to listen.

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Is it possible that his meanness toward his kids is displaced rage or hostility toward his ex? Sure. But even if it is, I imagine you’ll agree that it’s not a good sign that he would displace his anger in this way. If your fiancé isn’t willing or able to talk through this with you—if he refuses to discuss it on the basis of an agreement you made “not to interfere” (a dubious agreement in any case, if these kids are going to live with you part of the time, and one that needs to be revisited and retuned), if he is too rigid to hear you out—I think you are quite right to question your future with him.

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• If you missed Friday’s Care and Feeding column, read it here.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My parents (in their mid-60s) are now fully vaccinated against COVID-19; my spouse and I have received our first doses and will soon be fully vaccinated too. Hooray! None of us intends to change our behavior—we will all continue masking, social distancing, etc.—until the pandemic is more under control, but I’m increasingly concerned that my parents have reached a social opportunity cost of sorts. Some examples: They insist that they do not intend to do indoor restaurant dining ever again, or to shop in a store—they will continue to shop online or do curbside pickup. They have told my spouse and me that even when we are fully vaccinated, we need to get negative COVID test results before any visits with them. All of this, of course, is perfectly within their rights, but I’m having a hard time reconciling my pre-pandemic parents—spontaneous! social! big travelers at home and abroad!—with what appear to be my post-pandemic ones. I know we are a way off from “normal life,” but their anxiety increasingly strikes me as maladaptive, and I am worried about what indefinite self-isolation will do (and is doing?) to their mental health. Is it time to have a conversation with them about this, or would I be overstepping?

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—Child of Hermits

Dear CoH,

It is too soon to call your parents hermits—and even if they stick to their guns once we are well past these still-perilous times, permanently abandoning their previous life of spontaneity and travel adventures, I don’t think it’s fair to assume that there is something wrong with them. Those of us who have been around for over six decades, I think, have on the whole been more shaken than you younger people by the events of this past year. (My own daughter tells me that “it’s as if our whole generation has been prepared for this our entire lives, just waiting for the other shoe to drop.”) I don’t think it’s surprising that we (some of us, anyway) may have a harder time bouncing back. I myself—and I am both an optimistic and resilient person!—have had the dark thought that now that we have been plagued by one novel coronavirus, who’s to tell when the next one will be upon us? (Also, by the way, even though I am fully vaccinated, I am still having my groceries delivered because it’s become a habit, and so far I don’t see a good reason to change it.) Is their anxiety maladaptive? I don’t think any of us can say at this point what maladaptive is. Are many of us going to be living our lives differently, even once we return to “normal”? (Will we ever return fully to normal? That is, to those oblivious days of yesteryear? This mid-60s writer thinks she may not.) Maybe. In any event, I think a conversation with them at this point would be overstepping—and infantilizing. Unless you have reason to believe that your parents are suffering, depressed, or unable to take care of themselves, I’d keep my opinion of what they’re doing to myself.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My husband is a much more introverted person than I am, and during the pandemic I’ve noticed that he’s more involved with our daughter, who is 7 (I’ll call her Josie), than he had been before. It occurs to me that it’s because now it’s just the two of them (or the three of us) playing quietly together. I hadn’t thought much before about how I was always the one supervising play dates when other children were over, or taking Josie to other people’s houses. I’m a social person and it comes naturally to me; he, however, has considerable social anxiety. So I’ve been the room parent at her school, not him; I’ve been the one to take Josie and her friends to the zoo, etc. We both have fairly flexible work schedules, and he mostly works from home (even pre-pandemic), so the problem is not one of time/availability.

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Now that we’re beginning to see glimmers of hope for the future, I’m looking for some ideas about ways he can be a bigger part of her life. I don’t want to make his life miserable, obviously, but I would like to help him be more central to Josie’s life when it returns to normal. This is not so much a worry about fair division of labor—we have always been pretty good about dividing the housework along the lines of “who’s good at what” or “who hates it less” that you’ve talked about in the column (i.e., I do the cooking, he scrubs the pots; I keep the books/pay bills, he does all the yardwork). But there is definitely room for improvement when it comes to time spent with our daughter.

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—Helping Them to Bond?

Dear Helping,

I’m married to an introvert too, and much of what you say (except for the pandemic part) sounds familiar. I’m a little wary about you taking the lead in the project of your child and her father’s bonding—this should be his project, not yours—but it couldn’t hurt to gently bring it up some evening after your daughter is asleep. You might just tell him what you’ve observed during this past year, and how happy you can see your daughter is, how much it means to her to spend more time with him … and wonder aloud what kinds of quiet, father-daughter-only activities he might undertake with her post-pandemic.

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My husband always spent a good bit of time alone with our daughter. Never in a million years would I have asked him (or would he have volunteered!) to supervise a play date or take a bunch of kids on an outing—but he came up with activities the two of them enjoyed (and from which I was glad to be excluded, honestly—I was grateful for the break). They took horseback riding lessons together (he was shyer with their teacher than she was, but that was OK—it gave her the chance to practice her own social skills); they went to the park and he taught her to shoot hoops; they worked together on training our puppy (not all that successful, but it was a good shared project for them for a long time). They also spent hours together on art projects, building things, and making music—in other words, doing things my husband enjoyed and was good at, that he was happy to be able to share with her. I bet your husband can think of some things along those lines too. All you have to do is make sure not to (over)schedule Josie once things begin to “normalize,” so that she has time to spend time with her dad—which is just as important as play dates and parties and outings with other kids and all the other stuff she will be busy doing after school and on weekends … eventually.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My 8-year-old daughter has always been a great reader. She recently tested at the 11th grade reading level. She’s read pretty much every kids series I can think of, and I’m having trouble finding more books for her. I want to challenge her, but I feel like most books for older kids have more mature content than she’s ready for. She’s read some classics and has picked up on some of the more adult themes in them, even if they’re not overt. How can I find challenging books for her to read that aren’t too disturbing for her?

—Big Reader/Little Kid

Dear BRLK,

I was that kind of reader too—and so was my daughter. (In my time, I remember arguing with the children’s librarian at our local public library because the library card issued to those under 12 forbade taking books out of the adult section—and I couldn’t find anything to read in the children’s section anymore! I remember my mother reluctantly agreeing to check books out on her own card … and that I read a lot of books I didn’t really understand.) When my daughter and her best friend outgrew the vocabulary (and brevity) of most contemporary books written for children their age, I was better prepared than my parents had been, but I was still frustrated. The subject matter of books written for older children and “young adults”—“all these books about teenagers with big, terrible problems,” as my then-8-year-old described them—was not a good fit for her at all; her intellectual and emotional/psychological maturity were mismatched. I remember thinking then that I should write some books just for her and her friend Kristin. (But I am such a slow writer that I knew they’d be well past that stage before I finished even the first one.) I still think sometimes that I really ought to write something that employs sophisticated language and characterization but sticks to subjects appropriate for little kids.

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And maybe I’ll do that once I retire from my teaching job. In the meantime, I can tell you what worked for us during that awkward period. For starters, let go of her “reading level” label. It doesn’t mean that she’s ready to read books a 17-year-old would read; it only means that she has the reading comprehension of someone much older. So what you want to look for are books in which the vocabulary and syntax aren’t simplified, but that will appeal to a very young person. If she hasn’t read Little Women yet, that’s an obvious pick—complex enough in its language and storylines to challenge her, but written with the sensibilities of children in mind. Indeed, you may do better overall with books written in the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century than with more recent ones. I know you’ve mentioned “every kids series you can think of,” but I can’t tell if you’ve gone back in time to a series such as Mary Poppins. My daughter also loved The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew and all its sequels, as well as all the books by Edward Eager—and books by E. Nesbit, the writer who inspired him to write them. These are all books that don’t talk down to the children who are reading them, and they include plenty of words to look up. Black Beauty, while it has some disturbing themes (and I remember that it made my daughter anxious about my nightly glass of wine, since most of the bad things that happen in that book, she pointed out, happened because people were drinking), is by and large perfect for a young big reader. We also had good luck with the 1950s memoirs Cheaper by the Dozen and Belles on Their Toes. How about Anne of Green Gables? And if you’re looking for something more contemporary, the Anastasia Krupnik series by Lois Lowry is great—smart and funny and warm and not even a little bit boring for an advanced reader. She may also enjoy the beautiful, deeply moving novels of Katherine Paterson, Natalie Babbitt, Jean Craighead George, and Wilson Rawls.*

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Of course, I never tire of recommending Maud Hart Lovelace’s Betsy-Tacy series (the books get longer and the print gets smaller as the protagonists age—but the language is interesting right from the start). And what about A Wrinkle in Time? There are few books more perfect. And it has four sequels.

If all of these don’t get you through this period, once it’s safe to browse in bookstores again, you and your daughter might visit a local children’s bookstore—a knowledgeable bookseller can be a wonderful resource.

The bottom line is that this is a splendid problem to have, daunting as it may be. And—like everything else about our children’s childhoods—it won’t last long, after all.

—Michelle

Correction, April 5, 2021: This piece originally misspelled Katherine Paterson’s last name.

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