Dear Care and Feeding,
Over the last couple of years, I’ve put a lot of effort into becoming a better, more patient parent. I come from a long line of parental estrangements, and I’m estranged from my own parents, too. I knew I needed to break this family cycle with my kids. The stress of becoming a parent had honestly brought out the worst in my temper, and I felt an urge to withhold affection from my children, an urge I didn’t understand or like. I’ve come a long way—I very rarely yell, never spank, and I’m generally responsive and caring. I’m not perfect, but my kids are wonderful, and they have a mom who loves them and laughs with them.
Parenthood has also brought out the worst in my husband—he’s unnecessarily harsh, yells at them, is inconsistent in discipline, and assigns punishments that are not logical or developmentally appropriate (threatening to ground our 5-year-old for a month for giving him trouble at bedtime, for example). He lectures until they’re bleary eyed over minor infractions, he bribes and feeds them candy several times a day. He also undermines me, and it’s very clear in our kids’ behavior—they’re obnoxious brats whenever we’re both home, but are great as soon as he leaves the room.
I don’t believe we merely have a difference in perspective. If anything, I think my own experiences make the disfunction of this all too clear and I can’t unsee it now. I don’t know what to do, because attempts at talking to him about it seem to only make things worse. But I see our family headed for disaster. What do I do? Leave to preserve my own parenting influence or stay and try to play referee? Or is there an option where my kids get two great parents and I get to keep my marriage?
—Witnessing a Train Wreck
Dear Train Wreck,
You need marriage counseling, stat. I’m not saying that your husband hasn’t gone off the deep end, but I also think that there’s more to this story than what I’m reading here. Is he dealing with stress at work? Is he feeling undermined or unloved by you? Don’t get me wrong here — I’m not here to place blame—but I bet if your husband wrote in, he would tell a different story. You need to insist that you both seek professional help because your marriage is on the line if you don’t.
I’m also worried about how your kids are faring, because getting mixed messages from parents is detrimental in so many ways. Your husband’s anger issues should be worked out through therapy, but in the meantime, you need to tell him that you need to be a unified front as parents. No backstabbing allowed from this point forward.
Be firm with him. None of this is up for debate. If he doesn’t take you seriously, then maybe it will be time to look into moving in another direction. You have to do what’s best for yourself and your kids, and staying in this situation as-is, certainly isn’t it.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
I have no children of my own, but I have long functioned as an unofficial aunt to my cousins’ children. There are thirteen of them altogether, and several are at the ages where they are graduating from high school and college. We live very far apart from one another, so most of my connection to them is through social media as well as occasional family get-togethers for holidays or celebrations. Normally I send a cash gift to each graduate, doubling the amount for college, with the idea that the money will help them buy items for their dorm rooms or establish a new apartment, or serve to provide a treat as they are starting out. This system has worked well over the years.
This year, I have a dilemma. Two of the girls (I’ll call them Mary and Emily) are graduating from college, and Emily’s brother “Rob” is graduating from high school. Mary is a delightful young woman, and I’m happy to celebrate her achievement. I used to have great relationships with her cousins. Over the last year or so, though, Emily and Rob have developed some troubling views, which they frequently express on social media. They, and their parents, are convinced that the presidential election was stolen and are constantly posting lies about American politics. Their mom watches nothing but OANN, and their dad seems to spend most of his free time working on his gun collection and forwarding conspiracy emails.
Emily attended the rally in Washington on January 6, but as far as I know did not go inside the Capitol. They also post some pretty hateful language, regularly sharing racist and anti-Semitic videos and links. Rob makes fun of President Biden’s stutter. It got to the point that I had to mute them to avoid being upset. My attempts to reach out, even to ask simple questions like, “Hey, where are you getting this information?” have been disastrous.
I teach government at the college level and am used to navigating conversations and relationships with people who share different political views. I don’t have a problem with Emily and Rob having different political views than I do. I have a problem with their overtly racist, ableist, hateful views, and I’m hesitant to give either of them a graduation gift. I know that a gift is a choice and that I am never obligated to give one. But all the cousins are close, and Emily and Rob have likely heard that I give these gifts. Even if they haven’t, Emily and Mary are close, more like sisters than cousins, and so Emily will almost certainly learn about it that way.
When their family finds out, there will be a lot of family drama, especially with Emily and Rob’s mother. More importantly, though, I know that one of the only ways to reach people who have extremist views is to be in relationship with them, and to keep lines of communication open. I’m afraid that if I don’t send these gifts, that will lead to a break in the relationships that cannot be repaired. As one of the few voices of reason in their lives, I don’t want to cut off all communication. On the other hand, the relationship is already broken in many ways, and what they believe is truly noxious. What’s the right thing to do?
Dear Gifting Dilemma,
This is an easy one. Give Mary a gift and the others get nothing.
You mentioned that one of the only ways to reach extremists is to be in a relationship with them. I couldn’t disagree more. A friend of mine once told me that “bees don’t waste their time trying to convince flies that honey tastes better than poop.” It’s not your job to save people from their bigoted, backwards views. Your job is to live your best life, and spend it with people who aren’t hateful.
So you give a gift to Mary while the others get nothing. What about the drama that will ensue? Who cares? You just said your relationship is broken anyway. Why would you waste your time worrying about what those people think? I feel like I’ve said this a thousand times in this column, but I’ll say it again. It’s high time that we start making racists and bigots feel ashamed, marginalized, and ostracized. Remind yourself you’re not disagreeing on universal healthcare or the percentage of income wealthy people should pay. You disagree on basic humanity and decency, and that can’t be negotiated.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
My 5-year-old daughter is smart, thoughtful, and kind. She’s also very sensitive—emotionally and physically. With even the most minor injuries she breaks down in loud screams and wails. We’re talking barely stubbed toes and tripping over her feet. As a baby, we were quick to respond with hugs and comfort, but more recently we’ve encouraged her to take a deep breath and try calm herself down. There is no shortage of love or bonding in our home, we just want to thoughtfully help her “toughen up” a bit as she approaches kindergarten.
Recently, while at the park with my friend, her husband, and our kids, my daughter fell off a swing. It was scary for her, but she was not injured. At the moment, I was holding my friend’s baby, and her husband picked my daughter up from the ground. My daughter immediately wrapped her arms around him and buried her face in his neck while she cried, and he comforted her. This is a couple we see perhaps twice a year. We’ve been friends a long time, but I wouldn’t consider my daughter close to them. I found her reaction to be uncomfortably personal. It made me worry that by taking a more hands-off approach when she faces minor injuries, that it makes her more vulnerable to getting it from somewhere else. I’m also concerned that others would prey on her sensitivity. Am I reading too much into it? Or should I take a different approach?
Dear Too Tough,
Your kid is clearly manipulating you. The act of “burying her face into another man’s neck” seems as if it was done to make you feel bad as opposed to soothing her. Your daughter is going to get knocked down—literally and figuratively—throughout her time on this earth. There’s nothing wrong with getting upset, but as one of my mentors once told me, “cry hard but don’t cry for long.” Teaching our kids how to handle adversity and be resilient are probably the most important lessons we can teach them. Being a lawnmower parent (removing all of the pain and obstacles from our kids’ paths) doesn’t serve them at all. I’m sure you already know that.
She has to learn that wailing for no reason will get her no response from you. In doing so, you’ll have to let your adult friends know that they can’t come to her rescue like your friend did. Eventually, she’ll come to the conclusion that it isn’t a healthy way to get attention from you. If she doesn’t learn it on her own, I promise you she’ll learn it from her peers who won’t let her hear the end of it.
You’re not taking a hands-off approach by letting her work through her minor injuries. I view it as the opposite: You’re teaching her vital life skills that she will surely need as she grows older. A quick hug and a check-in to see if she’s OK is totally cool—but consoling her for ten minutes as she sobs inconsolably over a scratch on the knee is going overboard.
Dear Care and Feeding,
Since leaving the romantic dating phase almost 10 years ago, my husband and I have no problem being comfortable and relaxed around each other. Meaning: we stopped holding farts in a long time ago. It’s not like the dinner table scene from A Nutty Professor, but if we’re at home, we have no guests, and we have to toot, we toot. Well, now we have a two-year-old. Within the last few months she started calling out the gas passer each time it happens. Sometimes she also blows raspberries. We teach our kid about all the other mannerly things, and want them to be polite, we just didn’t think about this until it was too late! Do we need to stop farting in our own home when the kiddo is around? Or can we just frame it as “tooting is an at home thing, and not an out in public thing?”
—Smelt It and Dealt It
Dear Smelt It,
Thank you for making me chuckle. Your daughter is 2, so she probably thinks it’s a good idea to poop in her pants instead of in a toilet. Do you honestly expect her to grasp social etiquette right now? Yes, everybody toots. Everybody burps. Everybody spits. All of those things are gross, but also kinda necessary in life. In the interest of keeping it real, I’ve been known to expel bodily fumes at home in front of my two young daughters, and they often return the favor — but they know better than to do it at school, at basketball practice, at a restaurant, or with the grandparents.
I wouldn’t trip over it. She’s a toddler. and once she becomes more mature, she’ll know when it’s acceptable and not acceptable. Fart humor is a completely different topic entirely, because I don’t think there will be a time when it’s not funny.
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My father is technically a responsible parent, but he doesn’t really have a relationship with any of us. He never calls us to chat and is not expected to know anything about our lives. His only real companions are his cats. The problem? I think he loves his cats more than his kids.