Care and Feeding

When Did Parents Stop Parenting in Public?

Adult-focused spaces seem overrun with feral kids these days!

A group of kids playing together.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Monkey Business Images/iStock/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,

This question will probably offend a lot of parents and is probably the opposite of the intent of Care and Feeding. But here goes: When did parents stop parenting in public? Are they just glorified referees with no authority over their kids? Are hotels and restaurants considered open playgrounds, and I just wasn’t aware? My husband and I have had a rough go of it lately and took a couple of relaxing getaways to reconnect. We specifically chose hotels where we could get some peace and quiet. We live near San Diego where there are many family-oriented options (hello, Legoland) and intentionally chose otherwise. But in each case, we were surrounded by kids playing like it was recess at school, at all hours of the day.

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We chose two of the hotels because they had adult-only pools. In one instance, a dozen or so kids played Hide and Seek around the adult pool for over an hour with no apparent supervision, even though there was a kids’ pool and play area at the other end of the hotel. The area behind our room had several nice fountains and a grassy courtyard strung with overhead lights—a perfect romantic place to sit and relax. All the rooms had balconies facing them so you could sit and enjoy coffee or wine, read a book … except for the kids that turned the space into a soccer field. Occasionally an adult would yell at them, from the third floor, telling them when to shower, who needed to go talk to their parent, etc. But not once did she tell them to quiet down or play soccer somewhere else. At another hotel, we sat with some wine around a fire pit on the beach at 10 p.m., as did a few other couples. Two families brought their kids down to play, running up and down the beach in the pitch darkness. There was a stone abutment retaining wall with rocks on the other side and the ocean below. A child could easily fall off that and into the water and you’d never see or hear it happen. Instead of seeing the couples and leaving, the parents parked a cooler on the lounge chairs behind us and stayed there until we gave up and left.

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Am I out of line here for thinking parents should be considerate of other hotel guests? I get that perhaps they want to go on vacation and relax, but if you don’t want to hear or deal with your own kids, why would anyone else? Or am I just an old lady with overly sensitive ears and old-fashioned expectations?

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—Impatient in California

Dear Impatient,

Many of today’s parents may seem laxer than their counterparts in previous generations who may have relied on fear and/or violence to maintain submission, but I don’t think that is the question at the heart of this letter—you feel as you do about modern parenting, as far as you have observed it, and there’s no point in me trying to change that. What I do think begs consideration here is what sort of rights and responsibilities you have in a situation that has been interrupted by other people’s children.

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Even with the amount of empathy and grace that should be extended to parents 1) in general and 2) in wake of the pandemic, what you are describing is obnoxious behavior that is socially inappropriate and inconsiderate at best, and bad parenting at its worst (especially with regard to the dangers you mention). In these situations, where children are explicitly not supposed to be present, I would have spoken to an employee of the hotel, ideally a manager, to discuss what was going on and to ask them to address it. If it did not happen right then and there, I would escalate that to corporate and expect to get some sort of compensation via a refund, hotel points, etc.

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You also can talk to people when their kids are being disruptive; some of them will be apologetic and course correct, while others may act a complete jackass. Unfortunately, you have to look for some clues as to how they may speak to you (the way they talk to their kids is often a hint) and determine if it is worth risking the latter. You also have to be respectful and kind when you attempt to hit someone with “Yeah, you aren’t doing the parent thing so well.” Be empathetic: “I’m so sorry to bother you, but I haven’t been able to sit out here and get any quiet all day. Could we talk about maybe scheduling some quiet hours in this shared area?”

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Finally, do consider that for all of the negative interactions you’ve had with these children and their families during these trips, there are the countless times that kids have been in your presence and haven’t behaved in such a way. Also note that there are parents and kids who might ask if society has shifted away from caring about its younger members, considering how unkind, rude, and inconsiderate adults can be toward them. Speaking personally, we’ve been awakened by loud people in hotels and apartments where we could not simply check out; we’ve been pushed and jostled without regard in public … hell, a man once literally lifted his leg over my child’s stroller and stepped over her like she was a puddle. People suck, some of them have kids. Try to be understanding, but also look out for yourself in the process.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My wife and I, both women, have an 8-year-old daughter who has begun to ask us questions about dating, talk about her crushes, relationship drama in her class, etc. We want to be honest and let her know that we’re safe to talk to about all that. One question that she’s asked often is how we met, and we’re at a loss on how to answer. My wife and I met when I was 15 and she was 18 and began dating when I was 15 and she was 19. We were two of the only young queer people in our town. We’ve always had a respectful and loving relationship, but looking back, that was quite a large age gap for how young we were, and I don’t want my daughter to be dating a 19-year-old when she’s 15! How can we explain how and when we met honestly without encouraging her to get into a relationship with that age gap?

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—Don’t Date Like Us

Dear Don’t Date,

Sometimes, a good old-fashioned lie is the best thing for your kid, and I think this is one of those times. Create an alternate version of events, perhaps one in which you all did not become romantically involved until you were both of age, and stick to it until you all are ready to talk to her openly about the very complicated age differential. When she is older, your daughter will be able to truly understand “Do as I say, not as I do,” as well as how your relationship to your wife can be both great and born of something you are eager for her not to duplicate, all at the same time. It may feel a little uncomfortable, but speaking for myself, had my parents told me that, I would have taken it as my explicit permission to go do the same thing, even if they were insistent that it was not. Lie! Best wishes to you.

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

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I am a stepmom to two boys, Jesse (13) and Hunter (17). Hunter has a girlfriend and he’s been spending time with her during the week, grabbing lunch, hanging out, etc. Everyone is OK with this, as none of the parents (hers included) permit them to be at a home without adults. The problem is that today, which is a day in which we have the kids, my husband told Hunter he could pick her up for the day and that Jesse would stay at our in-laws’ house. After we were at work, their mother overrode this and told Hunter that he needed to take Jesse with him. Hunter was understandably upset with this, as he doesn’t want his brother tagging along all the time. They enjoy a close relationship, but due to their age, they are into vastly different things and don’t have much in common like they used to.

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Hunter complained to me that it was unfair and that he was sick of his mom doing that. I told my husband. He agrees that Hunter shouldn’t have to take Jesse everywhere, and says he will let his ex-wife know that, at the very least, she can’t make these decisions on days when the kids are with us. I know it isn’t my place to say anything, and I won’t, but when Hunter is complaining to me, what should I do? I want to support him, but don’t want be in the middle. We all maintain a positive co-parenting relationship, which includes her current husband too. I don’t want to rock the boat, but I think she’s wrong, and I don’t know what to do.

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—I Didn’t Want to Drag My Little Brother Around Either

Dear Didn’t Want,

It’s not your place to challenge Hunter’s mom’s authority, and it’s important that you abstain from doing so, even when he comes to you for a listening ear. Affirm why he feels the way that he does, but also explain her position as if you understand it; you don’t need to pretend as though you agree, but you shouldn’t be taking a side on something like this. It’s too small. If he were in danger, if there were something really fucked up that his mom was doing, OK, fine. But this? So he can go embarrass you and drop a “Well, my stepmom understands” bomb that disrupts your entire peaceful blended family situation? Not worth it.

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You get to have your say about this matter in conversation with your husband, and his ex and he will have to talk these things out with one another. She should not be enforcing schedule changes in your home, and he must make that clear to her. But never give your stepson the ammunition to drive a rift between you, intentionally or otherwise; instead, be a safe place for him to both vent and hear, lovingly, that his mother is not the worst person in the world, and that she does have his best interests in mind. Best wishes to you.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My husband and I (both White, middle-class) have a 5-year-old and both work full-time. We also both have mental illness: moderate ADHD and depression for me, severe depression and anxiety for him. Our apartment is always messy, and it contributes to my feeling depressed and overwhelmed. I do what I can daily and force us to all clean up the kitchen, bathroom, and living room every weekend. But it never lasts and some things just don’t get done; one room is basically unusable due to clutter and disorganization, and our bedroom is always a wreck. I’m also always doing more than my share, because my husband’s depression is overwhelming, and it’s usually all he can do to keep up with work and child care. I would love to hire a house cleaner to come once every week or two. But I know that this has historically been an exploitative relationship, especially between White women and Black, Asian, and Latina women. Given this reality, is there a way to hire a cleaner that does not perpetuate White supremacy/exploitation? Is it enough to pay well and treat the person with respect and courtesy? Or is this an inherently harmful situation?

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—Conflicted and Chaotic

Dear Conflicted,

I can’t say this is an inherently harmful situation, but it is indeed complicated as hell. Women of color who are seeking work as house cleaners need work; to withhold that work from them for fear of being exploitive is to not empower them to transcend their circumstances so that they no longer need to clean behind privileged White families. Yet, I can 100 percent understand why you might not feel comfortable having a non-White woman occupy that role because of the power and cultural dynamics that exist between you.

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What is clear is that you need house cleaning services, and it also sounds like you are committed to paying the person who provides them a living wage. Find someone who offers what you need, ideally through an agency owned by women of color, and pay them what you would want someone to pay you for the difficult and important labor you seek to contract. Treat them with kindness and respect. Make the workplace comfortable and compelling for them: offer a place to relax during breaks, keep food and beverages on hand that they can access without having to ask. Offer paid holidays and vacations, and again, pay them right for each hour they work.

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Low pay would make this sort of dynamic exploitive; excellent pay, treatment, and benefits can make it what it should be: a transaction between people who need a service and a person who offers it. You determine what this scenario will look like, so choose with your values.

—Jamilah

More Advice From Slate

My husband and I are parents to an amazing 20-month-old boy. Before I became pregnant with him, my husband and I would frequently have some drinks with dinner, drinks on the weekend, et cetera. We also work at the same place, which has instituted a weekly gathering of co-workers at a local bar for drinks after work. My husband always goes and ends up getting sloshed. I stay home with our baby and always cherish this alone time with him that I rarely get since my maternity leave. I love our quiet nights together. My husband, though, insists that I need to get out more and come to these gatherings. I do not want to drink anymore and find the idea of getting drunk with my co-workers unappealing. Bath time and cuddles are my excitement now, but my husband thinks I’m depressed. He thinks I am shutting myself in with our baby and it is not healthy. I honestly have never been happier since becoming a mother. Am I wrong?

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