Care and Feeding

My Partner Prefers Video Games to Our Son and Me

A man holds a video game console and bites his lip as he concentrates on the game.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Wavebreakmedia/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,

I have been in my relationship for 5 years now. We’re not married but have a beautiful 4-year-old together. For the past couple years I have found myself struggling with our relationship dynamic. My boyfriend is an avid gamer, and a media junkie, and this has really impacted our relationship. He doesn’t contribute to the care of our son except financially, and also never contributes to household chores or upkeep. My boyfriend does pay for almost all of my son’s food, and health care needs. My boyfriend normally will only interact with my son for a max of about 2 hours a day, while I will have him from the time he wakes up until he goes to bed. His interaction with me is similar, and as soon as our son is going to bed he will leave to go play games on his computer. More often than not he won’t spend time with me unless sex is involved.

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My boyfriend has always expressed he loves me and our son and wants a future with us, but whenever I communicate my loneliness or need for his attention, he always says gaming is his thing he uses to relax and let go of the day. I can respect that, but I’m starting to resent that he can’t spend anytime with me or our child. I’m missing intimacy, communication, and affection in our relationship, and I don’t know what to do. We don’t go on dates, and when we do it’s always the same thing. We’ve never celebrated an anniversary because he doesn’t want to, he doesn’t do anything for our birthdays unless I plan something. He says it’s because he doesn’t know what I like or want…even if I flat out tell him. How do I express needs in a way he can’t brush off? Am I being too needy? And if not how do I salvage this relationship?

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—Competing with The Computer

Dear Competing,

You can’t salvage this relationship because there is no relationship to salvage. As painful as leaving your child’s father might be, it’s what you have to do in order to be happy, either alone or with a partner who will value you and truly share your life. Your current boyfriend has almost nothing to do with you or your son except that sometimes he has sex with you. Materially, nothing about your life will change when you leave him, except that you will be cleaning and cooking and doing housework for one less person.  It is not “too needy” to expect a person who claims to love you to express that love by, for example, having conversations with you or contributing to the care and upkeep of the home you share. It’s the absolute bare minimum you should expect from anyone you date in the future. The sooner you get away from this man, the sooner you can start rebuilding your life and your self-esteem. Do whatever you need to do in order to find emotional and financial support outside this relationship, and to begin to process what has led you to accept scraps instead of love for so long.

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

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I parented my kids very differently than how I was raised. My mother loves to talk about people, shopping, sales, coupons, and gossip. In contrast, my husband and I have tried to be very intentional about raising our kids to build people up, talk about ideas rather than people, and focus less on materialism. As a result our 4 are pretty thoughtful and smart kids (though of course have their moments of gossip, as do all kids). The problem is my mother. For most of their childhoods, my kids put up with my mom’s monologues about things like the intricacies of Kohl’s sales; we all lived in the same city and saw my parents frequently. Now that my kids are in college or post-college, they’ve had far less contact with my mom. She’s expressed some sadness about it to me. When I checked in with my kids, all of them said some version of, “She talks about shallow things we don’t really care about, and it’s exhausting to do that every week.” They usually call her once a month or so and keep the conversation short. My mother will then call me, upset that they cut her off or that they don’t call her more frequently. As I think more about privilege, I realize my mom didn’t have a great education and wasn’t exposed to a lot of intellectualism (she was a secretary and then a stay-at-home mom). I feel like a jerk for implying to my kids that talking about people rather than ideas somehow makes you less worthy or deserving of people’s time. I wish my kids would call more frequently. My mom is lonely and getting older. Is it too late for me to have this conversation with my kids? Is it reasonable to ask that they call weekly and allow her to talk for more than a few minutes?

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—Guilty Daughter

Dear GD,

It might be easier for your kids to build a less shallow relationship with your mom if they can find some concrete shared interest or activity, rather than just making a weekly call out of a sense of obligation and hating every minute of it. It doesn’t seem like talking on the phone is how they prefer to connect with her, which is totally understandable. Instead, they might send your grandmother books or articles that interest them, either digitally or via mail. Mailing notes or postcards, in general, is a great way to connect with someone you love but can’t sustain a long chat with, and it might even lend itself to a kind of intimacy that’s harder to access on the phone. You could also suggest or initiate a genealogy or oral history project, so that your kids have a sense that by connecting with your mother they’re helping to record their family’s history.  Whatever it is that you decide to do, lead by example and keep them involved with gentle reminders rather than demands.  It can be tough for sociable, busy young adults to make space in their lives for their elders, but maybe the difference between their upbringing and your mother’s could be a source of curiosity and inquiry, rather than a barrier to communication. She probably has plenty of stories about being a secretary and what it was like to raise you. Once you can all change the focus from sales at Kohl’s to something everyone finds interesting (themselves!), more common ground is bound to emerge.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My 16-year-old daughter, like many other teens, spent a lot of her time during the pandemic on social media. She and her friend group have become much more active around social justice issues, following activists on Instagram and organizing protests/actions in our city. In general I’m proud she’s expanding her worldview and taking action. However, it seems that many of the activists she follows are very “pro-canceling” and she’s taken this to heart. We can’t decide on a movie as a family, go shopping at the mall, or go to a park without my daughter railing against a brand/person/company that the rest of the family was excited about—even though (if I’m being honest) she usually hasn’t done the research, and is just repeating what she saw on Instagram.

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Recently a movie came out that we were all excited to see. We counted down, sang the songs together, and looked forward to the movie as a bright spot amidst a hard year. We saw it on opening night and really enjoyed the time spent together at the theater—our first time since before the pandemic. We loved it. The next day, my oldest shut us down at the dinner table by saying the director was “canceled” for not casting enough darker-skinned actors in the movie. She said by supporting the movie, we were showing our colorism. My younger daughters were immediately deflated. Now the mood around the house is strained and tense. It seems like my daughter has an extremely, extremely high bar for what can pass her test, and it’s honestly a huge bummer to be constantly tiptoeing around her, unsure whether a celebrity we’re about to praise has actually done something cancel-worthy, and we just didn’t realize it yet.

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I am honestly trying to find the line between genuinely enjoying activities and experiences for what they are, versus being honest about what’s problematic in our society. I know this is an important part of my daughter’s identity formation. But sometimes, I just want us all to be able to be into something, you know? Being around someone who’s constantly critical and negative has made it hard to genuinely enjoy my daughter’s company. Am I out of line if I ask her to tone it down? How can I encourage her to continue this developing awareness while still reminding her not to yuck our yum all the time?

—Mom of a New Activist

Dear MoaNA,

Your daughter’s newfound interest in justice will eventually lead her to realize that “cancellation” without any path towards redemption only replicates the carceral logic of the cis white patriarchal system. But until then, yeah, yikes, that sounds incredibly annoying. I don’t think there’s anything to be gained by telling her to tone it down. As eye-rolling as her tone might be, you are still obligated to approach these conversations with a saintly amount of patience and open-mindedness. She also might be swayed by the idea that she can enjoy art made by problematic artists as a form of resistance: they shouldn’t be allowed to take their art away from us, on top of everything else.

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Putting the fascinating and ever-evolving debate around art, power, and justice aside for a moment, though, I’m wondering whether you might need to adjust your expectations of family time. Your daughter is sixteen! It’s not realistic to expect her to want to watch the same movies or go on the same outings as your younger daughters. She’s growing up, working to differentiate herself from her parents and her siblings, and as you probably remember from your own teen years, this is a phase that’s marked by conflict and strong emotions. Give her space and let her do her own thing, while making sure she knows she has the option to join you for whatever portion of family time that genuinely appeals to her. It might just be easier for her to say a director is canceled than to consciously grapple with the larger issue, which is that she’s on her way out of the nest. Stay open and forgiving, and hopefully she can start hanging out with peers and yuck their yums instead of yours.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I have two sons who are 12 and 14. Before COVID, we had a moderate, balanced approach to screen time in our house. I let the boys play video games and watch YouTube. But I also had rules in place about homework, chores, and exercise, and hard limits on how much time they could spend in front of screens. They had friends and a couple of extracurricular activities. They engaged with the analog world.

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But when COVID hit last year, suddenly our lives became “sit in front of screens, all day every day.” The area where we live shut down very tightly, and pretty much our only options were being home and going for walks. You can only go for so many walks. I stopped enforcing the old screen time rules. I just wanted the kids to get through the pandemic intact, and it didn’t seem so important to fret over screen time if we were going to be stuck at home anyway. And also, school was on a screen! But it wasn’t forever. I kept telling myself that, it wasn’t going to be forever.

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Except now that their schools have FINALLY opened again and my kids are receiving their vaccines, they don’t want to return to normal life. They don’t want to do anything anymore except be in front of screens. I can (and do) force them out sometimes, but it’s so much work and pretty miserable, because they are resisting every step of the way. And it doesn’t seem to be getting any better. They’ve tasted the excessive screen life, and it’s all they want.

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Both kids are working with therapists, so we have the mental health angle covered. Professional intervention has helped a lot with their overall moods, and it has helped them cope with school much better—but it doesn’t help in the area of screens, where the kids don’t seem to hear a word their therapists say.
—How Do I Help Them?

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Dear HDIHT,

It’s going to take a lot more time than we’d like to get “back to normal,” or to find a new normal, and while we’re re-adjusting, things like excessive screen time aren’t going to disappear overnight.  Almost everyone lived a lot more of their life online last year than they ordinarily might have. I’m sure you’re experiencing some version of this recalibration in your work and social life too. We’re going to stumble before we can walk again. It’s uncomfortable and it doesn’t look the way we want life to look, but if you can accept as a family that you’re on a path of gradual shift back to more balanced approach to screens, that’s a great first step.

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What does that actually look like? Well, that depends on what parts of lockdown social life and activity you and your kids want to keep, and which ones you want to leave in the past. The first step is to get them to talk about what their priorities are, and to listen nonjudgmentally to the answers. Maybe you could begin to set gentle, incremental goals as a family about what portion of the day has to be screen-free (mealtimes, for example, or a period of time offline right before bed to help with sleep—whatever seems most achievable.) Or if that’s not appealing, a “screen Sabbath” where everyone takes a weekly day off from devices could serve as a reset, but I’d expect some crankiness if you choose to take this approach. Whatever method you choose, the important thing is that you all choose it together and make it a team effort. Don’t have different rules for your kids than for yourself, as hard as that might be. If they see you walking the walk, they are likelier to be able to find their way towards a new relationship to screens that blends analog and digital socializing and activity. After all, in 2021, both qualify as “real life.”

—Emily

More Advice From Slate

My oldest daughter is 15 years old and is a straight-A student. I asked her the other night what her ideal job was, and she said, “Anything that makes me a lot of money so I don’t have to only wear bad clothes and won’t have to do dishes.” I first dismissed it as teenage snark, but then I realized that this materialistic attitude is pretty common for her. Have I messed up that badly?

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