Care and Feeding

Our 7-Year-Old Believes That Without Her “Lovies,” the House Will Catch Fire

Is it time to phase out the security animals?

Three stuffed animals.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by 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,

My 7-year-old takes her three lovies (one large-ish and two small stuffed animals) everywhere. This was true to a certain extent pre-pandemic, but less pronounced—that is, she could leave them in her bedroom when playing in the playroom and didn’t need to bring them to school. Now they go everywhere. If we are going somewhere they aren’t welcome/can’t fit (like ballet or camp), they come in the car and stay in my car until pickup time. On days when one parent is doing drop off and the other doing pickup (rare), the parent doing pickup (literally always me) is assigned the lovies for the day. She tells me she worries if they are left at home, the house will catch fire and the lovies will burn up. (She does not worry about my car catching fire, apparently.) The other day she was having a wonderful time at the beach in the morning. When asked whether she wanted to eat from the hot dog stand and stay at the beach longer or go home right away for a far healthier lunch, we were shocked when she chose to go home—until she said she’d been away from her lovies too long and needed to check on them. She didn’t mention them until the topic of leaving was discussed, but it still was a flag.

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On the Fourth of July, we told her she couldn’t bring them to our neighborhood fireworks display (very crowded, no way to track down a missing item, high likelihood of being jostled, not to mention sparklers + fur = oof), and so she opted to stay home—even though this was to be her first year going (last year was canceled due to COVID; in previous years she was too little to stay awake) and she’d been very excited. She said it would be too loud and scary to be separated from them.

My husband thinks we should start “enforcing rules” about the lovies—he’d like them to stay in her bedroom as much as possible. He thinks she’s too old to need them everywhere, and it’s a “bad habit” we should break, and allowing her to bring them along is “enabling.” I think she is anxious, and they are a coping mechanism. I don’t think she’s anxious enough to warrant other interventions, and I think still needing a lovie in this way at age 7 is within the bounds of normal. I brought my blankie to sleepaway camp when I was 11 (folded neatly under a pillow and not discussed with bunkmates, but still there). Our older child, for what it’s worth, never had attachments this strong to stuffed animals, and while there are still one or two in his room, he doesn’t sleep with them. Even when he was most into that kind of soft comfort he rotated favorites every few months. I should add, these three items have been her lovies as long as she can remember, and all three date back to babyhood. She has been firmly attached to these specific soft things for a very long time (two are replacements, which she knows, for the originals). They are well loved, but well cared for and regularly washed. They don’t look gross, just well loved.

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—Soft Comfort or Bad Habit?

Dear Soft Comfort,

I agree with you that your daughter seems to be experiencing some anxiety, which is completely understandable given, well, everything. And I’m not a fan of your husband’s way of thinking about the lovies—the idea that they’re a “bad habit” that she’s too old for isn’t a great place to start. Instead, you two should refocus on the anxiety itself, figure out some ways to help your daughter feel more relaxed and grounded and safe, and then gently begin to phase out the lovies once they’re no longer looming so large in her life.

You say that you don’t think any interventions are necessary, but some of the feelings your daughter is expressing, like the fear of her house burning down and her need to check on the lovies at home rather than stay at the beach, seem to warrant some mild concern. Why not talk to a therapist? There’s nothing to lose but time and cash, and much to potentially gain. Your daughter can develop some non-lovie coping mechanisms, and you can look forward to a future where you don’t have to keep track of, wash, replace, and otherwise care for three stuffed animals every day, indefinitely. Soon, I hope, you—or she—will glance at the lovies on a shelf and think with some fondness and nostalgia about the era when they traveled everywhere with you.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My 3-year-old has always been a picky eater since she first started solids. The only things she’ll eat without a fight are sweets, carbs, PB&J, and sometimes eggs. We can get her to eat veggies sometimes, but it’s not consistent. She will eat corn or green beans or broccoli (but nothing else!) one day but not the next, and we recently realized she likes raw carrots (sometimes). Dips, cheese, or butter do not help. She rarely eats the entree we give her unless it’s fried. We used to convince her to trade something she doesn’t like for a veggie, but now she just doesn’t eat and if she likes something one day, she won’t eat it ever again.

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I’m tired of figuring out what she will eat! And tired of preparing something separate for her even if it is healthy raw carrot! I’ve stopped giving her bread with dinner because she just fills up on that. For the past week, I’m trying in earnest the advice that “you get what you get” and keep bringing out the same plate until she eats it. Now she cries at dinner, doesn’t eat for 20 hours of the 24 hour day, is perpetually grumpy (poor thing is starving), and I’ve caught her sneaking snacks from the counter. This sounds like a recipe for weight loss or disordered eating. The most frustrating part is, I’m not offering her exotic food, but things that she has eaten and enjoyed in the past (although not consistently). Am I supposed to push through and she’ll start eating again, or is this advice not working for me or meant for an older kid? Is this normal? My older daughter didn’t do this. I’m just not sure what to do.

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—Picky Parent

Dear Picky Parent,

Please don’t let your daughter starve herself in the hopes of ending her pickiness. It’s not going to work, and it might make things worse. Instead of worrying about what she’s eating on a day-to-day basis, think about how you want her to feel about food and eating in the long term. Is the dinner table a place to enjoy being around her family? Is eating associated with pleasure, comfort, and trust? It doesn’t seem like any of these things are true right now, and they’re all much more important than the specific food on her plate. In all likelihood, this is a phase and it won’t last much longer, but it sounds like you could use all the support you can get right now. Ask your pediatrician to recommend a specialist, like a pediatric nutritionist or dietician, who can help you navigate your daughter’s food preferences in a way that might help you both weather this phase more easily.

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

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My children are 6 and 4. They are both neuro-typical (however we’re defining that) and neither qualifies for special services, but they have some trauma in their recent past that has shaped them in ways that sometimes intensify their usual-kid-stuff behavior (anger, withdrawal, resistance to transitions). Whenever they start with a new teacher or activity, I’ve made a habit of scheduling a brief (10 minutes or less) phone call to discuss behavioral flags and strategies with the new caregiver. Until recently, these check-ins have seemed edifying and helpful, and have set a precedent of open communication.

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Recently, my 4-year-old son started summer day camp, and I tried to schedule one of these calls beforehand. The camp did not make a counselor available, so I wrote an email and asked for it to be forwarded. On the second day of camp, I was called in to discuss my son’s behavior. It was very clear to me that they wanted him out of camp. (His infractions included not wanting to wear his branded camp T-shirt, wandering away from his group, and having trouble with transitions. All annoying and difficult to manage, no doubt.) The lead counselor cited my email and said that my suggested strategies did not work. I was startled that they were about to give up on a 4-year-old after two days. The next day (third day of camp), the same counselor called me around lunchtime to say that my son was having a good day, but suggested I pick him up early, again citing my email, where I had written that my son’s challenging behavior tends to cluster in the late afternoon, when he gets tired. My son was kicked out of the camp after five days. (I was told that he pushed and hit some kids on the fifth day, which is grave, and a major regression for him.)

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My feelings about the camp are well-defined: They have performed a kind of operant conditioning on my son, teaching him that if he is in a new or uncomfortable situation, he can just act up and people will give up on him and he won’t have to do the new and uncomfortable thing. This completely sucks and I’ll deal with it. Here’s my question: Maybe I shouldn’t be requesting these conferences or sending these notes before my kids start something new? Now I am worried that I am giving them a stigma—branding them as a capital-P Problem before they have a chance to form their own relationships with unprejudiced caregivers. Maybe this camp would have been kinder to my son if I hadn’t sent that note. What do you think?

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—Pre-Cog

Dear Pre-Cog,

I’m really sorry that you and your son had to go through this experience! It does seem like your email might have hastened the camp’s decision to kick your son out, or at least given them some added justification for doing so. But that’s not your fault, and I don’t think it means you need to change your tactics in the future. Based on your description of events, the camp is to blame here in every way, not you or your son. What he did sounds like absolutely normal behavior for a 4-year-old transitioning to a new camp, and it’s troubling that they were unprepared to handle these routine behavioral issues. It’s not your responsibility to fix the camp, but if you have time, once the dust has settled, you might consider writing a letter describing this experience to whoever is in charge there at the highest levels. It might do nothing, but it could potentially help prevent this from happening to someone else in the future.

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If you want to give a heads up to future teachers or counselors, I think you’re right to prefer to do so in person, if at all possible, and to keep the information you’re giving them brief and proactive. A good caretaker will use that information to be more understanding and patient, not to begin building a case for expulsion. I hope you can find a camp that’s a better fit, and that the next transition is smoother for everyone.

For more of Slate’s parenting coverage, listen to Mom and Dad Are Fighting

Dear Care and Feeding,

My niece Casey (sister-in-law’s daughter) is 18-months-old and has recently decided that she doesn’t like my husband, Jacob. No one is sure why; she was fine with him and then one day he was persona-non-grata. We know Jacob’s never upset Casey or done anything to scare her. Besides that not being in Jacob’s character, Casey’s parents are textbook helicopter parents and have never been more than two feet from her at any time, so they know he’s only ever treated her like a friendly acquaintance. We’re all confused as to why he’s on her toddler shit list. Jacob and I figure she spent the first year of her life in quarantine and is still getting used to being around people who aren’t her parents, and well, kids are weird and sometimes decide they don’t like people.

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The problem is that Casey’s mom, Alexis, seems to be letting Casey alienate Jacob from the rest of the family. Recently, at a family visit to my in-laws, Casey got angry that Jacob was in the room. He wasn’t even looking at her; he was talking to his dad. Casey started yelling, “Bye-bye!” trying to make him leave. My husband and I laughed it off, but then Alexis and my mother-in-law both asked Jacob to leave the room, since his presence was upsetting the baby. Now, if Alexis video calls us and Casey sees my husband on the screen, she yells, “Bye-bye!” Alexis will apologize to Casey and end the call, even if we’re in the middle of talking.

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It came to a head this last weekend. Since we only live about 10 minutes from them, we asked Alexis if she and her family wanted to come hang out for the Fourth of July. She declined, saying they’d be too tired. While on the phone last night, my mother-in-law let slip to my husband that Alexis and her family had actually driven an hour out to their house for a Fourth of July family celebration. When Jacob asked why they didn’t invite us or even tell us about it, his mother said, “Well, Casey is scared of you.” My husband thinks his sister and mother are being ridiculous, but he’s not taking it too personally. I’ve asked him to talk to Alexis about it, but he says she’s just an anxious helicopter mom who coddles Casey, but they’ll both eventually move on from this phase and it’ll be fine. I feel like since it’s my husband’s family I should just stay out of it, but I love and miss my niece! Is there anything I can do, or any tactful way to bring this up without sounding like I’m criticizing Alexis’ parenting?

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—Banished Aunt

Dear B.A.,

Things have definitely gotten weird, but the weirdness isn’t because Casey’s scared of Jacob or because Alexis coddles Casey. What’s weird is that your in-laws and your husband’s sister celebrated the Fourth together and either purposely excluded you or just lazily didn’t consider how you’d feel about not being included.

Your husband is right that Alexis is in all likelihood just flexing a newfound “bye-bye” muscle, and that the phase will pass. Still, though, you and your husband need to talk to his sister and his parents about why you’re not being invited to family gatherings. If it’s really just because it’s simpler to socialize without him as long as Alexis is making a big deal of being “scared of him,” that’s silly, but honestly kind of understandable. Maybe you guys can take a break from one another and reconvene in a few months, when hopefully the kid will have had more opportunities for normal socializing with all kinds of people. But if there’s any hint anywhere that anyone suspects Jacob of inappropriate behavior, you all need to hash that out, despite how painful and awkward that might be. It may be that some kind of misunderstanding has taken place, and you won’t be able to move past it without honesty and openness. Best case scenario, they’re just being a bit rude and inconsiderate, and hopefully you all will be able to move past this and start being more honest with each other.

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—Emily

More Advice From Slate

A colleague has left town and asked me to care for her cats, which is a terrible inconvenience as she lives really far from me. However, I said I’d do it out of guilt. I got to her place only to discover that she and her fiancé live in total squalor in one room with four cats and four rats, and it smelled like urine. I later found feces on the wall. The cats themselves are well cared for and healthy, but clearly in an unhygienic environment. Do I need to report her? What do I say when she returns—your place is disgusting and you’re mistreating your cats?

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