Care and Feeding

Why Do I Feel So Weird Questioning My Day Care Provider?

A toddler plays with building blocks.
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 son is almost 2 and for the past 18 months he has been going to a lovely home daycare with an experienced provider we trust. As far as I can tell, she does a wonderful job. My son is always happy to be there and has genuine affection for her. How much can I ask about how she takes care of him? At first he was a baby, so other than confirming they had safe sleep practices, I didn’t worry too much about what he was doing during the day: he was drinking pumped breastmilk, so I knew what he was eating, and it didn’t seem to matter what kinds of “activities” she did with him. Now that he’s older, should I be asking more? I recently learned that she gives him a cookie every morning, and realized I have not asked what she feeds him (I do hear snippets about what appear to be healthy foods). I don’t think they watch TV, but I don’t actually know. I do know that they go to the park every day, they do some crafts, and there are lots of toys around the house. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to want to know how much sugar my son is being fed, or if he has screen time at daycare, but I am very reluctant to ask. Part of it is that for whatever reason I feel very deferential to this woman. Why is that? Why do I feel so hesitant to ask anything that might come across as a criticism? Should I ask? Is it OK if I just don’t worry about what he does at daycare, since he seems happy? Or am I abdicating some essential part of parenting by not paying closer attention?

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—Can You Tell This is My First Baby?

Dear CYTTiMFB,

None of the questions you have are unreasonable, if they are questions that matter to you. But if you have strong feelings about the answer to them—if, say, you don’t want him to have any sugar or screen time (that’s your prerogative, of course)—then it would be wise to think about what you are going to do if the answers to these questions displease or disappoint you. It’s too bad this daycare provider didn’t volunteer this information, and that she doesn’t volunteer it now, but that doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t ask.

How about saying, “I should have asked you about this long ago, I realize! I’m sure you can tell that this is my first kid, because I didn’t even think about any of this till now!” If you feel deferential, it’s because you are full of self-doubt (like so many first-time parents—like so many people, period) and she is a “professional,” after all (not to mention someone you are dependent on). Push right through that. Ask her to tell you what a typical day is like, from start to finish. Ask what the children eat. Ask anything you like.

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But be prepared to deal with answers that won’t thrill you. Know in advance what you’re going to do. If this daycare includes other children, as I assume it does, you can’t expect your child to be treated differently than the others (as times passes, this would make him miserable, anyway: imagine all the other children being given cookies while he gets a carrot) and you can’t expect her to change her practices because you disapprove of them. So I’ll ask you again: do these things matter to you?

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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 younger sister, “Mara,” and I have a strong relationship. We share similar beliefs but are very different temperamentally and have always accepted each other as we are. My sister has one child, my 5 ½-year-old nephew, “Michael,” with whom I am also close and with whom I spend a great deal of time. Mara is an amazing mother—dedicated, introspective about parenting, loving, devoted—and I would never suggest that she needs to alter her behavior when it comes to Michael. But she and I disagree about how to care for and comfort him when he is sick. When he has a cold, I avoid physical contact with him, while Mara says he needs more hugs and cuddles when he’s not feeling well. She accepts that getting sick with her child is just part of the journey and is bound to happen. I accept no such thing.

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Naturally I tell him how much I love him, how sorry I am that he isn’t feeling well, and how he will be better soon! I bring him soup and medicine and whatever else he needs, but I limit direct physical interaction to the extent that this is possible. When he’s at my house while sick, I have him lie on a different sofa in the living room from the one I’m on while we watch a movie together; I bring an air purifier into the room; I wash my hands often and take other measures to do my best to avoid catching whatever he’s got. And he seems to understand this completely (and he is quick to speak up if he has a problem with something!).

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Recently, when Michael had a cold, she told me that it’s a good thing I am not a parent because I am selfish in this way and “you have to put your child’s needs first.” I’m not sure I agree with this (and coincidentally, I’m considering adoption in the next couple of years—so I’d like to know if that is really true!). My thinking is, as a parent you of course provide for a child’s needs, but it’s also important to take care of your own. Obviously, it’s possible if not probable to get sick when a child is sick in a shared household, but isn’t it healthy to take steps to avoid that? If my sister is sick, she tells Michael not to hug her because she doesn’t want to give him germs! Why should the reverse be any different, particularly with a child who is old enough to understand, as my nephew is? (If he were 2 or 3, it might be different, but surely by 5 or so a child is old enough to understand that germs are passed from one person to another, and also old enough to be comforted in ways that don’t include physical touch!) It might be even more beneficial to model healthy boundaries! Is there a “right way” to comfort a sick child? Am I reasonable in my approach or am I being selfish?

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—Too Cold for the Cold?

Dear TCftC,

You and your sister seem to have stumbled into a quagmire of your temperamental differences after all. I’m glad you have a strong relationship, which should help you two get to the other side of this argument with your affection for each other intact. It would be nicer, certainly, if she didn’t call you “selfish” or imply that you won’t be a good parent; it would be nicer if you didn’t suggest that she isn’t modeling healthy boundaries with her child. Your sister is someone who shows her love one way; you have your own ways. It would be better for all concerned if neither one of you insisted that the other should do things her way. And it’s probably good on the whole for Michael to learn that different people have different ways of solving problems, different ways of showing love, different ways of making him feel cared for.

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As to the question of putting one’s child’s needs ahead of one’s own, I agree with Mara: that is what it takes (among other things) to be a good parent. But this doesn’t mean ignoring one’s own needs. There’s a constant mediation between the two when one’s child is young. I’m not sure either you or your sister entirely understand this—but then I’m also not sure that this is really what your argument is about. It seems more existential than that: you two seem to be debating how to be. Is it better to be “the kind of person” she is or the kind of person you are?

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The answer, of course, is that one should be the kind of person one is. Mara doesn’t care if she catches her son’s cold—it’s of no consequence to her. It’s more important to her to hold her sick child close. That’s what feels right to her. And this is her business, not yours. As is her certainty that Michael needs to be physically comforted by his mother when he’s not feeling well. This is not for you to judge; it shouldn’t be up for debate. But your determination not to catch his cold is not for her to judge, either. You meet his needs in a way that makes sense to you and that doesn’t alarm or upset him—so, bravo! I think you and your sister need to make a pact not to judge each other’s caretaking, ways of showing love, or other expressions of who you are and how you live in the world. It would be a good idea to make this pact—and to agree to disagree about “how to be” before you have a child of your own.

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One final word here: it is impossible to predict how you’re going to feel, or behave, when you become a parent yourself (even when you are an aunt who adores her nephew). So much about being a parent comes as a surprise. Consider this fair warning.

Help! How can I support Slate so I can keep reading all the advice from Dear Prudence, Care and Feeding, Ask a Teacher, and How to Do It? Answer: Join Slate Plus.

Dear Care and Feeding,

We live in a southern red state. Because vaccinations have not been approved for children under 12, my husband and I opted to have our 9-year-old daughter, “Claire,” do virtual school this year. Our neighbors’ daughter, “Jane,” is in the same grade. They were likewise concerned about sending Jane to in-person school, and I made the poorly thought-out offer to allow Jane to come to our house and have me be the learning coach for both girls until they could be vaccinated and go back to school. The neighbor, Jane, does her work well and doesn’t give me any problems in regard to her schooling. But Claire is completely miserable having another kid in the house all day every day. Jane is high-energy and a big people-person; Claire is introverted and needs lots of alone time. Jane wants to play with her and constantly checks on her during the school day, hovering just outside her bedroom door to see if Claire is done with her work. It’s clear that all Claire wants is some privacy and quiet.

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Claire has become sullen, unfocused, and generally angry and sad all week long, week after week. She perks up on the weekends, and each weekday evening after Claire goes home, but that goes out the window as soon as Jane is back (or even if I talk about her). I have tried talking to Jane many times, explaining that Claire needs time alone, asking her not to bother her. For her part, Claire will often close and sometimes lock her door to keep Jane out, but that leaves me having to yell at her through her door to unlock it when I need to check her work, etc., which makes us both mad. Claire is beginning to despise Jane, which saddens me, as Jane has been her only friend during the pandemic. I fully understand Claire being tired of sharing her space (I feel that way, too), but I’ve put us into this situation, and Jane’s family doesn’t really have another option until she’s vaccinated besides sending her to in-person school. Since we are in a high-risk area, I don’t want to put them in that position. I’m hoping this will all be over in a few more months, once the kids can be vaccinated, but as of now, I am at a loss as to how to handle this, and I feel like I am permanently damaging my relationship with my daughter.

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—Virtual Schooling Crisis

Dear VSC,

You’re between a rock and a hard place for sure, and I’m sorry about that. But I don’t think the fact that you brought this on yourself—by making a spontaneous, generous offer to a neighbor without thinking through what it would mean for your own daughter—justifies continuing this untenable arrangement. I understand that you feel torn, and I sympathize with your concern for your neighbors and their own rock/hard place situation; I totally get it if you feel that reneging on your offer would mean that you’re being a bad friend or a bad person, or if you fear that Jane’s parents will be disappointed in and/or angry with you.

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But your daughter’s unhappiness—day after day, week after week—is not a fair price to pay for your mistake. And the truth is that if you had not made this offer, your neighbors would have had to figure something out before the school year began. You forestalled their crisis—you got them through months without having to figure out how to solve the problem that so many parents have been facing!—but you cannot continue to be their child’s learning coach (and babysitter!). They will have to work out some other arrangement—and what that will be is not your problem or your responsibility. (If it makes you feel any better, the rollout of the vaccine for children as young as Claire and Jane seems imminent. So perhaps they will need a solution to their problem only for a matter of weeks.)

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The way to tell them that the current arrangement has to end is to let them know how sorry you are that this is not working out the way you’d hoped it would, that your daughter is suffering and your relationship with her is suffering, because “as it turns out,” Claire does not do well if she doesn’t have privacy and quiet and alone time. Tell them how sorry you are that you didn’t understand this when you made the offer. Let them know that Jane is a lovely child who has done nothing wrong—that this arrangement simply isn’t working for your family. I know this conversation will be hard for you, but I’m afraid the choice here is clear.

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From this week’s letter, Can You Be Sex Positive and a Responsible Parent at the Same Time?: “Neither my spouse nor I have a good grasp of how to handle this.”

Dear Care and Feeding,

A mom friend recently told me about her 8-year-old daughter “Sarah’s” struggles with anxiety, including her trouble sleeping and panic attacks almost daily. I was deeply sympathetic because I was that kid. I had a ton of fears and anxieties, but I had (have) really supportive parents, went to therapy as a child, and have discovered and developed numerous techniques over the years that have greatly reduced my anxiety, so that today it is a minor part of my life. I reassured her that they would all get through this phase, that none of it was her fault, and that she was doing all the right things (she’d already made an appointment with a therapist for Sarah). I also told her about some small things that helped me when I was young, noting that of course it would be different for every kid.

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There was one thing I didn’t mention, though, that I’d like some perspective on. Their family is the kind of “on the go” family that many aspire to be, always off on a weekend camping trip or some kind of adventure, often with other family or friends in tow. It makes them really happy and they talk about how much fun it is. However, in my experience, any variations from routine, even for fun reasons, are hard for an anxious child to handle (they certainly were for me). What others called “adventures” led to a lot of uncertainty that I didn’t yet have the tools to handle. Sleeping ANYWHERE other than my own room was virtually impossible. And even as an adult, I’m not an “every weekend is an adventure” kind of person. It uses up a lot of energy for me, and I need more time to recover than a weekend trip allows. If I were Sarah, such weekends would be undoing any progress I made during the week. Would I be wrong to mention this observation to them? I’m worried that I’m projecting my own experiences on to their family and I also don’t want to be seen as scolding them for being themselves. But also, part of me wants to say, “Your kid needs you to sit still for a little while.”

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—So Should I Keep My Mouth Shut…or Not?

Dear SSIKMMSoN,

I don’t think you have to—or should—keep your mouth shut. You have something to tell them that they might not have thought about, that their own personalities and life (and parenting) styles may be preventing them from being aware of. But be very careful how you tell them this. There’s a big difference between providing unasked-for advice/criticizing/scolding and sharing a compassionate thought that might turn out to be helpful. It’s all in how you present it, but it is definitely possible, if tricky, to be helpful without being intrusive.

You might say, “You know, I’ve been thinking a lot about our conversation about Sarah’s anxiety. I know I shared some things with you about my own experience as a child, and some things that helped me, but there was one thing I didn’t think of mentioning that’s been on my mind ever since. …” And then go on to talk about how you had felt (or would have felt) about weekend adventures as a child, how difficult it was for you to sleep when you weren’t in your own bed, and so on. Don’t say, “Your kid needs you to sit still.” You don’t know that—you’re only guessing. But it’s an educated guess (and it sounds to me like a good one). Give your friend a chance to think about it without telling her what to do. Indeed, I’d end this little spiel (which I urge you to keep short!) exactly as you’ve ended it here. “Of course, none of this might be an issue for your kid! But I wanted to put it on your radar, just in case.” I think you would be doing her—and her child—a kindness.

—Michelle

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