Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here.
Dear Care and Feeding,
Two close friends of mine have a kid who’s kind of a brat. Forget “please” and “thank you,” he won’t even say hello to us. I tolerated this behavior when he was little, but he’s now 9, and my patience is wearing thin. I am an artist and (out of love for his parents, to be honest) I have over the years made special handmade gifts for this kid—a drawing of him as a favorite cartoon character, a glow-in-the-dark dragon sculpture—which are not even acknowledged, though his parents tell me that he likes them and gives them pride of place in his room. His parents think this is fine because they value “honesty” over the mere “lip service” of gratitude. I disagree, but they’re the parents, not me.
The family is coming to stay with us soon, and the visit coincides with the kid’s tenth birthday. I’m not completely heartless and want to give him something, but I don’t want to reward his inevitable rudeness by shrugging it off as I usually do. At the same time, I’m not his parent and I don’t want to overstep boundaries here (although I confess that I’m ITCHING to teach this kid some manners). Can you think of strategies for approaching this situation? Is there a way to do nice things for this kid without letting him walk all over me?
— Frustrated Auntie
Dear Frustrated Auntie,
I think a real conversation with your friends about their son’s behavior is overdue. He acts this way for a reason; perhaps he has some social anxiety, who knows? But he’s still very young and he didn’t raise himself, so as much as you’d like to hold him accountable for being impolite, it’s not really on him at this point (and, as you acknowledge, teaching him the sort of lesson you think he needs would overstep some boundaries). Ask questions: Is Bobby like this with other people? With teachers and classmates? Why do they think that after all these years, he still hasn’t warmed up to you enough to extend a hello and a hearty thank you?
Some parents don’t teach their children how to interact with adults who don’t have clearly understood roles like “teacher” or “doctor.” For a kid with poor social skills, navigating chit chat with his parents’ friends could be very daunting. Have they really talked to him about who you are, how you all know each other? It sounds like this kid is being dry, as opposed to aggressively nasty. I understand why it quells your enthusiasm for making a big gift, but I’d offer him some grace. He definitely should have better manners, and hopefully will in the not-distant future, but he also doesn’t see you very often and could be a painfully shy kid. Or, maybe his parents are falling short when it comes to teaching him social graces. Ideally, a bit of dialogue with you will bring those issues to the fore, if needed, and if not, maybe just give you a bit of comfort. Either way, make the gift as an act of love towards your friends—they will appreciate it.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
I have a 14-year-old daughter that I had when I was a teenager myself. We have not had a lot of family support except for my older brother, who has done a lot for us both in terms of involvement in her life and financial support. He really is the father figure in her life, and they have always had a great relationship.
He and his new wife just had a baby and my daughter is very upset about this. I think her feelings are made worse because her father, who was a sporadic presence in her life initially, has dropped all contact since starting another family. She has never even met her half-siblings.
We try to give her room for her feelings, acknowledge that this is a big change, while also highlighting the positives (she gets along great with her new aunt, she has a new cousin), but it is really not getting us far. My brother is trying to carve out more one-on-one time with her, but I can tell the stress of that on top of work and a newborn at home are really getting to him. He’s trying to encourage her to spend more time with the new baby, so she feels more involved and sees her family is just growing and she is not being left behind, but most of the time she refuses.
I feel so guilty because there is so little I can offer her, and it’s my decisions that got us here in the first place. She is miserable, her grades are down, and she doesn’t really show an interest in anything anymore. We have her on a waiting list for counseling, but in the meantime, I am at a loss for how I can help her navigate this.
— Daughter’s Heartbreak
Dear Daughter’s Heartbreak,
Please do not beat yourself up for your past “decisions,” for without them, you wouldn’t have your awesome daughter. As you encourage her to embrace the expanded family, do be mindful of the fact that she is having a very reasonable reaction to what may feel like the loss of a father for a second time. It is important that your brother continues to honor his commitment to her, even as he has started a family of his own; “father figure” is not a role that you can just play because you don’t have anything else going on at the moment. Your daughter must remain among his priorities. Keep sight of that and encourage him accordingly, even as you remain gracious, grateful for his support and understanding of his situation.
Create opportunities for your daughter and her new cousin to bond as often as possible, but also still work on making moments where she and her uncle can have solo time as well. Perhaps she can accompany him while running errands, or can help him prepare a meal for his wife while she cares for the baby. Talk to your daughter about her feelings, encourage her to express herself, and let her know that while she isn’t wrong for feeling down or worried, that her uncle is going to continue to love her as much as he always has. Don’t wait until she gets into counseling to try and get her to open up, and make sure that you are diligent about getting her there when she’s off the waiting list. Finally, remember that you have plenty to offer your child: Right now, she needs love, understanding, compassion and patience. Give them all to her. Wishing you both the best.
Catch Up on Care and Feeding
Dear Care and Feeding,
Is the only way to be kind to my troubled parents to act their preferred way with their families? Context: My (rapidly-aging) parents were raised by monsters and grew into deeply damaged but ultimately trying-their-hardest adults, who did an okay job raising me. I used to be very mad about admittedly troubling aspects of my own childhood, but as an adult, I realized I had to forgive them because I was making myself crazy by not doing that. I am pretty good at remembering, most days, that they gave me what I got and where they failed, they had nothing left to give me.
The new problem: My mother’s father died somewhat recently. She was devastated even though he did a very bad job as a parent. Mom has decided, in the wake of his death, to spend more time with her family. She wants random dinners, and holidays, and birthdays, everything. I would see them once, maybe twice a year growing up, and I don’t particularly enjoy this new trend. Again, everyone in this family above the age of 50—and many below that age—was raised by tortured, miserable people, so it should surprise no one that they have turned into tortured, miserable people. I simply don’t want to see them. But my mother does and wants me there, because she enjoys my company. Obviously, I can refuse to go, but that seems exceedingly unkind. She has been alone her whole life with these horrible people and has frequently exclaimed her relief that she feels less alone with them when I am with her. I do love her, despite all the other stuff (and that “other stuff” weighs heavy in these conversations). I just don’t want to be with these people anymore. I have given her abbreviated versions of this speech and she beseeches me not to leave her alone with them. Am I being unkind by doing exactly that?
— Forgiven but Not Forgotten
Dear Not Forgotten,
To answer your initial question, no, you don’t have to interact with your mother’s family the way she sees fit in order to be kind to her. There are many ways that you can extend kindness to her, and the grace that you are showing regarding the circumstances of your childhood stands chief among them.
It is up to you to determine if you are willing to sacrifice your time and your comfort in this way, and how frequently you will do so. It is not the sole measure of your love for you mom, but it is a way in which you can be loving towards her—but only do what you can, as you see fit. What’s your threshold? Only funerals, or can you handle being her companion to a quarterly event? It may not be as much as she wants, and more than you’d prefer, but it’s your way of being supportive of her and minding your own boundaries.
It may be that spending time with the rest of the family is the one line you cannot cross, that your forgiveness can only allow but so much self-sacrifice. That’s fine too. You have to decide what is healthy and doable for you and operate accordingly. Your mother may understand, she may not. All the best to you in your healing journey.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
I am currently in a relationship with an inmate, but my parents don’t agree with my decision. I am 43 and my parents live with me. In the beginning, things were fine—until reality set in that my fiancé will be released. My mother has said if he comes to my home, she and my father will find somewhere else to go. Even if he weren’t in prison my mother would still be unsupportive. My boyfriend has asked me several times to have a conversation with my parents, but they have refused. I know there is always a negative reaction when women tell others they are in a relationship with an inmate, but I have had men who were right here with me hurt me and break me down. I have a relationship with his family, he has been very open with me, and he doesn’t ask me for anything. I’m going to be with him regardless of what other people think, but how do I do this when my parents are always against me being in a relationship? How can I make everyone in this situation happy and comfortable?
— Confused, but in Love
Unfortunately, I don’t think you can make everyone happy in this situation, so I’d suggest on settling on making yourself happy instead. You are obviously old enough to pursue a relationship with whom you please, and though I don’t know the nature of the arrangement that led to your parents living in your home, it seems that they are choosing to leave on their own will. You may not be able to have both your new man and your parents in your home, so you must decide who you want there most.
As far as your partner goes, “inmate” is not a class of person: There are good people and bad people behind bars; there are people who have done heinous things with tremendous regret and a desire to turn their lives around, people who are remorseless, and others still who did nothing wrong to begin with. And, as you acknowledge, there’s no shortage of people who haven’t been to prison that are highly capable of treating you like dirt. As you should with any relationship, be mindful of your partner’s words and deeds, how they treat you, how they treat others. Support your man, if you see fit, as he adjusts to reentering society; but remember that you are a person with needs as well, and they should also be met in this or any other romantic relationship you may have in the future. Wishing you lots of luck.