Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here.
Dear Care and Feeding,
My husband gave me a beautiful ring with my kids’ birthstones for Mother’s Day, which is maybe the nicest gift I have ever received, I absolutely love it. Of course, there is a “but,” or I wouldn’t be writing … one of the birthstones is the wrong month. I honestly don’t mind, and don’t need or want it to be fixed, as I love what it represents either way (who decides what the “right” stone is for each month anyway?!) I am just not sure if I should say something to him or ignore it. I don’t want to mar such a beautiful gift by saying something, but if he later finds out I didn’t say anything, I don’t want him to be upset that I didn’t speak up.
— Wrong Rock
Dear Wrong Rock,
Oof! Poor husband! I personally would say nothing. That is such a sweet gift, and I actually would find the error to be even sweeter, because it personalizes the ring. Any husband (or his administrative assistant, ha!) can buy a ring with the correct birthstones on it; yours has a story behind it.
If I had to predict, I’d say he will probably put two and two together thanks to your kids: They will ask you about the ring, and because they will love the idea of you wearing a birthstone ring that refers to them, they’ll talk about it a lot, point out which stone is which kid, and so on. Eventually, the one with the incorrect stone will figure out that it’s wrong and will want to know why. When that conversation happens in his earshot, and he says “Why didn’t you tell me?”, you can just be honest and say that you loved the gift so much, and didn’t want it to be any different.
Take this as the anecdote it is—husbands are not interchangeable, obviously—but I asked my own, a dedicated and invested gift-giver, whether he would want me to say something, if he were to have given this ring to me. He said: “Say nothing.” So, there’s that!
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From this week’s letter, We Found the Perfect Home. The Only Problem Is the Property Next to It: “I feel it would be too cruel to make our daughter look out her bedroom window every day at what she can’t have.”
Dear Care and Feeding,
I need some polite and friendly language, preferably backed up with rigorous science, to use with my kindergartner’s teacher to explain my opposition to homework. Earlier in the year it was reading and practicing sight words, which was fine! But this spring it’s been a lot of worksheets. I don’t see the value, and when I’ve asked her to articulate her philosophy around homework, she says it’s to “start building good habits.” Well, I’m not an education scholar, but from what I’ve read there just isn’t good evidence that homework for K improves kids’ academic performance later on. More importantly, I know my kid, and after a full day at school I think he benefits more from some time wrestling with his little brother or playing in the backyard. Help?
— Busy Work
Dear Busy Work,
You’re definitely right—there’s not good evidence, at all, that homework for kindergarten does anything but frustrate everyone. In fact, the evidence supporting the assignment of homework before middle school is not strong. I once wrote a piece about the history of homework protest that you might find cathartic. It turns out parents have been angry about homework since the 19th century! In 1900, the commissioner of education testified before Congress that homework was a “prolific source of abuse,” and in California, in 1901, the state legislature outlawed the assignment of homework for kids under 15. Opinion on the matter has swung back and forth across the twentieth century; you and I have the bad luck to be parenting during a time when many elementary-school teachers see assigning homework as the right thing to do.
But you already know what you think. The question is, how to talk to your son’s teacher about it. Heather Shumaker (who wrote the book It’s OK to Go Up the Slide) has a blog post with the text of a letter she wrote to her own son’s teacher when he was in third grade. Rather than linking to or citing studies, the letter is familiar, colloquial, and personal, and very specific about what the student was doing after school instead of grinding on worksheets (going outside, practicing piano, spending time with siblings, and reading for pleasure). It’s also very respectful of the teacher’s bandwidth, if firm, sending the message: “I’d like to find something that’s comfortable for everyone.” Some of the language in there might work for your purposes.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
My first grader lacks intrinsic motivation for … basically everything. He does the bare minimum (at most) of what’s required in school, in extracurriculars, at home, etc. He is a generally happy, playful, smart and athletic kid, so any natural consequences of this “bare minimum effort” haven’t caught up with him yet. Do you have any tips or tricks to inspire him to care more? I want to avoid nagging and creating only external motivators/demotivators (like rewards and consequences). How do I build his intrinsic motivation to try harder?
— Get Going!
Dear Get Going,
I hope you see the irony in this question! You have gotten the message that rewards and punishments are (if you follow the Alfie Kohn line) detrimental to kids’ drive and persistence. If your son is happy, playful, smart, and athletic, and nothing “bad” has happened to him yet due to his lack of effort, could it be possible that he’s just absolutely fine? Is there some other reason why you’re worried about it—some fear that he will lean too much on others, or act entitled, or something? I think this is a case where the line “parent the child who is in front of you” (a line I return to often, because it’s so helpful to me!) could apply. If there are no natural consequences yet—no negative pushback from the world—it seems like what you’re worried about is his future: what things will be like if he is “like this” in fifth grade, tenth grade, or as a young adult. If you believe in intrinsic motivation, you have to also believe that it will develop naturally, as he moves on in life and things reveal themselves to him. Maybe he just hasn’t found the thing, yet, that presses him to put forth his maximum effort. Or maybe he never will! If he’s happy and healthy, and responsible and kind, does it matter?
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Dear Care and Feeding,
Ugh. I know I have to deal with this at some point, but how do you explain school shootings to elementary schoolers? My first born is in kindergarten, and I have yet to explain why she does shelter in place drills at school. I just can’t figure out the words. I explained the insurrection. I’ve explained a lot of other things that are heavy. But this feels different.
— At a Loss
Dear At a Loss,
I have a preschooler, who has yet to ask. Her school does a very toned-down version of lockdown drills, but they frame them as “practicing for an emergency,” and the kids don’t know any better, or so it seems. She seems not to have heard anything about Uvalde, and because she hasn’t aired it, we have not brought it up. So, I’m pulling here from a few other sources, rather than from personal experience.
Slate’s Ask a Teacher columnist Matt Dicks answered this question this week. He advised emphasizing the rarity of these incidents, and the relative safety of school. That first point isn’t one we’d probably want to bring up in the course of discussing the shooting with other adults, as it can seem to minimize the situation—“I don’t want my assurances of the rarity of events like these to be an excuse for continued inaction,” wrote Dicks, who knows how it sounds—but for younger kids, who need reassurance the most, it’s a tool in the toolbox.
Melinda Wenner Moyer put out an edition of her Substack newsletter that answers this question, and echoes Dicks’ recommendation of stressing the statistical uncommonness of school shootings (because kids, as she put it, are “black-and-white thinkers”), and talking through all the types of people who are dedicated to ensuring a kid’s personal safety out in the world. (We do not, unless kids bring it up themselves, need to air our rage at the police officers of Uvalde who didn’t go in. And in general, Moyer suggests making sure that your own emotions are pretty under control while having these conversations, so you aren’t adding further unstable vibes to a destabilizing situation.)
Moyer also suggested making sure that you aren’t listening to, or watching, much news while kids are around in the next week or so, which I think is a good idea.
— Rebecca Onion