Care and Feeding

My Daughter’s Life Is a Train Wreck

I’m not sure I can sit by and watch silently any longer.

A grandfather looks concerned.
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,

When my eldest daughter Angela was in Europe pursuing an advanced degree, she met and then married José, a European man who comes from money and can only be described as a creep. It came out that through their entire 15-year marriage that José had multiple affairs, as well as another wife and two daughters in another city he traveled to for work. He managed to keep the affairs secret from Angie for over a decade.

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They have one child together, Harry, who’s now 7 and splits his time between Jose’s and Angie’s (and José’s other family’s house). At José’s, Harry is given free rein, staying up late at night, playing violent video games, eating anything he wants whenever he wants, and generally living an entirely undisciplined existence nearly every weekend (not to mention he’s ignored by José while he’s with a girlfriend or his other family). He returns to Angela’s home on Monday mornings, exhausted and unable to function in school until he has had a good night’s sleep.

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Harry was kept behind one grade due to “lack of adequate socialization,” but seems to be adjusting well to school now, all things considered. He’s a bright boy, and speaks three languages conversationally. But although he’s seven, has the physical size and apparent emotional development of a 4-year-old. He clings to Angie inappropriately. His remarks are suggest a violent fantasy life. For instance, in a recent FaceTime call, he said that he was going to study karate in the next semester so he could “kick [Angie’s] head off”. The next second he was smothering her with kisses and crawling all over her while we were attempting to carry on a conversation. They both came to visit us in our new house over the Christmas holidays. He got into the car at the airport and commented, “Damn, it’s cold! Turn on some heat!” Then, to his mother: “Get in the car, b****!” He pretends to shoot us with automatic weapons and uses the “f” word. I could go on and on, but he constantly vascillates between baby-like behavior and violent, inappropriate remarks and gestures.

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Angie has infinite patience, seldomly raises her voice, never physically disciplines him, and often putting him on time outs, but nothing seems to work. When they finally went back to their home city, we were relieved and exhausted, physically and emotionally. Just how much should we get involved the next time they visit? My own inclination is to take a “my house, my rules” stance in dealing with Harry, speaking with Angie alone to discuss this with her first, and then laying down some rules for Harry’s behavior. In my wife’s opinion and my own, these two both need some serious intensive counseling. Do you have any advice on what we can do to help Angie and Harry?

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—Grieving Grandpa

Dear Grieving Grandpa,

As I’ve always said in this column, I believe it’s best to mind your own business regarding how someone is raising their children as long as the kids are emotionally and physically safe — but that’s not the case here. Harry is clearly suffering and you should do everything possible to ensure he’s evaluated by a mental health professional as soon as possible. That shouldn’t be a tough thing to sell to Angie assuming she’s self-aware and honest about the situation with her son. If she can’t afford therapy, I hope you or other family members could come together to make it happen for Harry’s sake.

I believe Angie also needs therapy not only to serve as an outlet for her problems, but to gain the courage to stand up to her ex-husband about the care of their child when he’s at José’s house.

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Last, but not least—you’re absolutely right about creating ground rules for your house that Harry should follow. Honestly, you’d be extra kind to telli Angie about your plan beforehand, but I wouldn’t fault you one bit if you decided to implement your rules without her buy-in. Eventually Harry is going to be placed in a situation where he must follow rules or else he’ll be suspended from school, arrested, or worse — so you’re doing him a big favor in the long run by teaching him that actions have consequences.

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The bottom line is you need to take action right away, because from the sound of it, Harry is a ticking time bomb (through no fault of his own). I know Angie loves him, but she could be too burned out to take the requisite action. I don’t want this to fall on your shoulders completely, but you may need to do some heavy lifting up front to ensure they get the help they need.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My wife and I have two children, a 3-year-old boy and a 9-month-old girl, and we’ve been living a 2-hour drive apart for 2 years due to work (the kids live with her). Her job ends in a month so she’ll be moving back. Both kids are great generally but it’s been very demanding for her between the busy schedule, a lackluster nanny we only kept because we didn’t want to risk someone who would quit, and a lot of extended familial demands. I almost never criticize her parenting because our 3-year-old son is very emotionally demanding—we think he might have some OCD tendencies. He’s a picky eater to the point of being severely underweight and anemic, and she has resorted to bribing and conditioning to get his weight up and for potty training. I understand her needing to resort to these coercive techniques because she is so stretched thin and tired (I consider her a super mom), but they’re starting to cause me some concern. Our son is prone to tantrums that last 15 minutes to an hour, and to stop them she uses threats like “bad monster is going to come eat you”, “I’m going to kick you out of the house.” We mostly use realistic threats like loss of privileges (TV, toys, treats), but I’m bothered by these unrealistic threats. I fear it both causes more harm to him psychologically as well as show we will make threats we’ll never follow through. I’ve tried to bring it up with her more than once while being sensitive to her constraints, but all I get back is “don’t try to part-time parent”. When they move back for real, how do I broach this when I become a full-time parent again? My son does favor listening to her and he’s going to have a challenge transitioning back home.

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—Frustrated Father

Dear Frustrated Father,

Your concerns are completely legitimate, but I want to start off by saying that your wife is definitely at the end of her rope. I’m sure she tried every technique and trick in the book to get her son to behave before she resorted to the unrealistic threats she’s rolling with now. The fact that she snapped at you to not be a part-time parent is basically her way of saying, “Dude, do you have any idea how utterly exhausted and overwhelmed I am? Don’t even try to give me advice on how to do my job better. I’m just trying to survive over here.” For the time being, I think you should bite your tongue until she comes home.

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Once you’re both under the same roof, you should have a conversation about the threats she’s using. You can do that by saying something like, “I know you’re overwhelmed, but I think we both know that using unrealistic threats like this won’t serve our son well in the long run. When you feel like you’re at the end of your rope, please reach out to me so I can intervene before you say something you’ll regret. I’m on your side and we’re a team.” Just by hearing that she has an ally at home can go a long way, but you’re going to have to go above and beyond to show how much of a parenting ally you are by taking on the bulk of the childcare duties so she can rest.

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Finally, when it comes to discipline, you have to follow through or else your kid is going to know you’re both frauds who will never do what they say. Does he love playing on his tablet? Take it away for a long period of time (not just a day) when he misbehaves. Does he love candy? Don’t just say he can’t have any because of his behavior—put the candy in the dumpster while he watches. I wouldn’t make a habit of actions like this, but I did that to my youngest daughter once, and she completely fell in line after that.

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The point is you have to do what you’re going to say you’re going to do or else you’re setting yourself (and your kid) up for disaster.

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Catch Up on Care and Feeding

• If you missed Monday’s column, read it here.
• Discuss this column in the Slate Parenting Facebook group!

Dear Care and Feeding,

I’m currently pregnant with my first child. Our baby is due in November, right in the middle of cold, flu and Covid season. My husband and I are both vaccinated against Covid (and had it). My mother-in-law and my parents, however, are not vaccinated against Covid. I’m not comfortable with anyone having close contact with my baby who is not vaccinated against flu, Covid and has not gotten a Tdap booster. I already told my mother this and she got into a huge argument with me and accused me of “trying to control them.” My husband has not broached it with his mother because they’ve had many fights about Covid, and he thinks I’m being overly cautious. I’m well aware none of these precautions eliminate all risk, that we will encounter unvaccinated people in the world and that my baby will eventually get sick and probably get Covid in his lifetime. However, to me there’s a huge difference between briefly passing unvaccinated people on the street and letting someone you know is unvaccinated hold and care for your newborn, especially during the peak season. This is the first grandchild for either of them so I’m hoping they’ll be motivated to just get vaccinated, but I’m worried they won’t. Am I being unrealistic or unreasonable? What else can I do to try to persuade them or set out my expectations ahead of time when it leads to a huge fight and a ton of stress for me?

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—Expectant Pro-Vaxxer

Dear Expectant Pro-Vaxxer,

You should be unapologetic about doing whatever you think is best to protect your child. Both of my children are old enough to be vaccinated (and they are), but if I was in your shoes, you can bet your rear end that I wouldn’t let any unvaccinated loved ones anywhere near my baby. That’s a risk I would be unwilling to take, and you would never forgive yourself or your unvaccinated family members if something horrible happened to your child.

I’m not going to get on a soapbox about the effectiveness of Covid vaccines. But there’s nothing wrong with taking the hard stance of not allowing any person near your baby unvaccinated. (I’ll leave it to you to decide whether to be more lenient by allowing outdoor visits while wearing masks and sitting at a distance while not allowing any of them to hold the baby. I have a strong feeling they won’t be OK with that option, but it’s better than nothing.)

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The main thing is you shouldn’t give in when it comes to this. We’re talking about your baby, which means you are in charge. Yes, they will gaslight you into believing you’re the bad guy, but I’m telling you that there are millions of sensible parents who feel the exact same way you do.

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Want Advice From Care and Feeding?

Submit your questions about parenting and family life here. It’s anonymous! (Questions may be edited for publication.)

Dear Care and Feeding,

We would appreciate advice regarding how to address reasons for not letting our children play alone at a friend’s house. My older son is 7 and has started going to other friends’ houses alone for play dates. With most of his friends this is fine, and we trust their parents. However, we just gained some information about the parents of one of his friends that makes us question their judgment and how safe he would be in their care (along the lines of not using car seats for their kids, and letting their 6-year-old ride in the front seat of the car, both of which are illegal in our state). Based on this information we do not plan to let him go there by himself. What can or should we say when or if the parents ask us why not? It seems that if we have to address it directly they will get angry and there won’t be any more play dates anyway, but other than making a whole series of excuses we’re not sure what to do. Also, is it ever ok to comment on the lack of car seats and front seat use? We were so shocked when we realized it that we let the moment get away.

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—Playdate Problem

Dear Playdate Problem,

Let’s put it this way — what would be the worst thing that would happen if you were direct about your fears of having your son hang out with parents who don’t believe in car safety? You would offend them and they would tell you to kick rocks. Would that be the end of the world? Would your son be emotionally scarred for life? Probably not. Trust me, life will go on.

Why waste your time lying and making excuses as to why your son can’t go their house alone? Eventually you’ll end up at the same point anyway with the parents potentially getting upset with you, so why expend more energy than necessary?

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Also, one benefit of the direct approach in this situation is the possibility of you making the parents aware of something serious that could end up saving their kids’ lives. As crazy as it sounds, they may be unaware of car seat laws and may end up doing the right thing going forward. You don’t have to be judgmental when you speak with them, either — you can simply say, “I noticed that your kids were riding in the front seat and/or without being placed in a car seat. That’s illegal in our state, and I don’t want you to get in trouble — or worse, have your kids get seriously injured. Here’s a website that explains our state’s laws in detail.”

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Most parents in their right minds would fall in line and follow the law. If not, you need to decide if it’s important enough for you to snitch on them to the proper authorities in an effort to keep their kids safe. That said, your only true responsibility here is keeping your son safe, and you should not feel even remotely bad about keeping your kids away from that house without your supervision.

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—Doyin

More Advice From Slate

My husband is in education, so during the summer he is a full-time stay at home dad to our children, ages 4 and 18 months. During the school year, he cares for them several days a week. I’ve long had a hunch that he was letting a screen do the child care for him. And now, after my first week working from home full-time, the facts can’t be ignored: They watch TV all day, every day. If they start to get restless he’ll put on something else, or they’ll come bother me. Also, every day since I have been working from home, while the little one is napping, my husband will set up my older child with a movie and take a nap himself. I really do not want this kind of care to continue, but I am very hesitant to say anything because I know if the shoe were on the other foot and I were a stay-at-home mother, I would bristle at my husband waltzing in and telling me that I’m parenting badly and need to change things. What say you?

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