Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here.
Dear Care and Feeding,
My parents had my brother and I in their late 30s/early 40s (Dad is 78 and Mom is 72). This was 10 to 15 years after their friends had kids and consequently, they’ve spent 10-plus years watching their friends have grandchildren while awaiting their own. I now have two boys (2 and 4), and my brother has a 2–year-old son. For context, we all live in different towns about thirty minutes from each other. With my first boy, my parents were very involved, and I mostly appreciated the help and tried to ignore the moments when they were being overbearing. They took COVID very seriously and stuck to outdoor only visits until everyone was vaccinated. But now they’re even more anxious to make-up for “the lost year and a half” with their grandchildren. They want to be involved in everything, and they take it way overboard.
For example, at Halloween they insisted on being the ones to take the kids out, with my mom regularly trying to stop the kids and pose them for pictures. My brother and I were left trailing behind trying to salvage our first Halloween experience with our little ones. They won’t accept boundaries like “we will invite you to the zoo with us sometimes and go without you other times.” My mom wails like a spoiled toddler at being excluded, and my dad is the master of the disappointed look. Both my brother and I are at our wits end and have implemented the unsustainable solution of not telling them things and hoping they don’t find out. I do this more than my brother as he relies on them once a week for “free” childcare.
Last week, they found out about something I had taken my older boy to with a friend of mine. Their response was to sit me down for a chat about them having “a limited amount of time left” and that they “have already missed too much, don’t be cruel and force them to miss more.” I am sympathetic, but the more they push to be included, the more I want to completely cut them off. How do I get them to accept boundaries without destroying my relationship with them?
— You Had These Experiences With Your Own Kids!
Dear You Had These Experiences,
It’s sometimes difficult for grandparents to adjust to a new role in which they do not have the same jurisdiction and privileges that they had while raising their own families. Now they’ve got these new kids around, whom they love as deeply as they did their own kids, but they don’t have unfettered access to them, and someone else gets to make the big decisions about their lives. It may feel as though there isn’t enough time or space for them to use all the love (and parental wisdom) that they have for this new version of their family, one in which the people they once were responsible for are now authority figures themselves—and authority figures who determine their access to these grandchildren, at that.
Be compassionate towards your parents. They did await these days for a long time, and they did feel a sense of longing for their grandbabies during the forced separation of COVID and, no, they don’t have forever to spend quality time with them either. That’s not to say that you have to integrate them into every outing you’d ever like to take with your own children, but just that you should try to temper your frustrations a bit here. For generations, parents have talked about feeling somewhat lost when their children become adults, and many of them seek to fill the hole that active parenting left with being super present for their grandchildren. It’s a blessing that your children got to meet both of your parents, and that they are healthy and active enough to engage with them.
That said, you absolutely have a right to set boundaries for your parents and to spend time with your children without them. Get them together for a talk with your brother, and explain how grateful you are that your kids are able to spend time with them but that you need to be able to sometimes do things without them without being made to feel guilty about it. It’s also reasonable for you to insist on being in charge of special activities, such as trick-or-treating.
Commit to ensuring they see the kids on a regular basis, and make sure they are able to get quality time with them during these visits; perhaps you all can agree to a monthly schedule, so that there’s no wondering about when or if they’ll be together next. Gently remind them that it is absolutely okay for parents and kids to have outings without the grandparents, and that this isn’t a reflection on how important they are to you.
As your kids get older, so will your parents. They won’t always be up for trick-or-treating, or trips to the zoo, and your kids interests will become increasingly foreign to them over time as well. Overindulge your parents a bit here. They’re probably missing you and your brother, and this time with your children allows them to reconnect with something they had to put to bed a long time ago. One day, you’ll wish they were around to be so pushy, so be as kind as you can to them in the meantime.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
My husband suffers from chronic pain and uses cannabis (legally) to help him manage it. I find it useful to use cannabis to help me sleep. Our school-aged kids are aware that we take “medicine” to help us feel better, although we smoke outdoors only and do not allow them near us while doing so. I am wondering about the best way to approach explaining this situation to them as they get older and have a better understanding of what cannabis is and how others may view our use of it. I also don’t want to encourage our kids to use it and worry that I am setting a bad example. Where is the line for pot smoking parents?
— Pothead Parent
Dear Pothead Parent,
A fellow “pothead parent,” I found the book It’s Just a Plant to be incredibly helpful when it came to explaining the multifaceted life of cannabis in our society, from its historical use, to its role in the criminal justice system and the complicated nature of legalization for some, but not all. I would also encourage emphasizing weed as an adult-only product, something that can be extremely dangerous if ingested or otherwise used by a child; as much as I want my daughter to respect the right of adults to use cannabis products responsibly, I also want her to fear what could happen to her if she were to experiment with it before she is old enough to do so.
As time goes on, your conversations with your kids about cannabis will become more in-depth, and you can further emphasize the “responsible” part of the equation that is so important. Talk about the fact that kids and teens do, in fact, experiment with marijuana, and that the consequences are wide-ranging and potentially devastating; not only can they get sick, they can be put out of school, arrested, etc. Also explain to them that you and your husband’s cannabis use is the family’s private business, and that it is not something they should be discussing with anyone outside of the house without your explicit permission. They should know that marijuana is not universally embraced and that there are people out there who do not support the idea of using it.
Most kids have some understanding of alcohol (or “Mommy Juice/Daddy Juice”) as an adult indulgence. You can point to it and explain that cannabis is similar, in that it is exclusively meant for adults and can be used socially, but different due to both it’s complicated legal status and use for medicinal purposes.
Cannabis is not to be taken lightly. You’ll have to monitor exactly how much you have in the house and where you put it. You also want to keep your usage of it private; the kids don’t need to know your smoking routine, or to be aware of when you excuse yourself to take a hit. Over time, they may come to recognize the smell, or figure out what it really means when you excuse yourself for a pre-dinner phone call outdoors. In the meantime, keep it as discreet as possible. Kids so often want to engage with things that their parents seem to be passionate about; they don’t need to share your passion just yet. All the best to you.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
My husband’s adult daughter slams 300 mg of fentanyl every day. She lives with her 3-year-old in our attached guest house. She is unemployable unless a family member gives her a job because she’s been fired from every job due to her addiction. She is an adult and as such, our hands are tied. My husband enables some of this behavior. He knows what’s going on but says nothing, even though I find needles in the clothes dryer. She orders her needles on the internet and the one time I intercepted them from the mailbox, he had me return them to her. Her baby already has no father, because he overdosed while my stepdaughter was pregnant. Our family is super supportive of her going to rehab, but she refuses to go. As with most addicts, she is very manipulative and tells her dad what he wants to hear. I am at my wits end. I could go on and on with examples of bad decision making on her part, but I am sure you are aware of addict behavior. What to do?
— Pissed Off in Phoenix
Dear Pissed Off,
I’m going to assume that because you don’t focus on this in your letter, and because your stepdaughter and her child are essentially living with you, you know the child to be safe. Obviously, if you do not, more urgent interventions are necessary, and I hope you’ll make them. That said, to address your question, it’s great that there are family members who are in support of your stepdaughter going to rehab. Together, you all should find a facility and work with their team to strategize a plan to try and entice her to actually do it. The professionals there will have ideas on how to encourage someone who is hesitant to get some help, and while that doesn’t guarantee that you’ll be successful in compelling her to do so, I think it is your best option here.
I think it’s important that you get your husband to a place of honesty as it relates to his daughter’s struggles. He may find it easier to make excuses for her and look past her drug use than to admit to you, and himself, just how bad things are right now. But it’s time for him to deal with the truth. You should not bear this load by yourself, and by sticking his head in the sand, he’s leaving you to do that. Speak to him with compassion and empathy, for surely this is heartbreaking for him to watch, while urging him to acknowledge what is going on and to join you in devising a plan to address it.
Speaking of compassion and empathy, though your stepdaughter’s “addict behavior” can surely be frustrating, do remember that it is exactly that: the byproduct of her addiction, of an illness over which she does not currently have control. It may seem as though motherhood should push her to want better for herself and her child, but that’s not the nature of this devastating beast. I’m not suggesting that you allow any and everything she does to go unchecked because she has a drug problem; I’m just urging you to remember that addiction is not a character flaw and it can lead people to do things they’d never otherwise consider. Focus on rallying your husband to be proactive about helping your stepdaughter find a new way forward—his participation is critical here. Wishing you all the best on this journey.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
I need some help/guidance when it comes to disciplining children. I’m in my 40s and never had kids, but my brother and sister-in-law have two young girls; the oldest is not quite 3, the youngest about 6 months old. We recently got together for supper with our mother, and the oldest was acting out a bit (nothing horrible but she was sticking her hands in her water glass, kept grabbing for my SIL’s wine glass, things like that.) My brother told her that if she didn’t behave, he would spank her, and then asked us how old she would have to be before he could actually do that. I answered “never” and I meant it. I truly believe that spanking a child is wrong. He laughed and said something along the lines of “a swat on the bottom now and then isn’t a big deal.” Our mom agreed; she often agrees with whatever opinion of the moment that he has, be it about Joe Rogan or spanking, and the subject was soon dropped.
I’m still really bothered, however, and would appreciate some input as to how to talk to my brother about it. I’d like to believe that he never would lay a finger on his girls, but who knows? At the same time, they’re not my kids, and I don’t want to cause big blowout drama over something that might never happen. Bringing my mom into the conversation is a non-starter, though. Would you happen to have any input or advice? If it matters, I’m quite a bit more liberal and left leaning than the rest of my family, most of whom are conservative and borderline old-fashioned. Thank you so much for your help!
— Please Spare the Rod
Dear Spare the Rod,
Unfortunately, there is no way to guarantee that your brother never spanks his children. However, you can absolutely talk to him about why corporal punishment is such a bad idea, and you’ve got no shortage of evidence to back you up. According to the American Psychological Association, physical discipline can lead to “increased aggression, antisocial behavior, physical injury and mental health problems” for kids. In 2006, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child issued a directive calling corporal punishment “legalized violence against children.” The American Academy of Pediatrics has also cautioned against spanking, citing great evidence that it does not benefit children. Read up on the case against physical discipline and meet your brother’s feelings with facts; that isn’t to say that his mind will be changed after years of social programming that taught him otherwise, but hopefully, having access to the truth about what even “swatting” can do will encourage him to reconsider.