Dear Care and Feeding,
My boyfriend won’t encourage his kids to be nice to me. We’ve been together for about five years. He grew up in an abusive household and is a member of a minority community in which patriarchy is highly ingrained, though he seems to have mostly rejected that element of his culture and is a liberal, pro-queer, union activist. The biggest issue we have, honestly, is about his kids. There are five of them from his previous marriage. He puts them first, as of course he should (I’d have a problem if he didn’t!). I get along great with the older ones. They’re awesome people. And, sad to say, they want nothing to do with their mom.
The youngest boys, however, who are 12 and 14, are mostly with their mom, who hates me—so they do, too. To be clear, I did not know my boyfriend or his then-wife when they were married; I had nothing to do with their divorce. Even so, after my boyfriend and I started dating, I had to get a restraining order against her after she showed up at my house and would not leave (the police came; it was a big mess).
I can deal with them not liking me. I mean, it sucks, but I’m a big girl, and I can live with that. But my boyfriend doesn’t even try to make them show me basic respect. He disappears with them when they come over for their time with him, and, if I do see the kids, they won’t even respond to a basic “hi” or “how are you?” from me, and he says nothing about this. I had a chat myself with the older one once, telling him he doesn’t have to like me, but people deserve basic respect, regardless of how you feel about them. It went nowhere. I need my boyfriend to back me up on this. Am I wrong for wanting him to ask his kids to act like decent people? And, for the record, he also doesn’t make them do any chores when they’re with him. I’m not a parent but I know kids crave rules and boundaries. I also know we raise our children to have our values, even if they may choose a different ethical system when they’re grown. At a minimum, kids should be taught basic politeness and respect for all humans, right? Or am I totally meddling in something where I should steer clear? What should I do?
—I’m Just Tired
Kids should be taught to be kind, yes. But demanding that they be kind to Dad’s new(ish) girlfriend, whom Mom despises, is more complicated than that, as I’m sure you must know.
So I have a variety of thoughts about what you’re asking me. If what you’re suggesting is that your boyfriend’s failure to insist that his two youngest kids be nicer to you—or to do chores when they are with him, for that matter—is a sign that his values are shaky (“we raise our children to have our values”), and asking me what you should do about that, I’d say that you might want to look at the big picture and ask yourself if these things are indications that he isn’t quite the person you had hoped/believed he was. Maybe he isn’t. And maybe that means what you should do is break up with him.
But if you’re asking me if he should demand that his 12- and 14-year-old sons (such a hard age! and one at which “basic respect” for elders, especially parents and parent-substitutes, is at its lowest point—and at which sullenness and complicatedness are at a high point) interact with you pleasantly, I’m going to go with don’t meddle. It isn’t clear to me if these kids have been refusing to say hi to you for the whole of the five years you’ve been dating their dad, or if he has brought you into the kids’ lives only recently. It’s also not clear how harrowing the divorce was for these kids. I am guessing pretty harrowing (if their mom was turning up at your place later)? If you’re going to stay with the boyfriend—and the kids are, as you say, “mostly with their mom,” and thus only visiting when they see their father—I’d suggest you stay well out of his relationship with them. I would certainly advise you otherwise if they lived with you, even part time. But demanding that their dad defend your honor is not going to get you anywhere, I am pretty sure. Better to work on your own zen about it.
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From this week’s letter, My Kid Is on a Mission to Ruin My Relationship With My Best Friend: “Honestly, I feel like she is testing me. But I still don’t know how to react!”
Dear Care and Feeding,
I’m a 36-year-old man and come from a Ghanaian family, though I was born and raised in the U.S. While I appreciate many elements of Ghanaian culture, there are some elements that I do not appreciate, namely the corporal punishment of children for misbehavior. My mother, however, is Ghanaian to her roots and views corporal punishment as a necessity for a stable household. My son is currently 7 years old, so of course he gets into mischief from time to time (something that is not aided by his ADHD). It’s nothing too serious, but that doesn’t seem to matter to my mother. She has pinched, spanked, and slapped him on multiple occasions for his behavior.
While my son should definitely learn to not do certain things, I emphatically disagree with her methods and this has been the source of many arguments between us. I finally reached my breaking point when I was driving to her house to pick him up after work one day. As I pulled up, I saw him crying and my mom gripping his arm, yelling that she was going to beat him. I saw a knocked-over trash can, meaning he had probably (either intentionally or unintentionally) knocked it over while he was playing. I did not care whether he had done this on purpose or by accident. I immediately got out of the car and yelled at her to let him go.
We had a shouting match, and I told her that until she changed her ways, she would not be seeing her grandson. Now it has been about a month and a half. Multiple family members have messaged me to tell me that I overreacted, that she wouldn’t hit him unless she loved him and wanted him to learn, to know better than to misbehave. I want to hold my ground, but this is my son’s grandmother and I want my extended family to be involved in his life. I don’t know what to do.
—Lost in Translation
I agree entirely with you about not leaving your child in your mother’s care anymore if she is unwilling or unable to abide by your guidelines. And it seems clear that you have other options for his care while you are at work, since you have done without her looking after him for the last month and a half. I do think it may be draconian for you to refuse to allow her to see her grandson altogether. Why not talk to her (without shouting, without arguing) one more time about your disavowal of the Ghanaian custom of corporal punishment for children? And let her know that you love and respect her (you do, don’t you?) even though you disagree strongly with her childrearing methods—and that this is why she won’t be providing childcare anymore.
But why can’t you visit her with your son? (Especially if you make it very clear that if she attempts to override you and punish him for what she considers misbehavior in your presence, the two of you will have to leave?) If this compromise is not acceptable to her, you have your answer: you will have to stay away. If I were you, I’d offer up this compromise more than once. Don’t give up so easily on having your extended family involved in your son’s life. There may be a long learning curve for her and others—but that doesn’t mean they can’t, or won’t, learn.
Catch Up on Care and Feeding
Dear Care and Feeding,
My 17-year-old daughter just came out as asexual and biromantic to my husband and me. This did not come as a huge surprise to us, and we are fine with it. But she also informed us of her decision not tell her extended family, which I understand in terms of not wanting to create any potential conflict with her very conservative grandparents. What’s been bugging me, though, is the main reason she gave us for staying in the closet.
My parents have always given her large gifts for Christmas and her birthday, especially as compared to her brother and (all male) cousins. We attribute this to her being the oldest and the only girl, and while most often the difference between the size of their gifts to her and to the others is not huge, it is enough to be noticeable to all of us. Now she has explained that she is banking on this preferential treatment to get a laptop from them before she leaves for college in a year, and she doesn’t want to risk losing it by coming out to them.
And it’s very likely she will get what she wants if she doesn’t rock the boat. But to me, this seems like a very selfish reason not to come out. She has made it fairly clear that this is the main thing keeping her from coming out to them (she has expressed amusement at their potential reactions). Should I tell her how I feel about that justification, or go along with it?
—Selfish Secret Keeping
I think it’s none of your business how and when and to whom your daughter comes out. But I also think that if it’s really troubling you, if you think this is a moral failing on your child’s part (and you are still in the process of raising her, after all, even if she’s almost out the door) or if it’s affecting your relationship with your parents—or anything else that is your business—then, sure, go ahead and tell her how you feel. But under no circumstances should you out her to her grandparents against her wishes or demand that she come out to them. If by going along with it you mean refraining from such actions, then yeah, I’d say “go along with it.” Letting people know how we feel—if talking about those feelings will not cause them pain (and I encourage you to think about this, too)—is one thing. Countermanding them is another. And keep this in mind: there may be plenty of reasons, besides the one she owns up to, she is choosing to come out only to you.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
Is the whole “attachment style” thing pseudoscience? And if not, what do you do if your child has an attachment style other than “secure”? I have two kids, 11 and 8. According to all the parenting info about attachment styles, which seems to be everywhere, my daughter (the older one) is securely attached. My son, though, seems to be “anxiously attached.” I learned this because I was worried about him—worried about how he gets really upset about being separated from me for anything but school, and how he has nine gazillion friends and yet believes that people don’t like him, and also how he just generally never seems secure in any of his relationships and never seems at ease. Concerned about a future of codependency and self-esteem issues, I looked to Google for some answers about what’s going on. What kept coming up was, “This person is anxiously attached.”
The problem is that nothing I found had any tips for how to help a child who is anxiously attached feel more secure in their relationships. There were tips for adults who are anxiously attached, but they all seemed geared toward romantic relationships and certainly weren’t applicable for a third grader. There were tips for parents on how to avoid giving your child an anxious attachment style. This seems to suggest that if your child has an anxious attachment style, it’s your fault (which, maybe? But in so many ways he was like this practically from birth so IDK, and also my daughter is fine). Anyway, is there anything I can do short of getting him into therapy? (Would that even be helpful for an 8-year- old not in crisis?) Or is this attachment style business a silly fad that has some root in science but has been taken to an extreme, and he’s not doomed to a life of toxic, codependent relationships if I just try to keep loving him and reassuring him that his friends care about him and that even if he’s not touching me at all times I still care deeply about him?
—Anxious about Attachment
Attachment theory is one of the foundational theories of developmental psychology. But as often happens with foundational theories (of any discipline), it’s been co-opted, oversimplified, and widely disseminated in a pop-psych user-friendly way. More to the point, really: your son is unhappy. Whatever you name this unhappiness, it should not be waited out. You’ve loved him since the day he was born, you’ve been reassuring him that everything’s OK, and he’s still struggling. People who are much smarter than I am regularly note that the time to get a child into therapy is when what’s troubling them is interfering with their daily life—and this is. An 8-year-old should see a therapist who specializes in working with children (here is a good place to start, both to find one and to learn more about how it can work). The answer to “whether it would even be helpful” for an 8-year-old is yes.
I’ve said this before, but I’ll say it again (and again): therapy should not be thought of as a dreaded last resort. Instead, where your son is concerned, think of it as a crucial part of your toolkit—a part that you don’t have the experience or expertise to manage on your own.
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My wife and I divorced when my daughter was 6 years old and I was 43. I love my daughter to death, marveling as she grew up, basking in her love, and returning in kind. I still love her so much, but there is something wrong in our relationship. She has no difficulty in ignoring my texts to her, never mind my calls. It hurts me very much when she blows me off. She’ll say, “I never respond to texts from anyone,” but will immediately respond to anybody’s texts during those infrequent times we are together. I’ve tried to take the approach that kids can be like this at her age, but I’m having serious doubts and am beginning to think there is something seriously wrong. Please help!