Care and Feeding

My Kids Have Free Rein at Their Mother’s House, and Now They Rage Against My Rules

A smug-looking child.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Thinkstock.

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,

I’ve recently separated from my partner of 15 years. We have two children aged 8 and 10. My ex is extremely permissive and disorganized as a parent; it’s part of what split us up. The kids have basically had free reign–no chores, eating whatever/whenever/wherever they want, no limits on screentime, no expectations for behavior. My ex came from an abusive family and suffers severe depression. She couldn’t tolerate my setting any limits, however kindly I did it. I couldn’t live like that anymore—not only the kids’ behavior, but being unable to respond to it without her breaking down or us getting in a fight. We’re splitting custody about 50/50, with a bit more for me. This is a huge change for the kids, as she was the primary parent before.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

They’re dealing with navigating two homes, spending a lot of time with a parent who was pretty hands-off before, and adjusting to a household with rules and expectations. It’s challenging, to say the least, but they understand they have to follow my rules at my house. Where I’m floundering a bit is a strategy for making these big changes. I’ve *got* to get them both to the place where they’re able to express emotions without tantrums, do the things they’re asked to do, and react to frustration constructively. Then I’ve got to get them doing stuff to take care of themselves–school, hygiene, basic chores. This is all totally new for them, and their mom’s house has no rules.

Advertisement

They’re kids, so of course they prefer no rules and frequently say I’m mean, I don’t love them, they hate me, they want to go to Mom’s. This is in response to things like “No, I won’t give you cookies for breakfast.”

I keep my responses calm and kind, but emotionally I’m caught between sadness, anger, and sympathy– both for my kids and for their mom, who I still love. And I’m still reeling a bit from years of not being allowed to have any expectations for the kids. I’m unsure about how much I *should* expect, or how to be the loving, firm parent I think they need.

Advertisement

Right now, we’re still at “if you throw a screaming fit, you lose screen time,” and the kids are struggling. Every consequence provokes an escalation. Goofing off is about the closest they get to self-directed play, since they’re so used to screens. And, once I’ve taken away screen time, I don’t have many tools to use– if I keep extending it, the younger one can quickly escalate beyond age-appropriate consequences (*is* it useful to say “no screen time for a month” or “no book at bedtime” to a 7-year-old?) I know they can behave appropriately, since neither of them has problems at school.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

But they’re right, it’s not fair– they’ve got years of experience telling them that home is the place where you can do whatever you want, or you throw a tantrum. I’m struggling to find a good way to use graduated consequences when most of their behavior is so awful so much of the time. I’m working on rewards and looking for things to praise, and that’s making some progress. I just don’t know how to balance the need to make changes, with the desire not to expect too much too soon, or to have a constantly increasing set of expectations.

Advertisement
Advertisement

— Struggling After Separation

Dear Struggling After Separation,

Oh, man, if I had a dollar for every time my son told me that he hates me and he’s going to live with his Dad, I’d finally be able to get that Roomba, or at least a 2 oz. jar of Creme de la Mer. Most recently, he gave me the “worst mom in the world” award for not allowing him to have a third snack when it was already past bedtime. But honestly, that kind of reaction from our kids, more often than not, is a signal that we are doing the job of parenting.

Advertisement
Advertisement

I too am sympathetic to your ex – it sounds like she’s struggling with her own mental health, and given her family of origin it’s very likely that no one modeled appropriate boundaries to her. (I just might be speaking from direct experience here.) But what I’ve learned on my own parenting journey is that kids crave boundaries.

It sucks to set them, because there’s always an initial backlash, especially when kids have been used to doing whatever they want all the time. The kids aren’t fun to be around when you’re setting them. You feel mean, and their emotions can feel overwhelming. They rage at you and somehow always know the most hurtful possible thing to say. But eventually, they adjust to the new normal, and sometimes even realize it’s better for them. (Seriously! It’s a great feeling to be thanked for setting a boundary.) But even if they don’t come around, you’re in the business of raising healthy, well-adjusted adults, not the business of accommodating the whims of little people whose brains have not fully developed yet. Your instinct to provide a loving but firm presence seems just right to me.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Of course your situation is made more difficult by the fact that there is no consistency between houses. Since you’re struggling with appropriate consequences, a friend recently told me about an organization called PEP (Parent Encouragement Program) that emphasizes positive reinforcement and natural consequences. (It’s located in the D.C. area, but they also offer online courses.) Or there may be similar organizations in your area to help you add some tools to your parenting toolbox.

If you have the resources, it might be good for you to talk to a therapist, too, to help you process all you’re going through, and to remind you that what you’re attempting to do is what’s best for your kids psychologically in the long run.

Advertisement

Because it’s easy to be their bestie. What’s harder, but ultimately so much more rewarding for everyone, is being their Dad.

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 am the mother of a seventh grader in a progressive city. My child, whom I’ll call R, was born male and never showed any hint of gender dysphoria.  Shortly before completing fifth grade, R announced that they identified as non-binary and preferred “they/them” pronouns. They chose a new name and asked members of our immediate family to use this new name and pronouns; we all complied without much fanfare.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Several months later, R requested the use of a different name and the use of “she/her” pronouns. We complied with R’s second name choice (which we use to this day), but we have not switched to using “she/her” pronouns at home. As R’s parents, we have doubts about the permanence of our child’s wish to alter their gender identity and see this more as normal individuation and probably a bit of a response to the “zeitgeist.” (R is a bright, attuned kid who’s always been a little bit socially precocious.)

Advertisement
Advertisement

While R briefly raised the topic of puberty blockers after learning about it from an older kid in an online chat, they have not raised this matter again, despite several opportunities to learn more about this option, including a visit with a physician who specializes in gender identity. We arranged for counseling for R, but after one session R asked to stop, saying that they didn’t really like the therapist and didn’t think it was necessary to continue. In general R is fairly cheerful and doesn’t show any evidence of depression or anxiety. We’re supportive of the rights of transgender people, and we know and respect a number of trans people personally and professionally. However, we think that our kid is probably not authentically trans.

Advertisement
Advertisement

R has indicated to teachers, classmates, and friends that they prefer the use of “she/her” pronouns, and everyone outside the family now refers to our child as “she.” When I’ve used “they/them” pronouns when referring to R, some friends’ parents have picked up on this and asked me what pronouns they should use. I’ve responded that they should probably stick with whatever pronouns their own kids use when talking about R.  When I’ve tried to discuss this with R, they’ve been very resistant to any conversation, stating, “I’ve told you what my pronouns are, you didn’t listen, and so I’m not going to talk about this anymore.”

It feels to me like this is probably all part and parcel of a (normal?) power struggle which I’ll admit I often feel like I’m losing.  There’s a lot of talk about “parents’ rights,” but apart from the politics, I’m simply trying to do the best thing both for my child while respecting my own feelings about something that feels both very big and very small at the same time. It does not feel authentic to refer to my child as “she,” and I’m struggling with this. Can you advise?

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

— Perturbed by Pronouns

Dear Perturbed by Pronouns,

Gender is not fixed and permanent, but an evolving part of our identities. R is at a natural age to be exploring and questioning that identity. Some trans and nonbinary kids experience gender dysphoria from a young age, and some don’t until much later.

Can I definitively say children never decide they are transgender and later change their minds? No, and there is admittedly more research to be done when it comes to transgender kids. But one of the most recent studies found that children who go through social gender transitions – like changing their names and pronouns – overwhelmingly continue to identify with that gender in 5 years time. And given that this began at the end of fifth grade and R. is now in seventh grade, it’s already been an awfully long stretch of time to be considered a phase.

Advertisement

When cis people insist that their children are going through a phase when it comes to their sexuality and/or gender identity, I often suspect they are projecting their feelings about their own gender onto their child. After all, they can’t imagine what it would be like to live as a different gender than the one they were born into, so they imagine that their child is likely to change their mind.

Advertisement

The other thing that research shows is that affirming care is one thing that greatly improves the mental health and well-being of transgender and nonbinary kids. That doesn’t necessarily have to mean medical intervention—and it doesn’t sound like R. is asking for that at this time. At its core, affirming care simply means compassionately accepting and exploring a child’s statements about their gender identity.

Advertisement

It’s easy to forget in the long stretch of parenting young children that there will come a day when our children will grow up and will no longer be obligated to have a relationship with us. It is the quality of your connection that will determine whether they decide to continue to be a part of your life. Even if you’re right, and R’s going through a phase,           she’ll likely always remember the fact that her friends, teachers, classmates, and even other people’s parents were more supportive of her than her own parent. R can change her pronouns back, but the effects of how you chose to handle her disclosure can never be reversed.

Advertisement

You were able to accept R’s new name, and you have been willing to connect your child with resources like a therapist and a physician who specializes in gender identity. So why do you feel the need to engage in a “power struggle” over your child’s simple request about pronouns? Some support might help you, too. I recommend seeking out your local P-Flag chapter and connecting with a group to help you process the feelings that are causing you to hold out on this issue. Ultimately, using she/her pronouns for R. hurts no one, but refusing to do so could hurt your child.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

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,

I practice body neutrality and have done my best to ingrain those ideas into my 11-year-old son, “C”: our bodies are our vessels to exist, not a reflection of our worth. I was anorexic for years as a child and teenager, and I’ve managed to overcome the disease through therapy, even if I am hyper-conscious of making any mistakes with C and his body image. He has always been on the heavier side, but his doctor has said as long as he engages in regular exercise and eating well, that there shouldn’t be any worry—he’s simply growing and preparing for a growth spurt.

Advertisement

I’ve tried various things over the years, and nothing has worked—his pediatrician has always maintained that C will likely grow out of his chubbiness when he hits his growth spurt. He’s eleven now, and that growth spurt hasn’t come. His doctor is now recommending a diet, but I cannot bear to put my son on a diet, especially after how I’ve suffered with disordered eating. C’s being teased more at school (which I’ve tried to combat with all the standard anti-bullying tools—ignoring, standing up for himself, meeting with teachers and the school counselor, etc.) but what do you do when your son comes home in tears because kids are calling him “Tits” in class instead of using his name and stealing his gym clothes?

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

It breaks my heart to see my strong, smart, kindhearted son being reduced to one attribute by his peers and suffering the social rejection because of it. How do I handle these issues when I feel I’ve exhausted everything, and when my son is reaching an age where he doesn’t tell me about the bullying as much anymore? School officials haven’t been any help, and my son refuses to tell me the kids that are taunting him, in fear of making the situation worse. I’m tired and saddened, and I don’t know how to help my son without hurting him.

— Tired of the Teasing

Dear Tired of the Teasing,

It continues to amaze me that in the year of our Lord 2022, when we have seemingly made so much progress on this issue, even well-meaning liberal parents are not having the conversation with their children that we just don’t talk about other people’s bodies, period. In fact, if you are one of those liberal, well-meaning parents, please have this conversation with your kids tonight. Bring it up out of the blue. Freak ‘em out a little, make ‘em think you heard something. (I’m kidding, but seriously, teach your kids that fatphobia is as unacceptable as any other form of discrimination.)

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

My heart goes out to you. It is exhausting not knowing how to advocate for your kid and it is heartbreaking feeling powerless to protect him from pain. Let your son know that the bullying is not his fault, and that it’s wrong to make fun of someone because of their body or any other difference.

I also applaud your decision not to put an 11-year-old on a diet, and I agree with you that doing so could very possibly contribute to a future of disordered eating. I’m not a doctor, but I would certainly have some follow-up questions for yours. Did they      find an issue with C’s health by doing bloodwork or other tests, for instance? Or do they simply have a general feeling that it could be unhealthy to have a larger body?

Advertisement
Advertisement

Bodies come in many different shapes and sizes, and it sounds like C has had the same body type his whole life, so it’s very possible he’s just genetically predisposed to that build. As I tell my own (adopted) son, who could be a body double for anyone in his biological family, “Your body is exactly how it’s supposed to be.”

Advertisement

We also keep the focus on being healthy and strong and feeling good, never on trying to alter the way our bodies look or lose weight. When other kids have made rude remarks about my son’s body type, I remind him how fast he can run on the soccer field, or how he once went seamlessly from one game to the next without even getting tired. Help C. focus on what his body can do, rather than how it looks.

Advertisement

I’d tell C. to do his best not to dignify the bullying with a reaction, and if he does have friends at school, to use the buddy system whenever he can have a supportive person nearby. Since the school has not been helpful in addressing the issue, you may want to read more about what is required of them by your state’s anti-bullying laws. Does C. have any special talents or interests you can help him cultivate outside of school? Emphasizing and helping him develop the things he is good at could help build his self-esteem, which has surely taken a beating from the abuse he’s enduring.

There’s nothing to gain from further pathologizing or shaming C. about his weight. He’s getting enough of that at school and piling on would only exacerbate any food or body image issues he’s already developed. And most kids who grew up being bullied for their weight, including me, would have given anything for one safe person who accepted us just as we are.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Slate Plus Members Get More Advice From Emily Each Week

From this week’s letter, I Met the Family of My Daughter’s New Friend… and Alarm Bells Went Off: “My danger senses were tingling every time I interacted with him.”

Dear Care and Feeding,

My sweet 9-year-old son (who is not neurotypical) announced at the family dinner table to his older sister, dad, and I (mom) that he “likes men.” We all responded with surprise because he has previously said he didn’t have any feelings like that for anyone and was too young.

Other than surprise that he had decided, we all were matter of fact about it and reacted as we would had he announced he likes girls…. because,  it doesn’t matter to any of us. When I asked him later when he realized this, he said he has known for a while that, “I’m going to be gay.”

Advertisement

The question is, other than letting him know that is 100 percent fine, what else should we do? Should we encourage him to share this info with others, or not? I don’t think it’s a big deal to him, but unfortunately,  he might not get the same reaction to this news outside of our family. What about role models? I have plenty of queer friends and family, but as I look around, I don’t see any gay men. Is that important? Also, I’ve been open with my kids about sex in that if they ask, I try to answer to the best of my ability in an age appropriate way. Is there a specific way I should handle non heterosexual sex or anything he really should know as he gets older?

Advertisement
Advertisement

— Suprised but trying to step up!

Dear Surprised,

Congratulations on creating an environment where your son feels safe enough to give you this information! LGBTQ kids are more at risk for mental health issues, substance abuse, and suicidality. Research from the Family Acceptance Project has identified more than 50 “affirming behaviors” that help protect your child from these risks, including “Ask them if—and how—you can help them tell others about their LGBTQ identity” and “Connect your child with LGBTQ adult role models,” so your instincts are right on. They also provide a lot of information on how families can support LGBTQ children in general.

Advertisement

You have a lot of questions and luckily there are so many resources to help answer them in depth! P-FLAG is a great first stop for information on what to do when a loved one comes out, and your local chapter may offer support groups and other activities. MyKidIsGay is another great collection of articles and other resources for the newly minted LGBTQ parent. The Youtube channel Queer Kid Stuff has fun videos for kids and families on LGBTQ topics and you can watch them together.

Advertisement

Lastly, I’m of the firm belief that kids who are old enough to learn about the mechanics of heterosexual sex are old enough to learn about queer sex, not least because they may need different information when it comes to having safe sex. Check out Healthline and GLESN’s LGBTQ Safer Sex Guide for more info. (I also wrote about how I responded when my son asked me how two men have sex here.)

Gay and trans kids may experience struggle, but don’t forget that there are also beautiful moments of queer joy. The best way to safeguard them from the former and promote the latter is by providing a safe harbor in your home.

—Emily

More Advice From Slate

My wife is from a cultural background in which piercing baby girls’ ears is totally expected and standard, and she would like to get it done with our 5-month-old daughter. This seems weird and freaky to me, and I am uncomfortable with it. What should I do?

Advertisement