Dear Care and Feeding,
My wife Lisa and I have 3 kids—a 12-year-old son, a 10-year-old daughter named Emma, and a 6-year-old daughter. All three kids wear glasses. There haven’t been any issues until now.
Ever since Emma turned 10 a few months ago, Lisa has been pressuring her to start wearing contacts. This is something she didn’t do for our son. Lisa says that a woman’s worth in society is based on how she looks, and it’s better for Emma to understand that now rather than later. She says that because Emma is very shy, wearing contacts might give her the confidence she needs to be more social, and in a few years maybe get a boyfriend. When Emma wasn’t there, Lisa complained about how Emma’s glasses make her eyes look too big (she is very farsighted, so her glasses do magnify the size of her eyes a bit).
Emma doesn’t want contacts. She is used to them and likes how she looks right now. Her peers don’t usually comment on her appearance, and when they do it’s not about her glasses. She also responded to her mother’s point about dating by saying that if a boy wouldn’t date her because of her glasses, then he wouldn’t be the right boy for her. I suspect there’s also a sensory sensitivity at play, but I don’t think the reasoning matters; if she doesn’t want contacts then she shouldn’t have them.
Incidentally, Emma also did her research, and we discovered that, with her prescription, glasses are far cheaper annually than contacts. We also learned that most opticians don’t recommend contacts until a kid is 11.
Lisa is upset that our son and I have both taken Emma’s side in the argument. It’s not a constant issue, but it is something that my wife has brought up about once a week at dinner for the past two months. Emma is very sensitive, and every time Lisa brings up contacts, it always ends up with Emma in tears because Lisa just ignores her opinion.
This whole thing is extremely out of character for Lisa. She’s been very opposed to the idea that girls or boys need to act a certain way, and we’ve made sure our kids understand that their gender doesn’t define their interests or passions. But whenever I’ve talked about this with Lisa, it ends up being a rehash of the argument she has with Emma. I am very confused about why this has become an issue and I’m concerned about how this whole thing might affect Emma’s relationship with her appearance, especially since she will be in middle school next year. How can I continue to support Emma?
— Stuck in the Middle
Emma sounds like an amazing kid—clever, resourceful, and self-confident. I’m on her/your side. Several things about your wife’s behavior strike me as problematic. First, this discussion should not be coming up in a public forum at the family dinner table. Not only does it risk embarrassing Emma, but it also tacitly tells the other kids that critiquing each other’s looks is fair game. My second concern is your indication that Lisa does not relent on this topic, even when it brings her daughter to tears. Last, I’m not sure why we are concerned for a 10-year-old’s romantic prospects (and truly have no better rejoinder to your wife than what Emma herself pointed out—good on her).
Though this might sound unkind towards your wife, I suspect that she may be embarrassed about Emma’s eye-magnifying glasses—that there is some kind of comparison game she is playing in her head relative to the other moms and daughters. That, or Lisa was the victim of or witness to some very hard bullying when she was younger and she’s desperate to stave that off for Emma. I want to believe the latter, but the concerns I listed above make me less confident about its veracity.
Here’s the thing—and maybe this will sound radical, I don’t know—but if she is embarrassed by it, that doesn’t make her a bad mom. What matters is how she handles those opinions. Our kids do, wear, and say all kinds of things we wish they wouldn’t. As long as whatever they are doing isn’t harmful to themselves or others, we parents have a choice: consistently correct, admonish, remind, or beseech them—or let it go. In my opinion, our job as parents is to make sure our kids are safe, kind, and as happy and healthy as can be. So, if my kid has a behavior or trait I wish were different, unless it risks one of those four things, I tell myself to let it go. It does way more harm for my kids to think I would change something about themselves than is worth it for a minor correction.
Catch Up on Care and Feeding
Dear Care and Feeding,
I share a 15-year-old daughter and 13-year-old son with my ex-husband, James. James was an awful husband but has always been a really good dad. His being a bad husband is centered around his “Peter Pan syndrome,” and it’s spilling into his approach to fatherhood: He wants everything to be fun. He makes games out of doing their homework or studying. We share 50/50 custody and when the kids are with him, it is nonstop fun. He thinks nothing of leaving after school on Friday to fly to the beach and come back Sunday. They have no chores at his house except that they need to pick up after themselves (he has a housekeeper who cleans for him). They almost always order in or eat out (they tried a meal delivery service once but decided cooking “wasn’t fun” and canceled it). He doesn’t punish the kids because, as he puts it, “they never do anything with me that I feel warrants punishment.”
Obviously, the kids prefer to be at their dad’s house instead of with me and my husband, Nick. I am stricter than James, and the kids have chores and responsibilities at home. Nick is everything I wished for in a husband—he is responsible, sensible, and hard-working. My hope has always been that my kids would be influenced by him on how to live their lives. However, it is becoming clear that they want to live like their dad. My son’s future career goals involve “getting a job that pays enough to live like dad” and although my daughter wants to go to medical school, she wants a “laid back specialty that isn’t high stress, makes a lot of money so she can afford a housekeeper and an assistant and travel all the time.”
I want my kids to have more values and goals than this! They aren’t spoiled kids but they seem to think their dad’s lifestyle is the best, and Nick and I are boring. How can I get them to see that adulthood isn’t all fun and sometimes it is mundane and tedious? How do I counter their dad’s influence? I really don’t want my kids to grow up to be like their dad.
— Not a Fun Mom but Not a Dud
Dear Not a Dud,
You aren’t going to like my answer. I totally empathize with the position that you are in…but most of what you describe about your ex-husband seems rather reasonable to me. Where you see a man who is pawning off his adult responsibilities on hired help, I’m seeing someone who knows himself well enough to know he won’t do chores and has used his financial resources to ensure he doesn’t live in filth. Where you describe someone with no ambition, I see someone who has struck an equilibrium with their employer about how much work is required to earn a comfortable salary, and who follows through on that workload. And do the studying games help your kids retain the information and do well on tests and in class? That’s an A+ tutor you don’t even need to pay.
Your husband has chosen to live a different life than you—and that is ok! It’s proof that your divorce was a good choice. I think you need to let go of the idea that his way of life is wrong, simply because it doesn’t look like yours. What I do sympathize with you on is how it is impacting your kids’ attitudes toward your home and their responsibilities there. The other thing you don’t mention is whether this Peter Pan complex leaves you picking up more pieces of responsibility? It doesn’t sound that way, but if it does, then my advice would be different.
If you have an amiable or collaborative co-parenting arrangement, could you talk to James about the differences in households? Maybe he would be open to having the kids chip in (or learn about) budgeting, just like they are learning about chores from you? It could be a great opportunity for you both to teach your kids the responsibility of keeping house, but from two different approaches. That has the benefit of teaching the kids financial literacy—something I wish more kids had before they became adults. If that isn’t the kind of relationship you have, you may just have to grin and bear it, and trust that the long game will pay off and the kids will see the value of your parenting as they grow. Maybe, at minimum, one thing James can do to help is to approve of your lifestyle if the kids ever complain about it to him. If he can look them in the eye and say, “you’re right, we don’t do laundry here, but I’m 100 percent with your mom on the fact that you need to learn how to do it, because it’s a skill everyone needs,” that can go a long way. If you work together, there is no reason you can’t back each other up while still living the lives you each value.
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,
My oldest daughter, Anne (30), has always marched to the beat of her own drum. At her best, she’s incredibly artistic and very intelligent. She graduated from a prestigious university with excellent grades while being a member of the school marching band; not an easy feat, and I have always been very proud.
Within the last couple of years, she has been diagnosed with ADHD. This has become the focus of her world and features in almost every conversation she has. It is her excuse for absolutely everything she forgets or doesn’t want to do. If it was just her, I could easily let this go. However, Anne has a 7-year-old daughter, Katie, who is the light of my life but struggles with her parents’ inconsistencies and disorganization. Katie’s dad does not have ADHD but is socially awkward in his own way. Anne and her husband each “take Katie for a day” every weekend so the other one doesn’t have to “deal with her.” Katie stays with my wife and I regularly. Ninety percent of the times Katie comes over, she is unwashed and her hair is unbrushed. She usually has on a dirty mismatched outfit. This could be explained away as being a 7-year-old, but Katie likes to look nice, wear dresses and have her hair done. She tells us her parents don’t believe in special occasions or special outfits.
We try to support Anne and constantly ask what she or Katie needs. Recently, she stated Katie needed fall clothing. We bought at least 10 new outfits, cut off the tags, washed and folded the laundry and took it to her house. Anne’s response was “oh”—not thank you—and she has yet to go through the bag of clothes to put any of it away. This is rude and not how she was raised, but we dropped it. This past weekend, Katie stayed with us and was so excited to go to her first ever friend birthday party the next day. She wore a dress in the birthday girl’s favorite color and asked us to style her hair so that she looked “as nice as possible.” She looked adorable and was so excited! When her parents pulled up, she was standing so tall at the door, but Anne and her husband came in and said nothing. Not “you look great” or “how was your sleepover” or “look at this new outfit!” Katie’s shoulders fell, and it honestly broke my heart.
This is not the first or even the twentieth example of how they are failing this child—from not packing water shoes for a beach trip and then yelling at Katie when she got her tennis shoes wet, to forgetting to sign her up for after-school care (so that now everyone else is scrambling to step in). I called Anne to discuss the birthday party incident and her responses ranged from “we are introverts and wait to have our reactions later” to “you don’t understand how my brain works.” I am at my wits’ end. This child is being emotionally neglected and not cared for in the way she deserves to be. Please help.
— At a Loss
Being neurodivergent can be hard, because despite growing awareness and acceptance about things like ADHD, the person with the condition is—nine times out of 10—the one who has to adapt to the world, rather than the other way around. It can often feel inequitable and burdensome.
But, ADHD isn’t an unlimited hall pass. You don’t get to blow off the feelings of others. You learn, adapt, and find coping techniques that enable you to work around or harness your ADHD symptoms so that you can successfully navigate society. We can talk long and hard about the ethics and balance of asking neurodivergent folks to fit into mainstream social norms versus changing those norms to allow more variability, but that’s beyond the scope of this letter. It’s also not relevant in this case, because Katie is not “society.”
I said in an above letter that a parent’s job is to make sure that their kids are happy, healthy, safe and kind. As you point out, Anne and her husband do not seem to be meeting Katie’s psychological basic needs. ADHD and awkwardness isn’t an excuse—they have to find ways to “trick” or “train” their brains into giving Katie what she needs. We adults do these brain hacks in numerous ways—we leave ourselves notes so we don’t need to remember upcoming tasks on our own. We put our keys in the fridge to remember to take the leftovers home from Thanksgiving dinner. It is Anne and her husband’s job to observe what Katie needs (or hear you when you observe it) and problem-solve how they can meet those needs. And they do not need to be perfect at it; Katie is old enough to be involved in the problem solving, and to forgive them when they may fall short.
My guess is that some of Anne’s reactions may come from feeling like she is being judged for her inability to do everything perfectly (at least, that’s how a lot of my friends and family often feel as a result of their ADHD). As upset as you are, I want you to consider that some of the reaction you’re getting from her might be defensiveness or frustration on her part. Tread lightly and keep the focus on Katie’s feelings, not on Anne’s shortcomings. For inspiration, I have found the books by Dr. Edward Hallowell to do a great job discussing ADHD from a family perspective. Some of his work might be of use as you, Anne, and the family navigate this. Good luck, I hope they’re open to your feedback.
Dear Care and Feeding,
I have been living in the same house as my parents, my younger adult sister and her three school-age children for the kids’ entire lives. We are a tight-knit extended family, and my parents and I have often played the role of additional parents in their lives rather than those of a traditional aunt or grandparent. I watch the kids and get them ready for school when my sister works (for free), help them with their schoolwork and lessons, make meals for them, play with them—I have even been a Girl Scouts co-leader for the past six years. And I’ve loved every second of it! While I know they are not my children and I respect that, my connection to them is very deep and parental.
This has been fine so far, up until about the last year or so. I have begun to notice a lack of respect and empathy directed towards myself and my parents, especially when asked to do something for someone else or change a behavior. If I gently ask my nephew to turn down the volume of his computer games, he immediately gets angry and tells his mother that I’m “yelling” and “being mean to him.” When I’m getting them ready in the morning and have to interrupt the youngest as she’s watching YouTube to fix her hair, she yells at me to shut up and leave her alone. Even the oldest, who just entered middle school and with whom I have always had a very close relationship, is beginning to treat me with the same sense of disrespect. Coming from her, who I’ve always felt was most like a true daughter to me, this is immensely painful, even if it is a joke. They also treat my parents like this when questioned in any way by them.
Whenever I try to correct the kids’ behavior and explain how it could hurt someone else, they start screaming, and my sister and my parents say that I’m “creating problems” and stirring up drama. My parents are upset with how the children are acting, but they will not talk to my sister with me about how this affects us. And anytime I do try to talk to my sister about it (away from the kids), she tells me that she can’t deal with it now because it’s stressing her out, and that’s the end of the conversation.
I don’t want them to continue on this path, but I feel powerless to do anything because no one will listen to me. I have no authority in this situation. I don’t know how much longer I can take this. For multiple reasons, I am not in a position where I can leave the household to live on my own, and even if I could, it would break my heart to leave them. I miss the relationship I used to have with them. Is there anything I can do in this situation to put them back on the right path?
— Powerless Parental Figure
Your sign off seems like an accurate summation of your situation. It sounds like you have been put in the position to have all of the jobs of being a parent without the inherent authority or power to hold the kids accountable for their actions. If you are going to participate so fully in their lives, then your words and opinions need to have some “teeth”—without that, it’s no wonder the kids feel free to speak to you so unkindly. Is it your sister’s expectation that you stay this involved? If it is, and she is unwilling to either rein in her children or let you do it yourself, then I suggest you bow out of parenting. It might feel like you are abandoning your sister and her kids, but what you’re doing is setting boundaries. No one is allowed to make you feel bad about yourself and then expect you to do them all these favors. And I would argue that even though you live in the same house, you are under no obligation to be such a hands-on parent under these circumstances.
Talk to your sister. It is not OK for her to disregard your concerns because it “stresses her out”—you, too, are stressed, and her feelings are not more important than yours. She may not see her children’s behavior as a “hill to die on,” and you may need to concede that you and she have different opinions on where that line should be drawn. But you need to, at least, discuss each of your expectations. Then, you can decide how you want to proceed. In the end, though, this is up to your sister. If she won’t keep her kids in line or give you the green light to truly co-parent with her, then I think your best option is to recede from the foreground and be present more as their aunt than a caretaker.