Dear Care and Feeding,
I’m the nana to a 5-year-old girl and a 2-year-old boy. The boy is very independent and plays well by himself. The girl is very needy—she needs to have someone engaged with her at all times. She’s the kid you can never FILL UP! Right now we’re all together on vacation and the 5-year-old is struggling mightily with sharing any time at all with Nana and little brother. To the point of anger, complete with pushing, hitting, and kicking. I’m not a toy to be fought over! Plus, snuggling with the boy is so special because he’s so much less demanding. The parents (my daughter and her husband) try to make their 5-year-old understand that she has to give us time with her brother, but you can guess how well a 5-year-old listens to that kind of logic. The problem isn’t new, and isn’t just while we’re on vacation. We deal with it weekly, as we babysit the kids one day a week and have since their birth. How can we fix this?
—I Have Only Two Arms!
I’m not crazy about calling a 5-year-old “needy.” Five-year-olds have needs. And a child this age with a younger sibling (especially one whose cuddles are considered “special” by her grandmother because he’s “so much less demanding”) is struggling, not being difficult—even though it makes things difficult for you.
The way I’d handle this is not to explain to this child that her brother needs attention “too” (she can see that he gets plenty of attention; she’s been seeing that since the day he was born) or steadfastly refuse to give in to her expressions of frustration (and fury!). I’d try the opposite tack. I’d try giving her a lot of loving attention. I’d try doing everything possible to let her know that you adore her, that you’re there for her for whatever she needs whenever she needs it. If she actually feels this, and doesn’t just hear it, I’d bet the ranch that eventually she will stop being the child who can never be “filled up”—because she will be filled up. Think of it as making a deposit for her future mental health. (And please remember that having and taking care of grandchildren—like having and taking care of children—is about them more than it’s about us. Their needs are paramount. Ours are not meant to be fulfilled by them.)
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From this week’s letter, My Mother’s Attempts to Lift My Spirits Leave Me Feeling Crushed: “My mother is constantly sending me photos of baby items, especially after a miscarriage to try to “boost my spirits.””
Dear Care and Feeding,
Our family has just moved from an expat life in Europe to a new city in Asia. My 4-year-old son completed two years of preschool in Europe doing a full school day. I have the option of putting him in “senior kindergarten” in an international school with an excellent curriculum and extracurricular options, or putting him in a half-day “junior kindergarten” in a preschool next to our home where he would be one of the oldest kids (maybe the oldest). The dilemma is that I think he is intellectually ready for the challenge of senior kinder and would thrive there, as he loves language arts and math and science and art. But other than PE twice a week at the park across the street, the school is entirely indoors, with low ceilings and almost no natural light. Even lunchtime is indoors. He would also have to take a shuttle to and from school, which he is nervous about. These things are true of pretty much all our international school options, which are all inside skyscrapers rather than having a traditional campus. In contrast, the tiny preschool is bright and full of light, it has a green space and outdoor play area (extremely rare here), I could walk him there every morning, and he’d attend school with his sister. And based on his age, this is the class he should attend (his birthday is just after the cut-off). Still, it feels like a step backward academically from where he has been.
He is shy and sensitive, and I think he’d be happier in preschool—but he’s also very intelligent and I honestly don’t think this preschool class is advanced enough for him. Is the abundance of natural light a ridiculous reason to keep him in preschool? It’s really the only thing making me consider it. Could I make up for it, if I send him to the school that I think is a better fit in all other ways, with extracurricular activities in the afternoon? And what, if any, are the implications of this decision when we eventually move back to the States? Is it a benefit to essentially be a year ahead of what his birthday cut-off would otherwise dictate (if he can manage academically, which I think he can) or is it better to be the oldest in your class? I’ve seen conflicting research.
—Searching for the Sun
You’re right, there’s conflicting “research” (mostly, though, there are conflicting opinions, based on conflicting priorities). Since you’re asking for my opinion, here goes:
I think at this age his happiness and comfort are more important than his academic curriculum. I think your instincts are telling you that, too (and you’re focusing on “natural light,” which is interesting to me—when that is only part of what’s really at stake here). Yes, children need intellectual stimulation. And yes, your son sounds like he would really enjoy and benefit from more intellectual stimulation than the half-day school closer to home would provide—though everything else it provides would be lovely for him. So how about flipping the script? Instead of sending him off to the school that’s making both you and him anxious, and trying to make up for a full day of being indoors in a windowless room only learning, not playing, you send him to the preschool and then after school you provide plenty of enrichment activities for him?
Honestly, for a child this age, it’s easy to find activities that will engage his mind (the science of cooking, science walks, etc.; reading and talking about books; visiting museums; playing educational games): you don’t have to leave all that for his school day. As to what happens when you return to the States, I’d cross that bridge when you come to it. You are likely to have a choice about what grade to place him in, and I’d urge you at that point to think holistically about it (and forget about “advantages versus disadvantages” for him). Life is not a race to the finish. And the decision about whether to have a child be in school with kids who are older—or to be the oldest in their class—should be made one child at a time, based on that child’s particular needs and temperament.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
We have what’s probably a good problem, but we still don’t know how to solve it. My husband and I are both major-league introverts who have somehow raised an extremely extroverted kid. Our son is 4, and obviously Covid prevented a lot of playdates in the past few years, but ever since pre-K started it feels like he’s invited to four social events a week—and he loves it! We take turns carting him to birthday parties, playdates, and park trips, and staying to supervise, but it’s exhausting for us, and we’re trying to figure out how/where it’s fair to cut back. He was very lonely during the worst of the Covid years, to the point where we took him to children’s therapy because he was so deeply unhappy. With other kids to socialize with, he has bounced back, and his mood and behavior improve enormously when he has lots of time with others. But this isn’t sustainable for two parents who work full time and have limited social capabilities. How do we find the balance here? How do other parents do this?
—Exhausted Parents of a Social Butterfly
I sympathize, I do. Although I myself am fairly extroverted (I’m an extrovert who needs a lot of time alone, and needs time to recover after intense socializing, as much as I enjoy it), I hated the forced “camaraderie” with the parents of other children. I’m no good at small talk, and I want to spend time with other adults I choose as my friends, not with people with whom I have nothing in common but a single circumstance. But I valued my child’s happiness—just as you do yours—more than I valued my own comfort.
Ultimately, though, you’re right: this isn’t sustainable. Luckily, it won’t last much longer. Soon you’ll be able to drop him off (it’s possible that in some settings, you already can—if he is up for that). Meanwhile, can you fudge this at least half the time (i.e., cutting down your forced interactions, accepting only half the invitations) by regularly inviting one or two children to your place and insisting that the other child(ren)’s parents drop them off, that you’ve got this? That’s how I handled it, at any rate. Half the time, I bit the bullet and sat and made conversation with other people when I would rather have been elsewhere, alone or with my real friends; the other half I urged my daughter’s friends’ parents to drop their kid off at my house and go. Another way around it: sign your kid up for all sorts of interesting extracurriculars: art classes, sports, anything that will get them the interaction they crave. Finally, keep your eye out for potential friends for your child who live in the neighborhood. Those were a huge help to my own daughter, as she was able to navigate those friendships more independently.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
Is it OK to tell people what gifts to give your kids? Here is the context: my husband and his sister are not particularly close, and as a result we see her only about twice a year. Each time she visits, she very sweetly brings a present for our son, now 2 ½. It’s a nice gesture, but she usually gets him toys he’s completely aged out of (for instance, a teething toy when he turned 2). While he loves getting new things and will play with her gift for a few minutes, once the novelty wears off, he returns to his current favorite toys and interests. This crushes my SIL who takes it personally, and for the rest of the visit will say she’s “bad with kids” and “a terrible gifter.” I try to reassure her, thank her for the attention, and encourage my son to interact with her, but it doesn’t seem to help lift her mood. My husband thinks it’s a non-issue (and I admit it’s a low-stakes one) and she can look up age-appropriate gifts online, ask us directly what to get, or even stop bringing gifts (my preferred option) if she’s that bothered. I usually follow his lead when dealing with his relatives, but her next visit is coming up soon, and I’d love to put a stop to this completely preventable cycle. Which brings me back to my question. I know that telling people what gifts to give your kids can come across as demanding, but I’m wondering if, at least in this case, it isn’t the easiest way of preventing hurt feelings. I am just wondering what the general rule is for this sort of situation.
—Low-Stakes Gift-Giving Etiquette
The general rule in this sort of situation is: don’t give in to your impulse to try to control things. Even if you believe it would put a stop to this “completely preventable cycle” (and I’m not sure it would, since as your husband points out it would be pretty easy for his sister to prevent it), it’s not a good idea to wrest control of it. Even if it actually did put a stop to the bad gifts, it’s not a good idea. No good ever comes of taking control of something (relationship-wise) that should not be in your control.
And since the other general rule—the one I think you were really asking me about—is: You must not tell other people what gifts to give your children unless they ask you, your sister-in-law is going to have to figure this one out on her own, I’m afraid. Your husband is right. (Repeat after me: You can’t control everything. What you can do, however, is not indulge his sister’s woe-is-me talk after your child rejects another gift. And then toss it, or pass it along to a child who would enjoy it, after she leaves.)
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My 12-year-old son is an extreme extrovert. He is into band, choir, soccer, swim team, dance class. I, however, am an anxious introvert who hates having to be a “soccer mom,” “stage mom,” “dance mom,” etc. How can I support him?