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,
My husband and I have four children, one toddler and three in school. My husband spent his young adulthood in therapy, healing and learning the skills he knew he’d need in parenthood to not repeat the bad patterns of his own childhood (through which he suffered abuse at the hands of his father), and he is a wonderful and engaged father. The one problem is that he refuses to be involved in homework, because of trauma from his father specifically around homework battles.
I don’t disbelieve him in the least. I believe him when he tells me that nightly homework was traumatic for him. And he does take care of our toddler and other chores while I manage homework time. The thing is, homework is beyond exhausting for me. Frankly, every night is a battle with my older children. I don’t think the amount of homework they’re assigned is unreasonable at all (our school has a policy for what and how much the teachers may assign). The kids are fully capable of completing their work in less time than they spend complaining about having to do it. And I am not doing it for them—my involvement is literally just getting them to do it. But because they fight me on it, it’s a misery, one that’s repeated every evening. It’s nice that my husband handles other things, but you know what? Sometimes I want to handle those other things and get a break from the homework war. Even just once or twice a week! But this is the one thing he straight-up refuses to do. He has worked through everything else that triggered him, but somehow this one thing eludes him. And he doesn’t want to go back to therapy just for this. I don’t want to discount his trauma, but I’m getting very frustrated by his refusal to even occasionally take this one dreaded task off my plate.
—Hamstrung Homework Helper
Since the two options you’re offering me are both pretty miserable—that you continue to suffer through the nightly homework wars, which you find debilitating (and for which you are beginning to resent your husband, though you wish you didn’t, because you love him and empathize with him and he’s doing his fair share of the overall work) or that your husband participate in a triggering ritual that will be very painful for him—I think maybe we need to take a step back and look at this dilemma in a new light.
What if you stopped fighting with the kids about doing their homework? What if instead of either one of you badgering them to get it done, you stepped away from the whole shebang and told them, “If you don’t do your homework, you’ll have to live with the consequences at school”?
If the idea of this appalls you—if you’re sure none of your kids will ever do their homework again—I suggest you sit with this thought for a while: their homework is their responsibility. They will learn quickly what the consequences are of not turning it in. This is a case where “natural consequences” will go a long way toward solving an ongoing problem. (And yes, there may be some dismal grades along the way. Their grades, not yours. This will provide some useful life lessons—for both them and you.) Since they will eventually have to learn to handle work assigned to them without your involvement, you can kill two birds with one stone right now.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
My daughter “Izzy” and my niece “Mia” are best friends. They’re both in fourth grade and they look quite similar, with minor differences, which they are always pointing out. They’re both blond, but Izzy has wavier hair. They both wear glasses, but Izzy is farsighted and Mia is nearsighted. Mia is quite outspoken and bold, while Izzy is timid and shy. That sort of thing. They used to be in a small private school together, but both my sister and I agreed that the school atmosphere was changing for the worse, and so we enrolled them in the local public school. They’re in the same class.
It has recently come to my attention that Izzy and Mia have introduced themselves as twins to the other kids in the class and their teacher. I first became aware of it only when Mia got in trouble in class, and I got the email about it, not my sister. But I really found out when I asked Izzy an unrelated question, and she broke down crying about how she was disrespecting Mia’s older brothers, who actually are twins, by pretending to be twins with Mia at school. I’ve checked with the twins, and they not only don’t care at all (they thought it was funny), but they love Izzy to death and feel bad that she’s upset. I’ve told my sister about it, and, like her sons, she doesn’t care and thinks it’s just a harmless prank. My husband and I agree that it isn’t a huge deal, but something about catching these kids lying and not doing anything about it makes us feel weird. Also, if their teacher thinks they have the same parents, it might lead to confusion in the future. While their antics made Izzy feel guilty, she has since told me that she’s having fun and doesn’t want to stop. We plan on reaching out to their teacher and letting him know that the children are cousins, not twins (though I thought that would be obvious from the way the school set up which phone numbers and emails to use for which kids!). The question is: do we tell them to stop lying to their classmates, too?
Letting the teacher know that the kids are cousins is a fine idea (and you’re right: he should have been more attentive to the information he has available to him—but teachers are overworked and underpaid, so cut him some slack, and remind him these girls only enjoy pretending to be twin sisters). If the teacher wants to disseminate this in his classroom, that’s his business. But I don’t think you ought to make a big deal out of this, either at home or by demanding that they come clean. There’s a difference between lying and pretending that’s worth noting. The only part of this that gives me pause is Izzy’s tears over her fear that she’s being disrespectful to Mia’s brothers. If I were you, I’d talk to her some more about this (don’t let it rest with that “I don’t know” she offered you). Does she really think she’s being “disrespectful”? Or was that the only explanation she could summon up to explain her tears to you? Is she going along with Mia reluctantly? It’s worth finding out—because playing pretend is no fun if you feel you’re being coerced into it.
In other words, if there’s a problem here that needs to be addressed, it’s not the one you’re asking me about. See if you can find out exactly what’s on Izzy’s mind, OK?
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Dear Care and Feeding,
My ex-wife, “Beth,” and I co-parent our daughter, “Abby,” a 14-year-old high school freshman. Beth’s wife has a son, “Tim,” who’s also a freshman and lives with them full-time, and I have a 5-year-old daughter from my second marriage (I am now a widower; my wife died of Covid). Abby and Tim are both introverts, and Abby has withdrawn a lot over the last couple of years—lockdown, her stepmother’s death, ongoing pandemic issues—and Tim became her only friend. Beth and I don’t interact much other than making decisions about Abby, and I barely know her wife, but Tim is at my house often and I know him quite well.
Since starting high school, Abby and Tim have been able to expand their social circle beyond just each other. They have a few friends from the D&D club. One of these friends asked Abby to be his date at the school’s autumn dance, and Abby was very excited. Beth bought her a dress, and Abby wanted to wear makeup. The dance was on a day that Abby was with me, so she got ready at my house. Her stepmother had taught her the basics of doing makeup, but she wanted to “get it right,” and watched some videos online and bought some new makeup for the occasion. She looked very nice. Her date came to our house, I drove the two of them to school, and everything was fine.
A few days later, Beth called me, furious. Apparently, Beth had told Abby that she wasn’t allowed to wear a full face of makeup until she was 18. I didn’t know that. She’s also mad that Abby bought such expensive makeup, even though Abby bought this with her own money. I can handle her being angry with me. But she is punishing Abby for getting around her rules by taking away her phone and internet access (minus what she needs for school) for three weeks. I think this is excessive, especially since Abby is already feeling the natural consequences of spending almost two years’ worth of money saved from babysitting to fix a problem that didn’t need fixing.
Abby is finally making friends, and this punishment will isolate her from her new friends. Now Abby wants to apply to a teen program at the local science museum, which is pricey, and Beth refuses to discuss it with me unless I agree to have one of the weeks of Abby’s punishment be at my house. I don’t want to execute this excessive punishment, but I also don’t want to sign Abby up for the program behind Beth’s back and pay for it all myself. Abby is a rule-follower and Beth has never been this strict or unreasonable. This is the first major disagreement we’ve had since our divorce 10 years ago, and I am unsure how to navigate it.
—Clueless about Makeup
I certainly don’t think you should sign Abby up for a program behind Beth’s back (I don’t think you should do anything behind her back), and while I’m sympathetic to your feeling uncomfortable enforcing a punishment you disagree with (I’d hate that too!), I think you need to do it anyway. It’s hard enough on a kid to live in two households with two different sets of expectations; I think the least you (both of you!—you and Beth) can do is respect each other’s decisions in regard to your child, even if you don’t agree with all of them. It’s unfortunate that Beth didn’t let you know her rule about makeup—but it was sneaky of Abby to take advantage of that when she was at your house (I think that’s what Beth is most aggrieved about, and is what she’s really punishing her for).
If I were you, I’d be honest with Abby about how unhappy you are about having to punish her, letting her know that you have to do it—and that, even if this punishment is harsh, her skirting around Beth’s rules is what led to it. And then grit your teeth and live with it. It’s only a week. (I might add that I think Beth knows very well how much you’re going to hate that week, and that she’s punishing you too, for your part in makeupgate. Next time, maybe, ask more questions.)
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Dear Care and Feeding,
My husband has Huntington’s and is progressively becoming sicker. He watched his father suffer from the same disease, and his only memories of him are from when he was hospitalized and dying. He doesn’t want the same for our son, who is 5, and has asked that once he is hospitalized I not bring our son to see him. Although I want to support however he wants to deal with his illness, and I recognize that he has had the experience himself and only wants to protect our son, it seems to me cruel to refuse to allow his son to see him for what could be months of his life. There is no way to make the death of a parent not traumatizing, and I believe that ultimately it will be better for both my son and my husband if they’re together as the end approaches. What should we do?
—Love at the End of Life
I am so, so sorry to hear about your husband’s illness. Please keep talking to him as the days and weeks (and months, I hope) pass. I don’t mean harangue him, of course. I mean: bring it up again, as gently and as lovingly as you can. Tell him how you feel. Be completely honest with him. But if he shuts this down—if he tells you flatly that his decision is immutable—you need to let this go. Once you’ve made it clear to him how important to your son you believe it is for him to be able to see his father for as long as he lives, he gets to make the call on it. And if he simply refuses to discuss it any further, I think you need to graciously withdraw. When your son is older, you can tell him why he was not allowed to see his father in this hospital—that it was for his own sake. (One final note: please do not tell your husband that you believe it will be better for him if his son is allowed to visit. He is the best judge of that. He may be gravely ill, but he should not be treated as if he is incapable of making good decisions on his own behalf.)
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My husband and I had a lovely baby girl this summer. She has different hair and eye color than we do, but otherwise looks very much like our child. She does have one fairly distinct feature that we don’t share: the shape of her eyes. We have now gotten multiple comments about her “insert racist comment here” eyes. How should I respond?