This column is part of Advice Week, Slate’s celebration of all things advice.
Sometimes, all you need is a different perspective. So this week, our columnists have swapped fields of expertise. In this edition, Elizabeth Spiers, one of Slate’s Pay Dirt columnists, handles your parenting questions.
Dear Care and Feeding,
I work from home on a block with several young families. A few months ago, a couple with several young kids moved in down the street. The husband, “Brad,” is a full-time dad and functions as a free daycare provider for the other families on the block. Brad takes a pretty extreme “free-range parenting” approach and lets his own kids, all under 10, roam free and unsupervised for much of the day and often late into the night. The behavior goes a bit beyond normal kid mischief—loud yelling at all hours of the day and night, incessant doorbell-ringing and dashing, sneaking into neighbors’ private yards, and playing in the middle of the street. Brad is aware of all of this and becomes very hostile and aggressive when confronted. Between his reactions and the fact that he’s providing free day care to most of the kids on the block, there is very little appetite in the neighborhood for confronting him again.
Given this situation, I’ve done my best to ignore the kids’ antics. Unfortunately, they’ve recently started tormenting a reclusive older neighbor, “Tom,” who suffers from severe anxiety. Tom seems genuinely baffled and frightened by the doorbell-ringing and nighttime yard intrusions, and based on two episodes I witnessed in the last week, the kids seem to think these reactions are hilarious. While I don’t want to insert myself into this situation, I also don’t want these kids to think it’s OK to harass people because they seem “weird.” Do I confront Brad again, even though it likely won’t do any good and will just amp him up again? Is there something else I should be saying or doing? Or is it OK for me to just ignore the situation, which seems wrong to me?
Dear Unhappy Neighbor,
It sounds like Brad is not empathetic if he can’t understand why this sort of behavior might antagonize the neighbors, but I’d still give it another shot. If he’s getting defensive about the complaints, I think you may need to reframe how you talk about it. He may not understand that the kids’ behavior is terrifying your older neighbor and that it’s cruel and insensitive. (And the kids may not be old enough to understand it, so Brad and their parents will need to intervene.) Instead of suggesting that his failure to supervise the kids is a problem, frame it as a neighborhood issue where the kids don’t understand the ramifications of what they’re doing, and it’s everyone’s responsibility to address it.
I would also talk to the children’s parents individually about Tom. Even if Brad is the neighborhood babysitter, he’s not necessarily in a position to discipline other people’s children and it sounds like it’s not just his kids who are tormenting poor Tom. The other parents should be speaking to their kids, too.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
Our funny, bright, friendly, wonderful second grader has been preoccupied with “crushes” since her first day of first grade. We try not to react, or we’ll try to redirect “eh, second grade isn’t time for boyfriends, you’ll have plenty of time for that later, tell me about your friends!” This brings us to the saga of “Saxon,” a fourth grader in her aftercare program. Saxon was her “boyfriend,” then before the holiday break she was devastated because he “changed his mind and has crushes on two other girls and they have lice!!!” We validated her feelings, tried to be supportive, and gently redirected every time she announced she now has an “ex-boyfriend.” Yesterday she got in my car and was so excited because “Mommy, Saxon is giving me a second chance!” My heart broke to think that my wonderful girl would think she needs a “second chance” with anyone who would “change their mind” about her. Is this developmentally appropriate stuff, or is she too focused on boyfriends and laying the groundwork for unhealthy relationships in the future? I don’t have a touchstone here—I wasn’t allowed to breathe a word about boys when I was her age, throughout middle school I was stalked by a boy who went on to commit suicide, and I had a string of dating experiences as an adult that ranged from “not my best choice” to actual abuse before meeting my wonderful husband. One of my greatest fears is that she will have a similar experience with finding love. Help!
—No Frogs for My Princess
Dear No Frogs for My Princess,
You can’t really control when your children internalize gender roles and ideas about what romantic relationships mean, because they’re exposed to them from the time they’re capable of understanding the concepts. When my son was in pre-K at the age of three he once came home and informed me that as a girl, my favorite color had to be pink and could not be blue because blue was for boys. He did not learn this at school per se, but it was easy for him to pick up from the world at large.
Girls are exposed to notions of romance at such a young age. Much of traditional imaginative play for girls focuses on domestic roles: we grow up with dolls to take care of and play kitchen equipment and so on, and boys are taught to build things and imagine scenarios with heroes and villains. It’s pretty unsurprising to me that your daughter would have a crush by second grade. (I remember having one in second grade myself.) I don’t think it says anything about her future relationships because she’s not capable of understanding those kinds of nuances yet or what it means to be in love in the adult sense or make a commitment to someone.
Nonetheless, she will develop real feelings about boys (and perhaps people who are not boys in the future), and I would view this as an opportunity, and not a threat. The best model for how to conduct a healthy relationship is you. You can talk to her about why how this boy feels about her is no reflection on her worth, and that she will like other boys than Saxon. You don’t even have to frame it as romance, because at her age, it’s not—in any meaningful sense. She’ll have similar stories with platonic friends when they fall in and out of favor with her and vice versa. The important thing is to help her learn how to navigate rejections when they happen and how to treat others well when she doesn’t feel the same herself.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
I married my best friend and soulmate, Caleb, at 19. We were entirely too young, it was impulsive, but it was the best decision I ever made. I’ve never regretted it. He was in the Army, so much of our marriage was spent apart, but I was never happier than when I was with him. We never had children, but shortly before his final deployment, we decided to freeze his sperm. It was a decision that came about after a soldier in Caleb’s platoon had been paralyzed on a previous deployment and had recently resigned himself to the fact that he and his wife would never (naturally) have children. It seemed like an extreme measure at the time, but I figured if it would make Caleb feel better, he should go for it.
We were married for almost 4 years when Caleb died in combat. It destroyed me. It took almost 2 years for me to even be able to speak to his family again. I still see a therapist weekly. It will have been 8 years this fall, however, and I can finally say I am doing well. I have not remarried (or even had a serious relationship for that matter), but I’m 31 and ready to be a mom.
Using Caleb’s frozen sperm to have a child feels like a way to pick up where his life left off. I have a chance to have the life we thought we would have, even if he can’t be here for it. I don’t have a lot of contact with his family (parents divorced and both live a plane ride away) but if I’m going to do this, I want to build a relationship. Our child will be their grandchild.
So… what’s the right way to do this? Do I call? Write a letter? How do I tell these people, who I haven’t seen in almost a decade that I’m going to have their son’s baby?
—Maybe Baby Mama
Dear Maybe Baby Mama,
I’m so sorry for your loss, but glad that the brief time you had with your husband brought you so much happiness. As for your plans to have a baby, I am not a lawyer, but I would first make sure (if you haven’t) that you have the legal rights to use your late husband’s sperm. Assuming there are no issues, I think this is the kind of thing you want to tell his parents about in person if at all possible, though if you haven’t seen them in almost a decade, I realize that might cause some trepidation for you. That said, I can’t tell from your letter whether haven’t seen them also means you haven’t communicated much with them at all, and if it does, I think it would be reasonable to give them something of a warning before you come back into their lives, and in that case, a letter asking for a visit and explaining why would probably be appropriate.
You need to be prepared for the possibility that your decision will remind them of their son’s death in a way that they won’t welcome. In an ideal world, they would be happy for you and supportive, but they may view it as something that would bring them more pain that joy. I hope that isn’t the case, but the death of a child—even an adult child—is incredibly traumatic and people cope with it differently. Some people find reminders of their loved ones comforting; others need distance to move on. So before you contact your former in-laws, you need to be prepared for either reaction, and make sure you have a network of supportive friends and family yourself, because you will need them, not just for this particular conversation, but as a single parent.
Regardless of what happens, remember that your baby will be deeply loved by you and many other people even if your in-laws don’t have the reaction you’re hoping for—and that is what matters. I wish you luck.
Dear Care and Feeding,
My husband and I are trying to practice empathetic parenting with my 5-year-old daughter as she works through her emotions. She was a really happy-go-lucky toddler, but in the last few months, she has had terrible meltdowns over the most minor things. However, recognizing her emotions, empathizing, and giving her lots of hugs has helped immensely.
The problem is that before we became more intentional in addressing these meltdowns, my husband used to get frustrated very easily during them and yell at her. (It was when I realized how much he was scaring her that we began to work on changing our ways.) But now when my daughter gets upset, she won’t let him anywhere near her. If he tries to approach her to empathize or comfort her, she runs to hide. I am the only one she’ll stay with if she’s melting down, because she thinks her dad will be mad at her. I’ve tried talking to her, both with him and just with her alone, about how Daddy wants to make sure she’s ok, he promises not to yell, and how much he loves her, etc. But she still won’t have anything to do with him if she’s feeling any sort of negative emotion. How does he rebuild trust with her?
—No Trust for Dad
Dear No Trust for Dad,
Unfortunately, this will take time to address, and he’ll have to model lots of different behavior. It can be tough to adapt to the big swings of children’s meltdowns. But dad obviously needs to control his own emotions and not have adult-sized meltdowns in front of her. It seems like he now realizes this, but he’s going to have show her over and over again that he’s not going to have a tantrum himself, even if he’s frustrated or angry. She, quite reasonably, is worried that he will because that’s what he’s historically down. This is not the sort of thing you can talk a 5-year-old out of. He will have to show her. One thing that may help is for you to bring him into the process while you’re comforting her, so she gets more accustomed to his presence (and his calm reaction) when she’s having a hard time, and she can see he no longer gets angry.
It would also probably help for them to have more bonding time to build trust. If she begins to associate time with daddy as something that makes her happy, she’ll feel safer with him when she’s frustrated, and it will help ease her into looking to him for comfort as well as you.
You should also assure your husband that this is something that takes time, patience, and effort on his part. I’m sure he regrets his past behavior, and he needs to know that it can be remedied. But the responsibility of doing it is on him, not you.
More Advice From Slate
My son is turning 2 right before Halloween. His maternal grandparents (my parents) are currently in a snit fit with me and are refusing to speak to me or my husband. The last time they were here, they got too drunk (both are alcoholics), and threw a tantrum when we wouldn’t let them pick up our son. We know we cannot control the drinking— thank you, Al-Anon!— and we were simply looking out for our child’s safety. I’ve tried to have a calm conversation with them since, and they refuse and claim that I owe THEM an apology for making them feel unwelcome. They’ve now taken to posting passive aggressive junk on Facebook. I generally try to be the bigger, more mature person, but the attacks on me continue. Is there anything I can do?