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,
Before we had kids, my husband and I would see his parents and sister (who live within 30 minutes of us) about once a month, when someone would host a dinner or there’d be a cookout or something like that. With nothing to indicate otherwise, I assumed that would stay about the same after kids. We now have two kids (3 years and 6 months old) and ever since they were born, we see his parents at least once a week. In fact, they established a weekly dinner, rotating between houses. They’re nice people, but this is way too much for me. Before the second baby it was fine because I would usually just stay home whenever the dinner wasn’t at our house, so I only attended every three weeks. However, since the second baby, dinners have permanently been at our house as “they don’t want to inconvenience us with traveling with two kids.” This means I get no break from seeing them, and the visits themselves are longer because they bring all the food to cook at our house.
I know I should be thankful for a once-a-week meal, but I don’t need or enjoy this level of togetherness. I also don’t want to have to leave my house for the last 4-5 hours of my weekend before heading back to work for the week; I should just be able to relax at home. While my husband has no problem with seeing them this often (especially because his mother frequently tells him how great it is to see the kids and how she wishes she could see them more), he understands me wanting some space. He tried to get the location rotation reinstated and was basically shut down by his parents on that, with them insisting that it was so much easier for everyone to just come to us. We cancelled one weekend when the baby and I were feeling a bit under the weather and his parents still showed up with soup and said they’d watch the kids for a while so I could rest, but then just spent the afternoon being so loud in the living room that I couldn’t sleep in our bedroom.
I can’t keep doing this, and my husband is hesitant to try to set a harder boundary with them as they’re definitely old-fashioned “respect your elders” type people that think they always know best. I care enough about this to take this on and be the one to upset them. Suggestions on how to get my (immediate) family time back and get back to seeing them a bit less often?
— Weekly Dinner Not Required
No, you should not be thankful for a once-a-week meal. You can be thankful that you have in-laws who are loving and generous, but you do not need to be thankful for something that brings you no joy (and in fact brings you the opposite)! And don’t even get me started on ignoring your requests because they “know best.” I can feel my blood pressure rise as I type.
This is one of those situations where you are going to have to be firm with stating your expectations and then sticking to them—to almost an insane degree at first, if you have to. Reach out to the family however you usually communicate (email, group text, whatever) and state that hosting a weekly dinner is no longer an option for your family and ask whether they would prefer to reduce the gatherings to every other week or re-instate the household rotation. (If the parents try to insist on the status quo, you simply restate that weekly dinners at your house are not an option, until the message sinks in. You can provide context if you want, but you aren’t obligated to.
I’d also subvert the system by ordering pizza on the nights that you host instead of letting MIL cook. She may protest, but you can gently explain that while you appreciate her kindness in “pitching in,” it has the opposite effect of making you feel less comforted and in control. You can even be a little self-deprecating if that helps reduce the sting: “I know it probably sounds crazy, but it’s how I’m wired, so I appreciate you rolling with it!” While you don’t want it to come across as rejecting her help, it is OK to state what you need and expect family members to honor it. Her comfort is not more important than yours. And, like it or not, the owner of the house the event is in gets final say.
Some of this might put your husband in an awkward situation for a short time, but I’m confident that the family will settle into a new normal. And this is a good first step to where he ultimately needs to get to—keeping your boundaries and asking his family to leave the next time they come over uninvited to ”help.” But let’s take that one step at a time.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
How do I trust my in-laws not to use the same harsh discipline practices with my kids that they used when raising theirs? Spanking and hitting were standard responses when my husband (and to a lesser extent, his sister) misbehaved when growing up. Based on the way they will casually mention “smacking him across the face when he said…,” they still see absolutely no issue with it. In discussions before and since having kids ourselves, my husband has expressed that he would never use physical force against our children but doesn’t find the fact that his parents did with him to have been harmful. He seems to have rationalized it as being the best method they each knew and what many people around them were doing as well (his aunts and uncles speak very similarly about past discipline).
I’m having trouble trusting that they won’t revert to their tried-and-true disciplinary method with my kids. My husband has complete certainty they wouldn’t; he says they’re completely different people now than they were when he was growing up—much more easy-going and less stressed, and he emphasizes how much they love our kids. But I can’t convince myself to leave our children alone with them, despite the fact that I have only ever seen loving interactions from them. Am I overreacting? Would it be inappropriate to have a frank discussion with them where I directly state they are never to lay a hand on our children as discipline?
— Hesitant to Trust
I think this is a matter of trusting your gut. On the one hand, I have loved ones who are indeed much more mellow as grandparents than they were as parents. Some of that may be due to fewer—or at least different—pressures of life in retirement, or maybe the adage is true for some folks that wisdom comes with age. No doubt your husband is right that a grandparent-grandchild is just plain different than that of a parent and child.
That said, age and grandparenthood does not automatically grant a calm-cool-collected hands-off approach to discipline. And while some grandparents love to let the kids run the show while they are together, other grandparents try to maintain a higher degree of order and discipline among the littles in their lives.
I think you need to ask yourself: what would it take for you to feel comfortable leaving the kids unsupervised with them? Would a pledge to never hit help you feel OK? Would a nanny cam? If you can articulate the circumstances under which you would be comfortable entrusting your kids to them, or the things you would need to hear them say about how they would grandparent, then I encourage you to have that frank conversation, with your husband’s blessing. In general, I think the more open and honest (and kind) conversations we can have with our loved ones, the better we would all be. However, if your answer is that nothing will ever make you feel safe leaving the kids with your in-laws, then I think it would be best to let sleeping dogs lie, and let your husband break the news to them if it ever comes up.
No matter what you decide, be sure you and your husband get on the same page. He might be uncomfortable and disappointed that you do not trust his parents, even if the reason is his own kids’ safety. These are normal feelings, and you both need to respect where each other is coming from. And remember, your decision today doesn’t have to be your decision forever.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
My wife and I have two daughters. Our oldest is in first grade. Her teacher recently contacted us because she was worried about a series of drawings our daughter drew that feature kids turning into monsters, attacking our daughter. The teacher hasn’t noticed anything going on in the classroom and told us to keep an eye out for possible bullying elsewhere. Our daughter is not exceptionally talented at drawing for her age, and I can see why her teacher might interpret the drawings like that. When we talked to our daughter, she gave us some details about the drawings, but nothing that indicates bullying—or that the drawings are even about her.
However, the drawings have gotten my wife very agitated. She can’t help but wonder if our daughter is being mistreated or bullied at school or on the bus, and she asks our daughter about it relentlessly, which really bothers her. When I talk to my wife about it, she accuses me of being a bad parent. How can I get my wife to calm down?
— Extrapolating from Stick Figures
Dear Stick Figures,
If your daughter has repeatedly said nothing is wrong, and your wife won’t drop it, she could be inadvertently teaching your daughter that her answers or wishes will not be listened to—which will not make her very willing to come forward when there is a problem that she needs help with. It’s also important to remember that while bullying is nothing to take lightly, not all conflict is bullying. Learning how to deal with conflict (either by directly addressing it, or digesting it in other ways, like through art) is an important life skill for kids to develop. In trying to protect your daughter in the short term—which is admirable—your wife might be making things trickier in the long term.
Whenever I observe or am told something that I’m not sure whether to act on, I rely on the rule of three. If I hear or see it once, I make a note and try to be vigilant for future incidents. Twice, I may get more vigilant or start doing some digging around. Three times, I go into fix-it mode. So, if I were you and your wife, I would take a step back for now and see if any more red flags pop up. If your daughter comes home with another concerning or confusing drawing, see if you can use open ended questions as a way to get her to describe it to you.
If your wife still feels she needs to be more actively managing the issue at this point, I suggest she talk to the moms of your daughters’ friends. If anything is going on, the other kids might be aware of it, even if the teacher isn’t. No matter how you move forward, it’s hard to think your kid might be having trouble that you can’t help with, so I wish you luck!
Dear Care and Feeding,
My wife and I have three kids. Our youngest is in pre-K (she just turned 5) and goes to the same school our other kids went to. She loves running around and playing outside, but she doesn’t have the same disregard for personal safety that her older siblings had at that age. In general, she’s much calmer. So, we’re struggling to figure out why all of her clothes keep tearing! This happens with her leggings, pants, skirts and especially her socks. We’ve asked her teachers, parent friends, and family, who are just as bewildered as I am. We haven’t changed the way we’re doing laundry (like no new equipment or detergent), and if that was the issue it would affect everyone else’s clothes too. Buying new socks costs a lot of money, and we live in a cold place so she can’t go without socks right now. Any ideas?
— I Guess the Sock Monster Got Them?
Dear Sock Monster,
I’m about as stumped as you are. My first thought is to track her play habits to see whether the ways she uses her body correlate to the tears. They might not be a function of how rough she plays, but how repetitively. For example, my niece went through a cat phase where she crawled everywhere on all kinds of surfaces. But the socks are particularly curious. You might take your daughter to a shoe store where she can get professionally sized, in case a bad fit is the culprit? Is she prone to nervous habits—maybe when she’s alone she picks at tiny holes until they become larger?
You may never find the answer and have to resign yourself to considering her clothing “disposable” for a while or trying to buy tougher items. Land’s End and Mightly make pants and leggings with reinforced knees. I’ve also found Hanna Andersson to be very durable, well-made (but pricier) clothing. And for socks, I love Bombas (though they won’t help your wallet). Also, note that Target will accept returns on their brand of clothes for up to a year, even if worn and ripped. Hacks like these don’t give you answers, but they might help save your wallet and your sanity. (Please note I have no affiliation with any of these brands.)
More Advice From Slate
My sweet, energetic, and articulate 3-year-old (“Sam”) has gone through a lot of change this past year—we moved to a very large, noisy city far from the quieter, smaller city where we lived before; we had a second baby boy; and I went back to work last month after several months of leave. His tantrums have since become out of control. What should I do?