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’s mother has been living with us for the past year, due to her declining health. Our kids love her, our dog is very protective of her. She’s an all-around amazing woman, and she’s seamlessly integrated herself into our household.
When she moved in, our identical twin 8-year-old daughters had to move into the same bedroom. It wasn’t a big deal at the time—they were all for it. Within the last month or so, however, my daughters have been having a lot of issues sharing a room—basic roommate squabbles about messiness, who gets the top bunk and the like. They’ve been hinting at wanting separate rooms for a while. I think they might need space from each other, but we don’t have room to give each kid her own bedroom. We talked about putting one of the kids in the basement, but both kids adamantly refuse to sleep there. Short of us moving, do you have any suggestions? How can we get our kids to solve their roommate squabbles?
— Sister Squabbles
It doesn’t matter how much you love a person; sharing your personal space is tough. I’m impressed that the girls’ squabbles sound pretty innocuous, but I think you’re right to try to nip this in the bud before anything gets worse.
I think it’s time to take a page out of Sheldon Cooper’s (The Big Bang Theory) playbook and draw up a roommate contract. Sit with the girls and collaboratively create a set of guidelines they can both agree to. Maybe they designate a corner of the room where mess is allowed, or maybe they trade bunk beds on a pre-determined schedule. If what they really crave is alone time, you might be able to divy up the week in terms of who gets to hang out in the room alone. There is no right or wrong criteria, so long as the contract gives everyone what they need and holds both girls accountable to each other.
I am guessing there is a reason grandma can’t move into the basement, and I understand that the girls don’t want to sleep there, but could the space be put to another use? If the basement could turn into a cool tween nook or game room, the girls might naturally spread apart more often, and thus the bedroom may not be such a sore spot. Alternately, a loft bed costs a lot less than a renovation or moving. If the room is big enough for two of those, some of them offer cute space under the bed that each girl could make her own.
Interior decorating aside, open communication is going to be your best bet in solving this. And, like in any relationship, bad habits are sure to come back now and then, and the contract might need to change as the girls grow up. But if you can make a habit of checking in on, and renewing, the agreements between Hope and Sadie, you’ll have a good shot at peace.
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 husband and I are about to have custody of our 11-year-old niece for at least a few months. I’m a teacher and I’ve worked with kids all my life, and my husband and I have also taken parenting classes together. It’s going to be hard, but we love her and have the basics down. I have a stickier personal question though, about food.
I have hereditary hormone problems, as did my mom. From the time I hit puberty, she taught me that the only way to minimize symptoms is to be thin enough to not really get periods. This both minimizes symptoms and makes it so doctors actually pay attention to the pain (most women with this disease are overweight). I’ve been at different weights in my life, and I’ve found her advice to be both horrible, and true. I walk the line of thin enough for medical care while trying not to damage my heart the way my mom did.
As a result, I have very careful eating and exercise habits, and my husband manages his own food separately. I want to make our house as welcoming and normal for our niece as possible. How do I talk to her about the food thing when the example I set won’t be the right one for her? She will be eating with him. He generally doesn’t “get” my health choices and thinks she won’t notice since she’ll have her own stuff going on. But I’m worried about it.
— Eat As I Say, Not As I Do
First of all, and please take this with the care and kindness with which it is intended: I really hope you are taking care of yourself. I am not a medical doctor, and I don’t know anything about your hormonal issue, but I hope you are being forthcoming with your physician about your lifestyle. From where I sit, it does not sound healthy. Fight to find a practitioner—even miles away—who will take your symptoms and pain seriously no matter your weight. I have to believe they are out there, if maddeningly difficult to find. I’m so sorry you’re in that situation.
Regarding your eating habits, I would explain from the start that your diet and how you consume it is due to a medical condition. I don’t think you need to go into the details about the medical community’s biases about weight, because I think it could be too easy for your niece to retain the wrong messages from that conversation. If she asks questions, simply leave it at “staying at a certain weight helps my doctors and me more easily manage my pain.”
Meanwhile, take effort to make the food your husband and niece eat the dominant “food story” in the household. Have her cook with him from time to time or plan the menu. If you can join them at the dinner table, do so. Similarly, if there is anything you make for yourself that can be shared with the two of them, do that. One resource you might find helpful is Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility in Feeding, which makes the case for giving kids some control over their diets. Though I think her main audience is parents of young children, her approach is meant to apply through the tween years. It may help you and your husband determine how you’ll approach food for your niece, since your habits differ between each other.
Overall, be open, be casual, and let your niece lead the way. Your goal should be to minimize anything that looks like calorie counting, food hiding, excessive fitness routines—behaviors that are correlated with eating disorders—and maximize stability and unity. Not only will that help your niece maintain a positive relationship with food, but it will also provide her the qualities she’ll need most in her new home life with you.
Catch Up on Care and Feeding
• If you missed Sunday’s column, read it here.
• Discuss this column in the Slate Parenting Facebook group!
Dear Care and Feeding,
I have two kids in elementary school. My daughter is thriving socially and doing great academically, and she probably would anywhere. But my son is a slightly awkward kid with a mild physical disability, and he’s also multiple years ahead of most of his classmates academically. He’s not bullied, but if the one kid in his class who plays with him is absent that day, he’s alone at recess. And he is very bored and unhappy.
We can’t send them each to different schools, so our options are basically to pull them both out of school and either move or pay for private school (both of which would be massively expensive) if we want a better environment for him. I also know that a different school might only help ameliorate the academic issues, and he might still have social issues, even if he’s surrounded by other students who are more at his academic level. (He has a couple of other close friends, just not in his school. He can make friends.)
Do you have any advice? Is the answer just, sorry, kiddo, you’re going to have a miserable school experience until you’re old enough for us to manage homeschooling you, or we can get you into an academic high school? He picks outside of school activities he likes, but school is obviously a big part of his day.
— Sorry, Kiddo
These kinds of decisions are rarely cut and dry. Staying and going involve unknowns that you can’t really predict. The only thing you know now is that your son is unchallenged and unhappy.
Have you talked to school leadership—not just the teacher—about what kinds of services your kid would need, and whether the district can provide them? It doesn’t sound like there is any kind of meaningful differentiation happening within the classroom. If this can be rectified, and if they could think of classmates for next year who might turn into friends, then perhaps there is an argument for staying. (Though be warned that it might take a lot of “raising hell” to get your son’s needs met, especially if their attention is—understandably—focused on academically struggling students. You may or may not be up for that.) If middle school were only a year or so away and it had a gifted program, that might be another vote in the “stick it out” column.
That said, your letter provides a solid rationale for looking for a new school for your son, and no rationale for having him stay put, except finances. Moving and private school are expensive options, no doubt, but your letter suggests they are options for you. If so, then I would take money out of the decision altogether; instead, make a list of what your son needs and see if you can find it somewhere. It might not even be all about the academic content, but rather his social and intellectual engagement. I don’t think you’ll be able to weigh your options well until you have a better idea of what an alternative might offer.
I suspect that your hesitation stems from doubt about whether your son’s school experience is reason enough to contemplate a school change or a home relocation. None of us want to seem like grade-obsessed Tiger Moms who think our kids need special attention, but I don’t think you’re in danger of that here. We want our kids to enjoy learning and the company of their peers when they are at school. From what you’ve described here, that’s not your son’s reality. If you can find a place where he—and your daughter—can flourish, I would take the leap.
Dear Care and Feeding,
I am 17 years old and stressed out about finding the right college, career, and life, even. I also have physical limitations—I’m immunocompromised and have difficulty swallowing, walking long distances, and climbing stairs. This complicates options, of course. But I also have mental health issues, such as depression, OCD, generalized anxiety, tics, and autism. I need support, but I have good grades. I can’t get help because everyone assumes that since I have good grades, I must be fine. And I mean everyone—including doctors. They want to be careful about medication so that they don’t hurt my grades.
But I am very behind in everything else. I can’t drive, talk on a phone, or express what I need verbally often. This last problem is the most frustrating part because I seem “normal.” Nobody understands my communication problems or how trapped it makes me feel. My parents know but think that I am OK with it. And when I tried to learn American Sign Language (ASL), I got a C, and my parents forced me to drop the class. Help please!
— Just So Frustrated
It’s so easy for invisible disabilities to be forgotten about, downplayed, or simply misunderstood by others. It can also be tricky when multiple disabilities are at play. But there is a difference between coping and thriving, and it sounds like everyone is watching you do the former and assuming it’s the latter. I’m so sorry you’re experiencing this.
I always find writing a note to be a helpful way to communicate on difficult topics—especially when you aren’t emotionally or physically able to muster the words. Ideally, you would hand it directly to the recipient and ask for a conversation once they’d read it. You might choose to write to your parents, guidance counselor, or another trusted adult. In the note, express how you feel and articulate what kind of life you want to be able to lead. Ask them to help you make that possible, and suggest what you think would be helpful. Some things you might ask for could be a therapist or social worker consult, a second medical opinion about medications, an assessment for accommodations, etc.
One specific thing you might want look into is an augmentative and alternative communication device, or AAC. These can take many forms, but often are flat panels or tablets with a series of works that you can point to or activate, so that the device effectively speaks for you. (The main character on the TV show Speechless used one.) An AAC might be easier for you to use than ASL, which is an entirely different language and way of speaking.
For other ideas on how you can self-advocate, the Autism Self-Advocacy Network is a group for, and led by, autistic people. They have a resource library, newsletter, and a bunch of affiliate groups. Hopefully, getting more connected to other people with disabilities can help you find ways to create the future you see for yourself. Good luck!
More Advice From Slate
I have an 8-year-old son who is really, really smart but really, really stubborn. Although he gets good grades, we fight all the time over schoolwork. He is constantly saying that he doesn’t see the point of some simple task, that it’s stupid and easy, that he hates it. When he does the work, he’s lazy, resents having to do multiple steps on things, and doesn’t follow directions well. I’ve tried incentives, but he was never reward-oriented. He’s always been a grouchy kid, but school is just turning him into an angry kid. Parent-teacher conferences are this week, and I’m going to bring all of this up, but I would love some ideas.