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 wife and I have a 7-year-old son and a 5-year-old daughter. Our son was the first boy (and so far, the only one) born in my wife’s family for a while. My wife has three older sisters and seven nieces, my mother-in-law was one of five girls, and her sisters all have daughters and granddaughters. Her extended family has mostly gotten over this … except for one person.
My mother-in-law moved nearby about a year ago and has been giving preferential treatment to our son ever since. She took him on several trips, but whenever we asked her to take our daughter she’d come up with some excuse. Same with gifts—for our son’s birthday a few weeks ago, she got him an expensive Lego kit that he really wanted. For our daughter’s birthday or Christmas gifts, my mother-in-law either gets her mundane gifts, like printer paper or a book meant for much younger children.
My daughter has started to notice this disparity. When we confronted my mother-in-law about this, she weaseled her way around the topic, but most recently she stated that girls don’t need as much attention as boys do and a bunch of other really bizarre, sexist things about raising daughters.
Following those comments, my wife and I have decided to stop the gifts and trips and limit the amount of time we spend around her until/unless she’s able to love both grandchildren. How can we explain our decision to our son? He loves his little sister a lot, but he also really likes his trips with grandma, and I think he’ll be quite sad to find out she’s temporarily (and likely permanently) canceled.
—Fighting a Gender War
Dear Gender War,
When I was growing up, it was no secret that my traditional Southern grandmother loved us all, but doted harder on her male grandchildren, making a point never to miss one of my cousin’s sportsball games, despite skipping say, someone else’s stunning middle school debut in“7 Brides for 7 Brothers.” I loved my grandmother and our relationship, but noticing the differences made some part of me think I wasn’t worthy of that kind of relationship.
It’s natural that a grandparent might form a special connection with one grandchild, because they share a common interest or have similar personalities. But in a case where extra attention is given to one of them just for the outstanding achievement of being born with a penis, it can be extra harmful, even for the child receiving the preferential treatment. Ultimately, your son is liable to feel confused about the situation, as well as guilty about how it affects his sibling, and it could also instill the belief that he’s entitled to better treatment than his sister, just for being a boy.
Explain to your husband’s mother that her favoritism is not only affecting your daughter, but it isn’t good for your son, either. Research shows that the more frequently kids are exposed to stereotypes about gender, the more likely they are to believe that boys are superior to girls, and to then carry that belief into adulthood. You obviously want your daughter to know she’s just as valuable as your son, but if anything is going to change, we have to teach that same lesson to boys.
Your son has likely noticed that your mother-in-law treats him differently than she treats his sister, but he needs you to explain why and how privilege functions in our society. Explain that privilege is when some people are given an advantage over others based on their gender identity, the color of their skin, where they’re from, what their body looks like, or other reasons that are unfair. Most kids respond passionately to perceived injustice, so have him consider how he would feel if his sister was given a present but he didn’t get one, or was asked to go on a trip to which he wasn’t invited. Explain that these situations are wrong, and it’s important for those with privilege to think about the rights and feelings of others by sharing what they have, or using their privilege to help those who are being discriminated against.
It might be a difficult conversation to have, and your son likely will be sad to stop reaping the benefits from Grandma that he enjoyed, but it’s essential to raising boys and girls who are truly equal.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
My husband isn’t a morning person, and I’m solely responsible for our two toddlers before they go to daycare at 9 a.m. I don’t mind this, because I’m a morning person, and we agreed to this arrangement before I was pregnant. But what I do mind is that on the rare occasion my husband stumbles out of bed a few minutes early and sees us, he always offers parenting critiques that he means to be helpful, but that I find annoying as hell. Think along the lines of, “She just needs to play with her toys for a few minutes to get in the mood to eat breakfast, she doesn’t need to be so regimented!” (I know from months of solo experience that if our daughter doesn’t eat breakfast immediately, she will refuse it all together, and be in a crappy mood the rest of the morning).
I don’t want to discourage my husband’s morning involvement, and I don’t want him to feel like he’s a visitor in their lives rather than someone with active parenting input. I also want to allow for the possibility that he does spot things that I don’t, simply because he has more of a bird’s-eye view. Still, I want to slap him. How do I strike the right balance?
—Not Before My Coffee
Dear Not Before My Coffee,
Sure, it’s theoretically possible that your husband has something helpful to contribute on how to manage the morning routine, despite having rarely participated in it. But I don’t blame you for feeling irked by the backseat parenting. After all, he outsourced the job to you, and if you’re gonna do the a.m. work, shouldn’t you get to be the a.m. boss? Next time he offers a critique at some ungodly pre–daycare hour, perhaps ask if he’d like to renegotiate the terms of your agreement?
Or better yet, step aside and ask him to show you how it’s done. If his methods turn out to be more effective, great and wonderful! If not, maybe finding that out first-hand will instill a little respect for your on-the-job experience and skills.
Parenting is obviously more collaborative than your average office hierarchy, but in this instance, it would be fair to ask your husband to step up and handle his share of the morning labor if he wants to be involved in how it gets done. If he really does need to weigh in, I’d at least ask him not to undermine your authority in front of the kiddos (though discussion of parenting strategies should ideally be done when your children aren’t present). And I have a hunch they might be easier to hear when you’re not in the middle of the usually frenzied process of getting two preschoolers ready for the day.
And if it doesn’t already exist, might I suggest a clause in your arrangement making your husband responsible for an equally labor-intensive task in the p.m. hours?
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From this week’s letter, My Son Wants to Know Why My Wife and I Divorced. The Reason Is Too Terrible to Tell Him. “My friend thinks I should be honest and upfront with my oldest son, but I’m not really sure it’s appropriate information for him to have.”
Dear Care and Feeding,
My wife and I have a 12-year-old daughter and 7-year-old boy/girl twins. All three kids like playing board games. I’m also a huge board game guy and I love using them as a way to spend time with the kids. My issue is that our son cannot stand losing. He gets really upset, yelling and shouting and crying any time he loses at a board game. I understand that it’s developmentally appropriate to be highly competitive, but it’s a little extreme, and it’s sort of ruining board games for us.
Usually, the twins get along great. My younger daughter is very shy and her brother’s helped her make friends at school, and they play together all the time at home. She recently told me she doesn’t want to win at a board game because it’ll set off her brother. Since the twins are still 7, we sometimes play games with two teams where my older daughter works with one twin and I work with the other. Whenever my son’s with my older daughter and their team loses, my son gets very angry at her and blames her for them losing, which my older daughter does not care for. He feels bad for his outbursts when he’s had time to cool down. He got violent once after losing, shoving his twin sister to the ground, almost breaking her glasses and her nose, but later made up with her and hasn’t gotten violent when he loses since, just yelled, cried, and screamed.
My older daughter suggested we maybe try only playing cooperative board games. I don’t hate that idea and I do have cooperative games that I love, but I’d still also like to get to a point where my son isn’t destroyed by losing a more competitive game. I try to emphasize that the point is to have fun rather than win or lose, but I’m not sure that’s catching on.
In other aspects he can be really easy-going—he has a lot of patience with his twin sister or younger cousins. He can handle things not going his way, just not with board games. I’m not entirely sure how to handle this so that we can still continue to play games that are fun for all of us while also finding a way for our son to learn to accept losing sometimes.
—It’s Only a Game
Dear It’s Only a Game,
Your letter immediately gave me flashbacks to long-ago afternoons spent repeatedly failing to let my son beat me at “Candyland,” a game that depends entirely on chance. (How many times can one woman land on The Gumdrop Pass shortcut?) The “sore loser” phase is common with younger kids and most of them grow out of it. Of course, some children are more competitive than others by nature, Just like some adults are no longer invited to bar trivia because they allegedly don’t “handle it well.”
Tell your son that it’s OK to feel frustrated, angry, or upset when he loses, but it is not OK to express those feelings by yelling or blaming others, and it’s definitely not OK to do so with violence. In fact, I’d suggest that physical aggression of any kind should result in the loss of game night participation privileges, in addition to any other appropriate consequences.
Additionally, try to direct the focus away from the game’s outcome by praising your son for skilled or successful play throughout. My friend who’s a chess teacher says he frames it to the kids like this: There are parts of any game you can’t control, and that often includes winning or losing. But what you can control is how much effort you put in and how much you learn from playing.
It’s a cliche for a reason—win or lose, let him know you’re proud of him for how he played the game.
Dear Care and Feeding,
Whenever something goes minorly wrong with my 2-year-old while she’s in my care—anything from bonking her head at the playground to acquiring a few random hives on her arm—my husband wants to go over, in great detail, what might have caused it. What shoes did I put her in, and could they have made her slip? Did I let her go into the meadow that sometimes has ticks? My husband insists that he’s just trying to understand exactly what happened so we can prevent it from happening again, but I feel like the implication is that I must have done something wrong. I’m a good parent, but some things just aren’t preventable! Sometimes kids bump their heads. Sometimes they get weird rashes! I have tried explaining this, but I still get the third degree every time our daughter gets a cut or scrape. Am I being overly sensitive? Is my husband being careful or maddening?
Dear Bumps Happen,
Despite our best efforts to safeguard our kids, accidents are gonna happen, especially at that age. When my son was 2, we practically had a punch card from our frequent visits to the pediatric ER, which was always positively filled to the brim with other 2-year-olds. We’d wait around for the surgeon and when he arrived he’d do a quick lap doling out stitches to each member of the preschool set who had decided to jump or fall off a couch or playground structure that day.
Sure, you can try to course correct by putting your kid in sturdier shoes and forbidding her from meadows, but 9 times out of 10, you’re just going to get blindsided by a whole different thing you never could have foreseen. And it’s rarely anybody’s fault! But for a lot of people, assigning a reason why bad things happen or even blaming someone for it helps create an illusion of control, and thus safety. After all, if we tell ourselves it was a human error that led to the unpreventable, then we can also tell ourselves it won’t happen to us as long as we don’t do what that person did.
Let him know that while you’re aware that he has your daughter’s best interests at heart, being questioned in this way makes you feel like your parenting is being undermined, and as if he doesn’t trust you to keep your daughter as safe as is within your control. I wonder if his attempts to analyze and explain these minor disasters are an attempt to help manage the anxiety of raising kids in a scary and unpredictable world. If so, therapy or some other kind of mental health support might help him develop some more effective coping strategies, and hopefully stop giving you the third degree every time your daughter skins a knee.
More Advice From Slate
I am at my wit’s end with my middle child. She’s 5 years old, and just like the old rhyme, when she is good, she is very, very good, but when she is bad, she is horrid. I don’t demand or expect total obedience from my children but when she refuses to accept no as an answer (and sometimes the answer must be no), I can feel the power balance shifting between us. I don’t want to, but … is it ever OK to spank her?