Dear Care and Feeding,
As work intensified during the pandemic, my mother-in-law has been graciously helping out with laundry, cooking, and cleaning. With a toddler and a baby, we feel she’s been a godsend. The issue is around food. I grew up poor and with not so great a diet, so it’s been important to me to feed the kids well: limited or no processed food, no foods with added sugar, very rare sugary baked goods or candy. Also, I try to serve them fruit with their meals (as opposed to dessert). I never limit the amount of food they eat except for bananas (after one, they can have just about anything else).
I had a period of time where I picked up tons of hours at work, and Grandma flexed her muscles: more muffins and bagels, daily cheeseburgers, secret cookies. I’ve caught her on numerous occasions feeding the little one snacks to stall him while she’s doing something else instead of getting him to sleep. This will be right after the kids have had a full meal. This scares me because I want to teach the kids to eat when they’re hungry, not when they’re agitated or bored.
My husband and his brothers are morbidly obese and emotional eaters. I’m also not too great in this department either, though I try. At one point she complained that I feed the kids one way and then eat dessert at night (often after a 13-hour workday). When she pointed out that I was a hypocrite in the hopes of getting me to let her feed them differently, I just threw out the processed sugar in my own diet. She got so angry she stopped eating for a full day, making a big production of sitting at the table and not eating.
I’m at my wits’ end here. My husband is 100 percent on board with how we feed the kids because this is what we worked out and did before she moved in, but he’s overwhelmed with work too. (I also found out she was giving him secret cookies too!) He also thinks I should let her have more control because she’s helped so much, but I don’t think that’s a great reason to compromise on the kids’ health. When work calmed down a bit, I took back more of the kids’ food prep, but then the older one told me she snuck him candy. Caught, she admitted it, but she said it was her prerogative and he’d behaved so well. Work is going to pick up again soon, and I don’t know what to do. How do I help her foster better habits for my family? Is there a kind way to communicate to my MIL that I’m grateful for the son she raised and that my feeding my kids differently is not a problem for her to solve?
—The Not So Sweet Life
Dear Not So Sweet,
Yikes, this is a thorny beast of a problem. I thought at first that the issue was simply that you and your MIL have different ideas about how to feed your family, but the secret cookies, sneaky candy, and most of all the drama queen hunger strike she pulled when you changed your own diet paint a different picture. At the risk of stating the obvious, I want to make this clear: Her behavior has been pretty appalling. When you ask someone to do something one way when taking care of your kids and they do it another way, repeatedly, and then get angry and act out when you call them out about it, that’s a serious violation of trust. If a paid caretaker pulled something like this, you’d fire that person immediately.
As you say, times aren’t normal and her help has been essential. And also, she’s your husband’s mom. But even though you can’t fire her, you need to establish crystal-clear boundaries if she’s going to continue to help you with your household and kids, and your husband needs to take a very active role in setting them and in helping you to enforce them. You both need to sit down with her and lay down the law: no sneaking, no lying. The issue is trust, and you need to frame it that way, for her and for yourself. Because the thing is, the kids’ health will not be harmed, short-term, by the uptick in candy and cheeseburgers. Their relationship to food, however, stands to be damaged if they perceive some food as shameful and illicit. They also need to be able to trust the adults in their life to be consistent about the rules.
Dear Care and Feeding,
I need some help. My normally silly, bright, typical 5-year-old is becoming increasingly anxious and neurotic as the pandemic continues to drag on. It started a few months ago when he saw my husband throw out some bread that had gotten moldy. Ever since then, every speck on his food has become potential mold. Then it moved on to germs and dirty things, where he’ll say things like “I walked near the litter box. Do I need to wash hands?” The most extreme example was recently when my husband came home and my son, feeling the air from the open door, asked if he would get sick because air from outside touched him. We answer his questions about germs, mold, COVID, vaccines, etc., honestly and (I think) in an age-appropriate way, and we reassure him all the time that our job as parents is to keep him safe, but all the talking doesn’t seem to alleviate his anxiety.
Today, he had a full meltdown while helping my husband take the recycling downstairs (it was my son’s idea to help, and something that he does pretty often). He stood by the bins shivering and crying and came upstairs saying he needed to take a bath, even though he didn’t touch anything other than the pizza box he carried downstairs. There are other things aside from fixation on things that are worrying me. He sometimes says he can’t fall asleep because he’s afraid he’s going to die. He hits himself and says he doesn’t like himself when he gets reprimanded for even the smallest things. Every day something comes up that he’s freaked out about. I’m getting worried about his mental health, and I don’t know how to help him. My husband and I are both anxious people too, but we’ve been trying so hard to stay calm through this. We want to help our kid feel safe, but it’s hard when the world feels so scary. How can I help my kid understand that not everything is going to make him sick or kill him?
—Anxious Mom of an Anxious Kid
Dear Anxious Mom,
I’m not any kind of psychology expert or doctor, but it sounds to me like it’s time for you to consult someone who is an expert or doctor. Fortunately, the intervention strategies you develop in partnership with a professional are probably going to help him a lot. Early in the pandemic, we heard a lot about how “surprisingly resilient” kids are, and while that may be blessedly true in some cases for some kids, it doesn’t apply to every kid—far from it. I hope you can find a therapist who’s affordable or covered by your insurance; I know so many of us can’t. There may also be counseling available via your son’s school, even if the school isn’t currently in session, or other community resources available. Find someone you trust to support him and to help your family find ways to cope with the incredibly challenging reality we’re all facing. You will be able to help him understand that not everything is potentially lethal, but you can’t do it on your own, and you shouldn’t have to.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
I just wanted to say, per my previous letter, “R.I.P. Nap Time,” that I did a TV-free week with my 3-year-old and no one lost their mind. It turns out she was fairly chill about the experience. Although she did ask to watch every day, she moved on quickly when I reminded her we were taking a break. What I actually needed to increase was not her capacity for solving her own boredom, but my own tolerance for frequent interruptions and occasionally my ability to set boundaries for time apart, under the same roof, to pursue our own tasks. Also, I see more clearly now that TV can become a snooze button for your child’s needs: connection, snacks, the bathroom, more stimulating play, rest, moving their body. But the need is still there and often more urgent once the show is over.
This is why kids can seem so intensely whiny, disregulated, etc., after watching too much TV. Her emotions are steadier on TV-free days, so much so that I find myself feeling guilty for not realizing before. And lastly, if there is TV built into predictable spots in your routine, it can be really hard to imagine there is anything else you could be or would rather be doing. Ask any adult (me) who watches Netflix most evenings or phone-zones in bed every night. But kids often have better imaginations than adults, and the TV trench in their brain is not as deep. You can take advantage of that and let them take the lead on filling the empty block of time. Long story short, if you’ve been scared to embark on a TV-free week after a slide (COVID or otherwise) you can do it!
—I Do Still Miss That Nap, Though
Read the original letter, R.I.P. Nap Time, I Loved You
Please don’t waste another moment feeling guilty about not realizing before that your daughter was so easily capable of going TV-free! We all get into ruts and patterns where TV is concerned, and this stuff also changes based on kids’ ages and stages. I love your explanation of how TV can become a snooze button for little kids, and I totally agree. I’m really happy to hear that this worked for you!
All of that being said, I think it’s important for all of us to keep in mind that we might still need to lean on TV more than usual during the pandemic. If that’s the case, your example shows that we can still course-correct more easily than we might think possible when it’s time to get back on track. You now know this for a fact, which is super empowering. So don’t feel bad if you backslide. The awareness of your own capabilities that you’ve gained is a meaningful, lasting achievement, regardless of how much TV anyone watches now or in the future.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
Both my sons have participated in a highly selective club soccer program since they were 10 years old. My oldest was pretty good at soccer but decided to apply to colleges regardless of their soccer programming. He ended up at a school that was a great fit for him. He plays club/rec soccer on the weekends and has made strong friendships. My younger son is much better at soccer objectively—to the point where he’s started getting noticed by D2 schools. He’s announced he wants to play in college and, when he starts applying in the fall, will only apply to schools that fit his soccer specifications.
Here’s the problem. I’ve seen many alumni of my sons’ soccer program play in college, and nearly all regretted it. They wound up at colleges that weren’t the right fit socially or academically—often getting hurt and then having to sit out for a full season, having difficulty making friends, etc.—and even if things did somewhat work, they spent all their time practicing, effectively barring them from doing the exploration that’s so crucial in college. I’ve seen this in my nieces and nephews as well. The colleges my son is looking at for their soccer programs are NOT a good fit for him socially/academically, and I don’t want college to be a continuation of his high school experience—sacrificing exploration and experimentation for the sake of soccer.
We are paying for college and are close to putting our foot down and forcing him to broaden his college list. I do not want to pay for him to attend a poor-fit school where he plays soccer all day. He will not qualify for a D1 scholarship, and even if he did, I would be even more concerned about opportunity cost and overspecialization. Do you have any suggestions for how we can navigate the college search process in a way that respects his wishes but also sets him up for success beyond just the athletic realm?
—No Sports in College, Please!
Dear No Sports,
The good news, though I know you might not believe me, is that your son might end up thriving no matter where he goes to school. He could also transfer. I think parents and teenagers who are caught up in the college application process sometimes forget that this is an option, but actually more than a quarter of college students don’t finish where they started. And no wonder! It’s crazy that we expect people in their late teens to know what college is going to be right for them as they grow into young adults.
If you can figure out how to arrange it, it might be helpful for your son to talk to some of the alumni of his soccer program about their college experiences, positive and negative. It also might be helpful for him to talk to students other than his older brother, period, to try to get a sense of what his life will be like in the next few years. If, after he does that, he is still sure that soccer is his No. 1 priority, you should allow him to follow his wishes. Forcing him to apply to schools he doesn’t want to go to is likely to be counterproductive.
Part of parenthood is allowing kids to make their own mistakes, and the thing is, this might not even be a mistake. And if it does turn out to be one, it’s not irrevocable. If you use this process to establish your role in your son’s life as a provider of open communication and helpful guidance, you will be paving the way for a brighter future for your relationship, and for his independent decision-making as an adult.
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