Parenting advice from Care and Feeding.

James Eaton

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 and I taught our children about eating healthily, but we’ve never tried to demonize any foods, focusing on how anything can be healthy if eaten in moderation. We don’t tend to keep a lot of sweets in our house. I’m an immigrant from a country noted for its sweets, but diabetes runs in both my husband’s and my own family, so we keep such things to a minimum.

Recently, my daughter fell ill and had to stay at home for a few days. She had a high fever and was bedridden. I work from home, so I was checking up on her whenever I had free time. While I was bringing her lunch up to her room, I saw her eating chocolate. I was curious as to where the chocolate came from, and I eventually discovered that she had chocolate everywhere in her room. There were chocolate and candy wrappers in her sock drawer and under her bed, and in her glasses case, in her tablet case, and everywhere else.

When I found this, she broke down crying. She said that her brother was getting paid by our neighbor to feed and walk her dog whenever she left town. He was using the money from his raise to buy candy and chocolate every week. When my daughter found the candy, she asked for a bribe to keep quiet.

I have no idea how to proceed now. We said that we weren’t happy that they were eating this much chocolate, but we were much more upset that they were trying to hide it. I don’t want to become authoritarian and check up on their rooms at random times to make sure they aren’t sneaking chocolate, but the fact that they’re sneaking chocolates at all is a bad sign, right? How should we proceed?

— Stopping the Chocolate

Dear Stopping the Chocolate,

Your impulse to avoid the “good food-bad food” dichotomy and teach that all food can be enjoyed in moderation is right on, according to nutritionists. But it seems like you sent your kids a different message when it comes to sweets. And by restricting them, you may have made them seem even more appealing. The research in fact shows that restricting a particular food leads instead to increased consumption of that food whenever kids can get it.

And let’s be real—sugar consumption alone is not a cause of diabetes, and having sweets from time to time is unlikely to lead your otherwise healthy kids to develop it. In fact, even people with diabetes are able to have sweets in moderation.

So rather than “stopping the chocolate,” I’d start incorporating sweets into the family diet, like offering a serving of dessert at dinner or including them as an option in scheduled snack times. Let your kids know that they do not have to hide to eat sweets or keep it a secret. It might make you feel uncomfortable, but you have to treat these foods neutrally and avoid managing your children’s portions or making comments or reacting nonverbally to their consumption of them. This will take the power away from sweets and teach your kids to regard them as they would any other food.

Most of all, remain calm and don’t shame your kids for what you found. The last thing you want is for your kids to associate any kind of food with shame or punishment. This may all feel counterintuitive given what society teaches us about food and health, but as you saw firsthand, restricting food simply does not work and in fact has the opposite of its intended result. If you truly want to teach moderation, you have to start by removing the value judgments from food.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I have three kids—an 8-year-old and 6-year-old twins. Their father is my ex-husband, who abandoned them after we divorced in 2020. The last the kids saw him was at his wedding to a woman who made it clear she wouldn’t be their stepmother. He’s since left the state, and it’s a struggle to get child support. I didn’t have family left when we married, and I became very close to my ex-husband’s family.

During and after the divorce, my ex-husband’s parents and sisters all took my side. None of them attended his wedding, causing a major argument, and now none of them talk to him.

I’m struggling a lot as a single mother. My kids fight all the time. I’m stretched financially. All three of my kids need glasses. One of my kids has a condition that causes her to need regular physical therapy. Knowing that I’m stretched pretty thin, my in-laws often help me out. They subsidize our apartment, and they help with childcare, and all the healthcare costs. They’ve basically adopted me into the family.

I feel so guilty, because I know that without their generosity I wouldn’t be able to afford any of this. I’ve been able to enjoy my divorced life only because of my ex-husband’s family. I can’t ever think of a way to repay them. When I brought up my feelings of endless gratitude to my sister in-laws, they told me I am their sister and I never need to repay them, and I’m sure my mother and father in-law would say the same thing if I asked. How can I stop beating myself up over this?

— Overwhelmed By Help

Dear Overwhelmed By Help,

Asking for and accepting help can be a very vulnerable thing to do, especially for those of us with the internalized belief that our needs are a burden on others. But one single mom to another: learning to do so is, in my experience, the only way to make it work. Now I accept help from everybody: family, friends, other moms in the neighborhood, people who look nice enough on the bus (jk on that last one). I try to trust that others will not offer help they don’t want to or can’t afford to give.

When I told a friend I was struggling to manage the household laundry, and she sent over a hefty gift card for a wash-and-fold with home delivery, I felt guilty. But it helped me to think about how I would feel (and want her to feel) if the roles were reversed. I hope anyone I love would know that I am there and ready to support them if they need anything.

I’ll take it a step farther and say: When someone asks me for help, I truly feel that they are giving me a gift because they are allowing me to be of service to someone I love. It makes people feel good to help! When you allow your in-laws to help you, you are giving them something as well, and you are deepening your relationship and connection. Generosity is a two-way street.

And while you are currently the one in need, that may not always be the case. When the time comes for you to show up for them as they have for you, you’ll be ready to do so. In the meantime, look for little ways to reciprocate, even if it’s as small as washing a dish or sending a loving note.

It’s incredible that your ex’s family shows up for you and your kids in this way, so try to redirect your guilty feelings back to your deep feelings of gratitude and simply thank them and the universe for helping to provide for you. And remember: You and your children are more than worthy of this help.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I don’t have any children of my own, but I’m the honorary aunt to my friend’s awesome daughter, Gabby. She just turned 9, and I’m probably biased, but she’s remarkably curious, social, and empathetic for her age. Her parents emigrated here in their teens, and English is not their first language, so occasionally they’ll ask me for help with answering complicated questions she poses that they aren’t quite sure how to explain in English.

Recently, I’ve noticed Gabby’s questions are becoming more anxious. She’s asked me about car accidents, animal attacks, and some scars I have from various surgeries. Each time, it seems like she’s trying to figure out what somebody did that caused it, or what she can do to prevent it. Her mom told me that after she heard about a school shooting, Gabby asked if the children were bad or misbehaving, and was worried that someone would come to school and shoot her if she was “bad.”

When Gabby asks me these kinds of questions, how do I balance explaining that sometimes bad things just happen, and it’s not your fault, but also, there are things you can do to protect yourself, like wearing a seatbelt, or not feeding wild animals? How do you teach kids that sometimes the world is a scary place, but that doesn’t mean you have to live being scared of everything?

— Sometimes I’m Scared Too

Dear Sometimes I’m Scared Too,

These are super tough topics to tackle and while I’m sure you’re an amazing aunt, they may be best handled by Gabby’s parents. Can you touch base with them and let them know what you’ve observed about the nature of Gabby’s questions? Ask them if they feel comfortable with you having these discussions with her, and if so, how they’d like you to handle these big questions. If you feel comfortable doing so and think they’ll be open to hearing it, let them know that you’ve noticed Gabby seeming increasingly anxious. They may want to have her screened for clinical anxiety, which current guidelines recommend doing at age 8 anyway.

If you do continue these conversations with Gabby, you can start by validating her feelings, encouraging her to talk about them, and letting her know that you also feel scared and sad sometimes. Explain scary events in age-appropriate language, and correct her misconceptions, like the idea that school shootings happen if you are bad. Reassure her that she is safe and that her parents are here to protect her. Remind her of the precautions we take to help us stay safe, such as wearing our seat belts in the car. When relevant, you can remind her or go over the plans and procedures in place at home or school to respond to the event. And let her know that these events like school shootings are very rare, and that there is more good in the world than bad.

It’s been recommended a million times, but Mister Rogers’ quote about “looking for the helpers” is a classic for a reason. It reads: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world. Talk about the first responders like firemen and EMTs who charge in to help and get scary situations under control. It’s clear each time these words of wisdom go viral that they provide comfort for all of us, kids and adults alike.

Catch Up on Care and Feeding

• If you missed Monday’s column, read it here.
• Discuss this column in the Slate Parenting Facebook group!

Dear Care and Feeding,

My second-grade daughter, “Libby,” has a classmate who regularly exhibits classic “mean girl” behavior. Anna lies, accuses other kids of doing things they haven’t done (like cheating or pushing her), and has even gotten physically pushy with other girls before. I’ve talked to my daughter about how to deal with this classmate, “Anna,” and for the most part, Libby isn’t too bothered by it. She has plenty of other friends and just sort of avoids Anna.

Anna has a birthday party coming up in a couple weeks, and apparently it’s all she’s been talking about. She has a limit of 12 people she can invite, but there are 15 girls in their entire grade, so that leaves out only a few girls. Anna has been very vocal about the party, explicitly telling kids that she’s not inviting them. Libby was a bit upset, but considering she doesn’t really like Anna, she moved on pretty quickly.

Today, Anna told Libby that she is now going to invite her to the party, but only because a couple other girls can’t attend, so now she has room for more. Basically, my kid was Anna’s 12th choice, and she knows she’s only invited because two other friends can’t attend.

I really, really don’t want Libby to go to the party. I feel like if I did, I’d be teaching her that it’s okay to let people treat you like this. But I also don’t want to force her to miss out. Her preference is to go—not because she likes Anna, but because she is social and wants to be with her friends. However, she’s really mature, so I’m confident she wouldn’t put up a fuss if I said no and explained my reasoning.

Any advice?

— Unsure Mama

Dear Unsure Mama,

I want to give Anna and her parents the benefit of the doubt and assume there is a valid reason they capped the guest list at 12, but either way it certainly sounds like Anna is lording the invites over the other girls in the class. Here’s my take on birthday party etiquette: It’s OK to invite just a few people from the class, but if you’re going to invite most of the class, you’ve gotta invite everybody. It’s not fair to exclude just a few people.

But kudos to Libby for not getting involved in the drama and just wanting to scope the party scene. Since it seems as if the whole thing is bothering you more than it is her, I don’t think you should push the issue. You may end up making her feel bad about herself where she didn’t before, and it sounds like her self-esteem is currently pretty solid.

My only real concern is for the (one?) kid in the class who is still not invited to the party. Can you ask Libby for the deets on who is still being excluded and why, and if she knows how that student feels about the situation? Depending on what you find out, the bigger issue at play may be whether Libby wants to attend the party while someone is still actively being excluded, or if that feels like participation in the mean girl culture you both dislike.

—Emily

More Advice From Slate

A distant relative who is close to my age works at a day care center several states away from me. We follow each other on social media, and she frequently shares things that really make me uncomfortable. For example, she often posts pictures or takes Snaps of kids crying in a way that’s shaming them, like “He was hungry, so I gave him a snack” or “She wanted to go outside, but it’s not time.” (Think of the “Why my toddler is crying?” meme, only they’re not her kids.) She and her co-workers also appear to play a game where they hide the head of a decapitated baby doll around the center, in view of the children, in order to scare one another…

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