Dear Care and Feeding,
My daughter’s guidance counselor recommended that she get a job in order to make her college applications more impressive. She got a waitressing job almost immediately, but just as quickly wants to quit. She’s offended by patrons flirting with her. As her dad, I’m not thrilled with the stories she tells, but I also know what men are like when they’re out in a group drinking and letting loose, and that what she’s talking about is just an occupational hazard when working with the public. I have pointed out she has all the power here, and with a better attitude could be making money off these guys, but she doesn’t want to hear it. She says that by insisting she keep working, I’m not being supportive of her, but I don’t want her to be so easily offended—I don’t want her to live her whole life that way! Plus, after such a long quarantine during her teen years, she needs to get used to interacting with people again, even people who don’t do exactly what she wants them to do. Most importantly, this is supposed to make her look good for colleges. How do I get her to stick with it and see that it’s a good thing?
—Waitress Woes Worth It
Let me start with the guidance counselor’s misguided guidance, and the way you’ve wholeheartedly bought into it. Getting a job in order to make college applications “more impressive” is silly. I say this with certainty both as a longtime college professor and as someone who has done a lot of college application advising. (In fact, doing anything for the express purpose of making college applications seem more impressive is silly. Admissions officers aren’t stupid: They can tell when this is what’s going on.) If your kid needs a job or wants a job, that’s a whole ’nother thing. Context matters when it comes to after-school jobs, activities and clubs, “interests,” volunteer work, and everything else that is part of a college application. So forget about what you consider “most important” here, because it isn’t.
What is most important is that you take your daughter seriously when she tells you that the men she encounters at her serving job are making her uncomfortable. Encourage her to stand up for herself. She should not put up with men’s bad behavior, make excuses for it, accept it as a fact of life, toughen up, or learn not to be “so easily” offended. I am offended by your advising her to suck it up and “make money off these guys.”
I will certainly not help you get her to “stick with it and see that it’s a good thing.” It is not a good thing. And she’s right: you need to get it together and be (much) more supportive. If she still wants a job—and not because she thinks it will look good—she should look for another one. And you of all people should support her in that.
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From this week’s letter, So, It Turns Out Our Kid Was Not “Crying Wolf” About Her Teacher After All: “How can we convince her to tell us the important stuff but leave the attention-seeking out of it?”
Dear Care and Feeding,
What is your position on insisting kids do a particular activity? Like a lot of pandemic kids, my 4½-year-old, “Sam,” has not had many opportunities to participate in activities with other kids. So I signed him up for our town’s t-ball league, which starts this summer. It’s THE sports league in town; most kids have been on a team at some point. However, Sam is adamant that he does not want to play. Based on past experiences, it is very possible he will be that kid having a tantrum in the outfield and ignoring the coaches’ instructions. I have never forced my kids to do activities they weren’t enjoying, but I really, really need Sam to be on this t-ball team. This is a big baseball town, and our family moved here at the start of the pandemic. With most school events cancelled, I haven’t met any other parents. I’m lonely and isolated, have no close parent acquaintances, and Sam is an extrovert who could really use some neighborhood friends. Plus, most of the kids on his team will also be his new classmates for his upcoming kindergarten year, which I anticipate being a difficult transition for him. How can I get Sam on board for this? Am I a bad parent for even considering making him do something that he’s already resisting?
—Hesitant Baseball Mom
You’re not a bad parent, you’re someone emerging from a long lonely period who isn’t thinking entirely clearly (you’ve got a lot of company in this, so don’t be too hard on yourself). Please don’t make your child play t-ball if he doesn’t want to, simply because (or even mainly because) you want to meet parents of kids his age and get yourself some friends. Maybe don’t focus so much on meeting parents (you’re going to meet plenty of them once school starts); why not think about how you might meet potential friends in your new town with whom you share other interests. Leave the kids with your spouse (if you have one) or a sitter (if you don’t) while you partake regularly in some activity of your own: yoga, a book club or reading group, a dance class, a choir—something, anything, that appeals to you. I know it sometimes seems hard to make new friends as an adult. But most of my closest friends are people I’ve met taking ballet classes or singing in my community choir.
As to Sam’s natural extroversion, which you fear is being thwarted, please find activities other than t-ball for him to participate in—or just take him to the local playground, children’s museum, or anywhere else that children gather. (If he’s an extrovert, he’ll talk to and play with the kids he meets without your prompting.) If you want him to meet the kids who’ll be in his kindergarten class come fall, try checking in with the school about getting the kids together ahead of the school year. Some schools arrange this themselves; some parents do it through their local PTA or listserv; some schools may be agreeable to connecting families over email so that they can work out a grade-level get-together or series of get-togethers on their own. And depending on how big this big baseball town of yours is, you may be able to connect on Facebook with other parents of children your son’s age who will be in school with him next year. At worst—that is, if all of these efforts come to nothing—and you’re right about how difficult the transition to kindergarten will be for him, he’ll get through it. It’s called “transition” for a reason.
The bottom line, I’m afraid, is that I can think of no good reason to force a child to play a sport he adamantly doesn’t want to play. And the truth is that I don’t think you can either.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
My husband and I are struggling with the age-old question: our kid hates piano lessons, so should we let her quit? My husband and I were not exposed to musical instruction of any kind when we were children and we regret that. So when our own daughter was 5, we signed her up for piano lessons, and she took to them. She practiced daily (mostly without needing reminders/prompting) and seemed to like her teacher well enough. Well, now she’s 9, and she hates the piano, we have to force her to practice a few times per week, and she throws a temper tantrum every Saturday before her lesson. We asked her to finish out the school year with piano and have told her she could quit then if she still wanted to—and she agreed to this, but the tantrums haven’t abated. It’s horrendously embarrassing for us to haul our screaming kid into her piano lesson every week, not to mention expensive. Should we let her quit?
Look, I get it. We all want our children to have what we didn’t and wish we had. And when it comes to music instruction, I happen to believe that all children should be taught to read and play music early—as part of their in-school education (in my fantasy, kids would be taught to read music when they are taught to read, so that it becomes a natural part of their experience of the world). But you did it: you gave your child those piano lessons you wish you’d been given. And she loved them! For four years. But what a child loves at 5 or 6 is not necessarily what a child will love at 9. It seems to me that forcing a child to continue doing something she hates is a sure way to get her to hate it even more, and hate it forever. Playing the piano is not an essential life skill, even if it’s a lovely one. If she doesn’t want to continue with piano, what’s to be served by forcing it?
Are you worried that if you let her quit, she’ll be sorry later? She might be. But that sorrow is not irreparable. (My own story: I started lessons at 5 too, and by 11 or 12 I wanted to quit—I was interested in spending my time doing other things, and by then I found playing the piano boring—and my parents said absolutely not. And so I kept on, reluctantly—mostly miserably—until I was finally allowed to quit at 13. Which I did with great joy. Did I later regret that? I sure did. But I didn’t and don’t fault my parents for it: I’m still grateful they allowed me to make my own decision. What I did do, as an adult, many years later, was start piano lessons again. I was amazed at how much my fingers “remembered,” and I remain grateful for the foundation those early lessons provided.)
My ruling: when a child really, really doesn’t want to participate in an activity, don’t make them. Instead, find out what activity they do want to participate in, and support them in that. Or introduce them to a variety of possibilities and let them find out what they’re interested in and what they might have a talent for. And if they cycle through various ones instead of sticking with the same one for many years and becoming an “expert” at it? Consider this: A Renaissance child who has done many different things is nothing to sniff at.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
Growing up, my parents sent me to Catholic schools, and I had a perfectly fine if unremarkable experience. Since then, I’ve joined a church that ordains women; my professional work is actively opposed to much of what the Catholic church teaches. There is no way my future child—I’m pregnant—will go to Catholic school. The problem is that my mother has read the (pretty obvious) signs and has been haranguing me about this. She isn’t coming out and saying it, but she clearly expects me to send my kids to Catholic schools and has hinted that if money is the issue, she will pay for it. I would love nothing more than to just ignore her attempts to pin me down until the day my child begins (public) school, but I wonder if I should have this out with her now. (If you can’t tell, we’re a pretty passive-aggressive family. I would love to break those patterns, but is this really the right battle to pick?)
I don’t think it matters which battle you pick. If you “would love to” break the passive-aggressive pattern between you and your mother, you might as well go for it. The next time your mom hints that she expects a Catholic education to be in your child’s future, tell her you understand what she’s getting at, but that this isn’t going to happen. (If she asks why, go ahead and tell her, calmly and straightforwardly. If, instead, she feigns surprise and insists that she was hinting at no such thing, accept that: “Sorry, Mom, I guess I misunderstood,” but take this opportunity to tell her your plans so that if (when?) she brings this up later, you can simply remind her that you’ve been over that ground before.)
Working on being direct and clear with your mother now will have benefits for you beyond the subject at hand. This initial, unprecedented conversation, even if it is extremely uncomfortable for both of you—and even if things are tense between the two of you for some time afterwards—should ultimately improve your relationship with your mother, simply because all relationships are better if the parties involved actually communicate with each other.
Working on your own tendencies toward passive-aggression before you are a parent will help you be a better parent. You don’t want to teach your child this behavior—you want your own child to be able to communicate in a healthy way. And you don’t to be your mother, either. So why not start your work on this deep-seated, learned tendency now and beat the Christmas rush?
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I’m a single mom of an amazing 6-year-old boy. I asked my best friend if she would be his guardian if anything happened to me, and she said no. She’s always said she didn’t want children, but she’s so great with my son that it really shocked me when she turned me down. What should I do?