Category Archives: parent-child relationships

Step Up to the (Dinner) Plate!

Here’s another one from my drafts folder, originally written in December 2009, and polished up a bit for you all today.  This one was almost totally done.  Why didn’t I press the button a year ago?  I haven’t the slightest idea.

Hey Cherie” is a column written by Cherie Bennett, who looks (from her picture), like she she’s probably in her 40s, and aimed at teenage readers. Sometimes the this-is-for-the-kids schtick feels a bit forced (for example, every letter starts with “Hey Cherie!,” which adds up to a lot of exclamation points early in the morning). For the most part, though, she does a decent job. She doesn’t tell kids to shut up and listen to their parents, or to just do whatever they want, but guides teens to respectfully, thoughtfully develop selves independent from–and sometimes even at odds with–their parents’ established worldview (and, of course, related rules).

Unfortunately, in this column, she missed the mark:

Hey, Cherie!

I have a problem with my mother’s cooking. She is a terrible cook. I didn’t know this when I was younger, but now that I am in high school, there is not a dish that my mother can’t ruin. Her roast beef tastes like leather, and she makes fish that tastes like newspaper soaked in water and then baked for five hours.

How can I tell her she is an awful cook and should start buying food from the takeout counter at the supermarket?

— Gagging

Hey, Gagging!

I want to know how you know what soaked and baked newspaper tastes like. But I digress.

This is a very tough problem, because telling your mother that she is a lousy cook is like telling a bride that she is ugly. Maybe you could buy her some cookbooks for her birthday and work with her to follow the recipes exactly. I’m grasping at overcooked roast beef here. Maybe this is your sign from On High to become a vegetarian?

Wait, so she didn’t give this person any help at all? Um….the answer here seems obvious to me: it’s time for this teen (henceforth T) to give cooking a shot T’sself–maybe once a week to start, and it needn’t be fancy. Sandwiches, soup, and salad or something.

This might solve what T perceives as the most immediate problem: getting a break from inedible food–that is, if T can in fact cook better than mom. Either way, it’s a win–T might be a natural, really enjoy cooking, and T & family would benefit from a variety of new, delicious meals.

Or T might be absolutely awful–and through the experiment might come to understand how much planning, effort, imagination, and hard work it takes to produce a tasty meal day after day, for an (unappreciative?) family.

Most likely T’s food will be edible, and improve over time, with practice.

Which brings us to the other problems this would solve–the ones T doesn’t seem at all aware of:

-T’ll give his mom a break from a task that, most likely, she doesn’t particularly enjoy or find very fulfilling

-T’ll learn….how to cook–a valuable skill by any standard.

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High school graduate doesn’t make the grade

It’s hard to believe that summer’s practically over, and a new school year is upon us.  And yet, it’s been hard to get away from these nutty graduation horror stories.  Today, we hear from Miss Manners:

Dear Miss Manners: As a young child, my daughter Lauren was best friends with another little girl, Heather, and my wife and I enjoyed her parents as well, so we all socialized often.

As the girls hit middle and high school, Lauren joined the cheerleader squad and began to spend most of her time with that crowd of kids. Heather was not part of that group, and the two girls grew apart, and as that happened, we also spent very little time with her parents.

At graduation we discovered that Heather had garnered almost every award the school had to offer and also received a scholarship to a very prestigious university to study something like bioengineering. Lauren was an average student, and she will be attending a local community college next year to prepare for a future four-year school.

Some weeks after graduation, we received a card from Heather’s parents. It said: “Congratulations to Lauren on her high school graduation, and to you as her parents. It seems just a minute ago that the girls were flying up from Brownie scouts and now here they are ready to really spread their wings and fly.”

I thought the card was fine, but my wife insists that this is a real insult to how we did our job as parents. She has been furious about it and has been on the phone with friends and family planning how she should respond. She’s also angry at me because I don’t agree with her; she says if I was a woman I’d see this for what it was. So I thought I’d ask you if this was bad or good manners.

Gentle Reader: It is certainly bad manners to take a gracious letter as an insult, gossip to others about this and to plot some sort of return insult.

Miss Manners, who is of the same gender as your wife, is something of an expert at reading subtexts. The one she finds here is that although Heather’s parents never complained of her being dropped for the cheerleading crowd and did not brag of her scholastic honors, Lauren’s mother is dissatisfied with her own daughter’s achievements and resentful of those of someone who was, after all, her daughter’s friend and the daughter of friends of her own.

She joins you in begging your wife to stop damaging the reputation of your daughter, who will be presumed to have exhibited envy that inspired the fury.

I think Miss Manners is right on in reading what’s going on here.  I speak from experience when I also wonder if there’s also a measure of guilt coloring the mother’s interpretation of the situation.  That is, perhaps she feels deep down that she or Lauren or all of them really did wrong Heather and her family.  Whether or not she actually regrets it, she’s on the defensive now–the only communication she expects from them is an attack, so that’s what she reads into their letter.

But at least Heather and her parents can (and probably will) keep their distance.  What seems worst about this situation is how obviously ashamed of and embarrassed by her daughter this woman is.  Consider: she’s so defensive about her daughter going to community college–so very  un-proud of her–that she interprets any congratulations as obvious and inevitable sarcasm.  We don’t know anything about Lauren, really–her abilities, challenges, effort, goals, temperament or readiness for higher education–but I feel bad for her.

Like I said about last week’s kooky moms–how sad.

Hrm. I feel like I’ve been picking on (admittedly, batshit crazy) moms a lot lately, and I don’t know why that is. (Well, yes I do–it’s because these, as it turns out, have been the most interesting and/or shocking letters out there each day.  Where are the helicopter dads?)  So, disclaimer: most moms, of course, are awesome.  Hug an awesome mom today.

Commencement: It’s just the Beginning

It seems like this woman is trying to make her daughter out to be a an entitled, takes-it-all-for-granted lazypants, unprepared for the real world.  But…I just don’t buy it.  Check it out:

Dear Amy: My daughter recently graduated from college.

My husband and I paid for all of her expenses, though she held a part-time job.

We opened a bank account for her when she was a child. We added about $10,000 to this account when she started college.

Our daughter has spent all of her savings and paychecks throughout these four years on clothes and going out with friends.

I have berated her countless times on her spending habits.

Right before she graduated, she said she’d found an apartment to live in with her two friends.

I told her NOT to sign a lease because she couldn’t afford it.

She moved home and now has a full-time job ($14 an hour) and another side job while she looks for work in her field.

Her friends took the apartment and she goes there on weekends.

She assured me that she was not on the lease.

Of course, now I find out that she is. I am livid.

I told her she needs to either get someone to sublet the apartment or go ahead and move into it, but she will not be able to keep our car or have us pay any of her expenses.

She found a bus that can get her close to work but I am worried for her safety when she gets out of work at 10 p.m. and is waiting for a bus in a dangerous neighborhood.

She wants to buy our car, but with her track record I know she will not keep up with payments.

I think she needs to see what real life is all about but if something happened to her as she waited for a bus I would never forgive myself.

Any suggestions?

—Distressed Mom

Arrgh!  “She needs to see what real life is all about”??  She has a job!  (Two jobs!) She wants to move out!  It’s the mom who keeps paying her bills and forbidding her to leave the nest.  This letter is written like a list of the daughter’s shortcomings.  But lets review:

Exhibit A: She held a part-time job, earning spending money for herself while she was in college.  The mother doesn’t say anything about her ever asking her parents to send cash, as some kids do.

As it happens, the mother doesn’t like the way her daughter spent this money, or the savings in her bank account.  And yet…the parents were covering all of her expenses, so she didn’t have any obligations.  What did the mom want?  For her daughter not to spend another cent on top of her covered expenses, out of gratitude or something?  She was earning money, and had no bills.  Of course she bought clothes and went out with friends.  Who wouldn’t?  What, exactly, was she supposed to do with her earnings?  And were these expectations made clear to her (so at least she’d know, even though I still maintain that it was her money to spend as she wanted).

Exhibit B: She graduated in four years, and is has a full-time job and a part-time job while looking for more specialized work.  How is she not experiencing the “real world,” or pulling her own weight?  It certainly doesn’t sound like she’s rolling in dough.  But as a young single woman with roommates?  ‘Sprobably enough to get by, sitting on milk crates and eating cereal.  She’s well on her way, or she could be, under different circumstances.

Exhibit C: Although she’s on the apartment lease with her roommates (and presumably has been paying rent all this time), she’s living at home.  She lied about this, and no, that’s not a good thing.  But while factors such as her access to a car, and the payment of other expenses by her parents, probably played a part in this decision, I also wouldn’t rule out her mother’s “forbidding” her to move out as a motivating factor.

I suspect she stayed home because it was easier than moving out.  Not easier than getting a job.  Not easier than finding a place to live.  Not easier than paying bills.  She’s already doing all that.  It was easier than pissing her mother off.

Exhibit D: Mom doesn’t want to sell her the car because “with her track record,” she won’t make the payments.  What track record?  According to the mom, she’s never had bills to pay at all.  The only example is the rent on the apartment she’s surreptitiously leasing–and, apparently, she’s managed to pay that rent all along.

I just don’t get it.  These parents need to stop paying her bills, and encourage her to move out.  Not because she needs a kick in the pants to become self-sufficient, but because she already is.  All she’s lacking is the backbone to stand up to her mom about it.

Compare this with the story of this mom, whose newly graduated daughter really is struggling to get her feet under her:

Dear Amy: We sent our daughter to the expensive private college of her dreams. We paid for school, so she has no loans to repay. Graduation was two months ago. Now that she is home, she will not make a serious attempt to look for work or an internship.

I forced her to volunteer for something, but it was very short term. I would be fine if she found an unpaid internship because I know the job market is not great for certain fields.

Her father seems to agree that she should be doing more, but he claims I am too hard on her (because I have pressed her to refresh her resume, make contacts, look for something to do and not sleep until noon, 2 p.m. or 4 p.m. every day). He also said we will have to wait until she is motivated.

With free room and board, Internet and a big-screen TV, she might never be motivated.

I made her go to a job workshop and a job club. They offered good suggestions and contacts, but she didn’t follow up.

Today she lied about submitting a resume, so I told her point blank that if she is not making a serious effort to find a job in her field starting now, I will find her a job at McDonald’s or in local retail.

I will also have to review her efforts and documentation each day, as if she were in kindergarten.

Hm.  These moms seem to have in common that they’ve paved the way for their kids, covered every expense and provided every opportunity along the way–and now they think that gratitude, serendipitous motivation, or the magical transformation caused by a hood and a mortarboard will somehow turn their kids into independent, self-sufficient money-making machines. And, even worse, when somehow that does happen, they can’t let go!

They complain about their kids not acting like adults, while they continue to treat them like infants.  Don’t they see the connection?

Also, maybe I’m reading too much into this, at least in the first mom’s letter, but I get a sense that, along with the hovering, there’s a lot of pressure on their kids to get not just any job, but the right job.  The mom in the second letter says she’s going to push her daughter into retail or fast food, basically, she implies, as a punishment.  No wonder her daughter is depressed, discouraged, and lying about her job prospects: she hasn’t found her dream job 2 months out of college, and is afraid of disappointing her mother.  Meanwhile, the daughter in the first letter has two jobs, and is looking for more, but still her mom is not satisfied.

It’s not clear to me what these parents want to see their kids accomplish the summer after they get out of school, but I sort of suspect that nothing will be good enough.  They’re afraid to see their kids fail, but they also don’t seem capable of letting them succeed on their own terms.  How sad.

Grandpas laying down the law

The week the columns are rife with fathers unhappy at the prospect of raising their errant daughters’ babies.  But really?  Shouldn’t Papa #2 wait for the babies to exist before he gets all huffy about them?  Or will his “proactive” stance really get his daughters make better choices?

Papa #1 (third letter in the column)

DEAR ABBY: I have three daughters who seem to be incapable of functioning as adults. None of them is employed or in school. My oldest is a single parent of two kids she doesn’t want.

I love my grandkids and I know I should take them, but I raised my daughters and feel I’m too old to be Dad to toddlers again. Am I being selfish? — DAD OF THREE DAUGHTERS IN NEBRASKA

DEAR DAD: No, you are being realistic.

Um….helpful much? Thanks, Abby.  What should he do, then?

Papa #2

Dear Carolyn:

I am an old-school dad with Christian morals. I have three teenage daughters, 14, 18 and 19. Only the eldest is dating at this time. I tell them every day that I love them.

I have told my daughters for a few years now that if they get into a relationship, move in with a guy and decide later to get married, I will not pay for the wedding or reception. I would go to the wedding, give them away, but nothing else. That is the consequence for their action. If they do things right, I will pay.

Also, I’ve told my daughters several times that I will not raise my grandchildren because of their poor choices (I would in case of death or illness, etc.). They will have to find somewhere to live. If they want to make adult choices they can pay the adult price.

I have several friends with unwed daughters who are raising their grandchildren (the fathers are nowhere around). These grandparents want to relax, retire, etc., but now it’s like starting over taking care of a child. The little children are a blessing and are loved, but my friends have told me all the stress it has caused.

I would love and forgive my daughters if one of these things happened, but they would pay the price for their actions. Do you think this is too harsh?

D.J.

Too harsh on your daughters? Not at all. With weddings, anyone grown up enough to get married is grown up enough to pay for it, period. If parents want to pitch in as a gift, then they’re free to do so on their terms — just as children are free to decline the money if they don’t like the terms. I applaud your firmness and clarity on that stand.

For the record — and entirely without relevance — I do balk at your phrasing, because “do things right” is, to me, nothing more than “do things your way.” We’re not talking life and death here, or the Golden Rule; your “right way” to get married might not be right for every couple on Earth. But it’s your money and it’s your world view, and you’re entitled to attach strings from one to the other when the stakes are so delightfully black-and-white.

When it comes to thoughtlessly conceived children, on the other hand, the stakes turn gray, and fast. Yes, anyone adult enough to breed is adult enough to secure ample support — and, I have to think it’s good for your daughters to grow up with the expectation of being held accountable.

I think if you talk a bit more to these put-upon grandparents, though, you’ll find a few who used to think as you did but have since had a change of heart. The reality of a parent who’s in over his or her head is inescapable: The one who suffers most is the child

The answer may still be to make accountability the tent pole for any shelter you provide, but when an innocent child, your grandchild, is at risk of hunger or neglect, the you-made-your-bed morality you espouse might become a luxury you can’t afford. Humility is old-school, too.

I’m with Carolyn on the first part of this, I suppose.  He’s not obligated to pay for weddings, and if there are circumstances under which he’s not willing to contribute, that’s fair.  If that’s how he feels, I guess it’s good that he’s straightforward about it now, rather than waiting to things to get ugly post-engagement.

What I don’t like, though, is that this is in no way a neutral statement on his part.  I mean, of course it’s not–he’s obviously taking a moral stand on a lifestyle he doesn’t agree with, or want for his girls (never mind what they want for themselves).  But what I mean is, he doesn’t really mean, “move in with a guy if you want to, but I won’t pay for your wedding.”  What he means is, “don’t move in with a guy, or else.”  That is, his withholding money that he otherwise would have given isn’t, in this case, just any old “you missed the bus, you gotta walk,” consequence–it’s some combination of threat and punishment.  And it speaks volumes about his relationship with his daughters: he’s not interested in guiding them to loving, healthy relationships–just in being punitive if they, um,  shack it up.

The same is true of his comment about their hypothetical children.  One of his daughters–a 19 year old–is dating someone, and all he seems able to think about is that all three are going to live in sin, come after him for money, get pregnant, not want or care for their children, and leave them on his doorstep. With the caveat, of course, that if they die a tragic and early death, he’ll overlook their transgressions.  Thanks, Dad.

He’s got it all planned out, but all he can seem to see is the dark side of something that hasn’t even happened yet. I guess he thinks by laying all this on the line ahead of time he’ll somehow keep them from wandering down what he perceives as a dark, dark path.  But he seems to expect–and think–so little of his daughters, that I can’t help but think he’s pushing them farther down that path, rather than leading them away from it.

But with the Papa #1’s out there, does Papa #2 have a point?  Hrmm….I hope not.

Kisses and Misses

Every family has different practices for showing affection…some are kissers, some are huggers, some are snugglers, some aren’t.  But what happens when a family that kisses on the lips is blended with a family that doesn’t?  Let’s ask Margo:

Dear Margo: My husband and I married earlier this year, and we have a great relationship. We both came into the marriage with children. The one thing that seems to be driving me crazy is that my husband kisses his 5-year-old daughter on the lips. It’s just a peck, but it aggravates me to no end. I have a daughter, and I always kiss her on the cheek. I even explained that you do not kiss on the lips unless you are married. I have mentioned that I’m totally against the gesture; he said he will do so until the day he dies. Fine, but I feel this is intruding on our relationship, as I see it being a sexual gesture and very inappropriate. I have read articles about this, and it is very controversial. I am not sure that I will be able to handle this much longer. Is it wrong of me to ask him for “only my lips or no lips”?
— Want My Husband’s Lips for Myself

Dear Want: Personally, I agree with you and have always found it kind of creepy. But I have seen many people kiss their children like this, and I don’t think it’s seductive. Gestures mean different things to different people. To your husband, kissing on the lips is his sign of affection. To you, it’s a boundary violation.I would open the discussion with him in a new way. Perhaps the act itself is less meaningful than his resistance to granting your request. Does he resist your suggestions in general? Might he experience you as eager to weaken his relationship with his daughter? Is there guilt about divorcing the child’s mother? Ask yourself why you feel so possessive of his lips and whether it is hard to share his affection. Frankly, I think this issue will subside when his daughter becomes an adolescent and becomes embarrassed by parental affection

— Margo, probingly

Yee–full-disclosure, I come from a family that, historically, kisses on the lips.  Both my mom and dad did this occasionally when I was little, mixed in with a variety of other hugs and kisses, and I have always seen my grandma kiss my mom and aunts this way.  It’s really not different than giving a kiss a half an inch to the side.  And if you think about it–a hug is a reciprocal gesture, while a kiss on the cheek, forehead, or top of the head is very much one-sided.  With a peck on the lips, the gesture goes both ways–and you don’t even have to resort to air-kissing three times.

(all of this, of course, reminds me of that scene in Love Actually after Colin Firth proposes to Aurelia and he’s promptly and soundly smooched by all of her neigbors and relatives, male and female.  Wanted to include a good video clip, but couldn’t find! There are dozens of Love Actually remixes on youtube and they all cut out this part! Sad.)

But anyway–what concerns me here is not whether various family members are comfortable kissing on the lips or not.  If you weren’t raised with it, it probably won’t seem like a natural thing, and that’s totally fine.  No, what worries me in this case is that the way this mom states her discomfort (“my lips or no lips!”) creates a rivalry between her stepdaughter and herself for her husband’s physical affection.  And now I’m uncomfortable.

It’s all well and good for her to have explained to her child that you only kiss on the lips if you’re married (really?), but what does she recommend that he say to his daughter?  Anything I can imagine that he would say, that would satisfy what she is looking for, takes what this daughter sees as perfectly natural and normal, and turns it creepy and weird.

If he says something about only married people kissing on the lips, he’ll have to find a way to justify to his daughter why they’ve done this all along and/or give complicated explanations about their relationships.  If he tries to say something like you’re only allowed to have one person at a time who you kiss on the lips, now she’s been demoted/replaced by stepmom, and her relationship with her father has been identified as interchangeable with his relationship with her stepmom. And even if all of this goes over her little head, at the very least she’ll get that her stepmom has decreed that kisses are no longer allowed.

The most innocuous thing I can think of for this woman to do is…..nothing.  Because there’s nothing really wrong here, and even with her ick factor, she seems to get that.  And because anything she could say or do, or ask her husband to say or do, will only introduce weirdness and resentment between stepdaughter and her.  It sounds to me like she is pretty insecure about her new stepdaughter–but the least she can do is try not to let the insecurity spread to the child, too.

Talk about hands-off parenting…

I’m completely bewildered by the classic Ann Landers column run today (the original was published in 1999):

Dear Ann Landers: My son, “Danny,” was a perfectly adorable little 8-year-old. Unfortunately, when he started school, he did very poorly. Neither my husband nor I think Danny has a learning disability, but we were quite concerned when his teacher told us he only knew the letters A through H and showed no progress in learning to read.

This past year, we decided to send Danny to a boarding school out of state. When he returned for the summer, things were worse. Danny used to have a gentle temperament, but now, he is angry and belligerent. He abuses the family pets, which he never did before. He rushes to answer the phone and is rude to the caller. When I ask him how things are going in school, he says he hates it.

It sounds to me as if something might have happened to him at boarding school. I need to find out what is going on. What should I do? — Puzzled in Riverside, Calif.

This letter sounds like it was written by a grandparent, concerned aunt, or family friend….not the person responsible for raising this child!  This letter raises so many questions: he was a “perfectly adorable 8-year-old,” but everything went downhill when he started school? Shouldn’t he have been in school for three years already, at least?

They “were quite concerned” when they heard from his teacher that he only knows the alphabet through the letter H?  He’s not been tested for any kind of learning or behavior problems, but their first step was to send him, not just to a private school, but a boarding school, and not to one where they could visit on weekends, but out-of-state?  Rather than find out that their child has, say, dyslexia (just a random example), they’d rather send him off to live in another state–without that information to aid his teachers?

Yikes.  There’s just something seriously screwy here. There’s not really enough information here to say much more than that.  It’s entirely possible that “Danny” has  learning or behavioral challenges that have totally befuddled or exhausted his parents’ mental and emotional energies–but they don’t seem willing to admit or investigate that possibility.  I can’t help but wonder if he’s so far behind because simply they haven’t raised him–and now he can’t catch up, and is acting out.

It seems like one thing–and a perfectly natural and common thing–for an eight-year-old boy to struggle with the transition to school, and learning to read and write.  It seems like another all together for his parents to be surprised to hear about it from a third party.  In short: if they don’t know he doesn’t know his alphabet, that suggests they’ve never taught it to him or practiced it with him.  If they never taught it to him or practiced it with him, how is he supposed to know it?  I wonder how much of this unfortunate cycle comes down to the fact that he’s woefully behind his classmates because he’s woefully unprepared.

Certainly he should be tested–especially if he’s starting to abuse animals and act out in other frightening ways–but it would be a shame if he were diagnosed with a disability when the real trouble is, he’s trying to pick up, in school, at eight, what the other kids have been practicing since they were three.

Of course there is room for infinite shades of complexity, here.  For one thing, it’s possible there’s a combination of learning disability and parental confusion about what to do.  It ‘s also possible that he does fine at home, but–much to his parents’ surprise–can’t or doesn’t perform the same tasks in a school setting (though the mother didn’t give any indication that this is the case). It could be that English his not his parents’ first language, so they aren’t able to be as involved as they’d like in helping him with it at home.  I’m not a parent, teacher, or child-development expert, so I won’t even venture to make up the many other possibilities that I’m sure could also be in play here.

Any of these could be true.  But it was this mother’s strangely objective distance that shocked me.  It didn’t sound from the letter like she interacted or tried anything with her son at all–like she expected his academic and social development to just happen independently.  And she signs off as “puzzled”?  This is her child, not a sudoku.  For over a year, her son has become increasingly miserable and frustrated–and now destructive–as he is unable to get a handle on perhaps the most basic skill he’ll need for school (and life), and she’s “puzzled”?  Freaked me out.  Poor little guy.