May 19, 2024

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My mother-in-law won’t teach my kids to care about the environment

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 have two children (2 years and 6 months). We recently moved back to my husband’s hometown to pursue a career opportunity for me. My husband has been home with the kids but was just offered a job. We found a daycare, but it can only take the kids three days a week right now (we’re on waitlists for full-time, but it seems like it could be months or more before we find two full-time spots). My mother-in-law has generously offered to watch the kids for the other two days. Overall, she is a lovely, responsible woman, but we have some significant value differences around environmental issues and I’m not sure how to navigate them.

Our household focuses heavily on environmental awareness. We drive electric cars, we compost, we limit our air conditioning, we limit our flying, we eat all leftovers, we avoid plastics whenever possible, and we buy exclusively secondhand clothing. My mother-in-law is a big fan of consumption. Her house is full of plastics. She throws away whatever is left on her plate at the end of a meal, she keeps her house so cold in the summer that I need a sweater and she drives a minivan. I’m concerned about the message it sends to the kids if we stick to our values, except when to do so would be inconvenient. How do I bridge our two very different lifestyles going forward?

—Environmentalist Mama in Limbo

Dear Environmentalist Mama,

As an environmental educator in my “day job,” I sympathize with you on wanting your loved ones to be as passionate about the environment as you. But I’m also a realist who knows that the life you describe living here is not for everyone. I often quote the Zero-Waste Chef: “We don’t need a handful of people doing zero waste perfectly. We need millions of people doing it imperfectly.” If you replace “zero-waste” with “environmentalism” in that quote, you have my personal philosophy on the matter.

Part of raising environmentally conscious kids is helping them develop a healthy attitude toward conservation that doesn’t vilify others and also doesn’t make them feel like the entire burden of environmentalism is on them. One thing to look into is the theory of ecophobia, coined by David Sobel, who says, “Let us allow children to love the Earth before we ask them to save it.” This might be an approach you can take with your mother-in-law. Perhaps she will never compost or regulate her thermostat; so be it. But would she take the kids for hikes in the woods, or set up a trail cam in her backyard so they can catch glimpses of local wildlife? These actions can have far-reaching impacts on your children’s environmental attitude, and while it might not be reducing carbon emissions now, it’s helping to raise kids who give a darn about doing so in the future. That is no small thing.

The other sad reality is that personal eco-friendly behavior can only do so much to curb our rampant consumption and emission patterns. Maybe your mother-in-law would be interested in joining you and the kids in championing policies and non-profits that are making these more systemic changes in your community. That’s another way to marry your disparate lifestyles without requiring that she live her life according to your rules.

Unless you have found a unicorn of a childcare center, there are going to be plenty of practices at the daycare that you would ethically object to. Disposable gloves, abundant wipe usage, fluorescent lights, kids who love flushing and running faucets just for fun, disposable snack accouterments, etc. Do not hold your mother-in-law to a higher standard than the daycare you’re anxiously waiting for. Encourage her along her own environmental journey, but realize (and teach your kids) that everyone is doing their best.

Catch Up on Care and Feeding

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I married my husband two years ago, right as COVID restrictions were beginning to ease. We have a happily blended family. My husband was a widower with an 11-year-old son, Noah (fifth grade). I was a widow with a 9-year-old daughter, Maya (fourth grade), and a 5-year-old daughter. We’re happily blended. Noah calls me mom and my girls call my husband dad. The kids all get along well, which is part of why I’m writing. Maya has a lot of difficulty making friends. She is incredibly shy. As of now, her only friends are Noah and a neighbor who’s homeschooled and often too busy for playdates. Watching Maya and Noah play together makes me forget how bad Maya’s problems are. The challenge is that during school recess Noah wants to play with his friends, but Maya feels lonely, so Noah often ends up playing with her instead.

Maya isn’t being bullied, her classmates are all very supportive of her, but at the same time, none of them are really her friends, either. Maya gets worked up a lot about her appearance—she’s had panic attacks when going clothes shopping because none of the dresses would make her look cool and when going glasses shopping because she felt none of the frames suited her. And in the end, it doesn’t matter because no matter what she chooses to help her be more confident in class, she barely speaks at school.

We’re in the process of looking into therapy for Maya because she’s uptight and anxious in general, but it may still be a while before she can get help. How can we support her until then? Next year, Noah will be off to middle school while Maya will still be at the elementary school. Additionally, how can we let Noah know he’s not obligated to play with his sister at recess?

—Battling Anxiety

Dear Battling,

You’ve probably already discovered that wait lists for therapy can be long, but hopefully, Maya will be able to start seeing them before next school year. In the meantime, there certainly are things you can do to help both kids.

Could Noah have a recess rotation between Maya and his friends? He could play with her on Tuesdays and Thursdays and his friends on the other days, for example. This approach wouldn’t totally abandon Maya, but it would give him the friend time he wants and deserves.

You could also try helping Maya by giving her little “challenges” to practice friend-building on those days her brother isn’t around. I wrote in a recent column about working with teachers or the school social worker to scaffold kids toward uncomfortable or daunting actions, but you could also do this yourself. To start, you might challenge Maya to stay calm at recess and play comfortably by herself. Then once she’s mastered that, you challenge her to say hi to someone on the playground. Each challenge can encourage her to gently exit her comfort zone just a bit more.

Beyond that, I wouldn’t try any more interventions. Instead, continue to practice acceptance and support and wait for the therapist’s guidance. I know it’s difficult to sit by and watch your daughter be unhappy, instead of fixing it, but my gut says you’ll have better results taking cues from a professional than if Maya thinks you are the one pushing her to change. Good luck.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I’m a 37-year-old mom of two young girls (3 and 1). Together with our wonderful husband/father, we live in a mid-size (and rapidly growing) city in a southern state. My husband grew up in a suburb of our city, where his parents still live. I grew up moving every few years as an Army brat, but my parents retired to their hometown in the next state over—about a two-hour drive from us. So, we are incredibly fortunate to have two sets of very involved grandparents 30 minutes and two hours away, respectively. Our girls adore them. We see my husband’s parents up to a few times a week and my parents every two-four weeks. I firmly believe that these relationships are invaluable and enrich our daughters’ lives—and of course, we greatly appreciate the extra help.

My dilemma? Our city and state suck. Our city is expensive, yet our public schools are underperforming, underfunded, and have become political pawns in the state legislature’s performative social conservatism. We have the strictest abortion law in the country. We recently banned drag shows, of all things. We have few sidewalks, and no legitimate public transportation, and our blue dot in a sea of red was recently gerrymandered beyond recognition.

I want to do right by my daughters. All other things equal, I’d pack up and move to a different state—if not a different country—to give them the best life possible. They deserve a great education, a diverse community, and healthcare that puts them first. I dream of a scenario in which we relocated with both sets of grandparents, but I know it won’t happen. My priority is doing all that I can to protect and nurture my kids, but I’m not sure what’s the best choice in this scenario. Will they blame me for staying here if they have an accidental pregnancy or end up being transgender? Will they resent me if I move them away from their grandparents? The world feels broken, and I don’t know what to do.

—Troubled in Tennessee

Dear Troubled,

I can’t fix the broken world, either, and I feel powerless about it just about every day. It can feel so overwhelming to see all of the messed-up parts of society around us, and maddening to think that further deterioration may be inevitable. If these feelings spur you to relocate, I don’t think anyone could rightfully blame you—including your kids. If you move when the kids are young, they aren’t going to think of it as “moving them away from their grandparents” the way that you might. To them, it will simply be a fact of life that they don’t live near their grandparents. Plenty of kids grow up that way and still have fulfilling relationships with these family members.

Similarly, if you decide to stay in your current state and a crisis occurs for one of your children down the line, you can address it in that moment, whether that’s through a well-timed trip to a blue state for some medical care or a full-on relocation to keep a child safe. Again, no one could blame you then, either—not even an angsty teen. (Well, an angsty teen may actually blame you, but I promise they’d get over it.) Staying would also enable you to provide care for your aging relatives when the time comes, which is no small advantage to staying local.

I am sure these are all scenarios you’ve already considered. But the truth is, there are so many ways to live according to your values, and only you can decide what that looks like. Will you move for sociopolitical reasons, or will you stay for familial ones? Neither answer is wrong. It’s also worth pointing out that staying doesn’t mean rolling over and accepting the status quo. You can fight to right the wrongs you feel are being done in your community by getting involved in local politics or volunteering for a cause. Fred Rogers said that in times of crisis, we should look for the helpers, but I’ve come to believe that being among the helpers can be just as reassuring. Your community likely needs the support of people like you fighting the good fight. If that would make you feel like staying was worth it, it might be another option to consider. Good luck with the decision!

Dear Care and Feeding,

I have two daughters, Ava (age 5) and Isla (age 7). A couple of weeks ago at breakfast, Ava decided to prank her sister by sneaking behind her and pouring a bowl of scrambled eggs down the back of Isla’s top, which led Isla to throw up. I had a talk with Ava about her behavior and made her apologize to Isla. Unfortunately, this incident seems to have scarred Isla, who now refuses to eat eggs or even be around the smell. There have been a couple of instances where my partner or I was cooking eggs and she insisted on leaving the room to be away from the scent. How should I deal with Isla’s newfound aversion to eggs? I don’t love the idea of my kids being afraid of certain foods and I want them to have a healthy relationship with food. On the other hand, I totally get why Isla might now be turned off by eggs. Should I let Isla avoid eggs or encourage her to move past it?

—Scrambled Up

Dear Scrambled,

Absolutely let her avoid them. I liked scrambled eggs until one day, as a toddler, it occurred to me that they looked like brains. From then on, I wouldn’t touch them. I’m sure it was maddening to my parents, after years of happily feeding me eggs, but I simply couldn’t stomach them from then on. I finally learned to like some eggs as an adult, which has greatly improved my breakfast sandwich options at the drive-through. Yet, even though I eat them, I still hate the smell. And texture.

All that to say, if this is your biggest blip in children’s food choices, you are doing OK.

—Allison

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