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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 21-month-old is fantastic in a lot of ways, but he is fiercely physically independent, incredibly physically capable, unusually tall, and improbably strong. He can be cuddly, and we’ve done pretty well with gentle touching, but for any of the many physical tasks that he doesn’t like, including dressing and diaper changing, he turns into a monster. The worst is tooth brushing. He somehow has all of his baby teeth already, so we really do need to brush for real. I’ve tried multiple kinds of brushes and pastes, silly songs, brushing mirror baby’s teeth in the mirror (he loves mirror baby), and taking frequent breathers so he isn’t overwhelmed and gaggy. Ultimately the only way the teeth get clean is if I’m holding him down with my legs. This does not feel loving, even though of course I’m taking care of his teeth because I love him!

My sister is a dental hygienist, and she’s seen me brush his teeth and didn’t think I was being too rough or anything. That said, he has been teething more or less without a break since he was 2 months old, and I’m sure he constantly has some sore spot in his mouth. I’m just very, very tired of feeling constantly beat up by his little flailing limbs and rock-hard head. I’m physically exhausted at the end of the day because I’ve spent so much time wrangling this incredibly strong little person. Is there any way to work on this?

—WWE

Dear WWE,

Having a toddler who’s unusually tall and strong is very, very challenging, and it seems like you’re doing a great job of managing this in ways that will pay off in the long run, like inculcating the importance of gentle touching. But for you, the physical toll must be overwhelming, and it sounds like you are reaching your kid-wrangling limit. It might be time to start thinking about picking your battles strategically, and one of the things that could possibly go by the wayside—for now!—is strenuous efforts at tooth brushing.

Dental hygiene is important, but it’s also important to set some limits so that you’re not constantly pushing yourself and your son past your breaking points. At his age, establishing brushing as a habit matters more than keeping his teeth scrupulously clean. If you are really worried about his teeth, you could try moving tooth brushing time to a time of day when he’s more relaxed and letting him take the lead—keeping it playful and explorative, rather than holding him down.

In general, you only have so much energy for wrestling your kid every day, and you need to save that energy for when you really need it, like wrangling him into strollers or car seats or chasing him down the block. Look for the moments where you can relinquish a little bit of control without endangering him or anyone else. Keep up the good work—you won’t have a giant baby forever, and he will continue to get better and better about wielding his strength.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I have what I think is a low-stakes question, but it’s still a hard one for me to figure out. My family of origin is big on gift-giving. Gifts are always low-price and not extravagant, but giving gifts on birthdays and Christmas is part of our family dynamic, and giving a small “just thinking of you” gift would not be out of the ordinary. My husband and I had our first child last year. He is also the first grandchild on my side and so my siblings and my parents are over the moon for him. Since he was born, they will often send little gifts for him or bring a small gift when babysitting. It is never large, never expensive, and always useful—sometimes it’s a book, or a toy they know he doesn’t have, or clothes (which have actually been a help as he grows).

However … he is now a toddler, nearing 18 months, and eventually he is going to know what gifts are. I’m starting to worry he is going to expect gifts all the time, or become a spoiled brat who expects people will give him toys all the time. Compounding this is the fact that my spouse’s family almost never gives gifts, even for birthdays, and I don’t want there to be a perceived inequity. My mom is, admittedly, the biggest gift-giver and has bristled but begrudgingly obeyed boundaries in the past. My spouse and I make good money, we don’t rely on gifts to get by, so it’s not a matter of needing these things. Will continual gifts spoil our baby? Should we discourage them? What boundaries are necessary and appropriate?

—Should I Say No Gifts?

Dear SISNG,

While I think it’s not unreasonable to set some boundaries around gift-giving, I don’t think anything that either of your families is currently doing is necessarily bad or out of the ordinary. Some people aren’t gift-givers, for various reasons including cultural and financial ones. They may also “give gifts” in ways that you’re not accustomed to seeing as such, like being generous with food or hospitality or cash. If that bothers you, and you feel close enough to your in-laws to have a nonconfrontational discussion about it, then by all means open up the conversation. But in terms of your son and his expectations, I don’t think it’s that big of a deal. It will be many years before your son develops any understanding of gifts and their relative significance; as anyone who’s recently shelled out for the latest big-ticket item for their young kid can tell you, dollar store knickknacks or random pieces of cardboard often end up being the most beloved thing in the toy box.

It’s hard to figure out how to raise kids who have all that they need and enough of what they want to be happy but not “spoiled.” You don’t always have control over what he receives, but you can still inculcate the importance and the joy of giving in your son. Even very young kids can participate meaningfully in giving gifts to other people. Making a special food or wrapping a present, picking out flowers or a card or shopping for soft, warm socks—let him see you doing this stuff and understand why it means something to you to show love in this way. It might not seem like it’s sinking in, but eventually he will make the connection and associate gifts with giving and love, not just getting and having.

• If you missed Sunday’s Care and Feeding column, read it here.

• Discuss this column in the Slate Parenting Facebook group!

Dear Care and Feeding,

How do we reintroduce family members to our toddler? Our parents live on the opposite coast to us, and we have not seen either set since the start of the pandemic. My daughter was an infant the last time we saw our parents in person. Now that we are vaccinated, we are starting to talk about hosting my parents for a visit. When we have seen friends outdoors socially, my daughter has been afraid of other people and wants to stick close to us, preferably on the opposite side of the yard from our friends. We do video chatting with family once a week, so there has been that connection. But I don’t think that will be enough to make an easy transition once they’re standing in front of her. I want my parents, who are desperate to see her after a year’s absence, to have a successful visit where they have good moments of interaction with her. But I don’t want to feel pressured to try to force the connection and end up with a toddler who clings to my neck for a week and won’t stay in the same room with them. I am so grateful that this is a challenge my family can discuss now, and my sympathy to those who are not at this point yet. Stay strong if you’re still waiting to see your loved ones.

—Enthused but Apprehensive

Dear Enthused,

You’re absolutely right that many of us will find ourselves in similar situations soon! This reunion will be joyous, but also very fraught and challenging, for your daughter and for everyone else, including you. All you can do to prepare is manage everyone’s expectations as best you can, and that means accepting that this visit may not be easy. Whether or not your parents get to see your daughter at her best and meaningfully interact with her is beyond your control. In fact, this would be the case if they’d just seen her yesterday! Kids rarely behave the exact way we’d hope or expect them to, and when the stakes are this high, forget about it.

What would happen if, instead of hoping for a connection, you anticipated that she will cling to you and take a while to warm up to her grandparents? If you prepare for how that will feel, and even talk about this likelihood with them and with her, you may find that the reality of the situation either pleasantly surprises you or at least doesn’t disappoint you. It will also help to take off some of the pressure that you’re feeling.

In general, we would all probably do well to remind ourselves that the transition back into something like normal social interaction won’t be easy, even with the people we love most. For your own sake and your daughter’s, schedule breaks and downtime for everyone during these reunion visits. Constant togetherness might seem like a necessary corrective to the loneliness that’s become an unwelcome part of many people’s lives this past year, but taking it slowly and finding a middle ground will feel better to most of us than plunging in headlong, and that goes double for 1-year-olds.

For more of Slate’s parenting coverage, listen to Mom and Dad Are Fighting

Dear Care and Feeding,

My nearly-3-year old, who is ready for preschool, is still in a toddler group at day care while he waits for a spot to open up in the preschool on the same site. Due to COVID, there are four or five of the kids that have been delayed in moving up. This means there are preschool-ready kids mixed with the toddlers in day care, something that wouldn’t happen in a “normal” year. I think this may be contributing to the dynamic I’m going to ask about.

My very articulate son comes home from day care with elaborate stories about the scuffles and conflicts he has with the other kids. He is able to say what made him mad or sad in explicit detail, and one day someone is his best friend and the next day he’s mad at them. All normal behavior. But this week he was so mad at one of the kids over a toy dispute that he told me his plan to spit water on the other boy’s toys the next day, even though he said he knew it was mean. I tried to talk to him about his feelings and remind him about how we’re trying to be gentle and kind and walk away when frustrated about a toy. I then emailed the day care to let them know what my son told me was his plan for day care that day. I’m not sure exactly what happened, but my son ended up being bitten by the other boy, not seriously but he had ice on his hand when I arrived to pick him up. His carers hadn’t seen exactly what happened. But my son told me that they both bit each other (over a truck dispute), and that despite knowing it’s wrong, he’s happy he bit the other boy and plans to do it again.

He said he doesn’t want to bite anyone else, just this boy, because he isn’t his friend and he wants him to go home. I’m not sure of the other boy’s age, but he’s definitely younger and a bit smaller. The day care (that operates on an attachment theory model) says these are all normal, age-appropriate struggles and that these scuffles occur between a number of the kids and they are mutual (i.e., it’s not bullying or otherwise alarming behavior). But my gut is telling me that I do need to address with my son this element of his planning to be mean to someone at day care. (Note: He has come up with various plans like these before, but he tells me beforehand, we talk it out, and I don’t think he ever carried them out before today.) What do you recommend?

—Possibly Overly Concerned Mother

Dear Possibly,

This is a day care problem, not a “your son” problem. I love that he tells you his plans for biting and that you two are chatting regularly about the social dynamics of his day! That’s wonderful. I’m disappointed, though, that the day care hasn’t been able to head some of these conflicts off at the pass, and I don’t understand what their attachment theory model has to do with anything. It’s a bit disquieting that his carers didn’t have a better read on what happened during the biting incident. Especially since you’d given them a heads-up, you’d think they’d be keeping a closer eye out and working to nip any violence in the bud.

I understand that finding a different day care may not be an option, but if this pattern continues, you may find yourself heading in that direction. In the meantime, I wonder if you can get a clearer timeline from the administration about when the transition to their preschool program is going to occur, and start to explore other options in the meantime. Biting and scuffles happen everywhere, but how they’re handled matters. Often parents put off switching child care providers because their kids are in a routine and it seems too disruptive to make a change. But waiting until an iffy situation gets worse is a lot more disruptive than planning and preparing for a transition. On the other side, if the transition to preschool is imminent, your concerns may soon be a thing of the past.

—Emily

More Advice From Slate

My younger sister just had her first child. She and her husband did not find out the sex of the baby prior. I have two girls, and my older brother has one girl. Upon receiving the group text from my brother-in-law that they had a healthy baby boy, my mother immediately texted back that she was hoping for a boy. That hurt. Are her three granddaughters not good enough?

My husband—who was really hoping we’d have a boy, but is still smitten with our two girls—is really upset about the comment. I’m not sure how my brother or his wife took the comment. My sister is already the favorite with my parents, and my husband is convinced that she will now get even more favoritism. We have plans to visit my parents later this summer (we live across the country from my sister and parents), and now my husband no longer wants to go. My husband and I are both excited and very happy for my sister and brother-in-law, but this is just one more thing my mom has said to take an apparent dig at us. I guess my question is, would it be inappropriate to call my mom out on this inappropriate comment? How would I go about doing that?



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