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Heavy Meddle: Help! My Friend Is Spoiling Her Toddler

A woman struggles to decide if she should tell her friend that she’s being bullied by her young son. (appoulsen/flickr)MoreCloseclosemore
A woman struggles to decide if she should tell her friend that she’s being bullied by her young son. (appoulsen/flickr)

Welcome Meddleheads, to the column where your crazy meets my crazy! Please send your questions. You can use this form, or send them via email. Not only will you immediately feel much better, you’ll also get some advice.

Hugs,
Steve

Dear Steve,

I have a friend who caters to absolutely every desire of her toddler. This behavior has had a serious effect on my friend’s life, making her a sort of shut-in. I do think her son is tough, but some of the things my friend does just seem crazy. Making snacks for him at 2 a.m., or going for walks at 11 p.m. Never, ever doing anything alone with her husband, like dinner or a movie. She rarely leaves the house during the day for fear of her son having a meltdown, and often cancels plans with friends at the last minute because her son is grumpy, even just trips to the park with the kids.

Should I speak up, in the least judgmental way possible, or should I keep my mouth shut?

It’s true that my friend only seems mildly miserable. If I were in her position I would feel unending resentment toward my kids. (I have two and they're pretty easy-going.) I personally need social interaction with other humans and to get out of my house on a daily basis.

My sister tells me to bite my tongue and that it's none of my business, but I feel the desire to say something bubbling up inside of me. Something like, "You should take your child to a sleep specialist," or, "You should sign your son up for some daycare so you can get out of the house and he can interact with some other kids."

Should I speak up, in the least judgmental way possible, or should I keep my mouth shut? I just feel bad for her and know that parenting doesn't have to be such a hellish experience. I know that's she's doing the best she can under difficult circumstances and she's probably considered these options already, but, for whatever reason, hasn't made any changes.

Signed,
Budding Butt-in-ski

PHOTO

Dear BB,

If this letter had been written by the overwhelmed mother in question, I’d be much more inclined to discuss the perils of “child centered” parenting, which not only exhausts parents but can produce children who are entitled and narcissistic.

But the letter wasn’t written by mom. It was written by you, a friend and observer. So I’m going to take a more cautious tack.

As I noted in last week’s column, there’s a strong taboo against commenting on another parent’s child-rearing decisions. Why? Because commenting implies judgment and as a rule, people don’t like being judged, especially when it comes to something as complex and personal as parenting.

There are obvious exceptions. If you feel your child is endangered by another child, for instance. Or if you’re concerned about the parent’s mental health. That may apply in this case, though it sounds more like your friend is harried and tired, not on the edge of a nervous breakdown. It’s not clear to me that she’s looking for advice at all.

What she needs, frankly, is support. So rather than telling her what she “should” do, I’d take the approach of offering words of support, and specific opportunities for her to get some down time. Not, Hey, you should really get out more! Something more like, Let’s grab a drink one night this week and catch up. I know a great babysitter.

rather than telling her what she 'should' do, I’d take the approach of offering words of support, and specific opportunities for her to get some down time.

I realize that your motives here are good. You’re a parent with a bit more experience and you’d like to be able to help your friend make raising her son less stressful. You feel she’s too indulgent toward the child, and self-depriving. But until she shares her own experiences as a mother with you, it’s impossible to know why she’s making the decisions she is, and therefore to judge them.

It’s also not fair to project your feelings onto her experience. You write: “If I were in her position I would feel unending resentment toward my kids … I personally need social interaction…” But that’s the whole point: You’re not in her position. She is.

One other curiosity in your note is that there’s no mention of your friend’s husband, or his role in raising the child. I note this only to emphasize that your friend may be feeling that she has to “do everything herself.” And this, in turn, makes me even more convinced that what she needs isn’t advice, but support.

Find a way to offer that and the space may open up between you for a more honest discussion about the pleasure you find in motherhood, and wish her to experience.

Onward, together,
Steve

Author's note: Boy did this question make me uncomfortable. Why? Because “parenting” has become so self-conscious these days. A certain set of parents (I’m among them) worries excessively about whether “we’re doing it right.” This is why I’m reluctant to endorse the Butt-in-ski’s plan. But maybe I’m being a ninny. Any advice from fellow parents most welcome in the comments section below. And feel free to send a letter to Heavy Meddle, too. You can use this form, or send your questions via email. I may not have a helpful response, but the act of writing the letter itself might provide some clarity. — S.A.

Steve Almond is the author of the book "Against Football." He is the co-host, with Cheryl Strayed, of the WBUR podcast, Dear Sugar.


Editor's note: The headline of this story has been changed, thanks to a thoughtful reader. We regret our inadvertent lack of sensitivity.

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