Tag: parents

Side-Stepping the Stepmother


Dear Whit,

I need some advice about a sticky family problem.  I’m in my 40’s, married with children, and my father’s new wife (my mom passed away about ten years ago) is quite a bit younger than him. My stepmother (it creeps me out just to say that, so I’ll call her “Amelia”) and I have cordial relations, but she definitely is not “family” to me the way my dad, my two brothers, and my sister are.  Now that my dad is getting older, Amelia has taken over responsibility for some of their household tasks, which my siblings and I mostly appreciate. My siblings and I are annoyed, though, that she routinely answers my dad’s cell phone and responds to texts addressed to him, so we have no way of communicating with him without going through her. They also have a joint email address. Since Amelia sometimes seems kind of resentful, I am not exactly eager to communicate with her.  Just recently, I wanted to talk to my father about something, but thinking of Amelia reading the text or answering the phone was enough of a barrier that I did not do it.  I feel cut off from my father yet reluctant to just ask her to butt out.  Any recommendations?

Stuck With a Buttinsky

Dear Stuck:

You new stepmother sounds like the kind of person who would be cool under fire.  When she faces a threat, she grabs it by the throat, wrestles it to the ground, and then dares it to get up. Not the kind of person you want to cross, but perhaps someone you want on your side.

As such, I’m betting that she has a job with responsibility and authority and that your father is retired—am I right? Furthermore, if Amelia holds down a job and still manages to have “taken over responsibility for some of their household tasks,” she must be efficient but also busy—very busy. In addition, she sounds as if she is used to being in charge and doesn’t mind if she steps on some underlings’ (your and your siblings’) toes. Could that insensitivity or disregard be part of why you say she “creeps me out”?

If you were to confront Amelia about blocking access to your father, I suspect that she would bristle at being left out of the mix. Given Amelia’s authoritative personality and the protective role she serves for your father, you can set up some new arrangements that will give you personal access to him without setting off any familial IEDs.

Parents’ Weekend: All Major Credit Cards Accepted


Parents’ Weekend.  A trip to the grocery store for healthy snacks to keep in the dorm room.  A trip to the local Mall for new fall clothes.  Nice meals out with roommates and new friends.  A pitch from the university to join the “Parents’ Committee” or “Parents’ Club” or whatever your child’s school calls its volunteer fundraisers (which they charge you to join).  We’ve just finished two parents’ weekends, back to back, and we’re broke!

I mean, it was so great to see the girls.  Emily is making the transition to her “new” school as a sophomore transfer, and Grace has hit the ground running, facing all the freshman thrills.  Seeing them doing well, growing where they are planted — that part is priceless.  But the rest of it has a slightly insidious feel, like we are not even conscious of the up-sell.  Their friends all seem more sophisticated, and better dressed, with better hair care products.  It’s so tempting to change to make new friends.  Alas, it never worked for me, and my guess is, wouldn’t work for them, either.

Tuesday Talks With the Principal at St. Francis of Assisi School




Have you checked them out lately?  You’re going to be surprised by what you find!  from the SFA website:


When the Kids are Away, Moms Get to Play

Photo courtesy of Oprah.com.
Photo courtesy of Oprah.com.

You’ve said your goodbyes, maybe wiped away a few tears and pushed down the lump in your throat–especially if it’s your child’s first time at sleep-away summer camp. But now, with the hard part over, it’s time for some fun. Your own.

Few moms enjoy, on any regular basis, the luxury of a good long breather from the daily grind of motherhood: Shuttling kids back and forth to school and activities, doing endless loads of laundry, whipping up a few solid meals every day (and wiping away the crumbs). You know the drill.

Needless to say, sleep-away camp can be as liberating for moms as it is for their kids who are spending a week, a month or more sleeping in cabins with their new BFFs, taking to the woods and the water for days on end, and singing Kumbayah around the campfire. In fact, I spoke to some local women whose summertime hiatus from mommy duty made them feel like they were the ones at camp.

But for some, guilt and worry come first. A friend of mine whom I’ll call Jane recalled to me the scenario a few weeks ago, as she dropped off her little guy for a two-week stint at sleep-away camp for the first time: “Because he’s my youngest, I was so nervous for him,” she said.

That quickly changed when her little guy scrambled up on to his bunk bed, plunked down with his favorite stuffed animal, and asked her in blasé fashion when she was leaving. That gave her the green light she was waiting for.

Once Jane got the mounds of laundry out of the way, the expert gardener got to work in her yard—clearing out weeds, beautifying her flower beds, even building in a little time away with the hubby (Note: this woman wisely signed up her other son for sleep-away camp during the same time). With both kids away, the couple enjoyed a romantic weekend getaway without the highly orchestrated, detailed and complex schedule shuffling of children typically required to make even a short ‘adult-only’ trip happen.

Jane seemed to accomplish just about everything a gal could want to do in her free time. In addition to alone time with hubby and getting the house and garden in order, she caught up with old friends and stopped at historic monuments when she was on the road because there was no one in the back seat protesting. But she still wanted to squeeze in more. “You get real idealistic about all the things you want to do when they’re away, but there’s never enough time,” she said.

Parental Recommendation Letters: Creepy or Helpful?


College recommendation letters should ideally come from someone who knows the applicant well — someone who can speak to strengths, weaknesses, hidden triumphs, and personal ambitions. Who better than mom or dad?

There are a lot of reasons why recommendation letters from parents might not seem like a good idea. That whole bias thing, for one. But an increasing number of colleges (including Smith College, the University of Richmond, and Holy Cross) allow parents to submit letters on behalf of their children. While the letters are optional, they’re proving to be popular; admissions officials at Smith estimate that nearly half of all applicants included a parental recommendation.

And though it may seem counterintuitive, the admissions team has found that parents are sometimes the best ones for giving an honest portrayal of their child. While teachers and coaches may be overwhelmed by recommendation requests and provide a letter that’s not much more than standardized praise, parents are writing only one letter. And it’s for someone they know quite well. “You might think they do nothing but brag,” said Deb Shaver, Smith’s director of admission. “But parents really nail their kids. They really get to the essence of what their daughter is about in a way we can’t get anywhere else.”

Some have objected to the parental letter practice by saying that it “advantages the advantaged,” in that lower-income applicants (especially families where English isn’t spoken at home) might be dissuaded from penning a glowing letter, and thus at a disadvantage. But Smith has found ingenious ways around that problem. Shaver remembers one parent who drove several hours to campus to give his recommendation in person, because he wasn’t comfortable writing in English.

And perhaps most importantly, the practice allows parents to feel like they’re a part of the college application race. They sing their children’s praises directly at the admissions committee and not feel like overbearing weirdos. And the heartfelt letters become family mementos in some cases. (No one’s going to read their senior-year chemistry teacher’s recommendation in ten years and start crying.)

Would you write a recommendation for your kids? Or would you want your parents to write one for you?

Spanking Is Down. Supervision Is Up. But Are Kids Better off?


Today, parents are far less likely to use spanking to discipline their children than were parents of previous generations. Megan McArdle of The Atlantic links the decline in corporal punishment as a parenting technique to a general increase in parental supervision, which facilitated a move from the belt (which delivers “swift punishment for detected wrongdoings”) to the gold star (which requires being constantly on the look-out for good behavior).

But is this new, intensive form of parenting (with an emphasis on greater monitoring and incentivized behaviors) actually better for our kids? McArdle notes parenthetically that employers complain that young workers are too entitled, and struggle in the absence of structure. But what if we have moral issues with corporal punishment? Is there a way to effectively parent with neither the belt nor the gold star?

Living in a Boomerang World


As far as new buzzwords go, “boomerang kids” sounds catchy, but doesn’t begin to encompass the complexity of 20- and 30-somethings who move back home — or the parents who are their new roommates.  Yesterday’s Diane Rehm Show featured Maryland psychotherapist Linda Gordon, Washington Post advice columnist Katherine Newman, and Johns Hopkins Dean Katherine Newman talking about just this issue. They put a face to individuals living in this boomerang world, and some of them aren’t what you would expect.  A few types:

  • The parents who suddenly find their empty nest full again.  When we talk about kids moving back in with their parents, we tend to focus on the younger generation.  But having children move back home is rough on parents, too — especially if they’d been enjoying the time along… not to mention the extra financial freedom.


  • The “adult roommates.” Here’s one thing that previous generations never said:  “My parents are my best friends.” When a son or daughter moves back home, that best friend becomes a roommate.  The tricky thing is defining roles and boundaries for adults living together — who are also family members. Should your kid pay rent? Is it okay for your son to drink in the house? Is it okay for him to bring his friends over to drink? Is it okay for him to get really drunk?


  • The ambitious intern.  Katherine Newman notes that the path to a middle class career is longer and more expensive than ever. Young people are racking up Master’s degrees and unpaid internships just to try and get a foot in the door. And living with parents makes this much more feasible. For these kids, moving back home is hardly a lazy move; it’s allowing the family to provide shelter in challenging economic times.


  • The “failure to launch” case. Carolyn Hax points out that tough economic times make it tough on everyone — and toughest on the marginal cases.  Young people struggling with depression, substance abuse, or other issues “would’ve been able to get a foothold on their own, even struggling” in the past, Hax notes,  “But now it’s like, forget it.”

The Worst Part of Teaching: The Parents


Ron Clark was named “American Teacher of the Year” and — more importantly — was anointed by Oprah as a “phenomenal man.” He clearly loves teaching kids. And he hates parents.

Well, while that might be overstating his case, Clark does have some pretty harsh words for a certain kind of problematic parent, the type who cause more trouble than their children.  He recounts a series of stories of parents bringing lawyers for meetings with teachers; parents calling the media to berate teachers who are just doing their jobs; no wonder, then, that today’s new teachers remain in the job for an average of only 4.5 years, and that many list “issues with parents” as a reason they leave the profession.

So what does Clark want parents to remember? Nothing too revolutionary:  that teachers are educators, not baby-sitters; that making excuses for your child’s behavior helps no one; that being grade-obsessed sends the wrong message. All of which sounds eminently reasonable. Not surprisingly, though, he gets attacked in the comment section of his story (everything from “Why should I believe a teacher at face value and not my own child?” to “Are you a moron, or are you trully as ignorant as you sound?”).

So Baltimore teachers, city and county, private and public, give us your horror stories anonymously and we’ll print them.  Consider it a favor to you and to parents! (Hey, we don’t want a bad reputation.)  Contact us at [email protected] or write your story in the comments below. 

Teachers:  any horror stories? Who’s the most frustrating parent you’ve ever had to deal with?

Can Schools (and Parents) Be Too Supportive?


Last week we considered private school admissions, and the anxiety it inspires in parents. For many families, though, all that stress (and money) is worth it, because small, supportive schools nurture students, giving them rigorous, individual preparation for their future college education. But can these students be too supported — too “cocooned,” as one expert puts it?

It turns out that some college counselors are starting to think this might be the case. In today’s “error-averse culture,“students aren’t learning how to make mistakes, so any setback — a rejection from a first-choice school; a botched interview — feels like a complete and utter disaster. Not getting into an Ivy League school may truly be the worst thing that ever happened to these students, so no wonder they sometimes react to rejection as though the very foundations of the earth are being shaken.

In a recent controversial article in the Atlantic, “How to Land Your Kid in Therapy,” Lori Gottlieb argues a similar point — that today’s parents are too good at supporting their kids and shielding them from unhappiness. According to Gottlieb, these children grow up to be young adults who have great relationships with their parents — but an inability to cope with the normal disappointments of life.

So how do we raise kids to feel supported — but to be independent, too?

How to Get Your Kid Into Private School


It makes a certain kind of logic:  if you’re going to send your kid to a school that costs $40,000, you may as well try your hardest to get her into the best school that costs $40,000, whatever that takes. Consider including professional headshots of your toddler sporting a bow-tie, and/or including a letter of recommendation from a member of Congress. Or maybe you’d be better off with some good old-fashioned lying and manipulation.

Such is the twisted logic of New York private school admissions, which gets a satirical take from filmmaker Josh Shelov (and stars Neil Patrick Harris and Amy Sedaris) in The Best and the Brightest, which opens this week. “I was eager to write something deeply uncensored,” Shelov told the Wall Street Journal. In making the film, he drew on his experiences finding a school for his own kindergartener five years ago. Unlike his film’s characters, Shelov presumably didn’t invent a more intriguing persona to make himself appealing to elite schools. (Neil Patrick Harris’ character pretends to be “a renowned poet with a forthcoming collection culled from sexually explicit text messages.” He is actually a computer programmer.)

All in all, the movie makes it clear that the admissions process is hardest on the parents. Shelov remembers being plagued by “a general feeling of paranoia that begins to settle in, an atmosphere of ‘you’re not doing enough.’ ” Does this high-stakes, cutthroat world look familiar to you in any way? Or do we just do things differently here in Baltimore?