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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,

I have a fairly low-stakes problem, but one that is currently driving me crazy. My entire life I have had a difficult time with chewing sounds. I can hide it pretty well because I have to—it’s not fair, I know, to be annoyed by people eating—but it really is like nails on a chalkboard for me. I have diligently (and gently!) worked to teach my two children (ages 6 and 12) excellent table manners. They are neat eaters, chew quietly with closed mouths, and clean up when they’re done. The issue is that I’ve been dating a wonderful man for a year now who has three kids (8, 11, and 13), and all the kids have horrible table manners—chewing and loudly smacking with their mouths wide-open to the point where food is falling out, eating with their hands, dropping food all over the table. By the end of a meal, their faces are covered in food. They are far too old to eat like this! And my boyfriend does not seem to notice at all. I have never said anything or given any of them any indication that it bothers me, but it’s driving me nuts! How do I bring this up in a kind way to him without sounding like a jerk or like I’m criticizing his parenting?

—Make the Chewing Stop

Dear MtCW,

There are two separate issues here. One is your misophonia, which I know can make life very difficult. There are strategies for coping with it, but no cure for it. The other is that these children are unintentionally pushing you to the brink. I don’t think it would be unreasonable for you to tell the wonderful man you’re dating about this incurable and distressing syndrome you suffer from (surely you needn’t hide it from him!), making sure to stress that the sound of anyone chewing is unbearable to you. I would not, however, say a word to him about his children’s manners. You will have to let him make that connection himself.

Be prepared that he may not be able to—he may simply be unable to hear (or see) what his children are doing. Or he may be aware of it, but unable to do anything about it.

Once, some years ago, I got a too-up-close-and-personal look at some beloved friends’ parenting style when they and their three children stayed with us for several weeks (long story, not for now, as my grandma used to say). After the first few days of these kids, whom I adored, wandering around the house with their peanut butter sandwiches, leaving them half-eaten in unexpected places (on top of the toilet tank, on the bathroom floor), abandoning congealed bowls of cereal everywhere (often right beside their balled-up dirty socks), leaving lights on everywhere and the water running in the bathroom (where they had failed to flush the toilet), I was at my wits’ end. I kept waiting for one of their parents to say or do something. When it became clear they weren’t going to, I very nervously brought it up to the husband. He shrugged and said: “You talk to them. You’re the one who’s bothered by it, not us.”

Let me repeat: These were five people I loved—and while I was horrified by this glimpse into their customary day-to-day life and their parenting choices, I wanted very much for my relationship with all of them to remain intact. And the solution I came up with was so successful that I will now share it with you as something that might be worth trying with the children in your life. I announced a contest, with a points system. One point for every dish or glass taken to the sink. An extra point for rinsing. One point for every light turned off, one point for every toilet flushed, one for every half-finished sandwich properly disposed of. On the day they moved into their new home, I declared, the child with the highest point score would get a prize.

Oh, how they competed! They grabbed one another’s dishes and carried them to the sink. They shut off lights religiously. They even began to do things I hadn’t mentioned: stacking their belongings neatly, tidying up after each other, asking me if I would like them to bring my plate and coffee mug to the sink—wondering aloud if there were extra credit points to be awarded (of course there were!). I began to get the distinct feeling that they liked having these little jobs to do, that they liked the sense of order I was imposing (I kept those thoughts to myself, of course). And while I did not actually keep track, I did make quite the show of it (“Five points! Very good!”), and on the day they moved out, I revealed that, shockingly enough, their point totals were exactly the same—that it was a three-way tie (I believe I pronounced a score of 457 points for each). I had bought them each a present, and I distributed them as the family left my house.

Will something like this work on the children of the man you’re dating? It’s worth a try, if (as I suspect) talking to him about your misophonia leads nowhere. Of course, if you have no interest in (or there’s no chance of) eventually being part of a household with them, you could just declare your dates with him a no-meals-together zone when his children are present. Do other things with the kids—movies, board games, nonfood outings and adventures once we are out of quarantine—and save the dinners together for when the two of you are alone.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I’m a college student quarantining with my boyfriend’s family. He has a 5-year-old sister, and everyone in the family (including me) spends some time supervising her and playing with her. I grew up an only child and haven’t been around kids this age since I was that age, but I’m really trying my best to look after her. And we’re buddies! She’s decided that I have flower magic! My question is: How do I take care of her during my “shifts” without overstepping into parenting territory that’s Not My Business? The other day, for example, I was baking cupcakes with her, and she dug both of her hands into the jar of sprinkles. Instinctively, I said, “Hey, don’t do that! That’s gross!” (I’ve watched her pick her nose far too many times.) I’m not sure if her parents would have reacted the same way, though. Is it OK for me to be saying that kind of thing?

—No Longer Hungry for Cupcakes

Dear NLHfC,

It sure is. Aside from the fact that it is gross, it’s perfectly OK for you to react differently from her parents, as long as your response is within safe and sound bounds, as this is. (If you’d smacked her hand or said, “BAD GIRL,” it would be a whole different story.) Even if she’s doing something that isn’t objectively not great (like this)—even if she’s just doing something you have an opinion about that might be different from her parents’ (like she’s singing “Let It Go” for the 114th time in a row, and although her parent seem to find it adorable, you feel moved to say, “Can we just let that go for now, honey, and do something else?” or vice versa)—it’s fine for you to express your own reaction. It’s good for her to know that different people will respond differently to the same thing.

Mostly I’m glad you have a family to quarantine with, that your 5-year-old friend is lucky enough to have a variety of grown-ups with whom to bake cupcakes, and that her parents are lucky enough to have you.

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

• Discuss this column in the Slate Parenting Facebook group!

Dear Care and Feeding,

Our now 8½-month-old baby has had pretty acute stranger anxiety since she was around 7 months old. It was particularly intense around men other than her father and when she was tired, but in general, she tended to lose her shit around any new faces (or even old faces she hadn’t seen in a week or two). Our pediatrician assured us that it was a totally normal developmental phase and that it should pass in a few months, but also told us it was important to keep introducing her to new people (with appropriate supports: first introduction at home or in a familiar space, never handing her off to the new person until she was comfortable, playing as a group, etc.). I’m sure you can guess my question. The day after said pediatrician appointment (so maybe a week after the stranger anxiety started), our region of the country received a shelter-in-place order. It’s now been over a month since our daughter has seen a face other than mine or my husband’s. We’ll of course be asking our pediatrician whenever we’re able to next see him (he’s not doing televisits), but meanwhile, are there strategies for helping babies work through stranger anxiety that don’t involve, well, strangers? Is she going to have even more acute stranger-phobia when we come out of this, whenever that is? We FaceTime with family sometimes, but she just wants to put the phone in her mouth and doesn’t seem to register that there are people on the screen. I don’t want my baby girl to be forever terrified of new people!

—No Strangers Dangers

Dear NSD,

I know your pediatrician meant well, and sure, it might have been nice to walk your daughter through this phase in the way he suggested … I guess (to be honest, it sounds unnecessarily complicated to me). But “stranger anxiety” is called a developmental phase for a reason. It will pass.

To give the pediatrician the benefit of the doubt, I’ll venture that he might have been trying to ease your anxiety by giving you a task to do as well as offering a strategy that he thought might push your baby through this phase a little faster—but now you don’t have to worry about that because there’s no rush, right? I’m just saying there needn’t have been a rush before either, since it would have come to a natural end whether she got to “work through it” or not.

And while I hate it when I hear people talk about “silver linings” during a global crisis in which people are dying, many more are getting very sick, the economy is in free fall, and we are all living in suspended animation while we wait to see what happens next (not to mention all the daily miseries people are experiencing as they shelter in place), it behooves me to point out that you are going to sail through this particular (and particularly frustrating for you) phase of your child’s development. By the time there are strangers around for her to be afraid of, she won’t be afraid of them anymore.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My partner and I have a 5-year-old son and a 4-year-old daughter. Our kids have developed a wonderful fairyland filled with incredible plots and intriguing storylines. Oddly, the protagonists are the “Pee Fairies.” We usually let them play as they will, but have been hearing more about this from them and have become a little alarmed. During this time of staying home, there is no other outlet for them but to play with each other. Now that they’re nearing the age at which I should be providing guidance and conversations about sex and related matters, I just want to know how far to let this go and if I should step in.

—Parent of Pee Power

Dear PoPP,

The more I think about this question, the more desperately curious I find myself. Are the fairies peeing on each other? Are the children talking about something more than/other than pee? Is peeing a euphemism for sex? Are your children running naked through the house with their imaginary fairy playmates? Are the children peeing on each other? On the furniture? What exactly is it that you’re “hearing more about”? What exactly is alarming you?

Look, kids this age (and older than this too) are fascinated by bodily functions. They make up jokes and stories and songs about them. I cannot now remember how old my daughter was (definitely older than 5!) when she and her best friend told me they were in a band called the Plopping Girls and regaled me with their hit song (about poop being flushed down the toilet). I also remember much further back than that, when my own childhood best friend and I whisper-traded “hilarious” potty jokes.

I’m not certain how you’ve moved from pee fairies to sex education—unless you’ve never said a word to your children before about their body parts and it’s only now occurring to you that maybe you should—but the rule of thumb when it comes to conversations with young children about sex is: wait till they ask a question, then answer it. (And, like a witness being cross-examined—at least on TV, the only place I’ve ever seen a court session in progress—answer only the question that is being asked, then wait for the next one.)

Books can help a lot. We liked Babette Cole’s Mummy Laid an Egg, but there’s a wealth of materials out there if you want some help answering questions when your kids begin to ask them. And if you haven’t yet told them the correct names for the parts of their bodies—and that their bodies belong to them and they are the only ones who get to decide who is allowed to touch them—I’d get started on that immediately.

—Michelle

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