I Love My Kids’ Elementary School. But Then I Met Their Terrible Math Teacher.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My fifth-grade twins have been at our Title I elementary school since Pre-K and loved it. It’s a small school with dedicated staff who go above and beyond to provide our global majority, under-resourced school population with a quality education. Except for my kids’ math teacher. Mr. “Smith” is at the end of his career and is rumored to be retiring soon. His “teaching” approach is the following: he assigns the students a certain number of video lessons and assignments from our state-provided math platform to complete each week. Sometimes he will take a sample problem—the same sample problem covered in the video lesson—and do it on the board. There is no additional teacher-led instruction during the class unless there is an observer.

Additionally, Mr. Smith identified the “good” math students in the class and reassigned their seats/tables. They were told to be the “leaders” responsible for answering their tablemates’ questions before the tablemate can go to Mr. Smith with the questions. One of my twins was identified as a “good student leader” and has been complaining about it all semester, feeling stressed and struggling to understand the basic concepts she is expected to master and teach her classmates. Her grades are starting to fall and homework sessions at home involve tears because she says she doesn’t have time to complete the lessons in class due to helping her peers.

I’m at a loss as to how to address this. I cannot think of any approach that does not sound confrontational and accusatory, but… Mr. Smith is not teaching! The teacher conference I requested a few weeks ago was rushed and I didn’t feel comfortable raising the issue with his other two co-teachers present. (There are three teachers who teach individual subject areas to the entire grade.) As the daughter of a teacher and a strong supporter of public education, I want to support our teachers, especially since our district is under state takeover (Houston) and morale is rock bottom. But I mostly want all of our fifth graders to get a quality math education! Please help me find a respectful approach to this difficult conversation.

—Confrontation Scaredy Cat

Dear CSC,

Request a second conference, this time directly with Mr. Smith. Explain in the email that you’d like to speak about some struggles your daughter is having regarding math lessons. If it is customary to meet with the entire teaching cohort, so be it, they can come too if they wish, but my guess is that a one-on-one will be honored.

When you speak to Mr. Smith, do not make it a referendum on his teaching methodology; however doubtful you might be about his teaching style, it’s possible it works for some of the students. It’s also possible that there is more nuance than in your daughter’s version of events. Focus instead on her direct experience. Talk about the pressure she is under to help kids understand lessons she has not mastered herself. Ask him how you and he can support your daughter and ease the stress your daughter feels. If he doubles down defending his methodology in broad strokes, bring it back to your daughter and how she’s feeling. Maybe, despite her natural mathematical talent, it’s not a good fit for her to be a student leader—that is OK! After the meeting, send a recap email to Mr. Smith outlining what you discussed and the next steps. Make a plan to follow up with each other in a few weeks.

If the situation hasn’t improved, or if Mr. Smith fails to hold up his end of the bargain, ask for a second meeting or send a polite but firm email asking for an update. If, at that point, things are going nowhere, it’s time to talk to the principal, and provide the emails as evidence of how you’ve tried to solve the issue directly. I know you probably want to fight on both fronts—on behalf of your daughter and on the principle of good teaching practices. You’ll have more success on the former, and it might in turn influence the latter. Good luck.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I have a 16-year-old daughter, a junior in high school, and we live in a big city. She’s a pretty responsible kid and has been taking the city bus to school solo since sixth grade. She’s not rebellious or super adventuresome so it’s been easy for me to OK her requests to do things around the city with friends. My rule is, “Make a plan. Stick to the plan. Tell me if the plan changes.” So, she’ll tell me, “Sofi and I are taking the subway to the mall, then back to her place before 6. Can you pick me up at her house after?” and I’m happy to oblige.

Recently, we’ve run into hiccups when the other kids she’s with change things up and the new plan goes outside our agreed-upon parameters. I get that it sucks not to be able to tag along with the group, but there’s been increasing crime targeting teens (stealing their electronics mostly, sometimes violently) and, basically, I don’t want her out and about after dark. (Friend’s place, movie theater, or other single location is fine.) I feel like that’s been a good compromise, but she’s getting older and it gets dark so early this time of year. She understands the reasons, but the reality of watching the friend group troop off together for some fun thing she can’t join—because it would mean taking a slow bus or circuitous subway ride home at 9 p.m.—is hard. And I sympathize. Do you have any advice for navigating a widening world between two reasonable parties? I want her to be independent, confident, and social. But my way of keeping her safe means curtailing spontaneity.

—Is There a Win-Win?

Dear Win,

I’ve recommended this book before, but you might check out Fourteen Talks by Age Fourteen by Michelle Icard, where she presents a good formula for talking about hard topics or situations—like yours—where parent and child have opposing interests. The formula is BRIEF: you begin peacefully, relate to your kid, interview to collect data, echo what you’re hearing, and give feedback or solutions. From your letter, I suspect a lot of Icard’s model would come naturally to you and may be things that you’re already doing, as you clearly empathize with your daughter’s situation. But using this or a similar approach might allow you and her to craft a new set of guidelines that give her a bit more freedom in a way that you’re still comfortable with.

I don’t know the details of your city or how wide a radius you give your daughter for where she goes, but I will say that 16 seems a little old, to me, to be worrying about being out after dark with semi-fluid plans. I’d take a good look at what you think are safe practices. Benchmark them against the rules of other parents that you trust. See if any community organizations run workshops or make recommendations for teen safety that you could crib. Perhaps most importantly, ask yourself whether the rules are helping her develop the skills to keep herself safe and make good choices on her own. You want her to have enough leeway that she can start making independent decisions while she still has you for a safety net. Good luck!

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I have a very sweet 3-and-a-half-year-old daughter who is currently going through a phase where she has to be on my lap ALL THE TIME. If I’m sitting, she is crawling onto my lap. She wants to watch TV on my lap, play with her toys on my lap, eat on my lap—she even tries to come sit on my lap in the bathroom. And it’s not just nice, gentle cuddling. It’s somehow a constant state of gymnastics on my lap that is neither comfortable nor relaxing. I stay home with my kids right now and I love cuddling with my daughter but toward the afternoon it starts to drive me insane and make my skin start to crawl. I get to the point where I cannot stand to have her on my lap anymore. I don’t want to punish her for wanting to cuddle, but if I stand up she starts crying and following me around and pulling at me. Some days I have to spend the entire afternoon on my feet just so there is no lap to sit on. I can’t sit down for five minutes to send a quick email because she will notice and stop playing and come climb up. At this moment, I’m hiding on our basement stairs just to be able sit to write this.

My husband is great about stepping in when he gets home from work, but even that doesn’t always help because she will come find me to cuddle. I cuddle/play with her a ton throughout the day. My husband acknowledges what I’m feeling but I don’t think he truly gets how upset I get because it doesn’t happen to him. I’m a very patient parent and it is hard for me to understand why this seems to be the one thing that gets so under my skin I want to scream or cry. She is a very healthy, typical child who has no issues being away from me or playing with other kids, so it isn’t an anxiety/separation issue. I know it’s a phase, but do I truly just have to wait it out? Is it either let her sit or let her scream about wanting to sit? And if one more person tells me I’m going to miss it when it’s gone I’m going to sit on their lap and refuse to move.

—This Lap is Closed

Dear Lap,

Preach” to your last sentence. You are touched out, in parenting vernacular, and it is a completely valid thing to feel. By the time you reach your breaking point, you’re basically in sensory overload, and it doesn’t matter how sweet the cuddles are (and unfortunately not all of them are, huh?). This is a normal, fair psychological response you are having.

I really like this article, which explains the touched out feeling and provides some tips for finding relief. It also describes the importance of setting boundaries with your children about personal space and bodily autonomy. Humans are not allowed to do things to other humans just because they want to, and 3-and-a-half years old is not too young to start learning this. In fact, I think it’s the perfect age. Hearing you say things like “That doesn’t feel good to my body right now” or “I asked you to respect my body; I said no” will help her start to give others space and also begin to understand that her own body deserves respect as well. If she wails and protests, remain calm, restate your needs, and explain when the physical contact will return. For example, “Mommy’s body needs a break from snuggles right now. I will be ready to snuggle again after dinner.”

One thing to look into, however, is the possibility that while you are experiencing sensory overload, your child may be experiencing sensory seeking behavior—that is, she’s doing the snuggling and sitting and climbing not out of affection, but out of a craving for sensory input. The frequent acrobatics and the desperation when she can’t be on you might be a few clues that something like this is going on. If you suspect it may be the case—or if you just want to rule it out—talk to your pediatrician and get an assessment from an occupational therapist. Wait lists in some places and/or with some health insurance are long, unfortunately, so in the meantime, you might try purchasing some high-sensory input toys like indoor swings, exercise balls, etc. Even a bear hug anytime she is in your lap, right before you get up, might give her a super-boost of sensory input and leave her satisfied.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I (39F) married my husband (44M) in 2023. This is my first and hopefully only marriage, and he had been married before for 18 years. He has two daughters from that marriage, ages 15 and 18. We met after he had already separated and were officially living together after about nine months. His daughters stay with us close to 50 percent of the time. They are as pleasant and well-adjusted as one could hope for teenage girls dealing with their parents’ divorce. I have no children myself and have been used to living in my own space for close to two decades.

I have been struggling for over a year now with the living situation, particularly what I interpret as oblivion and laziness when it comes to the girls cleaning up after themselves. I’m talking about cleaning their rooms, and leaving dirty dishes and garbage around the kitchen and common areas. My husband has explained that their mom probably overly catered to them so they are not used to having to clean up. He has been very supportive of everyone’s adjustment and has reminded them repeatedly to clean up. We have even had family meetings about it. However, after over a year of us all living together every other week, it has barely improved. I find myself getting extremely irritated by it, as it becomes my or my husband’s problem to clean up after them if we don’t want to live in a messy home. I am not one for confrontation and also don’t want to be perceived as an evil stepmom, I just want to feel comfortable in my own home and not have these negative feelings of resentment toward my stepdaughters. I’ve also discussed it in therapy several times. I know teenagers are by nature self-centered, but I don’t know how to address it so that it finally improves, or at least stops bothering me.

—Not Quite a Stepford Stepmom

Dear Stepmom,

Off the bat, I’m not a fan of your husband putting the blame entirely on his ex for the girls’ habits when he is also their parent and played a role in how they were raised. It’s throwing a yellow flag on the play for me. I can’t help but think that if he doesn’t take responsibility, no wonder his daughters don’t either. Granted, some key information might be missing from your letter, but it’s at least something to ponder.

That said, many teenagers are messy and disordered, and I think to some extent, you’re going to need to accept that your home will have some degree of sloppiness from here on out. I sympathize that this is probably a very abrupt change for you compared to your previous lifestyle; other teen parents had their clean home dreams squashed years ago in the Lego phase of parenthood. You’ll have your tidiness back in a few years, but for now, you need to be looking for compromise.

To me, a reasonable place to start is with the common area. Personal items need to be put away (or at least tossed into bedrooms) before the teens leave the house for social events or go to bed. Food and garbage need to be thrown out. Failure to do these tasks should incur some kind of consequence (changing the Wi-Fi passwords is a popular tactic in modern parenting). Once that’s settled, I’d think about the bedrooms. There are different schools of thought about how much say a parent should have over the state of the bedroom. I don’t have teens, but my parents’ rule of thumb was that we’d do a big cleanup the moment it got actually dirty, or when any property wasn’t being cared for (think breakable electronics on the floor under dirty laundry, etc.) You could set any parameter you think is reasonable and achievable, but I think the standard you should aim for is “messy but manageable.”

Whatever paradigm you set, you and your husband need to be in lockstep, and he needs to be the one to announce and enforce the rules. It needs to be as important to him as it is for you, even if only because he wants you to be happy; given the recency of the divorce and remarriage, it’s too easy for you to be the scapegoat. If he can’t hold his kids to the new expectations and winds up picking up the slack for them, then I think your beef isn’t really with the teens but with him and his parenting choices. At that point, you’ll have to decide whether you can grin and bear the mess, whether he needs to accept a new household role as de facto cleaner, or whether a deeper conversation between you two needs to be had.


My partner is a middle school teacher known for establishing a rapport with “difficult” students and advocating for BIPOC and LGBTQ kids. When he answered a call from a parent one evening, I overheard him talking about his sister. I confronted him about this after he got off the phone, because he does not actually have a sister. He told me that he tells stories about imaginary siblings, cousins, and other family members to connect with his students.