Q: My 14-year-old grandson is an only child. He’s kind, loyal and easygoing, and children gravitate toward him. He’s on his own after school. (I live/parents work nearby.) It’s not uncommon for him to have four or five kids in his room, four to five days a week. On school days, they arrive on the after-school bus and stay until 8:30 to 9 p.m., when his parents get home from work. They often stay later on the weekends. They are respectful, well-behaved kids.
Here’s my dilemma: When dinnertime rolls around, I want to provide food for my grandson, but neither I nor his parents can afford to feed all of his friends, night after night. At the start of the school year, I made food for everybody, but it got too expensive, and I started to feel resentful. Do their parents give any thought to who is feeding their children? They have never offered to feed the group. I believe that if my grandchild is at their houses at mealtime, he is included, but that’s not where they hang out; they want to hang out at his house.
I shared my feelings with my grandson. He understands, but he’s not sure what to do. I coached him: The next time everybody’s hungry, ask one of the twins who seem to be there at dinnertime every Friday night to call their parents to order pizza for the group. I want to say that after each of their parents has bought dinner for the group, then I will buy dinner again, but I don’t know how realistic that is. We don’t know what to do.
A: I have been revisiting the book “Hunt, Gather, Parent” by Michaeleen Doucleff. In it, there is a section where she lives with a Tanzanian tribe called the Hadzabe. This tribe is known for its use of “alloparenting,” with the Greek root “allo” meaning “other.” The mothers and fathers, as well as the adults in the tribe, share the responsibilities of parenting. One of the details I found special was that, when a Hadzabe child wanders off, one of the adults follows the child at a safe distance to ensure the child is safe. The child never knows! I thought of this tribe when I read your letter, because, whether you know it, you are alloparenting these teens. You are providing them with a safe place to be and a meal, and this is deeply nourishing on many levels.
I feel your resentment, loud and clear: “Do their parents give any thought to who is feeding their children? They have never offered to feed the group.” I don’t blame you; this is discouraging. Feeding multiple teens is no small thing. Your grocery bills can quickly rise, and ordering pizza can become expensive. It is easy to feel taken advantage of when the children don’t pitch in and no one is thanking you. So, what should you do?
First, if you can, I would switch your perspective from it being a burden to house and feed these kids to it being a chance to keep them safe and fed. There are many shenanigans that teens can get into if left to their own devices, and we don’t know what is happening at the homes of these children. For all we know, being with your grandson could be a refuge from emotional, sexual and physical abuse. I don’t want to guilt you into spending your life savings on food; it is just a subtle shift in understanding what you are providing.
Second, address the practical issues of the food. I would find affordable recipes (spaghetti and meatballs, chili, soup), and I would put those teens to work by chopping, mixing, boiling, you name it. Fourteen-year-olds can be excellent chefs, and it can be quick work if they do it together. Task them with finding the highest-value dinners that are still delicious and nutritious, then get them involved, thus relieving yourself of the burden. They should also be helping with the dishes. Ten hands can get a lot of work done — quickly.
Third, take a hard look at your expenses. Money needs are real, so if we remove the takeout, do the numbers start to look a little better? If not, send a text to the other parents, saying: “I love the kids being here and am happy to continue to feed them every night! But they have teen appetites, and I am needing about $20 per kid for the month. Here’s my Venmo.” I will speak for myself here: If I received that text, I would profusely thank the parents for feeding my child and immediately send the money (plus some).
Here’s a caveat: If you think one of the teens has a parent who is angry or abusive, or is in a tougher economic place than you, I would approach this carefully or in another way. For instance, can another family provide food? Think carefully before sending this text, because it could bring more trouble than it’s worth.
Finally, you are allowed to declare that they have to go home and eat at their own houses on certain nights. Announce to the group: “Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays are eat-at-my-house nights! If it’s Tuesday or Thursday, you have to go at 7 p.m.”
You are never obligated to feed anyone, but try to see this as a short time in your grandparenting life. You are creating wonderful memories for your grandson, and he will remember this generosity for years to come.