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,
My son is good friends with my niece. They are both 10 years old and polar opposites. My son is shy and reserved, and my niece is very outgoing and silly. She is super confident and loves wearing all sorts of outlandish outfits to school (think a skirt on her head, or gluing a long string of yarn to the front of a hat). Because of a few incidents at school, she’s now agreed to wear these outfits only during recess.
My brother and his ex-wife are both single parents with joint custody of my niece, and they have often relied on us to watch her. The kids are in different classes at school, but they hang out at recess and after school. They love spending time with each other, but sometimes my son gets annoyed at the attention my niece gets for her antics. Whenever my niece is wearing one of her outfits, everyone surrounds her. Because my son is hanging around, he gets some of the attention too, and he doesn’t like it. He complained about it to me, but the kids are close enough and old enough to advocate for themselves in their relationship. We set up a time for them to talk to each other and they absolutely refused to compromise—my niece is still going to dress up sometimes and my son is still going to hang out with his cousin on those days and then feel uncomfortable and complain about it.
This isn’t a major argument, but it is clearly something that’s been festering for a while. I feel like they should be able to handle this themselves. My brother and his wife think we should get more involved in this. My wife and I think that our son just has to understand that he can’t force his cousin to stop dressing up, so he either has to stop playing with her on days she’s dressing up or just learn to live with the extra attention on those days. For some reason this situation has impacted my brother a lot. I’m not sure why he is making such a big deal out of this when it really hasn’t impacted the kids’ relationship, but he keeps pushing for another one of those meetings. Should we get involved in this? I really don’t think we need to, but my brother’s insistence is making me second guess myself.
— Mostly Plays Well With Others
Dear Mostly Plays Well,
I have a theory that your brother might not be fully on board with this quirk of your niece’s, and he’s hoping that your son and his feelings can help temper her a bit. That, or your brother is really empathizing with your son and thinks empathy is a skill his daughter could use some work on.
From what you’ve said in the letter, I tend to agree with you that a meeting with the kids isn’t the correct intervention here. Neither of the kids is doing anything wrong, and you don’t want to inadvertently teach them that a person’s self-expression or hobby gets to be a committee decision. To me, the issue isn’t the dressing up at all—it’s about making sure they both keep developing the social skills that will enable them to thrive as friends, both with each other now and with many people into the future.
As you indicated, your job is to help your son understand and accept (seems like he’s already on this path) that he cannot control others’ choices, only his own. Help him identify coping strategies to deal with the attention, or social strategies to go find other playmates if he ever wants to. If there is something specific you discover that his cousin can do to help him out, then I might try to find a way to help him speak directly to his cousin about it. Similarly, your brother can continue to talk to his daughter about empathy for others’ discomfort and ways to read social cues. Both households might find inspiration in this book, recommended to me by a developmental psychologist. Meanwhile, I’d also encourage you to talk with your brother more and try to dig into his feelings. He may very well need some reassurance that his kid isn’t causing harm or chaos.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
My younger sister, Cara, is queer and faced a fairly uphill battle when we were kids. Though our nuclear family was liberal and supportive, our extended family was a bit more standoffish, and Cara confided in me throughout the years that she felt excluded and like the “black sheep” (there were no outright comments, just a general feeling of othering).
We’re now 38 and 35 years old. I have a 10-year-old daughter, Jo, who has expressed some interest in dating a girl in her class. With her permission, I told Cara about it in the hopes that Jo would have someone to confide in and look up to as an older queer person.
Things have not gone smoothly since then. Cara took Jo to a Pride event that was overwhelming and too old for her. Jo came home pretty upset about some of the outfits that were worn at the event. Jo is also saying that when they hang out, Cara keeps bringing up Jo’s interest in dating when Jo would prefer to just play soccer or engage in other hobbies that she and Cara both enjoy.
I’d like to bring this up to Cara and ask her to pull back a little. Jo wants an aunt first and foremost—not someone who insists on conversations she’s uncomfortable with, no matter how well-intentioned. Ideally, I’d love for their relationship to remain the same as it always was, with the understanding that Jo can go to Cara if she has a specific question or wants to talk. Is this an inappropriate conversation for me to have? How can I best support Jo while setting some boundaries with Cara? Do you have any thoughts on what I could say?
— Mom in Michigan
I think asking Cara to pull back is completely reasonable. People explore and declare their sexual identities at different paces, and Jo wouldn’t be the first person to want to take things slow. Plus, she’s only 10; I know kids these days are a lot more advanced than when I was growing up, but at Jo’s age, there is no way I would have been comfortable or had the vocabulary to be talking about dating yet, no matter what gender(s) I might have been interested in.
I would explain to Cara that Jo is still exploring her sexual identity and asking her to focus so much on this aspect of herself is overwhelming her. I think it would soften the conversation if you were to take some responsibility for the situation, too—even something as simple as “I might have misunderstood some of what Jo was looking for” can help reinforce that you and Cara are a team as you support Jo, rather than suggesting that Cara did something wrong.
Cara no doubt deeply wants to be there for her niece in a way her family members growing couldn’t or wouldn’t be. That is so admirable, but hopefully this conversation can remind and reassure her of the old saying that less is more, and that not talking about her sexual identity isn‘t the same thing as dismissing it.
Dear Care and Feeding,
We recently had a big gathering with my extended family. After our backyard lunch, the family broke into groups, segregated by sex and age. The little ones went to the climbing structure and duck pond, the women went inside to clean up, and the men sat around on lawn furniture drinking adult beverages. I chose to hang out with the men, because I don’t like sitting in the kitchen and doing dishes, nor am I entertained by gossip about the neighbors and their health problems.
At one point I tried to be included in the conversation by bringing up how my mom and dad got together (a very sweet romantic story, or so I thought), which generated some laughter, like there was some big joke that only I didn’t know about. I learned that in high school my dad had no luck with dating, so his father came up with the idea of pretending to have a life-threatening disease, because in his words, “girls cannot resist a guy suffering a tragedy.” Long story short, my grandfather pretended to have cancer and made sure to let my dad’s school know discreetly; word got out pretty quickly and suddenly my dad had a girlfriend: my mother! I was shocked—as if a goose walked over my grave—to learn that my parents got together under false pretenses and that my mom was tricked into dating my father. I’d heard stories from my mom about granddad getting treatments for cancer and how he got better. I feel like my life is the result of fraud and have no idea whether or how to inform my mother. I can no longer look at my father or grandfather anymore without feeling sickened. What do I do with this revelation? In my opinion, Thanksgiving would be the best time, as all the victims and perpetrators would be gathered in one room and would not have time to make up and coordinate their stories.
— Flabbergasted in Florida
This is not an episode of CSI, nor a murder mystery event, so please do not plan some big reveal over a holiday meal. I feel pretty confident that that is the worst thing you can do because a) if you’re right, it will cause a lot of public pain to the innocent people in the story, b) you’re potentially subjecting the kids in the family to a Thanksgiving filled with conflict,, and c) if your mom already knows this secret or turns out to find it funny, you will look rather foolish. Maybe I’m misreading your motivations, but it seems like you are fantasizing about this scenario because it allows you to hurt the people who hurt you, but revenge never did anyone any favors.
If this is truly something you need brought into the light of day, you need to speak directly with your father about his charade and ask him to come clean to you mother. But you need to be prepared that his version of events, away from the bawdy campfire-esque banter, may redeem him somewhat in your eyes; families do create their own sort of mythology, after all. You also need to be prepared for him to say no to telling your mother—and possibly to have good reasons, too. I cannot speculate as to what those reasons may be, but I do know that there are only two people in a marriage, and outsiders really have no idea what goes on between spouses. So, try to withhold your opinion on this situation until you speak to your dad about it.
If none of that provides the resolution or closure you need, you will have to decide whether to tell your mom. A therapist can help you work out that decision and the approach to use as you do so, but do not make the decision in anger or haste.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
My son, Will, is in third grade. He has a best friend, Allie, who is in his class. Eliza and Will sometimes play with two other friends, Eliza and Jack, who are twins. Allie has a very tragic life story; her dad died when she was 4 and her mom and one of her older brothers died when she was 6. She and her other older brother live with their aunt, uncle, and cousin.
Allie was playing with Will this afternoon and asked me if she could tell me something. Allie said that whenever she is at Jack and Eliza’s house, their mom and grandmother (who lives with them) constantly tell her that she’s too skinny and pressure her to eat snacks. Even after she tells them she isn’t hungry, they still constantly interrupt whatever games the kids are playing to ask Allie if she’s hungry. They don’t do this to Jack and Eliza, and they don’t do it to Will. They also make comments on her appearance and constantly compare her to a librarian, because she likes to read, wears skirts, and has enormous coke-bottle glasses. The grandmother also makes strange statements about how Allie is friends with boys, but Allie didn’t tell me what she says specifically (Allie thinks that the grandma probably doesn’t like that Eliza is friends with boys, either). These comments make Allie very uncomfortable, and she said she has started to dread going to playdates at Jack and Eliza’s house. It sounded like all of this had been weighing on her mind for a while and it was cathartic to finally be able to tell me.
She doesn’t want me to tell her aunt and uncle, because she thinks that their solution would be to stop her from playing with Jack and Eliza altogether. According to Allie, her aunt and uncle tend to be more overprotective than other parents—they want to protect her and her brother after all the tragedy they’ve experienced. I talked with my husband about it, and he thinks that we should tell them because otherwise they’ll keep setting up playdates at the twins’ house, but I think it would be better to listen to Allie’s wishes. I also want to be careful, since 8-year-olds tend to exaggerate or not have a complete understanding of what people tell them. How can we help Allie?
— Helping My Son’s Friend
If you’ve read my responses before, you know that one of my favorite ways to investigate a child’s account of adult behavior is to observe the adults up close. I suggest it’s time to host a barbecue (or whatever weather-appropriate activity) with all four kids and their adults. I think you might get a better read on Jack and Eliza’s adults by speaking directly to them and observing their interactions with their kids. And I’m not above a little light subterfuge—commenting to the adults about how great it is that the boys and girls play so well together, or finding an opportunity to compliment Allie to her aunt and uncle in front of Jack and Eliza’s adults. Who knows, the gathering itself might even foster a friendship between Jack and Eliza’s and Allie’s adults.
Meanwhile, keep the communication open with Allie. Respect her desire for privacy, but ask her what she wants to get out of talking to you. Is it a release valve, advice, or does she want intervention even though she’s also afraid of it? If she continues to feel uncomfortable at the siblings’ house and talks to you about it, then you can discuss how you can help bring the situation up with her aunt and uncle. You want to be a trusted ally and advocate for her without inadvertently getting in the middle of things.
I hope it works out for Allie, but I also tip my hat to you for being the kind of mom that other kids feel they can confide in. Sounds like you’re doing something right!
More Advice From Slate
When is it appropriate to confront a stranger over their treatment of a child? When I was walking by a group on the sidewalk, I watched one of the little boys (my guess is he was 5 or 6 years old) approach one of the women in the group, perhaps his mother. She promptly smacked him on his upper arm and yelled at him not to interrupt her. At the time, I decided to mind my own business and keep walking. But the memory sticks with me, likely due to guilt. Would it have been appropriate to say something? If so, what?