Care and Feeding

Stop Hovering Over My Kid!

Advice for a mom whose son’s best friend is being raised by helicopter parents.

A mother hugs—or hovers over—her son.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Email careandfeeding@slate.com.

Dear Care and Feeding,
I am a single mom of a smart, capable 13-year-old. Out of necessity, and knowing he can handle it, I have left him at home alone frequently since he was 10—after school until I get home from work or on weekends while I run errands. Since he started middle school, he has also taken the city bus a few miles to school and walks to and from the bus stop on his own.

The problem is his best friend’s parents and I have very different philosophies. We only live about five blocks apart and are in a safe, quiet neighborhood, yet they won’t even let their son walk to our house, and they never leave him at home alone. If this friend is at our house, I can’t leave and run errands. If the boys want to go to a movie, I can’t just drop them off and pick them up afterward. If my son is at their house and I ask them to send him home, they will respond, “Oh, well, we can walk him back.” I don’t want them to walk him back! He’s 13, and it’s five blocks!

They also seem appalled that I let my son take the city bus by himself and have commented about this in a way that makes me feel judged and irresponsible. I have already made comments about my confidence in my son: “He’s always been so level-headed,” “I trust him,” et cetera. But it makes no difference. I know it’s not my place to tell them it’s time to ease up on their kid. But how can I ask them to respect my wishes more firmly yet diplomatically?

—Parent of a Good Kid

Dear PoaGK,
This is a tough situation, and we’ve been on both sides of it. I still remember dropping my son off at a sleepover when he was about 11, only to find out that the parents were gone to the store. I had to think long and hard about whether to leave him. That was three years ago. He survived. And now we’re the parents who get a side-eye because our 12-year-old daughter takes the bus all over Oakland with our blessing. It is natural that every parent is going to make these decisions about their child’s independence at a different time. The decisions rarely sync up, family to family.

While I think a 13-year-old should by all means be allowed to stay home alone and walk five blocks on his own, I can understand, at least in theory, why these parents feel reluctant. Independence is a scary thing. It makes you worry your kid is at risk, and it reminds you of your own rapidly approaching parental obsolescence. But you can’t let it cramp your style, because it’s not your problem. It’s theirs. If you need to run errands while the boys are at your house, then you should do that. You must tell these parents that’s what you intend to do, and you know for sure that it’s fine. And if that means their son is not allowed to step foot in your house, so be it. Your son can walk (on his own) over to their place if that’s the way it has to be. You can also tell them—not suggest or ask, but tell them—not to walk your son home. Tell them he likes the free time and everyone is perfectly happy with the arrangement, so they should just accept it.

In the meantime, do your thing, parent as you see fit, and don’t worry about their perceived judgment. Whatever problem this might cause for your son and his friend, or for you and these parents, it’s surely temporary. As more and more kids around them start to enjoy freedoms like taking the bus, walking, and being home alone, they will ultimately cave. It’s going to end, and soon. I mean, what’s this kid going to be—37 years old and still being walked to the store by Dad?

Dear Care and Feeding,
My husband and I are atheist. We were both raised in households in which participation in religious activities was mandatory, and we both rejected blind faith and organized religion as soon as we left the house. Now we have two little girls (age 3 and almost 6) we are raising without any religious affiliation at all. We are raising our girls to ask questions and look for evidence to support their claims. We share our sense of wonder of the natural world and why it’s important to be a good person.

All of this is great, but as they get older, we are at a loss for how to talk with them about religion, specifically Christianity, as it is everywhere. We can do Santa, we can do death, we can do race, culture, sex, police brutality, you name it. But Jesus? How do we talk to them about it without sounding like people who believe in it are blooming idiots? Not that we would ever disparage someone for their beliefs, but when you say it like, “Some people believe that there is a God you can’t see that can control things on Earth.” Whaaaat? It sounds ridiculous, and my girls will also think it’s ridiculous. But their friends, teachers, neighbors, everyone believes this! How do we talk to them about this while still maintaining that it is important to treat everyone with respect?

—Our Kids Watched Sound of Music but Didn’t Know What Nuns Are

Dear OKWSoMbDKWNA,
As with most “how do I explain so-and-so to my kids” questions, what you think is a gap in the world’s understanding is really a gap in your own. It is actually not difficult to explain the idea of faith to children without scorn if you don’t, in fact, hold scorn for faith. The problem for you is that you do. But you know you shouldn’t. So you are having trouble admitting this truth about yourself. This is how you can execute the mental gymnastics required to place “blooming idiots” and “not that we would disparage” right next to each other without blinking.

You say you want to teach your kids to treat everyone with respect, but how can you do that if you don’t actually respect people? You can’t. What you instead teach is smugness, judgment, and a false sense of superiority.

Here’s what you might do instead:

Assume that there are better thinkers than you who believe in a God. Literally, say that sentence out loud to yourself. I’m not kidding. Right now. Say it. “There are better thinkers than me out there who believe in a God.” And if there are better thinkers than you who understand the concept of a God and you don’t, then surely you can learn something here.

Good. Now you’ve mixed a little humility into the situation, really just another way of saying you now are beginning to have an accurate sense of where you fit into the world. Next you can start to wonder what it is that some people see in a God that you don’t. It’s possible, don’t you think, that for a lot of intelligent people their definition of God is a lot more expansive than a guy “you can’t see that can control things on Earth”? A lot of thinking people—who are not blooming idiots—have wrestled and studied and thought deeply about this question of God and have arrived at their conclusions with great care and intelligence.

Instead of making God out to be an imaginary ghost, for example, you might find yourself saying things to your daughters like: “You know that sense of wonder and amazement we feel when we look at flowers, or think about the moon or how big the universe is? Or how cute dogs and kittens are? Some people call that sense of wonder and amazement God. And it brings them good feelings and so it’s important to them.”

Notice that none of this requires you to believe in God yourself. It is simply not necessary. What I’m asking you to do is simply stop behaving like you’re God, the all-knowing, all-seeing, and always right.

Dear Care and Feeding,
I am wondering how to kindly deal with well-intentioned racism. I’m of Chinese and European descent, and my husband is West Indian. Our kids all have my husband’s brown skin and curly hair. Weekly since the election, when I am out with them without my husband, strangers corner me to deliver overly effusive compliments about how beautiful they are. This happens nearly weekly since the election. While I find my kids adorable, I think there are racial overtones to these compliments, as the person will sometimes end by telling me I did the right thing by adopting my (biological) child.

My kids have all been called the N-word by other children, and my oldest has been harassed by adults and told to “go back to Somalia.” Everyone in my family knows how to deal with the straight-up racism, but I don’t want to be rude to people who are well-intentioned and trying to be nice. The person complimenting often touches or pats my kids on the head repeatedly, which they don’t like, as they are not pets. I feel like I’m treading a fine line—between protecting my kids and rebuffing someone who wants us to feel welcomed but is going about it inappropriately. Whenever I say something like “Don’t touch my child,” the person visibly crumbles, and I feel bad.

—Stop Cornering Us at the Grocery Store

Dear SCUatGS,
You’re sweet for wanting to protect the feelings of people who seem well-intentioned. And I get how at a time like this, where it can sometimes feel like we’re prepping for an all-out race war, you might not want to alienate white people who seem to be kind and on the side of good.

But with all due respect, fuck that.

No one should be touching your kids, cornering them, or commenting excessively on their skin color or hair texture. And you can let people know that by kindly but firmly saying, “Please don’t touch my kids. I don’t like that, and they don’t either.” If the people are truly good-natured, they will respect that and maybe even learn something. But if they take offense or get angry at such a reasonable suggestion, then maybe they’re not the real allies they want you to consider them to be.

Liberal racism is the worst, because it’s people being racist to you and then insisting you assure them that they’re not racist. In this way they make you responsible for their feelings under the tacit threat that they’ll freak out and show you some real racism if you don’t. You needn’t worry about alienating such people. They were never on your side to begin with; they were just using you to feel better about themselves. What you should worry about instead is protecting yourself, your boundaries, and your children’s sense of safety and wholeness in the world.

In addition to being clear with these randos who think it’s cool to treat your kids like an interactive museum exhibit, I might also suggest seeking out other parents of color, either online or in the world, to share these experiences with. Being a parent of color in a white world is an isolating and deeply taxing experience, and it’s not something we need to do alone. Connect with other parents, attend meetups, join Facebook groups, whatever. Being around people who don’t make you responsible for racism can make it so much easier and clearer when you’re forced to be around people who do.

—Carvell

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