Care and Feeding

My Daughter Says She’s Friendless. I Think She’s a Born Complainer.

A parent asks how to deal with a tween who can’t see the sunny side.

9-year-old complaining.
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,
My 9-year-old daughter claims she is mostly friendless and describes a rough, heartless situation at school. It is true that she doesn’t do a lot of play dates and I have to really help make those happen. But after my daughter describes some mean or dismissive thing that happened, in the next breath she will talk about the singing group she’s formed or how she teamed up with Katie on a project. When I’ve asked the teacher for her perspective, she sees a well-liked girl with friends, full stop.

I want to listen and advise, but I’m starting to suspect my daughter has a distorted view of the reality, or her expectations are way too high, or both. I wonder how to walk the line between empathy, sympathy, and reality. She’s a kind, creative, dramatic kid with good grades, but she is a first-class complainer. How can I help her?
—Is My Daughter for Real?

Dear IMDfR,
LOL, I like this kid. It sounds like you have a budding pessimist on your hands, and this is not necessarily a bad thing. Pessimists frequently turn out to be valuable critical thinkers, and I don’t think you need to try to alter her personality. You just need to help her know how to navigate the world with it—that is to say, how not to suffer unduly from this personality trait, and how not to make others suffer from it. In fact, you actually wrote the answer to your question in your letter. You must indeed be all three things: empathetic, sympathetic, and realistic.

You don’t need to be empathetic or sympathetic about the fact that she has no friends. But you can be empathetic and sympathetic about the fact that she feels like she has no friends. That must be very uncomfortable experience for a 9-year-old. You can tell her about times when you felt like you were experiencing something painful socially and how it impacted you. You can also tell her about times that you learned to see things from a different perspective and how it helped. I find a good phrase to use for kids like this is “Well, the good news is … ” most helpfully deployed after she’s vented her entire spleen to her satisfaction (or interjected kindly once you find you can’t stand it anymore).

Perhaps a longer-term project is to learn over time what it is that she gets out of this narrative. Does it make her feel like she’s special? Does it support her belief that she doesn’t really belong in school among the rabble and common folk? I’ve heard it said that parents ought to look past the behavior, to the need. I try (and often fail) to do that.

Do remind her that she has friends. Do remind her that she is liked and enjoyed by other people, and also listen sympathetically to the ways in which she feels like that is not enough. She may, indeed, be asking for more than her fair share of affection and adulation. And you can point this out to her, but you probably can’t change it with just your words. Getting things like this in line is called growing up, and it’s the ultimate long game.

In the meantime, kindly reflect back what you see, and let her do with that information what she will. I think you guys are both doing pretty good.

Dear Care and Feeding,
We live in a city and walk to day care. Recently, my 3-year-old daughter sprinted away from me and ran to the end of the block, leaving me to chase after her. I was yelling … she was giggling and having a blast. Busy street, hustle and bustle, parking lot, driveway—not a place where I feel that was safe. She’s never done this before, but I’m sure she’ll try again. What helped you talk to your kids about safety in a way that isn’t frightening?

P.S. I was baby-wearing our infant son and pushing an empty stroller, so please don’t judge me that a 3-year-old beat me in a footrace.
—Busy Street, Worried Mom

Dear BSWM,
First of all, I want to stress that neither you nor your daughter did anything bad.
It’s perfectly appropriate for a 3-year-old to take off running down a busy street. She’s having a blast, and from her perspective it’s all good. And it’s perfectly normal for a mother who is already carrying one baby to be quite unable to instantly quell the enthusiasm of said 3-year-old. Like many parenting struggles, it’s really just a collision of natural childlike instincts and logistical parental challenges.

And yet. You cannot let it continue. It is more important that she does not take off running down the street than it is that she remain totally unfrightened by the dangers that lurk for a small, defenseless toddler.

So I think you can tell her that there is one very very important rule she must always remember: When you are outside in the city, you must be close enough to mommy that she can reach you. I might try some variation on this: “There are cars moving across the sidewalk and in the street, and they cannot see a little person like you, and it would make me so incredibly sad if you were hit accidentally by one of these cars. Also, if I can’t see you, then I can’t be sure that you are safe, and you being safe is the most important thing to me. So I need your help. I need you to promise to always stay close enough to me that I can reach you if we are outside. Can you help me with that?”

You can and should try to do this without going into stories about abduction. However, if she presses, resists, or refuses to agree unless she hears specifics, then you can say, “Well, the other thing I worry about is that sometimes there are people in the world who aren’t nice to kids and may even hurt them. Of course, most people are not like this, but sometimes, every once in a while, a person is. And if I can’t see you, then I can’t make sure you are safe.” This is less than ideal. It is inevitable that conversations about stranger danger must come up at some point, but it makes sense to hold off on them for as long as you possibly can.

Asking for her help gives her the opportunity to feel like she is collaborating with you on the matter of her safety. Instead of making it mommy’s rule, you make it your collective rule for which both of you are responsible. Most kids at this age will take such an assignment seriously, because they want to be helpful.

In the event that she continues to make the decision to run off without you, then I think it is appropriate to take a firmer tone. One of the reasons we don’t yell at our kids about everything is so that when something is very serious, we can show that it’s very serious. (The other reason, of course, is that being yelled at is very scary and that’s not an experience we should regularly be delivering to people we love and care for.) But in the case that the collaborative approach is not working, then you can even let there be consequences—a short timeout on the sidewalk or the taking away of a certain privilege. And don’t forget about positive consequences: You should absolutely be very supportive of her when she makes the right decisions. A simple “Thank you for staying close to mommy today. That makes me so happy when you do that” goes a long way with this age group.

It is true that we live in a world that can be terrifying to kids (and adults), and while we don’t want to parent exclusively through fear, there is nothing wrong with helping children have age-appropriate, accurate, and healthy fears about moving through the world. It is a key part of how they remain safe. Let me know how this works out.

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Dear Care and Feeding,
I have a 25-year-old stepson, whom I’ve known since he was 18. We generally get along well, and though he’s going through some early-adulthood growing pains, I love and support him.

Earlier today, he posted a meme on social media that included transphobic language. At first, I replied with a fairly neutral comment debunking the meme, but when I saw the hateful comments that he, his stepbrother, and their friends were making about both gay and trans folks, I chimed in with a more strongly worded rebuttal. Now I’m feeling conflicted. I don’t want to let this sort of thing slide, but I also wonder whether I should have talked to my stepson privately instead of weighing in in public.

His father (my husband) doesn’t share these prejudices, but I’m concerned that the rest of his family might. While historically I’ve done my best to avoid conflicts with his mother’s side of the family, I feel a responsibility not to let this slide—I am, after all, one of his parents. I love him, and while I understand I can’t control what he thinks or says, I want to do my best to help him be a good person.

So I guess I have three questions: One, what’s the best way to combat this? Two, what’s the best way forward now, having maybe started on the wrong foot? And three, as a stepparent, how do I balance respecting his mother with taking a strong stance against language and ideas that I find repugnant? When similar issues have come up in the past, I’ve asked him not to use certain words around me, but I feel like a stronger stand is warranted.
—At Least He’s Not a Trump Supporter

Dear ALHNaTS,
Whether or not to weigh in publicly when someone who we know has taken a stance we find harmful is a question as old as social media itself, and I really don’t think there’s a hard-and-fast rule. It depends on a million factors, but in general if someone close to us is saying fucked-up shit, I believe it’s OK to intervene and share what we think. We don’t do this just for ourselves, or for the sake of our relationships, but as a duty to the vulnerable people who are harmed by these ideas and aren’t there (or are afraid) to defend themselves. In short, it’s not about you or your stepson; it’s about trans people and LGBTQ people. I always think about that one kid, 13 years old, lurking in the thread, who feels terrified and traumatized reading that.

As for the rest of your questions … look. My dude is 25 years old. At this point it’s no longer about his mother or his family. If he’s homophobic and transphobic and you feel there is a problem with that, then you are entirely within your rights to talk with him about it. You don’t have to attack him, because he’s not a stranger, he’s a family member, and, as you point out, he’s a product of his upbringing. But you can absolutely say why you think it’s wrong, why you think it’s important, and what it means to you. We don’t often have the opportunity to talk lovingly with strangers about these issues, because everyone is so tribal about everything, so it’s really a great gift to talk with someone whom you love and support about this stuff. I wish more of these conversations could happen within that context, rather than online, where everyone just memes and name-calls each other to death.

But be clear about your limitations here. All you can do is stand up for what you believe in and maybe influence his thinking. You can also make it clear that he’s not going to be saying trans- and homophobic shit around you without hearing about it. But you can’t single-handedly change a person’s thinking. They have to also be willing, and who knows if he is?

It strikes me that you say his father does not share these beliefs, but you don’t say how his father is intervening. This is, to put it bluntly, suspect. Your husband may not be transphobic, but if he’s doing nothing to deal with his son, then he’s certainly willing to let those beliefs be upheld in his presence, and that’s pretty close to just as bad. I would also tell you that if Mom has a problem with you, she needs to go somewhere else with that. If she didn’t want people to come at her son, then she shouldn’t have raised a transphobic kid. Stand up for what you believe is right, and remember that your stepson is a misguided human—not an enemy. This means he deserves to have his beliefs challenged by someone who cares for him.