Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Email email@example.com.
Dear Care and Feeding,
Our almost 9-year-old daughter returned to gymnastics last fall after a two-year hiatus (her choice). She loves it—she works on cartwheels and other tumbles all the time at home. She has been asking about competing, so her gym let her try out a class at a slightly higher level than the class she currently takes. Now she is thinking about dropping out of gymnastics entirely—she says that the coaches in the other class were “mean” to her, pointing out the moves she couldn’t do. If I had to guess (parents are not permitted to observe the class), they were probably just challenging her more than she is used to. I don’t want to force her to continue, but she could stand to push herself a little outside her comfort zone. Plus, she has really been enjoying the class, and I don’t want her to lose the momentum she’s gained so far. Any advice on how to handle?
—Is My Kid Just Flipping Out?
I do believe that part of our job as parents is to sometimes force our kids to do something that might be good for them but that they may not, of their own volition, do. But the countervailing fear is that by forcing them we turn something they might have liked into something they hate because a grown-up ran roughshod over their agency. Knowing when to push your kid and when not to is one of the most difficult calls to make as a parent.
So instead I’ll tell you a story. When I was 8 years old, I lived in a very small Pennsylvania town. We only had one music teacher for the whole school district, and he would go from school to school with a wagon full of instruments for kids to choose from. By the time he got to my school many of the cool instruments were gone, and because my last name was Wallace and we chose in alphabetical order, I ended up with the goddamn clarinet. The clarinet. I was … not pleased.
Anyway, I dragged this cursed object home. The family I was living with at the time set a rule that I had to practice for half an hour every night. I hated it. I would go upstairs, spend about 34 seconds working up a dope-ass remix of “Hot Cross Buns,” and then stare off into space. Soon I’d hear from downstairs: “I don’t hear any muuuussssiiiiccc!” Worst experience of my life.
But I persisted, because I had no choice. Those were the rules. I never liked it, but after a while I just got used to knowing that 30 minutes of my day were going to be complete bullshit and I could probably manage that. I ended up playing for five years, and at some point, around seventh grade or so, I noticed that—weirdly—I was the best clarinetist in the school band. One day I moved up seven seats because I was the only person who could play the upper register section of the Belmont Overture. It was like the middle school nerd version of scoring the game-winning shot in the regional … sectionals or … I don’t know, I didn’t play sports, I was too busy blowing on a woodwind.
Naturally, I tossed that cornball instrument into the trash as soon as I realized I stood a better chance of getting people to develop crushes on me if I played guitar. But the damage had already been done: I could read music, transpose, compose, understand scales and time signatures, and really hear arrangements better than almost anyone I knew. I went on to play in a bunch of bands in my young adulthood, even making some money along the way, which led not indirectly to my first professional writing gigs as a music writer. But more importantly, I saw how practicing, even when I didn’t want to, led inevitably to progress. That lesson affects everything I do today professionally and personally, because in my adult life I actually got to apply it to something I wanted to do. Obviously, if I had never been made to continue, it may have taken me decades to really learn the value of pushing myself.
So my feeling is that because there is value in pushing your kids, and also value in not dominating them, situations like this call for a compromise. Tell your daughter that you hear her, and you understand and sympathize, but that she must continue. Not forever, but for a set period of time, two more months or the end of the summer or an upcoming competition. If she is still unhappy, then she’s totally free to bail with your blessing.
But what may happen is that the difficulties she’s currently facing will cease to be difficult, because she will improve. And she may really end up liking the feeling of improving. If not, she can quit and find something else or nothing else. This way she gets to push through discomfort a bit, but she can do so knowing that she will not be imprisoned eternally by a parent’s will.
One more thing. I really paused at your parenthetical noting that parents could not observe class. I realize this is not uncommon in gymnastics and other forms of competitive training, and I get there are good reasons for it, but still I’m not a fan. I would ask if there’s a way they can change this rule—in my daughter’s gymnastics, parents could observe but were kept behind a line across the gym. If not that, I would advocate for asking them to set up a live feed so parents can watch. If they say no, I would definitely consider looking for other gymnastics classes in the area. In the wake of the events at Michigan State, any gymnastics school that has not revisited a no-parents policy is not as committed to transparency as it should be. Good luck.
More Care and Feeding:
Dear Care and Feeding,
We have been estranged from our daughter on and off for the past 15 years. She’s 37 years old and addicted to meth. I have paid for rehab three times, given her more than $20,000 for apartments, hotels, and car loans. She’s broken into our home, been arrested more than 10 times, and spent time in prison. She’s stolen from us, from my family, and from her father’s family.
Two years ago we gave up completely. We refused to give her any more money, no longer accepted her calls, and cut off all contact. There’s more to the story, but those are the highlights. Anyway, today I received an email wishing me a happy Mother’s Day. I don’t know how or if I should respond. I’m terrified to let her back in my life again. I’ve let her back in so many times and gotten screwed every time. The only time she’s ever been in contact is when she needed something. Please help!
—My Heart Can Take No More
This is so heartbreaking. And I want to tell you that you are not alone. For every addict out there, there is a parent or loved one who has tried over and over to love them back into health, only to have their trust abused and their faith broken every single time. I don’t think there is a more isolating or confusing experience than to deeply love an addict. If you open yourself to them, they destroy you. If you ignore them, they destroy themselves.
But the fact that you are not alone is precisely the point. You must reach out to others with similar stories. It is, in my experience, the isolation of this particular situation that gives it power over your life. As you no doubt already know, there are countless resources, groups, programs, books, and avenues of support for parents of addicts, and I strongly suggest that you make finding that support your very first, if not only, priority. Your daughter’s health and sobriety are permanently and completely out of your hands. Period. As parents, it takes contradicting everything in our cellular biology to accept that. But accept that we must, for the only path to getting your life back is fully coming to terms with the fact that you may never get hers back.
As far as the Mother’s Day greeting, given what you described, I would respond—with a quick “Thank you, I love you and I hope you are well.” And leave it at that. She may come back with a follow-up that reveals the whole thing was a setup for an ask; you can disregard that, and then you’d have your curiosity answered. But in ignoring her entirely off the bat, you take the (admittedly slight) risk that should she genuinely feel ready to get sober she will believe all avenues to you are cut off. Unfortunately, there is only one appropriate message for an adult child who, in the parlance of sobriety, is “out there.” It is this: I love you. But I cannot help you.
Good luck. My sympathy, empathy, and thoughts are with you.
Dear Care and Feeding,
I have a 4-year-old son. Throughout his life I have tried to foster a love of books. I am currently failing. He rarely wants to read with me, and at bedtime, he only wants me to read books as a means of stalling. Recently, I asked if he didn’t like reading books together, and he said, “No, because it’s boring.” I have bought so many different kinds of books. I try funny voices (which he hates). His father does not like to read at all and is obviously not at all concerned about this. Should I just stop trying? I fear I will push him too far in the opposite direction. I think I want this too much. I love books and want to be able to connect with him about this as he gets older. Did your children like to read when they were little? What can I do?
—Mother of the Plebe
You’re not failing. It’s just that your kid is not a robot who can be programmed. If he finds books boring, OK, he finds them boring. My son hated reading his whole life, then one day in ninth grade he started reading aloud to me from Camus. My daughter, by contrast, devoured novel after novel, wrote book reports of her own volition with no school assignment attached, and just generally was the erudite parent’s most exquisite fantasy for 12 years. This very morning, she revealed to me that she’s over reading and only brings a book to school so she can sleep behind it during English class. I don’t fucking know, man, kids are nonsense and you can’t make them into anything.
Keep reading to him before bedtime because it’s good for kids to hear words, and it’s good bonding time. Skip the funny voices because, why? Always keep books around the house in his view so that if he’s ever interested he can find them on his own. And finally, let him be whoever he’s going to be. With a mom like you, he’ll no doubt figure out how to do the exact amount of reading he needs to do in order to live the life that’s best for him.