Care and Feeding

I Think My Mom’s New Husband Is Trying to Groom My Kid

But my mom won’t take my concerns seriously.

Mother protecting daughter.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Email or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

A few months ago, a mysterious package arrived in the mail addressed to my daughter, who had just turned 4. Inside was a roll of nickels and a note calling her by a special name she made up for herself that I’d only repeated to a few people. It was signed from “a secret friend.” I didn’t recognize the handwriting, but after some detective work I tracked it to my mother’s husband of a few years, a man I always found slightly creepy but ultimately harmless. My two sons had birthdays in the months before their sister and neither received anything from this man.

When I told my mom I found this strange and was uncomfortable with it, she became defensive and treated me as though I was making a big deal out of nothing. My father sexually harassed me my whole life right in front of her (forced massages and touching, “accidentally” walking in on me changing) and she treated me the same way then, like I was being ridiculous. I left home as soon as I could but always worried for the safety of my youngest sister, whom he ended up molesting. Our mom has never taken any responsibility for what happened.

My mom and I had been slowly trying to build a relationship even though we live across the country, with weekly calls and frequent texts and pictures of the kids. But now I’ve nearly completely cut off contact. I feel so confused that she would not see her new husband’s behavior as the red flag I see it as. As has happened often with her, I feel unsure of what is real and what’s not. Sometimes I think maybe I am being unreasonable and creating a problem where there is none. After all, nothing has actually happened except a gift being given. This man is not my father and is not responsible for his behavior. I am more bothered by her lack of concern with what seems like textbook grooming behavior than I am with the gift itself. So my question is: Am I being unreasonable?

—What Is Real?

Dear WIR,

Unreasonable means not guided by good sense. Which is exactly the opposite of how I feel about your letter. You had the sense that you were not safe with your own father in your own home. You had the sense that your mother was not able or willing to care enough about that to protect you. And as a result, you still have a sense of significant doubt about your mother’s new partner and about the safety of your own children. Given your experiences, this is good sense, and therefore not unreasonable.

Between this column and the podcast, I have heard from many families in which a father has been sexually inappropriate or abusive with a child, and the mother’s response has been everything from denial to flat-out victim blaming. It is one of the few bad parenting choices that I cannot, anywhere within me, find understanding for, though I’ve seen plenty of evidence that it happens. It is our parental responsibility to protect our children from harm, and there is nothing more primary than that. If a child feels unsafe in her own home, then harm is being committed, because that feeling of menace is in and of itself harm. And that is where your mother is wrong. She was wrong then, and she is wrong now. If her daughter feels unsafe, it is her job to help said daughter feel safe. Period. And while there are a wide variety of ways to do that, telling your daughter you don’t believe her is definitely not one of them.

Notice that I am not weighing in on whether the gift is an example of grooming or not. That is because I have no way of knowing. I would like to think it was perfectly innocent, but I would also like to avoid doing what your mother does: projecting what I would prefer to be happening over what is actually happening. What I do know, for damn sure, is that in a working relationship with your mother, she would hear your concerns about this and, knowing your history, receive them with the utmost care and gravity.

If you decide to continue a relationship with her, that’s fine. (It would also be fine not to, by the way.) Many people advocate for a full cutting off in situations like these, but I find that I am much more inclined to take things like this on a case-by-case basis, even when people I love have harmed me. But if you want to continue with her, she and you are going to have to address the severe lack of trust between you two. She has betrayed you in a way that you have not recovered from. In order for a relationship between the two of you to work, you two must face this together, meaning she has to acknowledge it, and you have to decide if you can forgive her. To that end, I would suggest counseling or therapy. Until this is thoroughly addressed, you will always be doubting her, and you will always be doubting yourself. That’s no way to live.

I’m so sorry you’ve had to experience this. My heart is with you.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

Any suggestions for consequences for a super disrespectful 14-year-old boy? We’ve tried taking away electronics, privileges, etc., but it seems like he’s in a rebellious phase and nothing is working. The latest in a long string of misbehavior is that today he completely disappeared for hours after school, not answering his phone, offering no explanation when he finally showed up. I’m at a loss. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated.

—Dude, Where’s My Kid

Dear DWMK,

Where’s your kid? Lost in adolescence, which is a simultaneously wonderful and horrific time for all involved. If the only issue were the disappearance, then the solution would be very straightforward. I am the world’s biggest proponent of the Deep Parenting State. If your kid has a phone, that phone has GPS location tracking, and that must be on at all times or else he loses the phone. End of story. We have this rule with both of our kids; our oldest resisted mightily in the first few weeks, but then his phone got taken and behold, a change of heart!

So that’s how to deal with that. But I take it as a parenting maxim that when kids are being consistently difficult, we should look past the behavior to the need. So I wonder what your 14-year-old really needs. Is it independence? Is it understanding? Is he mad about the state of a world that is clearly falling apart, harboring a justified resentment toward anyone in charge of anything? These are all valid possibilities, so I think it is time for you to find a way to open up dialogue with him.

You may be able to do that on your own. Joint errands, shared chores, and even walks can still work on 14-year-olds. But at this age what he really needs is to be listened to. So I would suggest beginning by letting him talk at length about whatever mind-numbing-to-you thing he’s super into right now: Marvel MCU, Fortnite, the ever-transforming beef between Keef and Tekashi69. (Yes, these are real people. No, don’t look them up.) Whatever it is, let him talk about it. Let him feel that he is heard. Then, when the time is right, ask him about his recent behavior, and tell him honestly how it makes you feel. Ask him if he’s willing to try to do better. Chances are, if he knows you are listening and not looking to dominate, nag, scold, or complain, he will be more willing to tell you how he really feels and where this behavior is coming from.

Talks like this should be an ongoing part of your relationship, if they aren’t already. You cannot expect to solve everything in one afternoon, but communication should be considered paramount to almost all other interventions at this age. If for whatever reason you’re having a hard time getting him to open up (or keeping your own frustrations from derailing the conversations), then if family counseling or therapy are options, you should look into them. You could also think about whom else he might be willing to open up to, if not you.

Being a teenager is very hard. I forgot how hard until I had my own teens to remind me. But they only remind me when I’m not yelling at them or punishing them for messing things up. By time your kid is a teenager, the only things you have working for you are your kids’ own thinking and your relationship with them. Their thinking is, let’s be honest, not super reliable. Which means your relationship with them—the consistency, honesty, and care of it—must be.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My mother-in-law asked about a year ago if she could get my then–3-year-old son a power-wheels tractor. (You know, the kind that actually drives around.) At the time I said no, for a number of reasons: If he’s outside, I would rather him get exercise; my second son was just learning to walk at the time and I was concerned he would get run over; we have no garage space as it is; I work from home a lot and often that means I’m sitting in our garage watching the kids play while on my laptop, and having to chase after this vehicle would cut into my work time. Also, I just have a visceral reaction that makes me feel like this tractor is an excessive gift for a kid. When I told her no, she had a full-on tantrum in my driveway. She told me she wanted to “spoil them rotten” and literally started crying, and the dramatics went on for an hour or so. I didn’t give in at the time, and my relationship with her has been strained since.

Cut to a few weeks ago. I got a call from her begging for my approval to get a power wheels, saying she “hasn’t been able to get it out of her head.” She claimed she wanted to give my kids everything she couldn’t afford to get her kids—which my husband and father-in-law admit is baloney, because my husband and his brothers got everything they wanted (which, I’ll add, has done some serious damage). I tell her that my mind hasn’t changed, and the conversation was tense but not combative. It is worth noting that during both conversations I offered her two alternatives that I would be OK with—either keeping the power wheels at her house, an hour and a half away, or getting the nonmotorized pedal version of the tractor. She balked at both compromises.

My father-in-law told me after the call that his wife had already purchased the tractor. I am looking for advice—should I just give in? Am I being too rigid? What do I do if she shows up to my house with this thing? My husband generally agrees with me but is not as adamantly against the tractor.

—No Cars for Baby

Dear NCfB,

You have two issues here. The first is about whether you should be so adamantly against these little cars, which I think we should all agree are objectively stupid. My feeling on that is, while I get where you’re coming from, I think you may be overreacting a bit to the threat represented by this object.

I hear your argument about exercise, but I don’t quite think it’s valid. A 4-year-old will find plenty of ways to jump and run all over everything, inside and out. And your youngest is, at this point, old enough to dodge any slow-moving vehicle. (Let’s be honest, if it wasn’t the tractor, your second would be assaulted by a scooter, a skateboard, a whiffle-ball bat, or good old gravity and physics. It’s the cost of doing business as a younger sibling.) Also, this thing is going to be important to your kids for exactly 6.474 months, after which time it will be relegated, like all the other plastic crap, to the dustbin of toy history. The garage-space thing, however, is real, and I think that’s the best argument you have for your mother-in-law to keep it at her place. Tactically, my guess is if you had led with that, you may have had a case with her. (“Oh, this is so sweet, but we can’t keep this in the garage—can you hold on to it?”) As of now, it’s become a battle of wills. She knows you’re trying to block her, she insists she has the right, you guys are clashing over power, and it’s bad all the way around.

Which, of course, is your second, and much bigger problem: You are confronted with a mother-in-law who, at times, is relentless and overbearing. I’m speculating that it’s “at times” because if it were always, your letter would probably be about an escalating pattern and other examples rather just one case. So the situation is something you’ll need to think about strategically and with a long-term lens. You have to decide where to resist and where to relent, because this is a person who will be in your life for a long time, but also not forever.

I’ve noticed that when we’re parents of young kids, we sometimes have an almost adolescent need to loudly proclaim our independence from grandparents at every turn. Every interaction becomes a power struggle, engaging our sense of “Let me do it my own way!!” I totally get this. I still remember fighting with my mother-in-law over the dangers of ice cream and feeling weirdly as though I was locked in a life-or-death struggle: increased heart rate, adrenaline flowing, amygdala on fire. Spoiler: I was not facing actual death. It was only life-or-death to me because I was too new at parenting to feel control anywhere else. All I had was my philosophy—my ideas about what my little ones could or couldn’t do—and it seemed my entire existence was based on having this validated.

But grandparents do get some say. Unless the parent was emotionally or physically abusive, there is no need, in my humble opinion, to completely disregard their wishes, or to view every disagreement as a threat to your power and control. It’s a collaborative effort where you are, let’s say, 85 percent in charge and they have a roughly 15 percent stake. You’re still the main influence in every possible way, so you don’t need to always fight for it. Of course, you’re allowed to say, “I SAID NO!” but the question is, do you have to in this case? Does it make sense to?

From a practical perspective, she has already outmaneuvered you. She’s bought this tractor already—a shady, but winning move, because if your kids lay eyes on it, then you are, pardon the expression, fucked. Do you have the force and authority with her to say, “Take it back”? Does your husband? It doesn’t sound like it (something he should probably talk to his therapist about). But the reality here is that you’ve been bested. Your only remaining play is absolute brute force, and you need to think very carefully about whether this is the place you want to go that route.

Sure, it’s important to establish that you have the final word over your kids, as much for your own needs as anyone else’s. But given how this situation has unfolded, the tractor may no longer be the hill to die on. My advice is to take the tractor, let Grandmother be happy, and quietly scheme for another opportunity in which you can let her know who’s boss. And when the batteries run out, never, ever replace them.