Care and Feeding

Ask Your Father

I’m the white parent of a biracial child, and my father-in-law uses the N-word a lot. What should I do if my son starts saying it, too?

Photo illustration of a white woman and a black child.
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,

I am the mother of a sweet 2.5-year-old. My husband and I both work; I work days in an office, and my husband works nights in a warehouse. My husband is home during the day with our son and is great with potty training, teaching letters and numbers, and the like. This all works for us, but I see many parents taking their kids to the park or indoor gyms during the day. My husband thinks we didn’t have such stuff, and we turned out fine. My son is good around other kids when we hang with friends, but I wonder (and I know I shouldn’t) if he’s getting enough activity to be well-rounded. Guess I just need some “you’re doing fine” reassurance and any at-home blowing-off-energy ideas.

—All Cooped Up?

Dear ACU,

I understand where you’re coming from. It’s natural to want to make sure that our little ones are getting literally everything they possibly can from the short time they have under our care. And I have no doubt that your son could and would benefit from some out-of-the-house activity! But what you describe doesn’t sound as much like a problem as it does like a preference. Your kid is still doing very well socially, it seems, so it’s not like your husband’s parenting style is turning the dude into a feral hermit. And you yourself say that all of the important markers of child care—potty training, quality time, reading and letters—are all being attended to.

It sounds like your husband is pretty tired, actually. I know I’d be if I was working nights in a warehouse and taking care of a toddler all day. It’s admirable that he pulls this 24-hour schedule off at all, and even more so that he does so well. And the good news for you is that as your kid ages, you won’t need to tell pops to take him out of the house. The kid himself will become so energetic, so forceful, so restless that dad will have no choice but to pack up everything and venture out into the world. In the meantime, if I were in your shoes, I might very occasionally suggest trips to the park, but other than that I would let it go. Your kid is lucky to have both of you!

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I feel like I’m going to have an anxiety attack with my sons starting high school. It’s familiar, because I felt similarly when they started middle school, and elementary.

I know it’s just fear of the unknown and not having all the info I want to know so I can confirm in my head that it will all be OK—emotionally and scheduling-wise and socially and educationally. Add that since it’s high school, my sons are responsible about getting me a lot of the info and, frankly, they suck at telling us things. A lot of “Hey, there’s this thing I need to do for school tomorrow,” never mind it’s during a meeting I already have scheduled.

I really just want to be a few months in. I am so stressed I’m yelling at them and putting extra pressure on them, when what I want to do is give room for them to be stressed or worried, if that’s what they’re feeling. I feel selfish and silly that I’m worrying about it this much.

—Panic! at the Household

Dear P!atH,

CAN RELATE! I can relate so deeply to this letter that I wonder if I passed out and wrote it myself in a trance. There is so much stress when kids are growing up and heading out into new things. And it is only natural to want them to feel that stress! After all, stress can be good! It’s how we remember to turn off the oven and show up to our important appointments 15 minutes beforehand so we don’t lose our spots. We stress to keep ourselves from making grand mistakes and fucking things up irreparably.

But we do that because we are adults. And we’ve had the (dubious) benefit of having fucked up things irreparably and seen just how horrific that is. So, we know that the stakes are high and failure is not an option. But we can’t make them see it that way. That’s a 45-year-old way of looking at the world, and they are 15. And try as you might you cannot make a 15-year-old see the world as a 45-year-old. So 45-year-olds need to chill.

It is entirely possible, I might even say inevitable, that your kid will make a mistake—forget an assignment, lose a syllabus, fail to get a slip signed—and that there will be consequences. But guess what? That’s on him now. He is in no way ready for that level of responsibility, of course. But this is how he gets ready. He fucks it up and feels the pain of that. Not only can we no longer manufacture that pain for him; we can’t even determine what it will be! We may think he’ll be crushed if he fails his geometry quiz, but it’s entirely possible that he has literally no feeling about that because all of his disappointment lies is in the fact that he forgot to wear the belt he was going to wear to impress someone in fourth-period biology. So now he’s ready to get out of bed early or to prep wardrobe the night before. Whatever works for you son. Godspeed.

Freaking out on your kid is natural, especially with teens, I’ll be the first to admit. But as a general rule, I’ve found that when I’m yelling at a teenager it’s because I’ve taken something as my responsibility that really should be theirs. In those moments it is time to detach with love, give your kid a hug, and let them know that they are free to fuck things up irreparably all on their own. They don’t need us to do it for them.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I have a 2.5-year-old son who is biracial (my partner is black/African American and I am white). He is quite verbal, which is super exciting, but he has that keen ear for words he should not say. While we have not run into this issue yet, I fear it is around the corner: My father-in-law uses the N-word often; he even refers to me by it sometimes, as well as most people in person and on TV. Our in-laws don’t live close, so he is not exposed to this often, but I know it is a matter of time before he picks up on this word in particular. My partner and I have discussed use of the word by our son in general terms, but we know he has no way to understand any nuance or meaning of it at this time—and that ultimately, I am not the appropriate parent to lead this talk anyway. I feel like other taboo words are a bit easier to brush aside if he says them, but not this word. What response should I be ready with if/when the day comes that my son repeats this term?

—White Elephant in the Room

Dear WEitR,

Perhaps it’s best for you to think of the N-word as a cuss word in the league of the F-word and the S-word. Though as a direct result of our country’s downright sinful history with race, it is a cuss word that only black people are allowed to use. So maybe it’s safer to say that for black people it’s a cuss word, and for everyone else it’s horrifically racist. Sorry for the double standard, but if you live in this country and can’t grasp a double standard, then you’re going to have a hard time raising a black child.

As far as I can tell, your father-in-law is a black man and as such is free to use the N-word wherever, however, and on whomever he pleases, just as a grown person would be free to use the F-word wherever and however they please. Is it ideal for him to be spraying the room with reckless abandon in front of your toddler? Probably not. But is it damaging? Hah. No. Not in the least.

Should your son decide that he wants to repeat that word, I would suggest that the two of you tell him what you would tell him about any other word. That it is a cuss word, and children aren’t to say those words. As he ages, especially as a biracial child, he will confront this issue many times on many levels. I tell my own children that every black person has to decide for themselves what they want to do about that word, and it takes a while to decide. But you cannot decide for him. He is around the N-word because he is around black family, and that is a part of who he is. It is more uncomfortable for you than it is for him, and it probably always will be. So, I think this is not your fight. Just be happy that he has a loving grandparent in his life, and let his father and grandparents and he figure out how he’s going to handle this aspect of his blackness.

Also, this father-in-law sounds hilarious. Let him know that if he ever needs someone else to yell at the TV with, he can always find me here.