Care and Feeding

Read in Your Head

My kid wants to read my collection of sci-fi novels, but they’re full of curse words. Should I censor or let it go?

A child reading a book in front of her face.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash.

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

Dear Care and Feeding,

My 3-year-old toddler never wants to eat dinner. He will ask for snacks, and when we say no, he will have a temper tantrum. We won’t let him have anything else but won’t force him to eat dinner. If he asks for food later, he can eat what was made for dinner or have a glass of milk. For a while he would ask for food after his bath, but now he just won’t eat. We have tried to limit his snacks, especially closer to dinner, but it doesn’t seem to make a difference. We tried cooking more adult food, more kid-friendly meals (pizza, chicken tenders, etc.), having him cook, etc. He doesn’t seem interested. He also doesn’t really seem excited for breakfast the next day. He usually won’t eat until around 9 a.m. How is he not hungry? Is there something we can do to get him excited about food?

—Hungry Yet?

Dear HY,

When it comes to toddlers and eating, I always think of the Monty Python pet ant sketch in which (this is a paraphrase!) the guy buying the ant asks what you feed them and the store guy is like, “Huh?” and the buyer says “What do they live on?” and the store guy says “Oh, they don’t, they die, and then you get a new one.”

Toddlers are like magical pet ants in that they do not eat anything but somehow live. Many toddlers seem to defy physics in this manner. In a 24-hour period you’ll somehow jam a cheese stick and three crackers and a grape and a cherry tomato and a glass of milk into them and instead of vanishing they grow and flourish. No one understands this.

Your choices depend a bit on your current desperation level, but since he is not actually physically unwell at this point, we’ll go for the tough move: No more snacks, and serve him whatever appealing, palatable, vaguely nutritious dinner you want, and then the kitchen is closed until the next meal.

He really won’t starve, I cannot emphasize this enough. If he had texture or taste issues as opposed to being merely disinterested, my answer would be different, but I promise he’s going to be fine and will one day eat you out of house and home.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I just want a yes or no answer to this argument my wife and I are having. I want my child to go to the circus with me, and my wife is politically opposed to circuses. Can I take her?

—Come On!

Dear CO,

Two yeses, one no is the official law of the parenting nation for a reason, so, well, no. That being said, I will violate your “yes or no” request to say that there are loads of circuses that have done workarounds for the crueler aspects—tigers do not actually relish leaping through hoops of fire, surprisingly?—many of which still feature a variety of animals (there are those who object to any animal acts, but your wife may not be quite that hard-line). Make this a group effort to find a circus you can all enjoy together.

If no such circuses (which are usually more expensive, sorry) can be found in your area, I’m afraid you have to back up your wife on this one. And please do it with good grace, at least in front of your kid.

Let me know what you find!

Dear Care and Feeding,

I’m excited that my daughter is ready to read some of my favorite old sci-fi and fantasy books (she’s pretty precocious), but there are expletives in a bunch of them that I barely noticed until I started rereading to see if she was ready. She doesn’t swear, and I don’t even know if she knows those words. Should I cover them with a black marker or just let it go or hold off on the books, which are otherwise just her speed?

—I Did Not Remember All the Swears

Dear IDNRATS,

ARE YOU MY DAD? When I was little he used Wite-Out to remove all the F-words from One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and Haldeman’s The Forever War. Yes, I was a weird kid, but my sixth-grade book projects on the Soviet gulag system were clutch.

It’s OK to leave them in. Kids love feeling conspiratorial, and this is SO different from swearing in front of them. You can explain that there are words in this book that are from an older time and a sharper tongue and we don’t say them out loud, but it’s okay to read them. This is a good opportunity to read them together and take them as they come.

A+ dadding, sir!

Dear Care and Feeding,

My daughter is 2½, so it will be a little while before she asks us what sex is—but it may not be THAT long, since I remember my sister asking my mom when she was 4. At that time, my mom said it was how adults made babies, and factually described the mechanics of heterosexual intercourse. My husband and I (I’m a woman) want to be sex-positive and want to be sure we’re prepared to talk about sex with a young child in a way that isn’t so heteronormative. But … how do we do that? I’m mystified about what to say if our kid asks us about this while her age is still in the single digits (which, undoubtedly, she will).

—When a Man and a Woman or Another Man or Another Woman Love Each Other

Dear WAMAAWOAMOAWLEO,

Honestly, single digits is the easy stuff! All new things are equally weird to little children, and they have no idea how much cultural baggage and discomfort and our own personal issues we bring to this particular topic.

The key, I think, is to make sure you cover the two things sex is for: babies and fun. Most of the time you’ll have the conversation because your kids ask about where babies come from, which can be answered very factually and simply, and then you can say that grown-ups also do it for fun, which is when you can mention that two men can have sex for fun, or two women, or what have you.

Here is Julia Sweeney’s delightful account of having this talk with her daughter; please learn from her example and think it through first:

“But Mum,” Mulan asked with tractor-beam focus, “how can this ever happen? I mean, men and women, they can never be naked together.”

“Well,” I explained, “when people are older—much, much older than a kid—when they are older and they both decide they want to, in very certain circumstances, like if they’re in love with each other, well, then, they can be naked together.”

“But how do they know when?” Mulan asked. “Does the man say, ‘Is now the time to take off my pants?’ ”

We held each other’s gaze for a moment.

“Yes,” I said. “That’s exactly what they say.”

Keep it light, remain calm, and when in doubt, buy a book and read it together. The really important thing to remember is that when we say “the talk,” we mean “a series of escalating and evolving conversations that track alongside your child’s development and curiosity.” So, if you botch one, you have every chance to get back in the game and finish strong.

—Nicole