Care and Feeding

When Is the Right Time to Tell Our Son He’s the Product of an Affair?

Is it when he’s 4?

Parents worrying about the best time to tell their child that he’s the product of an affair
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock, triocean/iStock/Getty Images Plus and Photo by SHTTEFAN 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,

Five years ago, my partner cheated on me and got pregnant. We got past the infidelity, and I have raised her son as my own since the moment he was born. At what age is it appropriate to tell him that his social father and his biological father are not the same person? The biological father is not in the picture and seems to have no interest in being a parent. I think our son should be told eventually, but I think 4 is much too young. My partner disagrees. I would appreciate your advice.

—Dedicated Dad

Dear DD,

Thank you for being committed to your partner and practicing forgiveness and reconciliation. It’s not always possible, and it’s very hard. You sound like a really good father, and asking this question is a great next step.

My first query is in what way your partner disagrees with you. Does she think that your son should never be told eventually or does she think that 4 is not too young? I think that indeed he needs to be told at some point, and that 4 is absolutely too young.

My second question is to ask you how you would proceed with telling your child he was conceived via a sperm donor. Take that as your baseline, and try to remain essentially truthful while you do so. Lies of omission are easier to recover from. When he is an adult, you and your partner can decide how best to explain the situation vis-à-vis her infidelity. He may be angry, sad, confused, and hurt. He may worry that he was a colossal mistake. He may have concerns about the stability of your family. These are all emotions that he’ll find it easier to deal with as a man living independently. Not a 4-year-old.

I want to make sure you and your partner get right on the same page with this. It’s going to stir up a lot of feelings in both of you that you may think have been put to rest forever, and I think some couples counseling before things get too heated would be an excellent plan.

I am rooting hard for your little family.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My concern is about something that happened several months ago but is still on my mind. I teach a Red Cross babysitting course several times a month for 11- to 14-year-olds. During one course I mentioned Santa Claus, in passing, in the context of reminding them that they would be dealing with children who still believe. I’ve never specifically talked about this before, but it came up in a discussion.

The next day, my supervisor forwarded me a long email diatribe from a parent whose child was apparently “traumatised” by my revelation. (She seemed fine to me; there were no obvious signs she was upset.) Mom was irate that I had taken it upon myself to “ruin Christmas” for their family. She also mentioned that the child’s friend who was with her that day was also upset.

My supervisor was neutral; she wasn’t angry with me but just said to be careful not to mention it again in class. For myself, I was shocked that an 11-year-old still believed in this admittedly delightful fairy tale. I’ve raised three kids, and I’m pretty sure they had it figured out by 6 or 7. I don’t actually remember literally believing as a child and had no traumatic revelation, even though I’ve enjoyed the Santa myth. How is it possible, in 2018, for a child this age to believe in a literal magical man who flies in a magic sleigh and comes down the chimney to deliver gifts? How has she not discovered the hard truth from all her little friends at school? This child could easily end up babysitting little kids years younger than herself who don’t still believe. I’m mystified. I’m also feeling attacked, as I take my responsibility toward these kids seriously, even though I have them for only a day. Was I out of line?

—Breaking Children’s Hearts Is All in a Day’s Work

Dear Breaking,

Oh, dear. Usually, I discourage mentioning that Santa isn’t real around children, but come on. You’re talking to 11- to 14-year-olds and in the context of encouraging them not to blow things for the children they are babysitting?! I do not think you have done anything wrong.

What matters is that you are not in trouble with your supervisor. Going forward, I would just excise Santa talk from your spiel, but please do your level best to move past this and not feel personally attacked. It happened! Some parents are weird. You did not say something horrible; you did not actually traumatize a child.

Thank you for doing the good work you do, and don’t let this steal your joy.

Dear Care and Feeding,

You posted some great advice to get a 15-month-old out of his parents’ bed, by getting a foam dog bed for the floor. It was weird, but it really worked for us! I moved my toddler out of our bed and back into his room with a fantastic setup: a single foam mattress on the floor, hemmed in by three walls and then two stacked mattresses next to his, where I slept “to ease the transition.” But it worked too well. He loves it, I started sleeping much better—after 18 months of really terrible sleep—and I am now afraid to leave the room and get back into “my” bedroom.

My fear is mainly driven by the fact that my sleep margin is still so, so slim, so several disturbed nights in a row terrify me. I think, We have a good thing going. Why set ourselves back? but my now–2-year-old needs me less than before (though there would definitely be complaining about my absence). Any advice to get me back into the master bedroom while keeping him happy in his room? Will I lose many weeks of sleep?

—The Dog Bed Was Inspired

Dear TDBWI,

First of all, I am delighted you have gotten relief from my very silly advice, which, to be fair, has worked for all three of my children, who still express fondness for their dog-bed days!

You are very fortunate in that you have complete control over changing the situation in which you find yourself, as it is you who must move, and not your son. At his age, you can explain to him that you want to go sleep in your big-girl room but will be there in case he needs you. Be firm, be kind, offer him a little night light, and start shutting your door and his. It’s going to be fine!

Dear Care and Feeding,

I am not a parent but a third-grade teacher, seeking advice on a child’s behavior with which I haven’t had any experience before. One of my students—let’s call him Billy—is constantly correcting me. He notices minor “mistakes” I have made (for example, using the wrong name for a spinning toy the kids play with) and approaches me by saying, “Miss Teacher, I have to correct you. You are wrong about [insert misunderstanding here].”

I feel like this is a larger issue to nip in the bud now—I am worried he will grow into a man who constantly corrects women! What can I say to Billy to help him understand that his behavior is, in all honesty, annoying—and to stop him from “correcting” me and other women in the future?

—Stop Correcting Me!

Dear SCM,

I have to admit that this is extremely funny to me. “Miss Teacher!” He seems like a real pain. This doesn’t seem like a big deal but is obviously getting on your nerves, so I think you can take him aside and tell him that it’s disruptive and a little rude to correct people, and that you would rather he stop drawing everyone’s attention to small errors. Depending on how you feel in the moment and how he responds, you can tell him to write down all his corrections and that you will look at them after class. (You shall, of course, toss them out as soon as he’s gone.)

I am the last person to say, “No need to bring gender into this,” but honestly, I wouldn’t bring gender into this. It wouldn’t surprise me if he acts this way around adults in general, and I guarantee that if you make the case for your gendered interpretation at a parent-teacher conference, it’s going to raise his parents’ hackles and make them too defensive to actually listen to you.

So, let’s keep it light, but also put it to rest, Miss Teacher.

—Nicole