Care and Feeding

My Stepson Can’t Stop Staring at My Chest

I know he’s 12, but do I have to wear baggy sweatshirts for the next seven years?

Boy looking at camera with wide eyes of surprise.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Photodisc/Getty Images Plus.

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,

Recently, I have noticed that when I wear my tank-top PJs without a bra, my 12-year-old stepson stares at my chest. I am a large-breasted woman, admittedly, and he is mostly not super obvious, but I can see it out of the corner of my eye, and sometimes it is more overt—he will be talking to me and his eyes will flick down, stay for a moment, and then go back up. He even once did this while I was curled up on the couch and I was wearing shorts after exercising—looking down to stare between my legs as I shifted positions, until I quickly closed them.

I have taken to wearing big sweatshirts, which is fine in winter, but I live in the Deep South, so that isn’t a great solution come spring. His mother wants to confront him directly, but I am worried about making the situation even more awkward, especially since we are still adjusting to life as a family together. Should I just suck it up and deal with the discomfort of too many clothes? Should I just accept that boys his age are curious about bodies? But of course, we also want him to know he can’t do this to other girls and women he meets!

—Eyes up Here

Dear Eyes up Here,

Puberty is such a damned nightmare. This is 100 percent a situation in which I suggest his mother take him aside and talk about how it’s very natural to be curious about bodies, etc., etc., but sometimes what we think to be a discreet glance is actually very obvious and can make the object of that glance extremely uncomfortable.

Are there any close male relatives in his life (or a friendly pediatrician with whom he has an existing relationship) with whom he might benefit from talking about this stuff? By “this stuff” I mean puberty in general. It’s so overwhelming and seems to go on forever.

I don’t think that dressing in a series of voluminous garments will benefit anyone; the world is full of female bodies and hypersexualized images thereof, and he will have to learn how to incorporate his feelings about them into normal life somehow. If it makes you feel more comfortable to make sure you have a bra on around him, that’s great. (There’s also a lot of middle ground between “big sweatshirts” and “braless tank top.”) Live your life, but don’t feel like you have to be self-conscious 24/7 just to get him used to boobs.

His mother can help draw firm boundaries with him about what’s acceptable conduct in this realm without shaking the foundations of what has been a loving and peaceful home, and you can help reinforce that by acting around him as you always have. You will get through this together!

Dear Care and Feeding,

My 6-year-old son is obsessed with gems and jewelry. His reverence for shiny, colorful, sparkly, precious things is almost spiritual. Acquaintances, charmed by his budding interest in geology, mailed him some stones.

The stones in question are: two lumps of coal, and some rocks they’d gathered from Mount Rushmore. Am I alone in thinking this is a bizarre present for a kid? I absolutely see this as a kind gift from elderly folk without grandchildren, but even so, I was bemused.

The coal, unfortunately, is very shiny, which means my son loves it. It is currently sitting on top of his dresser. I find the lumps of coal … unpleasant. Also, the kids like to play with them, and bits break off, and I find having scraps of coal lying around on the floor not only messy but disturbing. I have read that coal can (probably under different conditions than our house) self-combust. It is also, depending on the purity of the coal, slightly radioactive. I have no idea what kind of coal it is, and I realize these are not big issues and that it is not likely to catch on fire or make us sick. They are, though, big lumps of coal. Whenever I think about dealing with them, I come back to the weirdness of us having them in the first place.

I think I could either: get some display cases and put them in there for “safety” (or at least so the kids stop playing with COAL), or tell my son that coal, while shiny and lovely, is not a great thing to have inside the house.

I should mention that, in a loose doomsday-type way, my son understands the role of coal in climate change, and he is very sensitive about having it at all—he seems to feel guilty and wants us to back him up on how pretty the coal is, despite him thinking it is essentially evil. He seems to be conflicted. We are all conflicted. Please help.

—Coal Scrooge

Dear CS,

Oh. Oh … wow. This is a new one! My goodness.

Yes, sure, display cases, mostly to avoid mess—I doubt he’s huffing the stuff over an open flame. But my first thought is that it is not ideal that your 6-year-old feels intensely guilty about having a few hunks of a naturally occurring substance on his dresser. What a great opportunity to instead talk about how lots of things covering the face of our planet are in themselves attractive and/or value-neutral but that, if they are used in particular ways, can potentially cause harm.

It’s one thing to raise children to be aware of climate change, but this might be a bit of a wake-up call that you may have gone a little overboard in sharing your own very real concerns with a sensitive 6-year-old.

I promise that a few lumps of rock in a closed clear plastic container make up an ancient and appropriate gift for a 6-year-old and that you are extremely overthinking this. I hope your son can come to enjoy his shiny coal with a clear conscience.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My wife is currently nine months pregnant with our first baby. After many years of failed attempts, fertility treatments, etc., we are thrilled to have a baby on the way. This baby was conceived via in vitro fertilization using donor sperm.

My wife and I are in disagreement over whether to tell people about how the baby was made. Admittedly, I am somewhat ashamed that my own sperm “wasn’t good enough.” I know I “shouldn’t” feel this way, but I can’t help how I feel. It’s something I’m working on, but I suspect there will always be a bit of shame and regret there. I am of the opinion that how the baby was conceived is a private matter and nobody’s business but our own.

My wife thinks we should make it public knowledge to help destigmatize infertility struggles and prove that we’re proud of the baby, regardless of how they came to be. She also doesn’t want the child to think we’re hiding a shameful secret. I’m all for telling the child the truth (when they’re old enough to learn about those things) but don’t think we necessarily need to announce it to the world before the baby is born.

Additionally, she gets a real kick out of telling people how much this baby cost us in the end (close to $100,000 if you count all our previous failed attempts) but again, I think this is private information. Help!

—Nunya Business

Dear Nunya Business,

Good gravy, this poor kid isn’t even here yet, and your wife’s expecting their foundational narrative to right the wrongs of the universe.

If you don’t feel comfortable talking about your sperm count/motility at public dinner parties and Parent-Teacher Night, that’s your own damn personal medical information, and she needs to cool it, stat. She can absolutely demystify IVF (and talk about her own experience of having undergone it) without getting into the nuts and bolts of your nuts and bolts.

See also, your family’s financial info! I personally think you need to always err on the side of the more discreet family member’s preferences in a situation like this. It’s also not necessarily the case that your kid will, one day, have zero feelings about everyone and their dog knowing that it took $100,000 to get them into the world.

I’m glad you’re processing your feelings around your infertility issues. They’re absolutely real, and our entire culture has conspired to make you feel that you’ve failed, so it’s not some sign of weakness that you might sometimes take them to heart. I encourage you and your wife to look into couples counseling and, failing that, for you to find a therapist for yourself so you can talk through this with a sympathetic third party.

Congratulations on your baby!

Dear Care and Feeding,

This summer, my kids’ father was overseas for several months, while in the process of moving out of our apartment. On his occasional phone calls, he repeatedly asked our 8-year-old to design his first tattoo with both kids’ initials. He said he would accept whatever she designed and implied it would make him feel closer to her. He wanted her to send it to him so he could get it while he was away, but she was extremely anxious about the design, to the point of crying. I eventually suggested to him that he be more specific or back off, and to her that she didn’t have to design it until she was ready. She finally came up with an idea she liked, worked hard on it, and, when he came back, presented it to him. He didn’t like it, quickly made a drawing of the animal he wanted instead, and hasn’t mentioned it since.

Should I get this tattoo? It’s really cool, and I want to show my daughter her work is awesome. But I don’t want to intervene in a stressful thing between them and make it worse.

—Can I Fix This?

Dear CIFT,

What an asshole. Look, if you genuinely want a tattoo, and want this tattoo in particular, go for it. I think, however, that making it into a framed watercolor together for your home (or to give as a gift to this ungrateful putz) will fulfill the goal of making your daughter feel her art is appreciated and that she is loved, without also permanently altering your body in the process.

What I think you already know is that you need to have a firm talk with her dad about how he really jerked your poor daughter’s feelings around. How is co-parenting going, generally speaking? Is this an aberration, or is he all about that overpromise-and-underdeliver life?

Your daughter seems very sweet and loving and sensitive, and these are wonderful ways to be. Your wish to protect her is good. Keep being the best possible parent to her you can be, and to the extent you can, try to help your ex do a little better.

If you do get that ink, please send me a photo.

—Nicole