Care and Feeding

The Best Care and Feeding Questions of 2018

What parents are obsessed, angry, and bewildered about. Plus: teapots.

A collection of people looking anxious.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by PeopleImages.

To celebrate all you parents who survived another year of parenting, we’re revisiting some of Care and Feeding’s best letters of 2018. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Email careandfeeding@slate.com or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I am the no-soda mom (diet or not, it’s all terrible for you.) I have been holding firm on this since our oldest was born. My husband has always thought I’m ridiculous, but it hasn’t come up a lot until recently, when my daughter came back from a play date with a ring of orange around her mouth (it was Orange Crush). I immediately called the hosting parents and told them, in no uncertain terms, that my children were not to be given soda, ever, and that I’d appreciate a call next time before offering them a questionable food product.

My husband thinks I sounded crazy and like a jerk, but I’m a dental hygienist and the science is on my side, and this is really important to me. Is a soda ban really so beyond the pale? Will I be seen as THAT mom?

—Ding Dong the Witch Is Dead?

Dear DDtWID,

I grew up in a “you can have half a can of Mountain Dew once a year” family (keep in mind that in Canada, Mountain Dew was actually caffeine-free at that point in history), and I am now rarely without a Coke Zero in my hand. Which is apropos of nothing in particular, but just to say that I believe I can empathize with your daughter’s lust for carbonated freedom. I also do not let my kids have soda at home, so I can get where you’re coming from as well.

At home! Lady, I truly do understand your reasoning, but (gestures outward) the world is the world. If you do not trust other parents to basically have your child’s best interests at heart, don’t let them play there. Would I feel differently if your child had an allergy or diabetes or some other medical condition? I would. But this is an individual parenting call, and those grind to a halt at someone else’s house (see also: playing video games, water guns, only getting ONE cookie, whether or not you can watch the Disney Channel, etc.).

You’ve probably already burned the bridge with this particular set of parents—please, please do apologize and bring them some muffins and tell them you had to watch your boss yank 12 teeth out of a fourth-grader or something that day and were on edge. Going forward, you can possiblymention upfront that you’d rather your kid didn’t drink soda, but I’m inclined to advise you to just make your peace with what you don’t know.

What I CAN tell you is that, even in 2018, soda is not such a universally hot-button topic that you can expect other parents to call you to ask permission for it. That’s unreasonable, and you’ll wind up in a lot of fights over it.

—Nicole

Dear Care and Feeding,

My 13-year-old son recently came out as gay. There have been some ups and downs, but generally he’s confident and enthusiastic in his identity and has good, supportive friends at his all-boys school and in the wider community. All good, except …

1) His 11-year-old brother is in the intermediate school attached to the secondary school, sharing the same grounds and buses, and he’s getting bullied. It’s likely he’d be bullied anyway (he’s the youngest and smallest at the school and tends to big reactions when things go wrong, which we’re working with him on), but having an openly gay brother is just one more thing to throw on the fire. The school is aware of the bullying and so far has been dealing with it to our satisfaction, but sometimes I can’t help wishing the 13-year-old would just dial it down for his brother’s sake.

2) The 13-year-old has set up an Instagram account where he posts gay memes specifically to get into fights with fundamentalist Christians. He’s convinced of his own righteousness in this and won’t listen when we explain all the reasons this is a bad idea. It’s bad enough that he’s doing this, but also his schoolwork is suffering. He literally told me he didn’t have enough time to do his homework because his evenings are busy with Instagram. We’ve talked to his teachers and he knows there are school trips he won’t be able to go on if he doesn’t pull his socks up, but he doesn’t care. Dealing with this has also meant I feel like I haven’t been able to support the 11-year-old to the extent he needs.

—Brother Troubles

Dear BT,

I was immediately struck by one sentence in this letter the first time I read it and I can’t stop thinking about it. You say you wish your 13-year-old would “dial it down.” What does that mean? Are you suggesting he be, somehow, less … gay? I truly don’t get it, but I can’t help thinking that a large part of the trouble you’re personally experiencing lies in that sentence. If you think on any level that your one son can and should do something about his orientation that would make things easier on your other son, then the support you are currently giving to your eldest may not in any way be as much as he needs.

It is terrible and unfair that your youngest is experiencing bullying. It is also terrible and unfair that you are suggesting that it may in any way be his fault. There is not quite enough information in your letter to understand precisely what you mean by “he’d be bullied anyway” because he “tends to big reactions when things go wrong,” but that framing does raise some flags for me. Here’s a general guideline: If other kids are hurting your kid and you suspect it’s because your kid is hurting them first, you tell your kid he needs to change his behavior. If other kids are hurting your kid and you suspect it’s because your kid is just being himself, you DO NOT tell him he needs to change his behavior. You support him without blame, let him process his grief and sadness about the fact that cruelty exists, and help him figure out what he wants to do about the fact that cruelty exists. The good news here is that you are happy with the way the school is dealing with it, so were I in your shoes, I would probably continue to operate in the role of emotional support for my son, remaining always ready to step in if I lose confidence in the school’s handling.

As for your older son: I see two distinct layers to this issue, but the clearest aspect has less to do with him being gay and more to do with him, like many kids, poorly managing the competing drives of internet and schoolwork. And this is easy enough to address, though of course there are no guarantees. You need to place and enforce rules around internet usage, period. I assume you are the one paying for Wi-Fi, phones, and computers, and so you enjoy dictatorial discretion to take these things away or limit them as you see fit. Try cutting off the internet after a certain hour. Try removing his phone after a certain point of the night. Try keeping his phone until he can show you that all of his homework is done. These are all tried-and-true methods and are all entirely within your jurisdiction as a parent.

However, your letter also makes me wonder if he has enough support overall. I don’t just mean at home, but in his community. Is he a member of an LGBTQ group for young people? Does he have older people to look up to who can help him understand how to navigate the challenges unique to his situation? Is your family a member of any support groups for families with LGBTQ children? There are aspects of his experience that, if you are straight, you will never be able to quite understand, and it’s entirely possible that his pugnacious online behavior (which also strikes me as fairly age-appropriate) has to do with the fact that he doesn’t have an offline place to get the courage, strength, and emotional sustenance he needs in order to feel protected and safe. It is your job to help him find what he cannot find himself, and it is a job you should take seriously. Good luck!

—Carvell

Dear Care and Feeding,

My wife and I named our daughter Nola. We wanted a unique name, like New Orleans, and thought it was pretty. Six months later, my brother has named his new son Nolan, the male version of Nola. We are shocked and hurt that he picked this name without asking us if this was all right. This is his second son; if he’d always loved the name, he could have picked that name for his first son, and we would not have picked Nola. They announced the name at the bris, and everyone kept asking if it was a family name, as we already have a Nola. Are we being overly sensitive, or is it weird to steal our 6-month-old’s name? Can I talk to him about it?

—Worried About Our Good Name

Dear WAOGN,

Name stealing is not a thing. It does not matter. Please maintain a dignified silence on the subject until the sweet release of death.

—Nicole

• If you missed Friday’s Care and Feeding column, click here to read it.

• Discuss this column in the Slate Parenting Facebook group!

Dear Care and Feeding,

I am a single mom of a smart, capable 13-year-old. Out of necessity, and knowing he can handle it, I have left him at home alone frequently since he was 10—after school until I get home from work or on weekends while I run errands. Since he started middle school, he has also taken the city bus a few miles to school and walks to and from the bus stop on his own.

The problem is his best friend’s parents and I have very different philosophies. We only live about five blocks apart and are in a safe, quiet neighborhood, yet they won’t even let their son walk to our house, and they never leave him at home alone. If this friend is at our house, I can’t leave and run errands. If the boys want to go to a movie, I can’t just drop them off and pick them up afterward. If my son is at their house and I ask them to send him home, they will respond, “Oh, well, we can walk him back.” I don’t want them to walk him back! He’s 13, and it’s five blocks!

They also seem appalled that I let my son take the city bus by himself and have commented about this in a way that makes me feel judged and irresponsible. I have already made comments about my confidence in my son: “He’s always been so level-headed,” “I trust him,” et cetera. But it makes no difference. I know it’s not my place to tell them it’s time to ease up on their kid. But how can I ask them to respect my wishes more firmly yet diplomatically?

—Parent of a Good Kid

Dear PoaGK,

This is a tough situation, and we’ve been on both sides of it. I still remember dropping my son off at a sleepover when he was about 11, only to find out that the parents were gone to the store. I had to think long and hard about whether to leave him. That was three years ago. He survived. And now we’re the parents who get a side-eye because our 12-year-old daughter takes the bus all over Oakland with our blessing. It is natural that every parent is going to make these decisions about their child’s independence at a different time. The decisions rarely sync up, family to family.

While I think a 13-year-old should by all means be allowed to stay home alone and walk five blocks on his own, I can understand, at least in theory, why these parents feel reluctant. Independence is a scary thing. It makes you worry your kid is at risk, and it reminds you of your own rapidly approaching parental obsolescence. But you can’t let it cramp your style, because it’s not your problem. It’s theirs. If you need to run errands while the boys are at your house, then you should do that. You must tell these parents that’s what you intend to do, and you know for sure that it’s fine. And if that means their son is not allowed to step foot in your house, so be it. Your son can walk (on his own) over to their place if that’s the way it has to be. You can also tell them—not suggest or ask, but tell them—not to walk your son home. Tell them he likes the free time and everyone is perfectly happy with the arrangement, so they should just accept it.

In the meantime, do your thing, parent as you see fit, and don’t worry about their perceived judgment. Whatever problem this might cause for your son and his friend, or for you and these parents, it’s surely temporary. As more and more kids around them start to enjoy freedoms like taking the bus, walking, and being home alone, they will ultimately cave. It’s going to end, and soon. I mean, what’s this kid going to be—37 years old and still being walked to the store by Dad?

—Carvell

Dear Care and Feeding,

My son was at a sleepover a month ago with extremely poor adult supervision, and wound up watching The Babadook. As you can imagine, this was an absolute disaster and we’ve been cleaning up the mess ever since. You’re going to think we’re ridiculous, but we actually wound up taking him to a therapist after the first two weeks of sleep refusal and needing to spend the night in our bed and dozens of questions about death and monsters and ghosts. A few sessions actually really seems to have done the trick, and he’s back in his own bed now and looking less like death warmed over.

My question is this: Can we ask the parents who hosted the sleepover to chip in for the costs? I am fully prepared to hear “No, that’s not OK,” but I just have so much free-floating anger at the entire situation. The kids were all 9 years old!

—Angry Dad

Dear Angry Dad,

SHIT. Oh, I’m so sorry. I had a similar experience with Lord of the Flies at a sleepover as a small kid, and I know my parents cursed the other family involved for several years afterward. I grew up into a horror junkie, and even I had to watch The Babadook through the gaps in my fingers. It’s very scary! And not just monster-scary, I’d imagine it’s particularly upsetting for kids because it depicts a mother reacting to a bad situation in psychotic ways. I am mad for you.

No, you cannot ask for money. You can register your extreme disapproval, you can turn down any ongoing sleepover requests, you can journal about it, but you cannot ask for money.

I’m pretty sure you already know this, and having written this question ideally offered you the catharsis that asking them for money wouldn’t. Please know that you are correct to be angry, and that your son is going to be OK.

—Nicole

Dear Care and Feeding,

My husband and I send our boys to a pretty expensive summer camp. It’s a great camp! To me, it’s worth every penny, and we have been lucky to be able to afford it (more on that in a sec). At the end of every summer, the camp sends out an email with tipping guidelines—suggestions for how much you should tip your counselors and swim instructors and other camp staffers. We’ve always followed these guidelines, but this year we find ourselves in a tough financial spot (a much worse one than we were in when we originally enrolled the boys in this camp). So I’m wondering: Would we be horrible people if we just didn’t tip? On the one hand, we have already paid this camp many thousands of dollars, and it would be great not to spend more. On the other hand, the counselors themselves probably see very little of that tuition money, tipping them is the norm, the additional $500 or so in tips is not going to bankrupt us, and this is what we get for choosing a pricey camp. What do you think?

—Tip of the Iceberg?

Dear TotI,

Wow. I have to say this is the very first time I, a Californian parent, have heard of tipping camp counselors. I suspect this will be the same for many of our readers. It appears to be, at least for the time being, a phenomenon limited to parts of New York and New Jersey. I have to say I don’t love the idea. Camp is expensive enough, and tipping is often used as a way for employers to cheap out on paying a livable wage, instead passing the responsibility on to the people who are already paying full price for the service.

But you did not come here to endure my curmudgeonly ranting about this. Despite my issues with the shady capitalist practices that underlie tipping, I believe in tipping wholeheartedly. Refusing to tip just makes you an asshole, and even if you’re standing on principle rather than being a cheapskate, your principle does little to help the actual hardworking people who rely on tips to pay their rent. So if tipping is the norm—and judging by the camp’s guidelines, it is—then you should tip.

However, the question you pose isn’t should you tip, but rather would you be horrible people if you didn’t tip. The answer to that, I’m afraid, is very much conditional. If you don’t have the money, then no, you’re not horrible. Not having the money does not make you horrible. But, dear friend, if the money simply did not exist there would be no need for you to write me, now would there? You have the money, but you are deciding if you can get away with not using it for this particular cause. And if that’s the case, then yeah, not tipping is kind of a dick move. Granted, your situation is a little bit different in that there seems to have been a slight fall from your financial station occurring in the time period between signing up and the end of camp. But you have to be honest with yourself: If there is any way you can afford to tip, even if it hurts, then please do.

If you simply cannot, then honesty is the best policy. It may be embarrassing, but you can always say, clearly: “We’ve fallen on some difficult times and wish we could give you more, but this is all we can afford.” And do, at that point, hand over a tip that you are comfortable with. There is no shame in that, either.

—Carvell

Dear Care and Feeding,

I’m a divorced mom with an 18-year-old son, two sons in elementary school, and a 20-year-old nephew who is living with us while he attends college nearby. The issue is with the 18-year-old, “Warren.” He is constantly arriving late and leaving early from school. He attends an alternative program, and even though he started his senior year behind on credits, he’s not doing the extra work he needs to be doing to graduate on time. He struggles to hold a job. He keeps late hours with his friends and seems more focused on listening to podcasts and smoking pot than anything else. To make matters worse, he leaves messes all over the house, takes things of mine without permission, and is in general rather rude and inconsiderate. When I tell Warren that I don’t accept this behavior, he resorts to shouting, cursing, and name-calling. His bad temper has resulted in more than one broken cellphone and a broken laptop. My younger sons often witness this behavior.

I’m struggling because I want to provide him with the care and support he needs to be successful and complete his high school career, but his teachers and I have serious doubts about whether he’s taking school seriously enough to graduate this spring. My ex and I have both tried addressing this, and Warren has gone back and forth living at both our houses several times now. The agreement when he came back to my house was that this was the last stop, and he had to be focused on school in order to stay. That hasn’t happened.

I know if I kick him out he’s just going to move in with my ex’s mother (who is a career enabler). I’m afraid he’ll drop out of school and end up with no education, no job skills, and no idea what it takes to support oneself in the real world. Most of all, I’m afraid he’s going to grow up to be unhappy and full of regret about the choices he’s making now.

I don’t want to do this for another seven to eight months while my son lies to me about his intentions to graduate. My house is in chaos. I feel like I’m being taken advantage of. I want so much for my son to be happy and successful, but right now just the thought of him brings me enormous stress.

—Desperate

Dear Desperate,

I am so incredibly sorry that you find yourself in this situation. It’s a parental nightmare, and as much as we like to think otherwise, it can happen to anyone. I think your chief concern at the moment needs to be the well-being of your younger children. It’s time for a come-to-Jesus talk with your son, complete with an excruciatingly clear outline of what standard of behavior is necessary if he plans on living with you through high school. Don’t get hung up on asking for too much. Your goal is for him to succeed, not fail.

Here’s a possible list to bring to him:
• He can’t have or do drugs in your home.
• He must clean up after himself.
• He cannot damage anyone else’s property.

This list will be more effective with a timeline to monitor compliance, and I urge you to share that timeline with your ex.

If he comes in late and whines and is generally the possessor of a bad attitude, let it slide. You don’t want to have to waste a lot of emotional energy on policing his moods. But if he doesn’t bring himself to toe the very reasonable line you are drawing in the sand, he’s gotta go. Make sure he knows that, and that you will formally evict him if he fails. (Look up your state’s laws on the matter; he’s almost certainly a tenant at this point, regardless of whether he’s ever paid a dime in rent.)

If he goes to live with his enabling grandmother, it’s out of your hands. He’s an adult. Let’s hope he’s willing to make any effort whatsoever to stay in your home.

—Nicole

Dear Care and Feeding

Parenting is so tough. I’m fairly easygoing in my parenting style. My kids (4 and 1) go to day care and my husband is a teacher, so in winter it’s rare to go a week without at least one of us getting sick. My mother-in-law and sister-in-law are both very anxious people, especially when it comes to health. They have both had their share of health issues, so some of it is understandable. When my daughter started going to day care and getting sick, as most kids do, they made a lot of judgmental remarks asking why she’s always sick and suggesting we should feed her more nutritious food. My sister-in-law now also has a 1-year-old and has completely isolated him in their home. My mother-in-law is practically staying over there to help and if any of us are sick (even a tiny sniffle) we can’t come over to either of their homes.

Last week my husband took the kids to visit; I stayed behind because I was just finishing up my antibiotics for strep throat. My sister-in-law is now livid because her son is sick and we just found out this week that my daughter has strep throat even though she wasn’t showing symptoms then. She blames us because my daughter tried to kiss her son on his face, which is something I do with my kids. I told my daughter afterward that she shouldn’t kiss anyone but me, my husband, or her brother, but the damage is done. My mother-in-law is angry as well because she thinks us kissing our kids on their face and sometimes on the lips is disgusting.

I think that we are a normal family with affectionate, energetic, outgoing, and outdoorsy kids. They think we are neglectful, unhygienic parents. How do I calm this anxiety and still try to maintain a close relationship with my in-laws?

—Momxiety Is Killing Me

Dear MIKM,

My official ruling is that this mother-in-law and sister-in law-of yours would be well served to chill TF out. The problem, to be clear, isn’t that they prefer not to get sick and would like for the toddler not to get sick as well. That’s normal. The problem is that, at least by your telling, they seem to hold you personally responsible for the mere existence of childhood illness. They are making you feel as though the germs that every child comes into contact with every day are somehow irrefutable proof of your substandard morality. I’m here to tell you they are not.

Parenting is tough, and you sound like you are doing your level best to execute a consistently low-key herculean task with care and love and excellence. It sucks that your family has to be sick all winter. But it’s not your fault, it won’t always be the case, and nothing short of encasing everyone and the dog in plastic for three-fourths of the year is going to prevent it. Any reasonable person should be able to see that.

Which brings me to these in-laws. Something tells me that while their phenomenally low tolerance for you and your choices is currently finding expression in their reaction to your kids’ sickness, it isn’t entirely about it. Are there other tensions in your relationship? Is this just an advanced version of “Nobody is good enough for our boy?” I don’t know, but something is going on here and it’s not about your parenting. I wonder what your husband has to say, were you to give him truth serum, as he’s been dealing with these people presumably his entire life? Can you get a hold of some truth serum?

There’s another possibility: You mentioned that they’ve both been sick in the past, but you didn’t tell me what kind of sickness they’ve had. Putting aside for a moment that they’re both kind of being asses about this, it’s worth thinking about what need is buried underneath the shitty behavior. Maybe they feel fragile. Maybe they feel like their medical histories require that people behave around them with extra care. And maybe you’re missing some of that. Sometimes when people act out it’s because there’s a vulnerability or fear they’re really unprepared to face. If I felt like some reckless healthy person was willfully putting my fragile constitution at risk, I’d have a little bit of an edge about me too.

So maybe you don’t have to change your parenting. You can kiss your kids all you want. (That complaint from your mother-in-law is bizarre, by the way.) And you certainly don’t have to feel like you’re doing anything wrong, because you’re not. But you asked about how to calm their anxiety. And it may be that the only way to do that is to let them have their craziness and give them a wide berth. You may not be able to be close to them and also be yourself, but you may find that being a little less close makes all of you a lot happier.

—Carvell

Dear Care and Feeding,

In 2014, when I moved in with my boyfriend (now husband), he had 50-50 custody of his two teenage sons. After a very long, contentious divorce (for which his ex-wife very publicly blamed me, even though their marriage had been over years before I entered the picture), his ex-wife had moved out, taking practically everything in the kitchen with her. I moved in shortly after, placing my heirloom teapot collection in a glass display kitchen cupboard.

Then I started to notice the teapots were being subtly moved. So, I just moved them back to their original positions. Then they would be moved again. I asked my husband and the boys if they were moving them and everyone said no. But this kept going on. I tend to be a little OCD, and it was obvious this was starting to really bug me.

Soon I started to notice other things I had placed or displayed around the house also being moved. For instance, while I was out of town recently, the boys (now 18 and 20) visited the house; when I returned, two mugs I bought on vacation and put in that display cabinet were turned completely backward. I once again asked the kids if they were doing this, and they both denied it.

It may sound like I’m being silly, but I am sick and tired of having my things moved. And what bothers me most is why someone would continue to do something that bothers me so much. I don’t mess with their things and I’d like to not have my things messed with.

—Teapot Home Scandal

Dear THS,

I will first put on my serious face:

1. Gaslighting is deeply wrong, and not funny.
2. Do you actually have obsessive-compulsive disorder, or do you just like things to be organized? If the latter, best to just say so.

I will now remove my serious face:

HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAA THIS IS HILARIOUS. They are harmlessly trolling the shit out of you and I kind of love it!

Look, here’s how it is: Your husband’s kids are adults, they’re rarely around, and they think you’re an asshole because you were helping their dad cheat on their mom while they were still living together as a family (unless I have misread your slightly hand-wavy timeline). You say, in an outraged tone, “even though their marriage had been over years before I even entered the picture,” like this is an inarguable fact as opposed to the No. 1 thing adulterous dudes tell their girlfriends to explain why they’re doggin’ around town.

Was their marriage over years before? I don’t know, and neither do you. Maybe it was! What I do know is that they were not divorced and they were living together in one house, and he was cheating on his wife with you while the boys were still teenagers and living with both parents. That absolutely makes him an asshole, and in my opinion, makes you one as well, though not the kind of asshole who has broken a sacred and eternal and legal set of vows to a person you have pledged to love and be faithful to.

Does this mean these adorably petty young men should be messing with your brain? No, it does not. They should instead be signing their dad up for mailing lists and political contribution websites he would find aggravating and distasteful.

If I were their mom, would I think it was kind of funny and touching? Oh, I very much would.

Buy a $20 nanny cam and position it at your china cupboard. When you have evidence, be airy and amused at the villain in question, and make your husband have the more firm talk.

If it turns out you actually have ghosts, instead of benignly misguided moral-avenger stepkids, do not sign away the film rights to your story without professional representation, especially the foreign rights.

—Nicole