Care and Feeding

I Never Had Friends. How Do I Stop Myself From Hassling My Daughter About Her Introversion?

I know I’m driving her crazy.

A teen reads a book. Her mom looks on, worried.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

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 an introvert who, growing up, was quite shy and had periods of having very few friends. This was often painful for me, and I frequently felt like an odd duck. I grew up to be a still introverted but more outgoing adult. I have only a few close friends, but those friendships are rewarding and I’m generally a content person.

So what’s my problem, then? My younger daughter is very much like me. She has struggled to find compatible friends throughout school. Now in high school, she has one close friend from outside school who she sees every few months and a few girls she hangs with at school. She never sees the schoolmates outside of school and spends almost every weekend at home.

She is a great student at a challenging high school. She dances seriously, attending class several days a week. She’s busy and generally seems relatively happy. But like most of us, and especially teens, sometimes she doesn’t. When she doesn’t, I fret over her friendlessness, and I pester her, in a way that I’m worried makes thing worse. I ask about who she’s hanging with in school, try to encourage her to connect with classmates, and probably generally succeed in making her feel like crap.

Otherwise, we have a really great relationship. However, I feel like my past issues with friendlessness are hampering my ability to parent her around this. I just hate to see my smart, genuinely funny, sweet daughter feel like she isn’t worth friending.

Please help me learn when to try and social engineer and when to back off.

—Not a Life Coach

Dear NaLC,

The good news is, you have more self-awareness than most parents who find themselves in this position. It’s important to be able to say, “My regrets and pain from 15 years ago are not going to be healed in any way by whether my daughter makes different choices for her own life,” while also allowing yourself to use that experience as needed when you are asked for advice.

The problem we can both see right off the bat is that you need to stop asking her who her friends are, pushing her to make connections with new friends, and making her feel like there’s something wrong with her if she doesn’t have answers to those questions that satisfy you.

Why not go out for ice cream and ask her what she finds most interesting and most energizing and compelling in her life right now? Dancing, academics, kicking back with her family, etc. And really listen to what she has to say. She seems to be a busy and driven young woman, who, like all of us, sometimes feels sadness. What you’re doing right now is a rather benign but unhelpful form of push polling, in that you’re asking her questions that you hope will make her change her mind and behavior. I want you to ask her questions in order to get to know what she wants and who she truly is. She may be perfectly content with her current mix of work and play and socialization. It’s 2019; her relationships with those school friends may be perfectly healthy but exist entirely online, invisible to you. Start from a position of genuine curiosity and love, and see where that leads.

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

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I am a mother of a 13-month-old girl, and another girl on the way! My daughter is sweet and lovely, and always smiling and laughing at everyone. She loves the attention. Ever since she has been able to smile back, people keep making the joke that she is “flirting” with the men. I know they are being harmless, and I am surely reading too much into it. But I am beyond weirded out. No one makes the joke when she smiles at my aunts or my girlfriends, just the men—why would people say this?! I want to be clear: I do not feel any discomfort or danger from these people. They are not inappropriate with my daughter. I just hate the joke.

She obviously does not understand what they are saying, so it’s no harm, no foul, right? I’ve never said anything about it before. I usually move the conversation along, but I leave these interactions feeling like I didn’t stand up for her. Isn’t it my job as her mother to feel this way? Should I say something when it happens? Is this no big deal?

—She’s a BABY

Dear She’s a BABY,

I think you are correct both that this is a weird, heteronormative thing people say to babies (along with “Is this your little boyfriend?” when your baby with a vagina is obliviously stacking blocks next to a baby with a penis) and also not a huge deal.

I think that you will not be failing your tiny blob by simply maintaining a neutral expression as though no joke had been made and then changing the subject. Calling people out will usually get you an extremely defensive “Are you saying I am sexualizing a baby?” and things will become worse than if they simply noted that their joke appears not to have landed and moved on.

If they push it, or are repeat offenders, you can get a bit crisper. “I don’t think Betsy is romantically interested in her Uncle Chad, no.” I predict a steep decline in these comments.

Dear Care and Feeding,

People are constantly trying to give my baby kisses. I’ve told my family from the beginning that I don’t want people to kiss my baby because I don’t want to spread germs to her, especially now during flu season. Not to mention I just never understood why some people feel the need to kiss other people’s babies. For example, my dad’s reasoning is that he’s a new grandpa, and she’s a baby with kissable cheeks so he wants to kiss her. He means no harm by it, and it makes him happy, so I can’t help but to feel guilty when I’ve asked him to stop. But he brushes it off every time I say something.

Looking back on my childhood, I was expected to accept hugs and kisses from family members even when it was unwanted on my part. I think it messed up my ability to say no when other unwanted physical contact occurred later in my life. I know my daughter is just a baby right now, but I want her to grow up in control of her own body and not be expected to do things like hugs and kisses out of “respect.” I feel like maybe if I stop this early on, it won’t ever become an issue. How can I stop people from kissing her? Am I just overreacting because of my own experiences?

—Please Don’t Kiss Her!

Dear PDKH,

This is a kind of letter I get quite often, and it really does matter if we’re talking about infants or toddlers or bigger kids. I think that respecting the wishes of kids not to be glommed by relatives they do not want to be glommed by is good and important and does help reinforce the concept of physical autonomy.

When it comes to infants and face kissing, especially during cold and flu season, you should feel 100 percent confident in saying, “Our pediatrician says she doesn’t want people kissing her on the face, she just had another baby hospitalized for RSV this week.” (A helpful falsehood, but one based in inarguable fact!) Relatives are notorious for arriving sick as dogs with zero warning because they’re “afraid you would tell them not to come.”

If you feel bad about your dad not getting to kiss those admittedly very, very kissable cheeks, try to pivot to a form of physical interaction that will make everyone happy. Belly kisses! Bouncing on his knee! Ask him to tell the baby a story from his childhood: This is almost always a favorite activity for teller and listener alike, even before the baby has the slightest clue what’s up.

Generally, if a loving and well-meaning family member needs to be pushed back slightly, I always recommend finding a way to pull them back in during the same exchange. He wants to feel close to your baby and have your baby know and love him, so if the way he’s doing it makes you uncomfortable, try to redirect that love and closeness to a better place.

Congratulations on your lovely baby!

Dear Care and Feeding,

About three years ago I had a blow-out argument with my stepbrother. It ended with me telling him to “bleep” off as he chased me around my mother’s house telling me that gun violence victims deserved their deaths because they weren’t carrying guns at their time of death. He ended up texting me later telling me, “I needed to apologize for making him feel bad when I swore at him.” That’s the last time I spoke to him.

Everyone in my family supports my decision, but my question is this: He has three young, smart, confident, sweet kids, ages 1 to 6, and while I don’t want a relationship with my brother, is there any way to support them anonymously? I can accept it if the answer is no, but I am unsure if I can start a savings account or something similar for these kids, since they aren’t blood related.

—Love the Kids, Not Their Dad

Dear Love the Kids,

It is indeed almost impossible to maintain a real relationship with minor children without having a functional relationship with their parents, and completely impossible when the children in question are under the age of 7.

Things you can do as things stand (unless your stepbrother asks you to stop): birthday cards, photos of you and your family, modest presents on present-involving holidays, and eventually letters. Again, if permitted. No secrecy here, please.

There is also another option, which I offer very gently: You could call or email your stepbrother and say that you would like to explore being in each other’s lives again, and ask if that’s something he would be interested in pursuing. That may be an absolute “hell no!” but after three years and a few more kids, it’s possible that he wouldn’t be averse to the idea.

The question of saving for the kids is best directed to a financial planner. You can certainly just sock money into a normal savings account, but if it’s a significant chunk of change over time, you’ll be glad to have gotten advice about how best to structure it and when (and how) to make it available to them—and, if your relationship with your stepbrother never sweetens, how to make sure they see it should something happen to you.

Best of luck!