Dear Care and Feeding,
My eighth-grade son has had a series of “girlfriends” in the past year; as is normal for middle school, these relationships were short-lived and limited to text messages and time spent together within the confines of school and school activities. One of the exes is friendly with him still, one is decidedly not, and the most recent ex seems to be somewhere in the middle.
I periodically monitor his texts and emails (which he knows, but I think sometimes forgets) and I have talked to him about appropriate messages, pictures, etc. So far I have not seen any issues there. (He does not use social media accounts.) His most recent ex accused him via text of being “handsy” and “perverted,” and of “rushing things” in her kiss-off text message. As he has spent no time outside of school with this girl, this behavior could have only occurred during school or in after-school activities. I’ve not gotten any communications from any teachers or staff that they’ve ever witnessed anything inappropriate. He’s the type of kid who gets excellent grades and glowing comments from teachers and adults about how mature, polite, and personable he is.
I do recall chaperoning a field trip last spring when he was “dating” Ex No. 2 and thinking I saw him brush a hand across the girl’s bottom as they walked through a crowded amusement park. At the time I convinced myself it was an accidental brush and not worth mentioning, but in light of this most recent “kiss-off” message from Ex No. 3, I am worried this is how he behaves with his “girlfriends,” given that at least one seems to have an issue with it.
Frankly, I had way more personal freedom at his age to hang out with my boyfriends and no parents around to witness any of my middle school antics with the opposite sex—and of course no cellphone for my parents to monitor. As his mom, should I be confronting him about his latest ex’s message? Giving him a general talk about appropriate dating behavior? Banning … handsiness? Please help—I want to raise a good and decent man here.
—The Handyman’s Mom
Yes, I think it’s time to continue what I hope is a robust conversation already in progress about boundaries and consent. You should be clear with your son that sexually touching someone without their consent is never remotely acceptable or appropriate under any circumstances, and you should talk honestly about why it’s not OK. Not just from the angle of “look at the bad things that can happen to you, Son, if you do this,” but also by explaining what the impact of that kind of behavior is on other people—how it fucks with a person’s self-esteem and makes a person feel powerless, what women and girls have to do to navigate the world while also navigating feeling unsafe and unsupported in places that are supposed to be safe, like a school field trip. I don’t suspect that I’m telling you anything that you don’t already know, but I am giving you, if you need it, permission to let him know these things. I think your conversation with him should be honest and should in no way seek to protect him from the truth.
Finally, I think you are totally allowed to open up a conversation about why his last relationships ended and to provide greater perspective. He may or may not be taking seriously the feedback he received from this girl, but you may gently and clearly back up that feedback and help him to think more deeply about what he’s doing and what it means. This is a really important age, and the messaging you do or don’t give him about integrity, honesty, and genuine kindness and respect will last for a very long time. Good luck.
Dear Care and Feeding,
My spouse and I are planning to pull the goalie in about six months. Part of our timing (in addition to other factors) was to have the birth coincide with my parents’ retirement—they live close and have suggested that they want to be involved. This would be their first grandchild.
They recently told us that they are planning a six-month trip to another country shortly after retirement. I’m really pleased that they’re living their dreams, but now I’m feeling freaked out at the prospect of new parenthood without the close-by parents I’d been imagining.
My mom suggested that they’d wait until the baby was 6 months old and then be gone from “the 6-months-to-a-year phase.” That feels to me like the time when we’d be emerging from the newborn bunker and wanting to get out more, and then they’d maybe finally enjoy spending time with their first grandchild (plus first birthday??).
I know people raise kids far from their parents all the time, and that it is only six months, and that my parents are independent people who of course can’t plan their lives around us, but … still feeling freaked out and sad.
Should we push back our own plans until after they’re back? Push them forward? Should I just tell them how I’m feeling? Thus far I’ve been supportive and haven’t mentioned that. Or am I overestimating the impact their absence will have on us?
—What About Us?
I don’t know how to say this gently, so I probably won’t. You are stressing about nothing and you should definitely get over it. I might be in the minority here, but I think of having parents who are around and willing to help with newborns as something not unlike a trust fund: Bully for you if you have that, but not having it should in no way be interpreted as a crisis. Plus, as many people know, planning to get pregnant is no guarantee of the timing of getting pregnant, so all this worry might be for nothing anyway.
Having a newborn is super hard. It can be exhausting, overwhelming, and scary. This of course is in addition to the phenomenal and nearly unspeakable amount of love and absolute heart-trembling beauty that comes from that little tiny human with her little tiny feet. (I want to eat those little feet!) It’s hard, but it’s not so hard that you should tell the very same people who stayed up all night to take care of you when you were a newborn that they should skip their presumably well-earned vacation. Do not push back against the plans of grown adults simply because you need them to volunteer to help you. They devoted their lives to you for decades. Be grateful for them, and wish them great love and fun on their trip.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
I just went through a high-conflict divorce. My ex violated the rules of Divorce 101—don’t blame the kids for the divorce, and don’t trash-talk the other parent to the kids. While I had a good relationship with our two teenage daughters last summer, it seems the relentless campaign to poison the kids’ relationship with me has borne fruit, and today I have zero relationship with the kids. Two days ago, I received a “!!” response to a text from our 17-year-old, which I took as a little victory. My texts usually go unreplied to. This daughter refuses to go into counseling, and both girls currently live full time with their mom. In our divorce decree it says, “Both parties shall at all times promote and foster a child’s relationship with the other parent.” Should I demand this older daughter get put into counseling? Her last time at a counselor was almost four months ago, and she spent the entire hour without speaking. Or do I just remain patient that parenting is a long game and hopefully one day I’ll get my daughters back?
—Poisoned and Suffering
You are right that one of the rules of Divorce 101 is don’t bad-mouth your ex in front of the kids. Another rule, however, is this: Truly get over what your ex has done or is doing, and focus instead on keeping your side of the street clean. The reason this is so vitally important to a healthy post-divorce life is that the more time you spend nursing your resentments against your ex, the more likely it is that you will justify bad behavior toward said ex, needlessly damaging them as well as your kids—not to mention deepening the cycle of hurt and revenge. This is a path you want to stay off completely. As hard as it is to hear and accept this, what your ex is doing or saying is not—nor should it ever be—your primary concern.
Your daughters may indeed be pulling away from you because of how their mother is talking about you. They may, however, be pulling away because they are teenagers and that’s what teenagers do. They may also be pulling away because they find your behavior hurtful in some way. Or maybe it’s just because they are living full time with their mom and not seeing you a whole lot. The great thing is that all these scenarios call for the same response from you: Be a good parent. Give what you can to them, love them, support them how they need to be supported, and demand nothing in return.
Stop worrying about what you imagine your ex is and isn’t saying. Kids are smart, and no matter what parents say, they always figure out the truth in the long run. So your only job at this point is to make sure that the truth about you is a good one. Good luck.
Note: Due to an error on my part, when this column was published it included a paragraph Carvell had cut following a clarifying email exchange with the letter-writer. Once I was alerted to my error, I updated the post, removing that paragraph. —Dan Kois, Care and Feeding editor
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