Care and Feeding

My Daughter Loves R. Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly”

I usually don’t shy away from tough conversations, but I have no idea how to handle this one.

A worried woman looks on as a girl dances.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by fizkes/iStock/Getty Images Plus and Thomas Northcut/iStock/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,

My 7-year-old loves R. Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly.” Her class learned it for a school assembly a couple of years ago, and now she regularly asks Alexa to play it when we’re hanging out at home. As you might imagine, I’m not thrilled at the prospect of supporting this artist (though I’m under no illusion that the $0.0000002 he earns per play makes an appreciable difference either way) or leaving an avenue open for her to become more of a fan.

At the same time, I know she would be pretty distressed by even a scaled-back explanation of why we shouldn’t listen to it, especially given the positive feelings she associates with this song. I generally don’t shy away from the big conversations with her but am feeling reluctant to have this one now for some reason. Should I? And if so, what’s the best way to explain the situation?

—F. Lummoxed

Dear F. Lummoxed,

I think that, indeed, it would probably do more harm than good to try to cut off her access to “I Believe I Can Fly” at this point, which she likely associates more with the fun of learning to perform it at her assembly than with the artist himself.

I would not be OK with my child exploring more songs by R. Kelly, which may involve some monkeying around with Alexa settings, and would be comfortable explaining to her in a few years that R. Kelly is a bad and dangerous person (going into the amount of information you think she can handle at that point) and you do not want to support him by listening to his music. If this conversation feels weird and uncomfortable, it is. It’ll be a good dry run for about 80 similar conversations you’ll get to have over the next 10 or so years until she has her own money and her own place to live, and can make her own ethical consumption choices.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My 14-year-old daughter is a straight-A student, musician, artist, funny, and just generally awesome. She is also a … a recluse, might be a word to describe it. Over the last several years, her friends have dwindled until now she socializes not at all. She seems content to hang with us, spend most of her time in her room drawing, engaging on social media (where I, ahem, happen to know she has very nice, supportive communities), doing homework, etc. I have encouraged her to invite her last friend over (too tired, doesn’t feel like it) suggested sports (hates!), theater, camps, lessons, etc. to no avail.

I am an introvert myself so I really get this a lot, but I worry. Her big sister was a social rock star, so I have no experience with this. I have asked directly about depression, and she assures me no, and I don’t think I see it either. She says she has friends at school and online. She is also gay and we are super supportive and so is our school and community but I think she doesn’t quite connect with the straight girls. Any words of wisdom? Is she OK? How can I help, if help is even needed, without labeling or embarrassing her as “friendless” or “the one we are worried about”?

—Introvert Worried About My Introvert

Dear Worried,

Obviously, I cannot confidently tell you that your daughter is fine and well and crushing it at the game of life, based solely on this letter, but … I don’t see a lot of reason for concern here. I am not, in fact, convinced this has much to do with introversion, which is an artificial (though not useless!) label that can smother a conversation about a real live teenager who, for a variety of reasons, seems to enjoy doing the majority of her socializing online (which is very different from not socializing at all).

In terms of action items, I would ask her if there are meetups for queer teens in your area, or if she has any interest in starting one. Ask her more questions about what interests her and intrigues her, what she thinks about doing after high school, who she admires, etc. Getting to know your child deeply is never wasted time, even if it can sometimes feel like pulling teeth with teens.

A final note: Your use of “ahem” makes me wonder if you are monitoring her social media usage without her knowledge. I have zero issue with parents monitoring a child’s use of the internet (it’s a horror show out there), but I do want to make sure that this is in the spirit of “Here is a phone we pay for, we reserve the right to see what you’re doing with it and limit its functionality” and not “I am silently watching you talk to and interact with your friends.” This is not vital to your question but something to think about.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

Recently I took my 2-year-old to public storytime at the local bookstore. My daughter took the only empty seat next to another young girl (who I discovered later is 5). Note, the girl’s mother was not in earshot.

As I am getting my own daughter situated, the young girl starts talking to me and said something like this: “I don’t have a baby sister or brother. Or a daddy. I have two moms … and an older sister. My moms don’t live in the same house. They argue a lot. … They are getting divorced.” She was so sad! My heart broke for her, but I did not know how to respond. I told her that I understood how that could make her very sad, that I was sorry to hear that, and that I hoped she would enjoy storytime.

How do you recommend adults respond to not-their-children pouring their hearts out? And this didn’t happen, but in case it ever does: What if the child wants a hug?

—I Am a Mommy, but Not Your Mommy

Dear Not-Your-Mommy,

Ah, this comes up a lot, more so, I think, once you are yourself a parent, as though kids can clock a “sympathetic mom-type” at 40 paces when in need. Five-year-olds, as you will see when your own daughter reaches that age, can invent truly fantastical tales. I know children who have related to me with tearful sincerity how a bear has eaten both of their feet and “most of my arms” while calmly watercoloring. The other thing about 5-year-olds is that they can absolutely spill all their parents’ most personal and private business at the drop of a hat. Ask any teacher how much dirt they know about their students’ parents!

In this instance, I think you behaved exactly correctly. You validated her feelings, repeated them back to her, and then moved the conversation back to the more cheerful topic of storytime. Had she asked for a hug, I likely would have given her one, or possibly counteroffered with a high-five.

Since you do not know the girl’s mother at all, I would leave the matter exactly where it stands. If you did know the mother, I might say, “Polly was a little fragile today” and then see if this transitions into, “Yes, my wife and I are splitting up, it’s a hard time” or a slight chill in the air. But I think you handled things very well in the moment.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My 4-year-old son is obsessed with cars and rough play and obvious “boy” things but also loves hair clips, jewelry, unicorns, and dresses. I gave him a dress for Christmas that he loves and wears multiple days in a row until it’s completely rank.

His best friend at day care is the coolest girl and they’ve been joined at the hip since age 1. Recently that connection was worn off a bit and he’s been hanging with a couple of particularly rough and macho boys. They taught him guns, sword fighting, and superheroes. I mean, that’s fine.

Today we came home and he asked for pigtails and a hair clip, which I gave him. I said he could do this at day care too if he wanted but he said he couldn’t because “pigtails are for girls.” He most definitely got that message from those boys—who are nice boys!—but gosh I’m bummed at how early the gender policing happens. I’m sad he’s distancing himself from his bestie and hanging with kids who teach him that it’s not OK for boys to wear skirts. I know I can’t do anything about his bestie, but how can I help him feel confident about owning what he likes in the schoolyard?

—So It Begins

Dear So It Begins,

Four-year-olds cycle through so many friends and interests that I suspect this question will resolve itself much faster than you think. The important thing is that his new friends appear to be nice and he is genuinely enjoying his time with them.

Reiterating that he can wear whatever he likes (as long as it’s clean and covers the vital regions) is extremely important and so is recognizing that this extends to his right to not wear pigtails and skirts at day care if he’s not into doing that right now. You can and should tell him that boys can wear pigtails, and that his friends are incorrect to say otherwise, but I don’t think it makes sense to push him out of his personal comfort zone to make a point.

You can do things about his bestie! Try to encourage him to spend a bit more time with her by suggesting playdates or getting together to paint, play, dress up, whatever. It’s always valuable for kids to know that you can have a variety of friends and that it’s OK if you do certain things with some of those friends and different things with other friends. The spice of life, etc.

Keep supporting him in what he wants to wear and do, keep validating his friendships, and always listen to what he’s actually saying, and you’ll be doing a great job.

—Nicole

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