Care and Feeding

Can I Take My Kids to Bet on the Ponies?

Or should I acknowledge that my pleasant childhood memories of a day at the track come from a different time?

A close-up view of horses running a race.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo 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 have a low-stakes question for you that I could nonetheless use some outside input on. When I was a child in rural Ireland, a fun day out for my family was being taken to the local racecourse. My parents gave my sister and I tiny amounts of money to bet, and we would study the racing form intently, select our horses, scream our little hearts out at them, eat curry chips from the back of a van, and go home. We both loved horses, and these are some of my happiest childhood memories.

I now have two (still very small) kids of my own and have also become much more aware that, for many people, gambling is the exact opposite of a harmless childhood activity. My husband, a psychiatrist, feels that introducing our kids to it in this way is like buying an adorable baby dragon and ignoring its latent potentiality to burn the house down. I’m also increasingly aware that racing in the U.S. is not necessarily the hobbyist’s arena dominated by ordinary people who love their pets that it was in my childhood. What say you? Is there any way I can re-create this experience with my kids, or should it just be a fun story from the past to them in the manner of dial-up internet?

—Catch On to Curry Chips, America

Dear Chips,

My dad used to take me and my brother to the track at Pimlico when we were kids, and it was awesome. I’ve never taken my kids to the track, and you know what? That’s also been awesome. It’s natural to feel a desire to faithfully replicate everything we learned about being a child back in the olden days for our own children, but needless to say this strategy has its limits. Things change and not everything we learned back then, no matter how much we liked it, was exactly healthy or cool. Case in point: A lot more people now find horse racing cruel, barbaric, and unkind than used to, and as a result it has largely fallen out of favor.

The good news is your kids could never ever step foot on the track—and still have perfectly magical childhoods. There are other ways for them to be around horses, and there are other activities you can share with them: wholesome, fun activities that are still a good 20 years away from your kids casting them aside as archaic and problematic. I did think of taking my kids to the track, but the thing that stopped me was that I realized if my then–7-year-old animal-loving daughter asked me if the horses liked being hit and made to run, I wouldn’t honestly know how to answer her. That was enough for me to realize that it is their world now, not ours. And some things are perfectly fine left in my memories. Curry chips, however, are for the children. Let’s make this happen, America.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My 7-year-old son is terribly scared of Momo. He never encountered it on YouTube but after he heard about it on the news, things took a drastic turn. He has always been a very brave child—I would praise him about how brave he was. But now, he won’t even go to the bathroom without me. He won’t go to any room whatsoever without someone accompanying him. He sleeps between my husband and me, has nightmares, and wakes up crying. He has completely stopped using his iPad and would not let us watch the news for fear of seeing it on the news again.

I am trying my best to talk about it with him. He understands that it is fake but is still fearful. I keep reminding him how brave he is, and keep the conversations positive, but we are still struggling to get him back on track. Help!

—Kid Fears

Dear KF,

Look, things sound like they’re pretty on track right now. If you are 7 years old and you see Momo, which is quite frankly scary AF, then you’re going to be pretty uncomfortable until you are quite convinced that Momo isn’t going to pop up when you’re walking down the hallway. How many hallway trips would you need in order to be convinced? Fifty? A hundred?

Your son is responding to a traumatic event exactly as he should. It’s sitting in his mind, he’s imagining it happening when it’s not really happening, and he’s taken on hyper-vigilance. To be honest, bravery has nothing to do with it, and I think you may do a disservice focusing on a personal quality as the antidote to this. He doesn’t need to be brave. He needs to be cared for. At least until he outgrows this phase, which of course he will. I assure you he will not be 37 years old still sleeping between you and your husband for fear of a meme popping up.

Acknowledge and respect his fear for now. Let him know that he will have to go back to sleeping in his bed eventually, and strategize with him on ways that might happen sometime down the road. Maybe it’s a nightlight; maybe it’s you hanging with him in his room until he’s asleep; maybe it’s him falling asleep in your room and you carrying him to his, for now. Kids get scared because it’s a scary world over which they have little control. They get used to that, but it takes time, and the only thing accomplished by rushing them through that process is unhealed trauma. Be patient for now.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My fifth grader will be moving to a private school next year after finishing elementary school. The new school will have a mix of kids who’ve been there for years and new kids. My son is a cerebral, nerdy kid who’s struggled socially. He has a tendency to brag about his accomplishments when he feels insecure, or he gets excessively silly, and that doesn’t always go over well. What can I do to help my son navigate this transition socially? How can I encourage him to brag less and not repeat some of the mistakes (my word, not his!) that felled him in elementary school?

—Trying to Remain Chill in California

Dear Trying,

There is telling a kid something and then there is a kid learning something, and those two are just not the same thing. Kids need both, but we can’t make both happen on our own. You certainly seem to understand that some of the things your son does may make for a rocky time socially, but I can assure you that if you make it your goal to preemptively train these qualities out of him then not only will you fail, but you’ll also communicate to him that you have a problem with who he fundamentally is.

Of course, as a parent you never want that, so I would suggest a loving distance here. You can very occasionally and very gently mention some of these things as they come up in your interactions with him, but you are not the real teacher here. Experience is. If he runs into social trouble, the most you may be able to do is help him understand why it’s happening. That doesn’t mean he’ll listen, though. Most growth comes from intrinsic motivation, and he’ll do what he wants to do as long as he wants to do it and until he’s done doing it.

And there’s also the wonderful possibility that he may not have a painful social experience at all! Life is full of surprises. But if he does, then what he’ll need from home is not criticism or correction but love and acceptance. Practice that first, and trust time and his own intelligence to do some of the other work for you. Good luck.