Dear Care and Feeding,
I was quite surprised last weekend when my eighth-grade daughter was invited to a coed party last weekend that the parents knew about, but for which they weren’t present. I did not think to ask if parents were present, and my daughter genuinely did not know this would be the case. My daughter is not inclined to get into trouble, and nothing happened at the party—when I arrived to pick her up, the kids had just sat down to a game of truth or dare. The following weekend, the same kid had another party, approved by the parents, with no supervision. The kid is a responsible, good kid, but I am alarmed by parents at this age allowing an unsupervised party. I did not let my daughter go. I believe that she’s at too much risk to be put in an uncomfortable situation.
Apparently, I’m the only one who objected to the party. I spoke to the few moms I know. They expressed discomfort but didn’t want their kids to miss out. I really wanted to call the parents who allowed this and ask, “What are you thinking?!?” but that’s hard to do with no relationship. (My daughter moved schools in middle school, and I don’t have a strong network in the new school.)
I’m struggling to figure out how to navigate this new era. I think I can contain the “no parties without adults” for now. But I’m not sure how long. And I know I can’t forever. Otherwise, she’s likely to make the same decision that I did in high school, which was to lie to my parents so I didn’t have to sacrifice my social life. But I’m also very concerned about what is now innocent behavior becoming not so innocent, and making sure that my daughter has the skills to navigate it. When is she ready? And I do think there’s good reason to worry here—we live in Marin County, California, which has the awesome distinction of topping the lists for teen alcohol-related ER admissions.
—Where Are the Chaperones?
As someone who’s taught and tutored students from both Sir Francis Drake and San Marin high schools, it’s hard for me not to lean on my observations (judgments?) about Marin County teens here. It is a different kind of place, once described to me as combining all the smugness of Berkeley with all the shallowness of Los Angeles. (I was raised in L.A. I can say that. Don’t any of you outsiders dare talk trash about my messy, beautiful, disgusting hometown.)
Unfortunately for you, Marin is also the place where you are raising your kid, which means that if the values of your community aren’t aligned with your own, then you have to parent upstream. You have to do things that suck like being the only parent saying no to something that everyone else is cool with. It means you have to try to protect your kid from the entire outside world.
But it also means something else difficult. It means you have to accept that your kid is going to do things that you aren’t ready for. You cannot change the world to meet your kid. Your only option is to raise your kid to operate safely in the world. If you live in Marin, and kids are having parties without parents, and parents are all cool with that, and your daughter’s friends are all doing it, then it doesn’t matter how much you try to prevent it—it’s going to happen. So, you can hold the line all you want, but you also have to be really honest and forthright with your daughter about what you fear, why you fear it, and what she can do about it.
Tell her directly that your concern is drinking. Tell her that you know that alcohol and kids is a frequently dangerous combination and that it is very likely that by the time she graduates from high school, someone she knows will die an alcohol-related death. Tell her that her county tops the list for alcohol-related teen ER admissions. And perhaps most importantly, tell her that if she’s ever in a situation where she feels worried or unsafe about anything—drugs, sex, alcohol, violence—that she and her friends can call you and you will come and extract them, no questions asked, no yelling or punishment to worry about.
You can and should maintain a no-parties-without-adults rule until at least 10th grade, and no matter how it looks now, I can guarantee that you are not the only parent uncomfortable with this. But in the end, your real task is to raise a kid who knows how to keep herself safe in a world where other people are making dangerous choices.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
My husband and I are having a bit of a disagreement. Our son has been invited to the birthday parties of a couple of friends in his day care class. We’ve been to one of the three parties so far and it was fun for the kids but seemed like a lot of work, money, and stress for the parents. I’m inclined not to throw our soon-to-be 3-year-old a party because of the aforementioned work/stress/money, plus I’m pretty sure he won’t remember it, no matter how fun it is. My husband is worried that our kid will feel jealous of his party-having peers and that he’ll be somehow ostracized for not having a party. As the family’s chief logistics officer, I anticipate much of the planning of any party would fall to me and I’m not interested. Is there any harm in waiting another year (or two!) to have a birthday party? Also, is there any harm in not going to his friends’ parties until we can drop him off on his own?
If people are stressing out over 3-year-olds’ birthday parties, they’re either the Kardashians, or they’re doing it wrong. Stress level for this event should be minimal at best. Buy or bake a cake. Blow up some balloons. Send out an Evite. Plate some store-bought crudités for the adults. Time your party from 2–4 so you don’t have to feed anyone lunch or dinner. Invite no more than five families, kick their asses the hell out at 4 sharp, order a pizza for dinner, and have the kitchen clean by 7. Anything more for a kid that age is an obnoxious ego exercise designed entirely for the adults, and you don’t need that. Throw your kid a party, make your husband do exactly half of the work, and make it simple.
Anyway, it’s the love and cake that count.
• If you missed Monday’s Care and Feeding column, read it here.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
I am a 38-year-old woman who was diagnosed with ADHD this year. I have two school-aged sons. One, age 7, has an ADHD diagnosis—he can’t focus on schoolwork or chores, he has low impulse control, he’s chatty as all get-out, and his grades suffer. I see a lot of myself in the other, age 10: He does really well in school, but at home his hyperactive and impulsive nature comes out. He cannot resist the urge to talk back even when he knows it’s a bad idea; he can’t sit still; he has very volatile emotions. Because ADHD, to my understanding, must be evident in multiple settings (at home and at school), I don’t think he’s diagnosable, but our home life is a struggle.
Women and girls are harder to diagnose with ADHD because they utilize their shame and guilt about being “lazy” or “forgetful” or “disorganized” to motivate them to get through stuff like school and work. I’m feeling like my 10-year-old, though he’s a boy, is going through this. We have started taking him to a therapist to help him with his intense anger and impulsivity at home. I sat with him at the end of the last session and he could not sit down. He was going back-and-forth from chair to chair despite his therapist and me both asking him if he could sit down. Being cheeky, he sat on the floor. He gets straight A’s and I’m so grateful, but I don’t want him to grow up feeling “bad” when he makes a mistake, or thinking, “I’m so stupid” or “I forget everything!” Is there something more I can do?
—ADHD Only at Home
This is a letter I could have written six years ago. So, I am here from your future with a dire warning to your present that I wish someone would have given to me. Worry less about everything: grades, behavior, focus, rule-following, lost jackets, failed chores. And worry more about one thing and one thing only: mental health. Your kid is already demonstrating that he will fixate on small failures and take them extremely personally. That means that even if you do what might seem to you a normal amount of parental criticism—”Hey, you messed that up, buddy, you have to do better”—it will echo and expand in his head as incontrovertible proof of his worthlessness. This is obviously not the future you envision for your child.
What he needs is a strength- and asset-based approach. Notice what he does well and build around that. Is he particularly emotionally intelligent? Ask him his thoughts about emotional or moral topics. Spend your time talking with him about movies, stories, music, games. Does he like to make people laugh and play with people’s expectations? Get him joke books, show him magic videos, develop inside jokes with him. These are just random suggestions—I have no idea what your kid is into, but he’s into something and it’s your job to give him plenty of space to feel like his home is accepting of him. That he’s loved there, and trusted, and, most importantly, believed in.
Your kid will be fine. It may take him forever to learn the skills you want him to learn, but he will learn them. There is time for that. What there is not time for, however, is for him to recover from a feeling that he is not acceptable to his own family. So, start with that and let the rest happen on its own time. Stay with therapy, and be open to medication if it seems like it will help him where he struggles. All of this can be helpful, and none of this is a substitute for acceptance and love. That’s what only you can provide.
One final note: This my last Care and Feeding column for the foreseeable future. I’ve decided to head off to do other things. I have enjoyed and been made thoroughly humble by the opportunity to share my experience with parenting and—perhaps a little—with life.
It is impossible to do parenting perfectly. It is impossible not to screw it up. It is impossible to determine, with any real reliability, the precise outcome for your children, because they are people with their own issues—some of which come from you, some of which don’t, many of which are eventually out of your hands no matter where they began. It is impossible for your own fears, doubts, traumas, and insecurities not to show up in the way you treat your children. The point of parenting is not perfection; it is recovery and a willingness to get better. You can recover from mistakes. And your children can recover from you. But for that to happen there has to be enough humility, honesty, and willingness to admit where you need to get better and to take feedback on how to do that. As parents, we need to step back from our egos and fears and learn from our mistakes and from our children. We need to take our children’s feelings seriously, and that means we have to get over whatever fear, ego, or attachment stands in the way of us doing that.
Most of all, we have to prioritize love and connection. It doesn’t mean these are the only things parenting is about, but it does mean that they are the most important. On the rare occasion that there is a difficult choice between love and connection and anything else, my advice is: Choose love and connection.
There is a feeling I always think of, the feeling of holding my kids when they were about 4 years old. I think of their warmth and the fragility of their bodies, how I could feel their little bones through their skin, their little hearts beating and pumping life through them. I think of how responsible I felt for their care and safety, how all-encompassing and defining that love is. That feeling is a long way away from the anger I feel when they don’t put away the dishes, or fail biology, or dissemble about where they were and whom they were with last night. And in those unhappy moments, my parenting is driven by that anger, which of course is cover for fear. So what I’ve learned to do is to return—over and over again—to that feeling of love. The feeling of holding them, of caring for them and protecting them. Because it is my job. Because I am the adult. Because even when they are taller than me and can get to the mall by themselves to buy clothes that I won’t even know about for a week, they’re still children and they still need me to be a grown-up. Returning to that love is how we recover and how we grow. My final piece of advice is to go forth in that love, and return to it however and whenever you can. Thank you for letting me be of service.