Care and Feeding

My Daughter, the Wallflower

I’m a wreck about my daughter’s abysmal social life.

Girl quietly playing alone.
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 can’t seem to stop obsessing over my 8-year-old daughter’s abysmal social life. I realize that this has more to do with me than her, and I am working on addressing my anxiety, but that will not help my daughter.

To give you a sense of her, she’s funny, sweet, passionate, silly. She can also be a bit imperious (she likes to be right), easily embarrassed (so it’s hard for her to put herself out there and she can shut down pretty quickly), and is learning more slowly than she should about not invading others’ personal spaces (I think she tries approximating intimacy by sitting close to other kids or putting her arm around them and doesn’t seem to notice when they do not like it). Around other kids she tries starting conversations by announcing loudly something like “We saw The Lion King yesterday” and then either repeats it until someone comments or she’ll take their silence as complete rejection, gives up, and walks off to solitude.

She’s told me that she wishes she were “cool” and points out girls in her grade who have this ineffable quality. As far as I can see, the main difference between my daughter and these girls is that these girls aren’t obviously needy and desperate for friends; they have a confidence that my daughter never has had, and I’m not sure why. We sign her up for activities, but there’s only one little girl who ever contacts us for play dates. And the last time she came over, they seemed to have a hard time coming up with things to do. I found this girl riding my daughter’s bike while my kid sat on the lawn reading a book.

She’s very excited that she’s old enough now to attend our library’s after-school game days with her friends, but when she said this, all I could think was: What friends? I am already envisioning my heart breaking while watching kids avoid her while she quietly sets up Monopoly or something. She’s is in a smaller public school system, and I am afraid she’s going to get pigeonholed as a weirdo. How can I help her make friends?

—My Daughter, the Wallflower

Dear MDtW,

No parent wants to see their kid fall down, get hurt, or fail in any way. But every parent will, inevitably, see precisely that.

There’s certainly stuff you can do to facilitate her social life: model social interaction for her, support her in joining teams or clubs, help schedule play dates and that kind of thing. But what you can’t do—no matter how much you want to—is get too involved when a play date ends up with one kid reading and the other riding a bike.

Your kid wants to be cool—everyone does!—but does she feel uncool? She seems more optimistic than you do about her chances of making friends or making inroads toward “cool.” So I worry about your skepticism over things like what will happen at game day at the local library. Maybe she’ll be ignored and feel sad about that; maybe she’ll be ignored and feel fine about that; maybe she’ll make a friend and have fun; maybe she’ll play with some new kid and not have fun. But you can’t manage any of that for her. What you can do is help her process these feelings, whether those are happiness, sadness, or indifference.

Your daughter might be pigeonholed as a weirdo; your daughter might indeed be a weirdo. She may find a friend nonetheless, or it may take a few years for her to find her people. It’s also possible—and my hunch—that you’re overreacting. There are quite a few steps between Queen Bee and complete outcast, and your daughter may be comfortable where she is, even if you’re not. Stay focused on your actual task as a parent (to be loving and supportive and help mold a good person), which is the same whether your kid is Miss Popularity or not.

Dear Care and Feeding,

True or false: Home rules are also rules everywhere else?

Our issue is “no jumping on furniture.” This has been a rule since my daughter could jump on furniture. Grandma says that it isn’t a rule in her house. I think it should be, particularly because it’s a safety issue, and also because it’s disrespectful to jump on other people’s furniture. I’m not walking around denying my child fun at every turn, I promise.

—Rules Are Rules?

Dear Rules Are Rules,

I love your deceptively simple question.

What’s best? To concede to grandmother’s laxity as a demonstration of respect, or to stand firm because that’s the only way to get kids to follow rules in the first place?

Being a parent is a bit like being a dictator: You determine arbitrary laws, you enforce them, and then sometimes you don’t, and eventually your kids realize that your power is just a matter of their perception. Maybe this is your first glimmer of your own inevitable obsolescence: You say no jumping on the furniture, Grandma says no big deal, and your kid learns only that rules are mostly meaningless.

Of course you don’t do all this to deny your child fun; you do it to mold them into your ideal of a good person. One who doesn’t jump on furniture, or chew with her mouth open, or scream instead of communicating, or burp at the dinner table, or pee in her pants.

I think you have to decide how important this rule is to you. If Grandma said, yes, brush your teeth with frosting, or put vodka in your Cheerios, or watch HBO for seven hours straight, that might require a reckoning. I think you’ll still be able to live with yourself if you tell your kid, “OK, furniture jumping is fine at Grandma’s but nowhere else.” As for whether home rules apply in the world at large—I think the answer is maddeningly vague: Sometimes they do, and sometimes they don’t.

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

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I’m a new mom. Sort of.

I found out I was pregnant two months into a new relationship. After appropriately losing our minds, my significant other (who was extremely supportive) and I decided to place our child for adoption. We also decided to keep this a secret from all but one member of our families.

We went through with a private adoption where we picked the parents, and I saw it all as the best-case scenario given the circumstances. It was, and will most likely remain, the most difficult and devastating experience of my life.

All we’re left with is—now what? The father and I are still together. We are committed to our relationship while also committed to giving each other space to heal individually so that we don’t become only bonded by this experience.

Again, most of my friends and family don’t even know that I was pregnant, and friends who know understandably don’t know what to do or say. I’m hoping you might know of some online or community support resources that I don’t know how to look for.

I see a therapist, but would love to try connecting with other birth parents. It’s an experience that’s so stigmatized and personal, I guess, that there seems to be no visibility, no space for people like me, and it’s contributing to me losing my mind.


Dear Unmoored,

Thank you for writing. I’m glad you’re seeing a therapist, though it’s clear what you need is a human connection to a specific peer group. I would first reach out to the social workers or attorneys who facilitated your adoption placement for recommendations on local groups or organizations. There are a handful on social media, too—make a fake account on Facebook (against the rules, sure, but protect your privacy) and poke around for terms like birth mother and see if you can find one that feels right to you. If neither of those is helpful, I would call an adoption agency in the nearest urban area and ask one of the social workers there for their recommendations.

While my advice is pretty basic, I wanted to write back to you because I’m a parent by adoption. So maybe it’ll be somewhat helpful (to me, possibly, more than you) for me to say: You are a mom, no “sort of” about it. You made an incredibly difficult choice, one that you should see as an act of parental love. It’s important to acknowledge that this choice was devastating. Let yourself continue to say that—not as a way to sink into despair but as a way to confront it frankly. The gratitude of the family you helped make will not help you heal, but I hope it’s something you can hold onto nonetheless.

Your desire to heal as an individual speaks to your levelheaded approach to your relationship. But I don’t think you and your partner should feel you cannot discuss this at all. Perhaps it would be beneficial for you to see a therapist together; perhaps you already do.

You have your own reasons for keeping this from your family; maybe over time you will be able to be honest with a relative who might be supportive. You generously defend your friends whom you have told. If you have a friend whose response has disappointed you, perhaps you should tell them, “Hey, I need to talk about this, and I just need you to listen, because you’re my friend and that’s your job.”

I hope you’re able to unburden yourself with another mother who’s gone through what you have via one of the paths I recommended above. I think you will have complex feelings about this for the rest of your life. But I do not think you will always feel like you are losing your mind. I hope that even writing this letter offered some kind of catharsis, and that hearing this response will be some kind of comfort. I’m rooting for you, and the child that you carried, and I’m sure that the family you helped make are as well. Good luck.

Dear Care and Feeding,

What is the etiquette for dealing with strangers who criticize your parenting when your kids actually aren’t behaving very well?

I was in a cafe with my sister-in-law and our kids (my 6- and 4-year-old boys and my 3-year-old niece). After the kids finished eating, they got a little rambunctious. The 4-year-old grabbed a toy from his brother and ran off, resulting in a predictably loud reaction, and the 3-year-old started trotting back and forth to the garbage can from our table with napkins and such. As my sister-in-law and I were settling them down, an older woman marched over and started lecturing us on the kids’ behavior.

Her opening line was “I raised two kids who are a lawyer and a therapist,” to which I answered, “Good for you,” hoping she would catch the sarcasm and think better of the rest of what she was about to say. No such luck. She went on to ask, “Why are you letting them treat this place like a day care?” and so on. When my sister-in-law tried to politely point out that we were correcting the loud voices and running, she snapped, “Well, they keep doing it. That is just unacceptable.” We didn’t say anything else, and she ran out of steam and left. We laughed it off (wondering out loud if future lawyers never run around in public!), but now I think we could have handled it differently.

No question this woman was out of line. But I can’t deny that the kids were rowdy (although I didn’t think it was that horrendous, and we were in the process of addressing the issue when she approached us).

I don’t want to be one of those moms who let their kids run wild in public. Should I have apologized for their behavior? Should we have left immediately?

Should I have pointed out that while I myself have an advanced degree, I do not choose to measure the success of my parenting by my kids’ eventual professional attainments (or by their current impulsivity, for that matter)? Is there a good rule of thumb for these kinds of situations?

—Mother of (Sometimes Naughty) Dragons

Dear Mo(SN)D,

When someone violates etiquette, as this intruding stranger did, we sometimes feel more pressure to adhere to it. A blanket response that I like is “Thank you for your opinion,” with as much sarcasm as you like, though that’s a nuance lost on the kind of crazy old coot who reprimands strangers’ small children by pointing out that her own children were, decades ago, well-behaved.

Sure, your kids were rowdy. Even the most darling children sometimes are. You don’t want to be a mom who lets her kids run wild in public, but that doesn’t mean they won’t, sometimes, run wild in public. You can apologize for their naughtiness, though you’re probably more inclined to when strangers aren’t being jerks to you. It’s probably best to focus on what you can control (your kids’ behavior) than what you can’t (adult stranger’s behavior).


More Care and Feeding

My son, who just turned 5, has a friend from his previous school, who just turned 4. She’s cute, but demanding, spoiled, and hard to have around. She’s also completely obsessed with my son. It’s gotten to be too much to handle, and I’m ready to cut ties. Can I do that?