Care and Feeding

When Does Caring Become Overstepping?

My nephew wants to go to college, and I can offer him advice his mother just can’t. Should I?

Woman talking to teen boy while pointing at a computer.
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Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

Recently my 16-year-old nephew came to stay with us for a few days. He lives four hours away in a small country town, and this is the first time he has ever visited us by himself. He is homeschooled by his mother (this is not very common here) and it emerged in the course of our conversations that not only has his mother not provided any real direction for him on how he can get to university, but she has clearly lied to him about her own schooling: She has told him she excelled at school; my partner, her brother, knows she barely got through high school at all.

We don’t see this young man very often, but this is not the first time we’ve been made aware that his mother has constructed a fanciful version of her prior life. So far, we’ve not really said anything to contradict (or for that matter support) what he has been told. We have just talked to him about our own efforts and education (we both have college degrees). I’ve also taken the liberty of doing some research on his options for college—he is very intelligent!—and given him some material to read. Hopefully he can find a path for himself. While I hate to be complicit in his mother’s lies, I don’t think there’s anything to gain by pointing out to him that we know better. Unfortunately, his uncle has a tendency to blurt out how she spent much of high school smoking dope.

Do we owe this kid anything beyond helping him figure out if university is the right next step for him?

—How Much am I Supposed to Do?

Dear HMaIStD,

You pose what I think are two entirely separate questions, so I’ll tackle them one at a time.

First there is the matter of being “complicit in” what you and your partner consider to be lies the boy’s mother has told him. They may indeed be lies. But I can think of other reasons this woman might have told her son a version of her youth that isn’t the one her brother remembers. Maybe her brother doesn’t know everything his sister did or didn’t do in high school. Or maybe things happened exactly as he recalls, but she can’t bear to think of them that way. Maybe she’s ashamed or deeply regretful. Maybe she just wants to offer her son what she thinks of as a better role model for him.

And what if these aren’t her stories at all? Maybe what he’s told you is his version of what his mother has told him—that is, maybe he’s cleaning up her act for her, both for her sake and his own. Here’s what I think about all these possibilities: It doesn’t matter.

I can’t tell what you mean when you say that you’ve “not really said anything” to confirm or deny the version of his mother’s life that he’s relayed, but I would encourage you to stay neutral and quiet. And your partner needs to learn not to blurt things out. (This is a helpful skill in many situations, not just this one, so it’s worth the effort it takes to be more discreet and exercise some self-control.)

The bottom line is that this is between the boy and his mother. It’s nobody else’s business.

What is your business—and this gets to the second question—is to offer him the information, practical help, support, and direction about the next step of his education that he is apparently not getting elsewhere. I believe you can do this without undermining his mother—and I think you should do this as an act of kindness for a young person you are in a unique position to help, thanks to your familial relationship and your own experience as a university graduate. Homeschooled or not, most kids need a lot of help at this point in their education. The fact is, homeschooled or not, most high school students (in the U.S. anyway) don’t get the college advising they need because their schools’ full-time advisers have too much on their plates—too many students, too many other responsibilities besides helping kids figure out whether and where they want to go to college.

As it happens, I do a lot of college advising myself, in part because I ended up teaching myself so much about the options and the process when it was time to help my daughter sort this out. The counselor at her public high school was able to give her about 10 harried minutes and no information about schools that met full financial need, much less learn what her other needs and desires might be. I didn’t want all that useful knowledge to go to waste, so after she went off to college, I started offering my help to my friends’ children. I also realized I could be of use to kids I didn’t know by doing this sort of advising in the public library and at schools willing to take me up on my offer. The kids I meet with are hungry for this help.

And your nephew may be as well, since he’s raising the subject with you. So go ahead—give him all the help you can. It’s what in my culture we call a mitzvah, a good deed that is a moral imperative. Helping children who need it, whenever we are in a position to do so, is always the right thing to do. And if your nephew’s needs in this area go beyond your own expertise—if, for example, there are courses he has not yet been homeschooled in that will be necessary if he is to apply to colleges—it would be a kindness to direct him to a resource that will be able to guide him, such as the Coalition for Responsible Home Education, where you might even walk him through such matters as creating a transcript for college applications. There are lots of other resources online, such as FairTest, and sites that offer lists of colleges that will meet full financial need.

The short answer to the question of how much you are supposed to do is all you can. And you can—and must—do this without ever telling this child that his mother is a liar.

Dear Care and Feeding,

We are blessed to live in a quiet, safe neighborhood where my 7-year-old daughter has three friends her own age within easy walking distance. Two of the girls are very polite and nice. They say please when asking for a snack and help clean up when they are done playing. The third girl—let’s call her G—is not so well-behaved, and over the past few months her behavior has worsened. Recently G directed one of the other girls to go door to door to ask for “money for charity” (something we only learned because another neighbor mistook the child who had knocked on her door for ours and asked us about the questionable-sounding “fundraiser”). More recently, she was caught taking small possessions from another girl’s house and going door to door again, this time to sell the items she had stolen (my daughter was unfortunately present for this). We had a serious talk with our daughter about how it is wrong to take things and even worse to sell what does not belong to you. The buyers were kind enough to return the items once they were made aware of what had happened, but G’s parents refused to even talk to their daughter about her behavior.

While I don’t want to treat a 7-year-old like a pariah, I also don’t want to have to check her pockets before she leaves my house to see if she took anything from our home. Is it OK to exclude her from group play date invitations from now on and forbid my daughter to visit her? What else can I do?

—There’s a Grifter in the Neighborhood

Dear TAGitN,

There are so many things that puzzle me about your letter, from how the neighbors were “made aware” that they had bought stolen goods, to why they were buying anything from a small child, to what sort of conversation led you to believe G’s parents refused to discuss this all with their daughter. But honestly, I’m not sure any of that matters: The theme that runs through all the possibilities is that this child is in difficulty. Children don’t go door to door asking for money—whether for a charity they’ve made up or in exchange for items they have lifted during visits to their friends’ homes—unless something is very wrong. The question you seem to be asking is: How is this your problem? And can you make it go away by banishing the child from your child’s life?

Well, sure, you can make the problem go away for you—maybe. But kicking this little girl out of your daughter’s life may cause some new problems, both between you and your daughter (you say nothing about how she feels about her friend and nothing about the group’s dynamics, other than the implication that G takes charge and the others passively do what she tells them to) and down the road for your child, who will pay close attention to the way you handle this and absorb that lesson.

So the real question, I think, is: What do you want to model for your daughter about what we do when someone is troubled—and in trouble—as G appears to be? Do you try to help in some way, or do you close your eyes and heart to it?

Sometimes just letting someone else’s child into your life—into your home—is a great kindness. It’s amazing, really, how much good it’s possible to do for other people’s children simply by giving them a safe place to hang out and demonstrating for them—in the course of going about your everyday life—what it looks like to be safe, happy, cared for, and supported. And if you need an incentive beyond extending kindness toward a child, I can offer it to you in the added benefit of what you will teach your daughter if you do so.

In any case, it is not OK to exclude a 7-year-old from play dates with her friends. It would be more than unkind, it would be cruel, to treat this little girl “like a pariah.” At the risk of repeating myself (for today is It Takes a Village Day, I guess): We all have the moral responsibility to be of help to other people’s children, not only our own. That responsibility is even greater if certain basic principles are not being taught at the child’s home.

You have the chance to make a difference in this little girl’s life and to help your daughter learn how to make a difference, too. Don’t you want to teach her that being helpful means more than putting away one’s toys?

And you don’t have to go through her friend G’s pockets every time she leaves your house. Surely there are other ways to handle it if you’ve reason to fear that she is sneaking into your bedroom and cleaning out your jewelry box. You can insist that the girls play where you can keep an eye on them at all times, which is probably not a bad idea anyway at this juncture.
If G has been pocketing small toys and other odds and ends that aren’t “valuables,” you might try redefining these thefts as “mistakes” and having all three visitors ostentatiously check to see if they’re leaving only with what they have brought: “It’s so easy to get things mixed up when you’re having fun playing!” Whatever you do, see if you can find your way clear to thinking about yourself as part of the village that is raising this child. It sounds like she could use some more people in her corner. But then of course we all could, couldn’t we?

—Michelle

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