Care and Feeding

What’s the Best Way to Help My Son’s Underprivileged School?

And how do I talk to him about it?

A woman opens a pocketbook to pull out cash while a man writes a check.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

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,

We are super excited to send our son to our neighborhood public school. It is the most diverse in the city, and it has a significant percentage of kids whose families are underprivileged. We make plenty of money. I am ready to write the checks and show up wherever we’re needed. My question is about how to discuss this with our son. I want to build a sense of community such that he understands that we help people who need help, but that he doesn’t feel “better” than anyone. How do I talk to him about this? Also, can I just donate money so he doesn’t have to sell wrapping paper? Or maybe so his whole class doesn’t have to sell wrapping paper? I can’t figure out how to navigate this territory.

—Trying to Help Without Hurting

Dear TtH,

Unless you can donate enough money to prevent the entire school from having to sell wrapping paper, I would advise against making a gift to prevent him or his classmates from participating in those much-loathed fundraisers—which can be a lot of fun and educational for the kids, no matter how annoying we find them as parents. There may be some need that you can solve without much fanfare, such as replacing a broken copy machine or purchasing enough crayons or toilet paper to last through the semester. (Yes, those school fundraisers are often for basic needs, not just fun trips or celebrations.)

The influx of new, moneyed students can be both a gift (more parents who have the resources to be engaged and supportive) and a curse (rising rents, class tensions, families demanding changes that run counter to the needs and desires of longtime residents). Speak to his classroom teacher and the principal about wanting to find some ways to support the school financially; just be sensitive to the fact that both of them (especially the teacher) may be earning less than they would if they were working in a wealthier area and may be a bit touchy around the subject of money. Ask that your donations or gifts are kept confidential so as not to create an awkward situation for your son, who’d likely prefer not to be known as the rich kid. I’d actually advise against telling him about your gifts as well.

Be sure that you and your spouse are sensitive when interacting with school employees, your child’s classmates, and their parents. Please don’t be the family at the PTA meeting harping about organic lunches when there are parents there worrying over having enough money to keep any kind of food in the house at all. Take the time to learn the school culture and offer to support change where it is most needed, not where it would simply fit your own expectations or desires.

As far as speaking to your son about the obvious class differences between him and his classmates, explain that most people aren’t fortunate enough to be as financially stable as his parents are and that you all are privileged to be able to have everything you need and much of what you want. However, he must also understand that having more money than other families does not mean that you work harder or are better than anyone else in any way. Explain how you got to where you are, whether it was a matter of sustaining family wealth or being the first in your family to be highly successful. In the meantime, he must understand the importance of being kind and treating everyone with respect, no matter how different they are. His privilege should not cause him any guilt, but he should be very grateful for what he has and never take it for granted.

Also, explain that family business is personal—that includes finances. Your son should not talk to his friends about how much money his family has and should also understand that some of the things that he can take for granted (regular vacations, dining out, car ownership) may be out of reach for his classmates’ parents. Encourage him to avoid talking about those things too much and to listen to how friends speak about their own households. There’s no need to brag about getting a ton of Christmas presents or going to a fancy party if his buddies are describing very different lifestyles. That doesn’t mean he has to hide everything that makes him happy, just that he has to develop a level of class sensitivity a bit earlier in life then he may have if he were surrounded by other well-off children.

Best of luck for a great school year.

Dear Care and Feeding,

How important is it for babies to “socialize” with other babies? My infant hasn’t met any other kids his age yet. Is it bad that he spends most of his time with grown-ups? We’ve been to a local playgroup a few times and he seemed to enjoy watching older kids, though he’s a bit young to interact with them. I’m something of an introvert and homebody, so the idea of getting out and meeting other parents makes me anxious. But I don’t want my hang-ups to affect him and his development—maybe he wants to be social! Is there an age where we should make a concerted effort to be social with other kids? Should we put him in day care to meet other kids? How do we even meet other babies?

—Babies Needin’ Babies

Dear BNB,

Having children requires most parents to step outside of our comfort zones at times, if not often: making corny faces, sitting through hours of YouTube videos that you’d prefer to avoid, and yes, forced social interaction with adults so that our little ones can be friends with their kids, which sucks so very much.

Lucky for you, you’ve got some time before you need to do that. A child under 1 needs social interaction, but he’s getting it from his parents, sitters, family friends, store employees, etc. Could watching a slightly older child toddling across the living room help inspire him to push a little harder to start walking on his own? Sure. Would he enjoy more time with kids? Perhaps. Is he suffering for the lack at this point? Nope. If your work schedules change and you find that day care is a necessity, that’s one thing. But if you’re able to keep things going as they are, there’s no need to enroll him somewhere just to get him to meet new friends.

I have a personal vendetta against “mommy and me” groups because 1) plenty of kids come with other parents and 2) they typically take place during the middle of the traditional workday. Alas, there may be one in your area that works for your schedule. Consider giving them another shot six to 12 months before you plan to enroll your son in preschool or pre-K so that he can get used to being around kids then. Places where families convene are also great for meeting other kids and their parents: the playground, the beach, the local YMCA. Conversations can be easily started over two kids wanting to use the same swing or sharing a ball—you may find that by then your little boy is a social butterfly and won’t need any assistance from you at all.

There’s a lot to be anxious about as the parent of such a tiny person. His friendships, however, needn’t cause you any real worry just yet. Try to relax and trust that he’ll be OK. Good luck to you!

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

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I have a 9-year-old and a 6-year-old. Due to my ongoing struggle with depression and anxiety, I have let a lot of parenting things fall by the wayside over the years: grooming, ensuring the kids have healthy eating habits, monitoring their screen time, making them help around the house. Really, a lot of stuff.

After several years of therapy and other hard work, I’m in a much better place, and I’m ready to create and/or restore some of the much-needed order that has been missing from our household. But I’m struggling to figure out just how to present new family rules and rituals without it seeming like punishment or an unfair revocation of my children’s independence or “rights.” I’m also having a hard time prioritizing which changes I should focus on, and which things I may simply be unable to take on, as I’m not 100 percent better and I don’t want to overextend myself.

I want to be able to explain why things that were once OK aren’t acceptable anymore without making them feel like they’ve been doing things wrong up until now. I also don’t want to be on their cases about every little thing all of a sudden. I’ve given them some age appropriate info about my depression and anxiety, but it’s been more along the lines of “it’s not your job to make Mommy happy” as opposed to “depression and anxiety can make you live in a way that seems fabulous when you’re 6 or 9 but is actually not great.”

Do you have suggestions on how I can explain all of this to my kids in a way that will (hopefully) get them to buy in to a new way of living?

—I’m Better Now, So You Have to Do Chores and Eat Vegetables

Dear Better Now,

First, congratulations on being in a better place than you once were. By attending to yourself, you have already taken major steps toward improving the quality of your kids’ lives, even if adjusting to the changes may prove to be a difficult task for the entire household.

Start by giving them a more comprehensive (while still accessible) explanation of what depression and anxiety are and how they’ve affected your life, with particular attention to how they led you to parent in ways that you may not have otherwise. Make it clear that these issues are not your fault nor theirs—as you’ve said, it’s not their job to make Mommy happy, and they aren’t the reason that she’s been unhappy either.

Rituals and rules may seem particularly challenging at first, but they will help you reset the household. Balance out those that feel tedious—no screens after 7, say—with ones that are fun and give the kids something to look forward to: a weekly Netflix night, “Taco Tuesdays,” monthly visits to a local museum or beach.

Try to adhere to a schedule and keep it posted where the kids can see it. Keep yourself and the children accountable for adhering to it and acknowledge when you fall off (“OK, Maddy needed a little extra sleep and we were late today. It happens! But we’re gonna work on an on-time departure tomorrow”) and when you decide to make a change (“We usually come home by 7, but we’re staying out a little late today because we’re going to dinner”).

As you put new habits and practices into place, remind them each step of the way that they will make life better for the whole family. Explain that there are things that parents have to do for their children to make sure they have what they need to be happy, healthy, and successful at school, and that it was hard for you to do those things before you started getting better.

Don’t be afraid to let them know when you are feeling overwhelmed and need a moment to yourself, and set them up with a good show or their tablets while you reset. Establish regular breaks for yourself throughout the day, especially on weekends when the kids are likely glued to your side.

Finally, accept and acknowledge that this is a lifelong process. You have battled for so long and right now, things are good! That is an accomplishment to celebrate, but you and I—and the many other parents like us who are struggling to manage anxiety and depression and family life—know that some days will be darker than others. Forgive yourself for your past and for those times you don’t feel you’re being the best mom you can be in the future. Prioritize therapy and other measures you have established with your doctors in order to be well. Remember that taking good care of your children requires you to take good care of yourself too. Sending you the best wishes I can summon up.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I have a 9-year-old stepson who spends the weekends with us. My husband and I are expecting a baby in December. I plan on breastfeeding. We live in a small apartment and I’m wondering if it’s appropriate to nurse in front of my stepson, or if I will have to excuse myself and go into our bedroom with the door closed. My husband’s ex-wife is also remarried and they recently had a new baby as well. She nurses in front of her son, but my feeling is that the rules are different for me because I’m a stepmom. Are they?

—To Feed or Not to Feed

Dear TFoNtF,

Breastfeeding is only “inappropriate” when it creates a safety hazard (while driving) or a distraction that could be avoided (while delivering a eulogy at a funeral). Should you consider covering your breasts with a nursing apron or blanket? Yes, if that will make you (and, perhaps, your stepson and his biological parents) feel at ease. He may sneak a peek out of curiosity, but he may also be less interested than the average kid because he’s seeing his mother do the same mundane, natural act in her home. Either way, it’s not a big deal. Nurse where you’re most comfortable, whether at home or otherwise.

—Jamilah

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