Care and Feeding

Excuse Me?

Acquaintances keep making racist remarks about my baby. How do I get them to stop?

A woman holding her baby close, as if to shield the baby.
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,

My husband and I had a lovely baby girl this summer. She has different hair and eye color than we do, but otherwise looks very much like our child. She does have one fairly distinct feature that we don’t share: the shape of her eyes. We live in a progressive and diverse city but have now gotten multiple comments about her “insert racist comment here” eyes. The first time, I was so shocked I didn’t even acknowledge it. The second time, I said, “Please don’t say that word.” Both times it came from a regular acquaintance, like a co-worker. I believe the comment came from ignorance, not racism. I’m afraid we might hear this again. How do I respond in a way that says “Don’t use that word” and “Why comment on my baby’s appearance?” without directly calling these people racist?

—Words Can Hurt

Dear Words Can Hurt,

Congrats on the new baby! Genetics are a marvel, no?

Here’s a short story: A couple of weeks ago, I stopped at the corner store, and when I got to the head of the line, the man behind the counter said something … really ungentlemanly about the woman who had just left.

I should have rebuked him for speaking about a woman that way; I could have rolled my eyes; I might have said, “I’m gay, and you’re gross.” I didn’t do any of that; I didn’t say anything, which is pretty lame of me, but there we are.

I’d push back on your distinction between racism and ignorance, but that’s neither here nor there. The issue is how to communicate your disapproval when people step out of bounds. Sure, it’s a question of right or wrong—you’re right, racists are wrong—but it’s more complicated than that, as life often is.

Would you feel comfortable rebuking a co-worker with “That’s a hateful thing to say. Please never use that word again”? (Particularly inappropriate in a workplace setting, I might add!) Would you feel more comfortable being … a little passive-aggressive, with “She’s our daughter, and we think she’s perfect”? Either of these will make you feel better than nervously chuckling and then changing the subject.

I know this is tough because it puts the onus on you, who’ve done nothing wrong. But maybe it is doing something wrong to be unwilling to call out something hateful at the risk of feeling discomfort. I feel that—I’m still thinking of what I didn’t say to that man at the corner store weeks later. Either way, you’re not wrong to feel offended by this kind of comment; it’s cruel and also rude to comment on a baby’s appearance. If you do chuckle and change the subject, that’s OK—you’re only human—but if you say what you know to be right, you might feel better.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I have a 2-year-old son who is very active and playful. His dad is the youngest of three brothers who were left largely to their own devices as children and consequently engaged in some very rough play (hitting, punching, wrestling) and shenanigans that could not be more different than how I was raised (my sister and I were two cis-girl children with very attentive parents).

This is not merely my judgment; his brothers have apologized to him for how frequently he served as their literal punching bag. My partner is a wonderful, engaged dad. I have no concerns about his judgment except with respect to our difference of opinion about appropriate play.

One example: My son loves to play with his cousin, who is a few years older. They were playing, and my son, being an overexcited toddler, hit his cousin. Cousin and partner laughed it off, and it kept happening, with my partner kind of egging him on. When I said something, my partner said, essentially, “They’re boys. They’re playing.” He’s used the “this is just how boys are” line with me a few times for various reasons, and it generally makes me feel like I’m being uptight and helicopter-y.

It was interesting to me that this was no big deal to my partner because when my son strikes me or the cat, he gets a timeout. I understand that dads tend to play rougher with their kids than moms do, and that this can be good for kids. My partner certainly does not endanger our son, but I also know how my partner was raised, and I think he thinks that hitting and punching amongst friends and siblings is no big deal and may be good for kids. I disagree. Am I being too uptight here? Is this just how boys are?

—New to Boys

Dear New to Boys,

I hesitate to make any sweeping pronouncements about “how boys are.” Some kids are more disposed to rough-and-tumble play, and the onus is on the adults in their lives to help them understand when that’s appropriate. And sometimes it is.

I’m not sure egging a kid on as he pummels his cousin is the right thing to do, because how can a toddler distinguish between that and, say, slapping you or the cat? I don’t think you’re a helicopter mom, nor do I think your partner is being that helpful here.

I think you should clarify with your partner about what your rules are; until you agree on those, you won’t know what to enforce. Your partner should know that it might be hard for your kid to comprehend that hitting and kicking is OK with Cousin Jack but not OK with his preschool classmates. And maybe you should know that there’s a possibility your partner (and his kid) is naturally inclined toward roughhousing.

That said, there are ways for an energetic kid to play that don’t involve hitting another person! Get your son a trampoline, teach him how to whack a tennis ball against a wall, strap him into a helmet and let him experiment with a skateboard. Helping him to channel his energy thus will make it easier to teach him that it’s possible to play gently with other people and still have fun.

You should know that some kids can wrestle and jab at one another, and it really is all in fun (it sounds like you already do). Your partner should know that teaching your son to be gentle with others isn’t teaching him a weakness, and that chalking up his tendency to do otherwise to “boys being boys” is boneheaded at best and toxic at worst.

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

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Dear Care and Feeding,

Another family and I hired a nanny to take care of our babies, but had to terminate the contract when we realized she was basically ignoring the babies while they cried so that she could sit and use her phone.

She behaved differently whenever other adults were around— while I was in the house, you would think she was the perfect nanny. Before we hired her, we called each of her references, none of whom mentioned excessive phone use or any issues.

When I talked about this with friends of mine who are parents, two different moms said that I had an obligation to call her references to let them know about what had happened. At first I thought that sounded vindictive, but one mom in particular kept emphasizing how important it is to hold people who take care of babies accountable, since babies can’t advocate for themselves. On the other hand, I truly want to believe that she can do better, especially since she was so wonderful when I was around—but maybe that makes it worse? What’s the right thing to do?

—Tattletale or Do-Gooder?

Dear ToDG,

Sorry to hear this. It’s difficult to leave your baby in the care of another person, and very disappointing when that person lets you down.

I am inferring that you feel you should contact the references who endorsed your nanny to let them know that maybe they should rethink things. I wonder whether anything is gained by that.  She worked for them, and they formed their own opinions about her performance upon which their references are based. You had a different experience, yes, but this ends up just a matter of I said/they said. If the nanny occasionally still works for the families who referred her to you, you might wish to warn them, but those parents have judged her fit for their child care needs, and that has nothing to do with you. If you think the nanny undeserving of a reference, that’s your opinion and not theirs.

But if for some reason your onetime nanny lists you as a reference for future employers (I doubt she will), I think you can be honest about your experience with her. I hope you’ve found someone great to replace your old nanny!

Dear Care and Feeding,

I am blessed to have remained in my stepson’s life even after I separated from his father. We were together from when my stepson was 2 until he was 8, and he is now going on 11 and has younger siblings on his mom’s side.

I am on good terms with my ex and my stepson’s mother, and although I live several hours away, I still get to speak to him and visit a few times a year. I’m friendly with his younger siblings, but I don’t spend time with them. I recently changed jobs and have a higher income, and I would like to set up a college trust for my stepson. (Due to their immigration status, my stepson’s parents aren’t able to do this; I don’t believe they have much extra to set aside for any of their kids.)

I don’t have a lot to contribute, but I know that even several thousand dollars would help. What is my obligation to my stepson’s siblings? I can’t provide college savings for all of them, nor do I have a relationship with them to even make sure they’ll be able to access the money later. But is it wrong to provide a benefit to my stepson without his siblings getting the same opportunity? I give birthday gifts—nothing extravagant—to my stepson but not his siblings.

—Loving Ex-Stepmom

Dear LES,

This is such a wonderful letter because it reminds me of how many ways it’s possible to make a family.

“Onetime stepmother” might sound tenuous to some people, but it’s clear you and your stepson have a real bond. Your generosity is admirable, and a lovely way to express what he’s meant in your life.

I just answered a letter that was somewhat similar to this. In that letter, I wrote that I feel strongly that parents have the ability to make financial decisions on behalf of their kids, and that your stepson’s mother and father could determine what to do with any gift from anyone because he’s a child.

The specifics here are different, though. You are on good terms with your ex and his ex; you could discuss together what should be done. (I’d hasten to point out that even if your gift were divvied up, that doesn’t undermine its spirit of generosity.)

But I don’t think you need to feel morally obligated to have that conversation, or to make a gift to children with whom you don’t have a familial bond. It’s pretty easy to set up a 529 college savings account or a simple trust, and important to remember that this is about being generous to a kid you love, not punishing kids you don’t know. Your birthday gift example says a lot, but so does your impulse to avoid any bad feelings or unfairness. Either choice facing you is wonderful, so you should do what feels right to you.

—Rumaan

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