Care and Feeding

My Son, the Lone Director

No one will take part in his imaginary play. How can I help him feel less rejected?

Photo illustration of a young boy wearing cardboard wings and pilot goggles.
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? Submit it here or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

­Dear Care and Feeding,

My son, who is in first grade, is a very bright, imaginative child who seems to be well-liked by his peers, and his teachers describe him as “everyone’s buddy.” Despite this, he often comes home from school dejected because no one wanted to play with him at recess. When I ask for specifics, it generally comes down to his having wanted to play an elaborate game of his own creation when his friends would rather be on the swings or monkey bars. I have encouraged him to join the others and let go of his determination to put on a Broadway production of Robin Hood, but this counsel seems to go in one ear and out the other. For the record, his younger brother and the children he plays with outside of school usually cheerfully go along for the ride on whatever imaginary world he dreams up, which I think may be contributing to the problem he has at school. Should I say or do anything else, or let him work these playground politics out on his own?

—Robin Hood’s Mom

Dear RHM,

As it happens, I had one of these kids too—whether it was directing everyone in a full-scale improvised adaptation of Black Beauty, or re-creating a couple of scenes from Annie—and I can tell you what I did, which I believe was more effective than suggesting that my budding theater-maker (she did grow up to be one!) go with the flow. I talked to her about paying attention to other people’s needs and desires, and being aware that not everyone is interested in the same things at the same time (and yes, of course this led us down into the rabbit hole of “but why do they all want to do that?”—which was another useful conversation). I also talked about trade-offs. (“Maybe if you do what they all want to do four days in a row, on the fifth day they’ll be more willing to consider doing what you want to do.”)

But since my daughter, like your son, had friends outside of school who were interested in her directing them in an elaborate at-home production of The Lion King, I also talked about the principle of finding one’s people. When she was as young as your son, we concentrated on both working out ways to play with the children she happened to find herself in the midst of, and keeping an eye out for those who would embrace her type of play, whose personalities meshed with hers, who shared her interests and liked her style. And indeed, throughout her childhood, she found those people: in the neighborhood, in dance classes, at a theater company that offered summer day camps, in a children’s choir, and eventually in our city’s magnet alternative school.

I don’t think you need to say or do a thing beyond beginning that conversation. If you give your bright, imaginative child some tools to work with, I bet he’ll be able to deal with these playground politics on his own.

Dear Care and Feeding,

Our son, “Tommy,” who is in first grade, told me something that really disturbs me. Yesterday, he said his teacher asked the class to “raise your hands if you think Tommy has been bossy to you.” Apparently, everyone but one kid raised their hands—including the teacher.

Although my first instinct is to believe my son, I know that he’s only 6 and may be subject to flights of fancy/dramatic interpretation. I asked him again about it this morning, though, under the guise of wanting to make sure I was telling the story right when I told my wife (who’s out of town), and the particulars didn’t change. Now I’m not sure what to do. When I asked him if I could talk to his teacher about it, he was very firmly against it. He also doesn’t think he can bring himself to talk to her about it and tell her how it made him feel, which I realize is probably a big ask for a kid his age.

If it happened the way he said it did, I’m at a loss as to what teacher would think this was appropriate. I’m sure it must have been in response to something and not out of the clear blue, but still. This teacher has been with the school for a long time, is by all accounts pretty popular and well-regarded, and seemed from our (admittedly very brief) interaction with her during curriculum night to be a solid match for our son.

Where do I go from here? Assuming my wife is concerned, too, is the next step a direct chat with the teacher about it, despite my son’s opposition to this? And if it is, do I wait for the fall parent-teacher conference or is it something we should deal with right away? And, either way, if we do talk about it and she confirms what he said but doesn’t think it’s a big deal, is that sort of the end of it? I don’t want her to be shaming other kids like this, but I also don’t want him to have a harder time for the rest of the year because she doesn’t like his parents.

—Bossypants’ Parent

Dear BP,

Talk to the teacher. Your son should not be the one who makes the decision about this. I am inclined to think he’s telling the truth (full disclosure: my own instinct is to always give a kid the benefit of the doubt) but in your conversation with his teacher, I would go ahead and acknowledge the possibility that he’s made the whole thing up. (And if he did, there’s probably a reason for this that you’re going to want to get to the bottom of: Is he worried that he’s too bossy? Is there something else he’s worried about?)

Teachers like your son’s are certainly the exception, not the rule, but your son’s experience is sadly not unique. My daughter was shamed by a teacher in first grade (for sucking her thumb), mocked in front of her peers in third grade (for using “big words” when she answered questions), and outright bullied by two teachers in middle school (I won’t even get into that, but it was bad). I talked to all of those teachers. They did not dispute what my child had reported and defended themselves (“She should be using vocabulary that is age-appropriate, not showing off!”). And it is certainly possible that their dislike of me for calling them out on bad behavior affected their attitudes toward my daughter—but since it was a lousy attitude in the first place, I’m not sure how much difference it made. (For the record, what I now wish I had done then was bring out in the open, too, my concern that these conversations would have repercussions for my daughter. Once such a fear is aired, there’s a chance it will make the perpetrator think twice.)

I’m not sorry I spoke up. Part of my impetus to do so may have been because deep inside my heart, I am still cowering because my own fourth-grade teacher, whom everyone else adored, treated me exactly the way your son reports he’s been treated. But unlike my kid and yours, I kept quiet about it—I didn’t tell anyone for decades (and, as you see, it still troubles me).

You should not have to teach your son’s teacher that being cruel to a child in order to teach him a lesson about how you want him to behave—that shaming a child, ever, for any reason—is wrong. But I’m afraid you may have to. I can’t promise that it will keep this teacher from pulling a stunt like that again—with your child or with someone else’s. But it might, and that makes it worth it.

Before I close, I want to say something about bossy children, too—or rather about children who are called bossy. Some of them may grow up to be assholes, sure. But some of them are natural leaders: potential CEOs, community organizers, rabbis, choreographers, college professors, budding stage or film directors (possibly like the son of Robin Hood’s Mom), etc. Yes, children need to learn how to read the room, so to speak—not to take charge all the time, to be sensitive to other children’s desires, and to play fair. It is definitely worth having a conversation with your son about this (see my advice to Robin Hood’s Mom). But it’s also true that children who are by nature the ones who lead others can grow up to be the people others look to and look up to, and this is a potential gift that should not be indiscriminately snuffed out.

It is furthermore true that some adults, no matter how well-liked or how good at their jobs they (otherwise) are, will be threatened by this—and figuring out how to navigate one’s path through the thicket of other people’s insecurity is likely to be as important for your son as learning not to be (too) bossy.

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

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My youngest brother, who is much younger than the rest of us, is a senior in high school in the very small town we all grew up in. He’s always been obsessed with sports and is quite athletic, and the rest of my family places a lot of value on such things. The “plan” has always been for him to go to whichever college made him the best athletic recruitment offer. But while he’s talented, he’s a big fish in a small pond, and despite his years of focus and hard work, he’s not being recruited for sports. My sense is that he’s devastated, and maybe a bit embarrassed, that his dreams of playing at the D2 or D1 level are not going to materialize.

I live across the country and don’t see him more than a couple times a year for face-to-face conversations, but we do talk on the phone, and it’s pretty clear to me he has no idea what he’s going to do. I’ve been trying to help, but when I ask him what kind of college experience he wants, he says he doesn’t know. I’m talking about “Do you see yourself at a big school or a small school?” “Do you want a residential experience or does that not matter?” etc. He has no idea what he wants to major in. He also refuses to do campus visits, saying they’re a waste of time because he’s been to so many of them to play sports (which, in my mind, is not the same thing at all).

Our parents are being pretty hands-off about the whole thing, which is confusing to me. They were much more involved when my other siblings and I were at this stage (my mom practically dragged me on college visits). Lately they’ve even started saying that maybe my brother should just go to junior college. But he is a really smart guy—poised to be valedictorian, low 30s on the ACT. I have nothing against community colleges, but my brother hasn’t expressed interest in the types of jobs or programs that community colleges excel in, so to me this doesn’t make any sense. Compounding all of this is the fact that I have had a tense relationship with my immediate family since the 2016 election and my parents blame higher education (I’m a Ph.D. student—in the humanities, to boot) for “brainwashing” me.

I see my many years of schooling, not to mention my experience teaching college students, as a real asset in helping my brother through this process, but I’m limited in what I can do because so much depends on my brother or my parents following through (which, so far, they haven’t) and I’m worried about him. I don’t generally think taking a gap year is the worst thing in the world, but I’m afraid that he’s going to end up applying nowhere and then feeling even worse about himself. I have no concerns about him outside of this area—he has friends, was just voted Homecoming King, and I don’t think he’s using drugs or alcohol. He has so much potential, and I don’t know how to help him beyond what I’ve done up to now.

—Oh, Brother!

Dear OB,

I know you have your brother’s best interests at heart, but I’m not sure you are helping him. I do quite a lot of college counseling, and I’ve found that those kinds of questions usually don’t help teenagers figure out where (or why or how) they want to go to college. Adults ask these questions because they don’t know what else to ask and want so badly to help. But most kids have no idea what they want to major in, no idea whether they want a big school or a small school. You might try asking, “Do you want to be far from home or near?” and “What subjects are you absolutely sure you are not going to major in?” But mostly I’ve learned that listening while they talk about what they like to do and why, what they daydream about when they picture their far future, and what they imagine college might be like yields better results than holding their feet to the fire. (And don’t worry so much about college visits. What I tell parents is that if their kids want to make visits, go ahead and take them. But if they don’t? Ugh, don’t bother. I dragged my daughter all over the country and later realized it would have made a lot more sense to have waited and visited the schools she got into—which she ended up revisiting when she was faced with a decision. The only useful thing the visits did was inspire her to cross some schools off her list—but mostly for completely random reasons.)

As far as your parents are concerned, maybe they’re tired after having gone through this before multiple times (poor youngest children, they do sometimes get short shrift!). Maybe they feel they put too much pressure on their elder children (lucky youngest children, who benefit from the mistakes their parents made on their siblings!). Or maybe they’ve changed drastically and become embittered and angry and truly rue the day they set you on the path that led you into a world toward which they feel hostile. Whatever their motivations, or the reason for their lack of motivation, in the end this will come down to your brother’s own ambitions and desires. You can’t make him do what you believe is right for him. And you can’t help him unless he wants your help—and right now it doesn’t seem that he does.

So instead of peppering him with questions and advice, see if you can gently get him to talk about how he’s feeling and what he’s thinking about. And keep in mind that what he does next is nothing more than what he does next. It won’t prevent him from doing something else after that—or asking for your help in figuring that out when, and if, he’s ready for it.

—Michelle

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