Care and Feeding

I’m Here for You

My 18-year old son has a secret boyfriend. How can I show my support?

Two young men holding hands.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by energyy/iStock/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,

A couple of weeks ago our 18-year-old son had a newer friend, “Ben,” over for the weekend. We had already begun to suspect there might be more than friendship to this relationship, and unbeknownst to our son, my husband caught the boys fooling around in the hot tub one night during Ben’s visit. We haven’t spoken to our son about this because we do not want to make him uncomfortable about his sexuality. How can we let him know that we support him, love him, and accept him no matter what (and that we like Ben and know that he and Ben are more than friends)?

—Parents Left in the Dark

Dear PLitD,

I will tell you that the hardest thing for me about my daughter growing up was not knowing things. How could this child, with whom I’d been so close, who had always felt so comfortable telling me what was going on in her life and what was on her mind, not feel the need to tell me everything anymore?

At 18, your son is in charge of determining when and how much he wants to share with you about his life (yes, even if he is still living with you). I can’t tell you why he hasn’t told you yet that he’s gay. It’s possible that he’s anxious you will be less than fully supportive (only you and your husband know if you’ve raised him in such a way that he would feel certain of your reaction to this disclosure). I will admit that the words “suspect” and “caught” gave me pause, but I may be reading too much into your choice of words (a writer’s occupational hazard). Your son may be very certain that you will support him and hasn’t come out to you yet because he is enjoying the idea that you no longer know everything about him—that is, he may simply be embracing the pleasures of early adulthood.

Which of these possibilities sounds more likely? As you consider this question, I urge you to be honest with yourselves: Have you ever given him any reason to be nervous about talking to you about this? If so, there is a chance he is waiting for you to ask him and hoping you will. I have a dear friend who spent his youth hoping for that—and envying friends whose parents took the initiative, because he so dreaded having to come out to his parents and wanted so badly to “get it over with.”

The way for parents to let their children know that they will support, love, and accept them no matter what is simply by supporting, loving, and accepting them. If you have shown your son nothing but such support, acceptance, and respect up to now, he will tell you when he feels ready and wants to. He’ll know he has nothing to fear. Let him initiate the conversation.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My 10-year-old daughter has developed a close friendship with another girl in her class and has announced that they are girlfriends now, as in lesbians. She said it so casually, I didn’t know how to respond (I said, “That’s nice” and left it at that). I have no problem with her being gay or bisexual when she grows up, but I never imagined this would be an issue at her age—and I am unsure how serious she is and whether I should treat this as a true coming out, as I would if she were a teenager.

I really don’t want to start labeling her sexuality at 10. I haven’t observed her and her friend being physically intimate and do not think they are. But she has generally preferred to play with boys, and this new friendship/relationship does seem different. They mostly talk and hang out, whereas she builds teepees and climbs trees with her male friends.

Should I broach the topic in more depth, and if so, what should I say? Also, this girl has been over for sleepovers and they sometimes change clothes in front of each other—something I have not been concerned about, but if they really are gay, should I put a stop to that? I wouldn’t let her have her friends who are boys sleep over.

—Hoping to Do Right by My Daughter

Dear HtDRbMD,

First: It is indeed possible that your daughter has figured out that she is gay at 10. And it’s not you who is “labeling her sexuality”—it’s your daughter. Even at 10 her sexuality, like her body itself, belongs to her and no one else.

But it’s also possible that she’s trying on the idea for size as she finds a way to explain to herself why she is suddenly interested in hanging out and talking, as well as building and climbing—and that this explanation is the only way she can make sense of this change in herself. It’s possible she is so delighted by this new friendship, which offers a kind of communication and closeness that she hasn’t had with her other friends, that she doesn’t know what else to call it.

You’ll never know until you ask her. I think that is the topic to approach in more depth: what she means when she says that she and her new friend are a couple. Because here’s the thing: Ten isn’t necessarily too young to know what your sexuality is, but it is too young to have a romantic and sexual partner, gay or straight. The fact that she made this announcement so matter-of-factly is likely to mean that there is nothing age-inappropriate going on. But if you haven’t talked to her yet about sexual feelings and what people do about them, now’s also a good time to start that conversation. And I would say that if there’s an incipient sexual relationship here, it’s perfectly reasonable for you to declare a no-sleepover policy for these two girls, who are too young to be messing around.

I think it’s unlikely, though. I remember what being in love with a boy was like at 10. It never crossed my mind to want to make out with him (in fact, I would have been horrified by the thought), and I remember what my daughter’s crushes were like at that age, too. What a 10-year-old wants is the attention of the beloved. Your daughter is fortunate that her feelings are being reciprocated. Ask her what that feels like, too. Ask her what she likes about her girlfriend and what she thinks her girlfriend likes about her. At her age, these conversations are important for her well-being and safety. And, when the time comes that she doesn’t want to open up to you as much, she’ll have these conversations in her back pocket and know that you love, understand, and support her.

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

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My college-age cousin has come out, and I am thrilled. He has a boyfriend who treats him well, a tremendous circle of friends, and us, his family, who are working to make sure our love and support drowns out anything that might come from the one or two family members who might be less than loving and supporting. My 8-year-old daughter loves and looks up to him. She understands sexual orientation. Several gay couples are among the trusted adults in her life. But the concept of “coming out” is not one she’s experienced. She also remembers her cousin’s high school girlfriend. I’ve thought of sitting her down for An Important Talk. I’ve also thought of showing her some Instagram posts of the couple and casually mentioning, “Oh, this is your cousin’s new boyfriend, we’ll get to meet him when we visit.” Please help! Am I overthinking this?

—Coming Out Party

Dear COP,

You are overthinking this.

Sure, you can show her some Instagram posts if you want, so that if your daughter asks why her beloved cousin used to have a girlfriend and now has a boyfriend, you can tell her he’s recently figured out that he’s gay—that some people know early in their lives whether they’re gay or straight, and others figure it out along the way. And sure, you can tell her that when people figure out who they are and then tell other people, it’s called “coming out.”

But you can also wait and have that conversation after she meets the boyfriend—again, if she asks. And I think there’s a good chance she won’t—that she will simply take this in stride if all her life she has known both gay and straight people. (If you’re concerned that she might ask her cousin about it in a way that would embarrass him, why not ask him if he’d rather you have a conversation with her in advance?)

Generally speaking, it’s a good idea to wait for a child to have a question before answering it. And when they do ask, make sure you pay close attention to what, exactly, they’re asking. Nearly two decades ago, my own daughter, who grew up around both gay and straight people, suddenly realized that two people she knew, a woman and a man, had once been married to each other, although she had always known the woman to be partnered with another woman. When she asked me why this woman had “changed her mind” about her husband, a man my daughter liked very much, I thought she was asking about my friend’s coming out experience, and I sat on the edge of her bed that night doing my best to explain, in an age-appropriate way, that sexuality can be complex and nuanced.

But I had completely misread her question. It turned out that what she was worried about was divorce. That was what was new and upsetting to her: the idea that someone might decide they didn’t love someone anymore, that they loved someone else instead. She wanted to know how love (which she had thought of as a constant up until then) worked, how it could stop and start. A whole different sort of conversation that had nothing to do with sexuality—I had jumped the gun.

Dear Care and Feeding,

Help! I inadvertently outed a trans middle schooler, P, to his mother and I feel terrible about it.

Here’s the background. M, my middle schooler, has many friends who are LGBTQ. I know enough to know that it is inappropriate to ask about someone’s gender identity or sexual orientation, so I typically take my cues from my own kid, referring to his friends by whatever name he uses for them. When P invited a bunch of kids over for a sleepover, I contacted P’s parent (as part of my regular due diligence) to make sure there would be a responsible adult around and that everything was on the up and up (because middle schoolers and shenanigans). P and M were both aware that I would be contacting P’s mom. Of course, I used P’s name, as in “P says M can sleep over this weekend.” P’s mom seemed a little confused, but she did not correct me.

The sleepover happened, and I thought everything was fine. I was wrong. I don’t have all of the details, but P is no longer in school, and M says it’s because I outed P to his mom by using the name “P,” and P’s mom freaked out. Obviously, I don’t want to go around outing kids to their parents. I suggested to M that, in the future, he give me a heads-up if his friend goes by a different name to their parents to avoid any similar issues. M tells me that it’s none of my business who is out or not, and that the solution is for me to stop contacting his friends’ parents. This seems unworkable to me, at least for now. We’re dealing with sixth and seventh graders, not high school kids. Is there a compromise to be reached? Am I being overprotective?

—Not Trying to Out Anyone

Dear Not Trying,

I’m sorry M’s friend is going through this. But I’m afraid M—like maybe every other 13-year-old who has ever lived—is blaming you for something that’s not your fault. (Don’t feel too bad about this. At his age, blaming you is pretty much his job. And he probably feels guilty about not giving you a head’s up: “Mom, when you call P’s mom, call him Q, will you?”)

Don’t harp on this, though. Part of being the parent of a child this age is knowing they’re going to be unreasonable. Another part is learning to carefully pick the battles that are worth having. Or maybe let’s not even call them “battles”: Let’s call them “the times that it’s important to hold fast.” This is one of those times. Of course you should keep calling parents to make sure everything is on the up and up. M is testing boundaries, trying to figure out if he can shake you loose—also typical adolescent behavior. Hang on tight. I think you’re doing great. One day M will fully appreciate that, too.

—Michelle

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