Care and Feeding

Shush!

How do I stop my toddlers from outing their famous gay uncle?

A shocked mom and an oblivious child
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,

A few years ago my brother Sterling married his boyfriend, Cooper. Cooper is a great guy and we love him. He’s also a moderately famous athlete. Cooper isn’t out to the public. I understand and respect this decision: His field can be homophobic and he’s already sick of being seen as the token representative for his race.

By request, I don’t talk about my relationship with Cooper with anyone other than my closest friends, and I don’t share pictures of him on social media. I have twins who are young preschoolers. They adore their uncles. They are, in the way of preschoolers, very chatty. If they see a ball of yarn they will shout, “My nana knits!” and if they see a ball they will shout, “My uncle Cooper plays that!”

I’m worried my kids are going to out Cooper in a way that causes heartache. I’m also worried that they won’t understand that just because our relationship to Cooper is private doesn’t mean it’s shameful. Do you have any advice?

—Don’t Want to be a Name-Dropper

Dear DWtBaND,

I’m sorry for your brother-in-law; living in the closet in the public eye must be rotten. He can expect reasonable accommodation from you, as an adult, but neither of you can expect much from your kids, especially while they’re still so very young. If they’re saying, Oh my uncle plays volleyball!, most people will just nod and smile and ignore them. Even if they’re saying, My uncle is the world-renowned professional volleyball player Juan Carlos Smith and he’s a closeted gay man married to my other uncle Richard Jones, most people will nod and smile and ignore them.

I am not sure you can teach young children to understand the complicated stuff of privacy or discretion or out-and-out secrecy. My own young children cannot keep a secret to save their lives, having spoiled every birthday surprise we’ve ever tried to coordinate. I imagine that impressing upon your sons that they must protect their uncle’s relationship to you will almost certainly backfire. Kids find secrets too delicious to keep.

I think you can let this ride out for now. I suspect you’ll know when the kids are mature enough to handle more information—unless circumstances (your brother-in-law on a Wheaties box!) require you to address this head-on. You can establish easy-to-understand rules about when and with whom it’s OK to talk about their uncle, because you’re doing so in deference to his wishes, as a measure of your love and respect for him.

It’s complicated to also remind your sons that their uncles have nothing to be ashamed of, and I think you can say that plainly; kids can handle contradiction better than most adults think. I hope for your brother-in-law’s sake that by the time his nephews are old enough to engage in this conversation, the whole point will be moot.

See how Daniel Mallory Ortberg answered this question in this week’s Dear Prudence live chat.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My 7-year-old was supposed to meet Grandma after school at the park. The park is adjacent to school, about 200 feet. Instead, he continued on to Grandma’s house (about a quarter mile) and waited for her there. Grandma was at the park.

An Amazon driver noticed my kid sitting on porch steps and expressed concern. He shared that he was waiting for Grandma. The driver offered to take him back to school; my child agreed and got in the van. At the same time, Grandma was walking to school to see why he wasn’t at the park. Everyone met up at the school, and my son expressed that “he forgot.”

Clearly, he doesn’t understand the potential danger of getting into a stranger’s vehicle. Not good. How do we convey that this was a dangerous situation without ramping up his anxiety, which can be medium-high? I am aware that more instances of child abuse are carried out by people known to a child than by strangers. That said, this could have ended very badly and I would like suggestions for how to handle this when I talk to him at bedtime.

—Stranger Danger

Dear Stranger Danger,

That’s a scary story. I’m relieved to hear it ended so happily.

I definitely think your son needs to learn some lessons for this. Does he have his parents’ cellphone numbers memorized? Does he know how to identify an adult he can trust? Has he been told how to guard himself when dealing with adults he doesn’t know? Because anxiety or not, he should learn these things.

Talk to your son, calmly, about what happened. “It’s important that Grandma and I always know where you are. It’s OK that you went home by mistake because everyone makes mistakes! But, you should never get into a car with someone you don’t know. That’s a rule in our family. If you’re ever confused or lost, your job is to find an adult you do know—a teacher, a librarian, a crossing guard, one of your friend’s parents, another mom with kids at the playground—and call me, and we’ll decide what to do next together. You’re not in trouble and you won’t ever get in trouble by calling Grandma or me. But you have to remember that Grandma and I are the only people you go places with after school, unless we’ve already talked to you about a different plan.”

Be clear and calm and as unscary as possible. Make a really specific plan that works, tuck a card with your family’s phone numbers and addresses into your kid’s backpack, teach him how to use a phone, remind him of the various adults in his life whom he does know and trust, and make this an ongoing conversation about how to make his way in the world.

But I think you’ve learned something too. Namely, that your son simply isn’t old enough to dismiss himself from school, even if it’s to walk 200 feet to the adjacent park. His grandmother should meet him at the school instead; maybe by the end of the school year he’ll be mature enough to handle more. Maybe even in a couple of months! I’m sorry you went through this—it must have been terrifying. As you say, the odds are that your kid will be safe from what we think of as stranger danger. At the same time, I think you could institute rules more appropriate for your kid’s maturity level without feeling like you’re being a helicopter parent.

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

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My sister and brother-in-law have struggled to conceive. They are starting the process of adoption. They are very religious and say they’re open to whatever child God wants to give them. But I’ve had conversations with them that make me sure they are unready to adopt a child with disabilities, and also that they don’t have the sensitivity to raise a child of a different race.

In general, I think they are ill-suited to raise children. My brother-in-law is short-tempered, and I’ve never seen him offer to help out with any domestic chores. My sister-in-law has a lot of emotional issues, and with so little support from her husband, I think she might sink under the pressure of parenthood.

They’ve asked me to be a personal reference for them. The thing is, I can’t give them my unqualified support in this area. It’s one thing to say I think they’ll be good at a job, and another to recommend a kid to their care for life! If I refuse, they’ll probably get someone from their church (where adoption is always an unqualified good) to write the recommendation. So it’s not like I can single-handedly stop them from adopting. But to agree to be a reference and then say something that might get them turned down feels cruel. What’s my responsibility here?

—Against Adoption?

Dear AA?,

If your brother and sister-in-law were able to conceive, your opinion on their fitness as parents would be something you’d have to keep to yourself. Since there is no concrete thing—addiction, criminal behavior—that you see as patently disqualifying (and that you’d be morally bound to disclose), I see a few possible scenarios here.

You write the letter and stick to the facts. (“Bill and Hillary have been married for 15 years; they make a good living; they live in a wonderful school district.”) This will make your in-laws happy, though it might make you feel uncomfortable.

You write the letter, and you are forthright about your opinions. (“Bill is old-fashioned; Hillary is fragile; I worry about their ability to parent a child of another race.”) If they ever read this letter—you don’t address whether this is confidential—your in-laws will feel betrayed, and though it might satisfy you ethically, I’m sure you won’t feel great either.

You don’t write the letter. Their adoption either proceeds or does not. This is clearly the best course of action for everyone involved. It might be impossible for you to decline your in-laws this favor without hurting any feelings. You could claim you’re simply too busy. You could suggest that maybe a friend from church would be more persuasive in this context. You could intimate vaguely that you’re not the right person for this task and let them think of that what they will. It might not be easy, but it’s clearly the right choice. Good luck.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I know my in-laws love their grandchild, but they have a funny way of showing it. They ask and offer to babysit a lot. But the last time they were watching our baby, they left him unattended in the front yard while they went to the back. Long enough for a concerned neighbor to call and let me know that someone was in our backyard with no baby.

When confronted, they apologized more for my neighbor calling than for leaving the baby unattended. When I mentioned I was upset that the baby was left in the front yard, my mother-in-law threw up her hands, said, “He was sleeping,” and walked away—which upset me even more.

If they’ll leave a baby alone in the front yard, what else do they think is OK? My in-laws have made other comments about doing things that would compromise his safety. They also constantly question how we’re caring for our child, which makes me wonder if they’ll go against our wishes when watching him.

I’m still not comfortable with them watching the baby. My spouse is getting more OK with the idea but understands that I’m not. They’re very concerned about not being a part of the baby’s life, and not being able to babysit will probably upset them. So far we’ve been able to put them off without starting anything, but I don’t think I can put them off much longer. Am I wrong for not wanting them to be alone with the baby? How do we keep the peace while also keeping our baby safe?

—He’s Not Fine

Dear He’s Not Fine,

I don’t have a good handle on the specifics here—how old is your son, was he truly sleeping, is your front yard a safe place, is the backyard so far away that they wouldn’t have heard him, or were they out back skinny-dipping and drinking martinis? You sign your letter he’s not fine but you don’t specify precisely how he’s not fine.

Maybe all of the above is immaterial. Maybe you’re the one who’s not fine—who can’t forgive this or worry about something worse happening. That makes sense to me; you’re a parent. So, if you’re not comfortable having your in-laws sit the baby, just decline their offer. Maybe you can find a way to simply overlook this particular transgression. Maybe you can kindly spare your in-laws’ feelings and help them see you’re not trying to prevent them from having a relationship with their grandson, by countering their child care offers with an invitation to spend time together as a family. It’ll be better for your peace of mind and the familial peace generally.

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