Care and Feeding

Why Is This Dad So Nervous Around My Big, Lovable Dog?

Sure, his kids are small and my dog is enormous, but I keep an eye on things!

Photo illustration of children shrieking at a dog
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 good friend from college is now married with two small kids. When we visit each other (no less than twice a year), there is always tension with her husband, “Paul,” and my big dumb dog, “Scooter.” The kiddos and Scooter all like each other and are very cautiously interested in playing with each other (which only happens with supervision, of course). Every once in a while, something happens and they need a short break from each other: The dog barks at a passing car and the kids get scared, a kid throws a tantrum or drops a toy and the dog gets spooked. Pretty standard interactions, at least as far as my friend and I are concerned.

However, Paul is always on high alert when Scooter is around.
He says weird things directly to him—i.e., “If you bite my baby, I will kill you”—which are obviously meant to put me on notice as if I’m not already keeping a close eye on how my dog treats his children. Paul also gets annoyed that I don’t apologize when Scooter does something that freaks the kids out. I’m not exactly over here keeping score, but I don’t believe he’s ever apologized when his children have done normal, annoying kid stuff like pulling my hair with mac-and-cheese-covered hands.

Keeping Scooter in another room during these visits isn’t an option because he will bark incessantly. My husband is pretty neutral in all this but picks up on the tension and, like me, keeps a close eye on the dog at all times when Paul’s family is around. Our annual visits are so great otherwise, and I’d like to keep them going. What to do?

—Ruh-Roh

Dear RR,

Not all dog owners are “dog people,” but I am going to go out on a limb here and guess that you are, in fact, a dog person. You know, the sort who loves “big dumb dogs” and can hold an entire conversation with a stranger’s doggo in the park. The type of person who says, “Oh, it’s OK, he’s friendly” when their dog sniffs around a stranger, as opposed to “I’m sorry, he’s friendly, are you OK with him being that close?” The gal who is the reason for those “We love your dogs, and we are so sorry, but we cannot allow them inside” signs that are increasingly common outside of dining establishments because they believe it’s just totally normal for Fido to be slobbering around and shit while the rest of us are trying to enjoy our scones at the bakery.

Dog people are not inherently self- or dog-centered, but they don’t always seem to realize that there’s a whole segment of the population that does not enjoy or care about dogs. They also don’t make the same sort of distinction between pups and people that the rest of us would, which I got from you pointing out that Paul expects apologies for Scooter’s dog-like behavior while not offering them for his little ones’ childlike antics.

It sounds like two things could be at play here:

1)    Paul is not a dog person.

2)    Paul has some sort of fear-based anxiety related to dogs that is triggered by the sight of your big-ass dog interacting with his children—which could be related to a traumatic event.

To be on the safe side, let’s just operate with the empathy that the latter would require and also take the former into consideration when introducing Scooter to new humans in the future.

Let Paul know that you are keenly aware of the discomfort he experiences when his kids play with your dog, and though while Scooter has no prior history of violence or aggression, you take his concerns seriously. Explain that you and your husband will always keep a close eye on Scooter when he’s around the kids, but that you’ll also work with his wife to design an itinerary that limits their interactions during these special-but-rare visits. It doesn’t matter how much the children like Scooter or how comfortable you and your homegirl are with watching them play; if Paul is this bothered by it, you are one very small scratch away from having these annual get-togethers shelved for good. Respect the man’s feelings. If anyone is going to break down his feelings and convert him to the Church of Doggo, it won’t be you. Happy holidays!

Enjoy special holiday content from our Care and Feeding columnists, including a gift guide of classic toys for children of every age from Nicole Cliffe, coping strategies to survive the holidays from Jamilah Lemieux, and educational (but fun!) kid gift ideas from Ask a Teacher columnist Carrie Bauer. 

Dear Care and Feeding,

I want to send my kids to private school. How can I easily dismiss the “woke” parents who think I’m being selfish?

—My Kids, My Choice

Dear MKMC,

If you honestly cared what these naysayers thought, you wouldn’t be looking to “easily dismiss” them or scoff at them as “woke.” So eff it, your kids, your choice … right? Are you looking for language to silence the social justice warriors in your circle, or are you still coming to terms with your own decision?

If the battle you’ve been fighting is about what a “woke” parent might consider to be tremendous flaws in certain private schools, such as homogeneity across racial, religious, or class lines, what is your honest response to that? Are you talking about sending already-privileged kids into a space that looks and feels just like them, or are your children from marginalized groups that would be in the minority there? The former isn’t exactly ideal if you are focused on raising children who value diversity and respect the identities of others, but that very well may not matter to you at all. If it’s the latter, the accusation of selfishness could stem from the well-documented history of challenges that poor kids, children of color, or otherwise “different” kids face when surrounded by well-off white ones, something you had better grapple with before making your decision.

If you’ve done that, you should be able to tell them as much. Do the “selfish” accusations reflect the long-standing debate over the impact of private schools? Is the challenge to your decision based on the ways that that they reflect and perpetuate systemic inequities? Or, perhaps the fact that they direct both resources and committed parents away from local public institutions? You are most certainly free to be unmoved by those things, or to feel that the benefit to your family outweighs what some would describe as a negative impact on the community at large—just be honest about it, say it with your chest.

You don’t owe anyone an explanation as to why you chose a particular school for your kids, but if you choose to engage in a discussion about your choice, then you’ll have to suffer through the opposing view. Furthermore, you should also be prepared to continue to hear pushback against your choice from the “woke” folk in your life each time the subject comes up, because this is a polarizing one, and you’ve made a decision that some people would say is harmful to their own children. You can’t just drop a good clapback on someone and make those feelings go away.

Honestly, you know who should be able to come up with the right language to silence the critics? You. If you’re convinced that you are operating in the best interest of your family, show your work. Tell your crew why. Make it make sense. Otherwise, don’t engage.

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

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Dear Care and Feeding,

“Raekwon,” the person I’m seeing romantically, also happens to be my longtime best friend. He’s spent a lot of time with my almost 4-year-old daughter “Tanya” over the years, and I’d say they are close. But I don’t know how to explain the changing relationship dynamics to someone who doesn’t understand the concept of dating in the first place.

Though my divorce was finalized just a few months ago, my marriage had been over a long time before that. My ex and I basically lived parallel lives, and Tanya rarely spent time with both of us at once. She never saw us behave in a way that indicated we were a couple—therefore she has no context for romantic relationships. She just knows that until recently, her mommy and her daddy lived in the same house and now they live apart, so she has two homes (which she thinks is great because double the toys).

Raekwon’s presence has always been a stabilizing element in our lives, and I don’t want this shift to destabilize Tanya, nor make her feel like her relationship with him has to change because mine has. I just don’t know what’s appropriate at this point, but I do need to talk to her about it, because I want her to know that people who are “just” best friends don’t kiss each other on the mouth when they say goodbye. Any insight or advice would be awesome!

—What’s a Bae to a Baby?

Dear WaBtaB,

What has changed for Tanya aside from her witnessing PDA between you and your BFF? As you may end up dating other people during or after your current situation, you have to be thoughtful about introducing your paramours to her, and that absolutely includes this person she already knows.

You have to establish how much you want to disclose about where the relationship is presently and where it may be heading. Do you think you may marry some day or cohabitate? Do you simply want to affirm that the love you have for Raekwon has intensified (which may be the best way to manage expectations at this point)? Or are you ready to introduce him as Mommy’s partner?

Start with an age-appropriate explanation of the various types of relationships: friendships, best friendships, casual acquaintanceships, familial relationships and—the big joker—romantic ones. Here’s a possible script for the latter:

When two adults feel special feelings towards one another, they may want to be more than friends and share a special relationship. This usually means that they want to spend a lot of time together and do things with one another that they may not do with other people and that they care about each other a lot—they may even love each other! Often times, two people who feel this way will become girlfriend and boyfriend, girlfriend and girlfriend, etc.

Some people who have those feelings for one another choose to get married, which means to have a special relationship with only that other person, to live with them and maybe have children together. Your father and I once had those feelings or one another, and that’s how we had you. However, feelings can change and when we no longer had that love as a couple, we decided we’d be happier apart. Romantic feelings may change and a husband and wife, or a boyfriend and girlfriend, can decide that they don’t want to be together anymore. However, as your mommy and daddy, we will never decide that we don’t love you anymore, and you’ll always have both of us to love you.

Raekwon and I have had a special friendship for a long time. He is my best friend, which means he is the closest to me out of all my friends. The feelings that we have for one another have changed recently, but in a good way…

If this new romance were to end, it’s unlikely that Tanya and Raekwon’s relationship (as well as your own relationship with him) would continue as it did in the past. But that doesn’t mean you need to go out of your way to change how they see each other for now. Keep their interactions consistent with how they’ve always been until you are at a point where you’ve firmly established that Raekwon is going to take on a different role in her life. Best of luck to you all!

Dear Care and Feeding,

I’m nonbinary, and I’ve recently become a parent. I use both “she” and “they” pronouns, but I’ve discovered that I strongly dislike being called a mom or a mother. Although I’m fairly open about my identity with friends and family, people tend to default to “mother” or “mom” when talking about the baby and my new parenthood, which is understandable. I even do it myself sometimes! It feels like there isn’t much in the way of alternative models or language available to describe parenthood in a less gendered way.

I’ve told a few people that I want to be called a parent, not a mom, and that we’re going to teach our kid to call me “baba.” However, I’m squeamish about having that conversation with every person who casually calls me a mother. Should I make do with “Mom” from friends, family, and caretakers of my kid, or insist on a gender-neutral term? Are there better ways I can describe myself as a parent?

—Not the Mom

Dear NtM,

First, congrats on the new kiddo! This is certainly a time of great adjustment in your life, and I’m sorry that it’s been made more complicated by the lack of widespread understanding of and respect for nonbinary gender identities.

You needn’t feel that you have to accept the title of “Mom” from anyone, most especially loved ones and other people with whom you and your child will interact with on a regular basis. However, you also shouldn’t feel obligated to have a conversation with anyone about it unless you desire to do so. If it doesn’t feel like a big deal when a cashier at the toy store refers to you as a mother, you aren’t required to perform a Teachable Moment on the spot. You can offer “Parent, not mother” without explanation, or you can say nothing, or you can engage in a dialogue—let your spirit and the circumstances at hand guide you.

As far as baba goes, you should know that it is an honorific used for fathers among a pretty diverse group of cultures, including some Arabic, Chinese, Hindi, Swahili and Yoruba peoples, so it might not be as gender-neutral as you hope. (It’s actually what my daughter and nephew call my father instead of “Grandpa.”) I really like this list of genderfluid honorifics on the Gender Queeries Tumblr page, including “Maddy,” “Par” and “Zizi.” You may consider coming up with a title all your own derived from your own name—i.e., “TayTay” for “Taylor” or “Kix” for “Ricky.” Best of luck to you and congrats again.

—Jamilah

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