Care and Feeding

I Want to Teach My Child About Death and Grieving

Can I use a stranger’s funeral as a learning opportunity?

Photo illustration of two people dressed in mourning wear and holding flowers.
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,

Recently a friend of a friend’s brother, Morgan, died of cancer. I have met this friend-of-a-friend at a few parties and we talk on Facebook sometimes, but we have never been very close, and I have never interacted with the brother. Lately, in preparation for the soon-approaching death of grandma’s beloved dog and with a desire to not let her live in a bubble, I have been teaching my daughter Kaitlin, who is 6, about death and the grieving process.

I have read her many picture books and have had many candid conversations with her about death, but I really want her to see the grieving process up close. Is it inappropriate of me to take Kaitlin to Morgan’s funeral as a learning experience?

—Is Death a Teacher?

Dear IDaT,

If you would have attended Morgan’s funeral anyway, feel free to go and to bring Kaitlin (a prepared Kaitlin). If you would not have attended, which is the sense I get, I think it would be deeply inappropriate to bring your child to someone else’s expression of grief as a learning experience. “Did you know Morgan?” “No, I just wanted my daughter to see a funeral, partly because her grandmother’s dog is circling the drain.”

That does not sound ideal to me. I imagine it probably doesn’t sound ideal to you. Stick to the books, talk about the circle of life, deal with grandma’s dog passing when the time comes.

Please do not take your child to this funeral. And I say this as someone who grew up going to a three-day open-casket wake about once a month (Irish-Catholics don’t mess around). It’s inappropriate.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My son is almost 12 years old. He’s a good kid, if a bit lazy. His hair is a huge problem. He has thick shoulder-length hair, which is his preference. It’s surprising since we live in a conservative area (no other boys have long hair). That’s OK with me; I admire his individuality.

The problem is that he won’t blow-dry his own hair. I understand his frustration. I have long, thick hair and blow-outs suck. I think he’s definitely old enough to take care of it. His dad and I have given him three options: Condition and blow-dry your own hair, go to school with wet hair, or get it cut.

This isn’t unreasonable, right? By the way, I was a kid in the 1980s, and I was using a curling iron and cans of hair spray when I was 10, so I don’t feel sympathetic.

—Resentful Hair Mom

Dear RHM,

I’m sorry. I’m sorry. Hang on. Based on the options you are giving him, it appears that the issue is your son is insisting you blow-dry his hair for him every morning? I assume he is not asking you to bring in a professional.

No ma’am. You are not being unreasonable. You do not have to blow-dry anyone’s hair against your will, even your own child’s.

Thank you for brightening my day.

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

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My daughter began kindergarten this year at our local school. It’s a great school; it’s also a Title I school in an expensive and rapidly changing urban area. The school population is overwhelmingly a single minority group, but there are a few white kids and a few black kids. My daughter is mixed (yet another minority group) but looks white, and I’m white. Our family is doing OK—we certainly can’t buy a home here, but we’re stable and can afford a few extras. We try to contribute to the school, and I volunteer weekly in the classroom.

Here’s my dilemma: There’s a boy in the class who is black and wears thick glasses. I don’t know the family well—we’ve run into them at a local park and our kids have played happily together, that’s about it—but I’m pretty sure from other contexts that they don’t have much money. A few months ago, this boy’s glasses broke during sports (I heard from his mom), and I have not seen him wearing them since. The teacher is wonderful and very sensitive about resource issues, taking a lot of care to make sure activities are class-neutral, and I know she can approach families sensitively because she’s done so with us.

Can I ask her if we can help him get new glasses if he needs them (anonymously, I would think)? I really don’t want to overstep or offend, but I was a kid whose poor eyesight wasn’t noticed for too long, so I know it makes it hard to function, and often insurance only covers glasses every few years.

—Bad Eyes but I Do See Race

Dear BEbIDSR,

I do not think that race is actually relevant to your question, as you do not plan on identifying yourself to the young man’s parents, but as it also has nothing to do with my answer, I’ll just proceed with the latter.

Absolutely you can ask the teacher if you can contribute money for new glasses anonymously. The family can decide if they’re comfortable taking it. It’s a very nice thought. I’m glad you noticed and wanted to help.

Dear Care and Feeding,

We don’t force my kids to share. My husband and I have read a lot about this and have had many discussions. We believe that kids are forced to share in a way that is unfair, in a way that adults do not have to share, and we want our kids to feel like they have control over their own property. We do encourage our kids to share their toys and sometimes they do, but we do not force them as many parents do.

My question is how do we go about navigating the ideas that other parents have about sharing? Frequently, other parents will try to force my kids to share, and both I and my kids come off looking like the bad guy when other kids ask for turns with my kids’ toys and they say no. Is it OK to step in and explain my policy about sharing, or should I just let my own kids deal with this?

—Sharing Is Not Caring

Dear Sharing Is Not Caring,

What would be really helpful here is some more information. How old are your kids? What sharing scenarios are we discussing? If you invite a 4-year-old over to play with your 4-year-old and allow your child to be like [oil baron voice] “ALL OF THESE TOY CARS ARE MINE, SIRRAH, AND YOU CAN SIT ON THE COUCH AND WATCH!” then that doesn’t sound ideal.

We have different rules for kids than for adults because they are not the same, and those rules evolve over time. You are correct that adults do not have to share their husbands or cars or Hummel figurines unless they so choose, and you are correct that we are often unreasonable in our expectations for children around sharing. I remain haunted by Ma Ingalls giving Laura’s doll to that shitty neighbor girl against her wishes and Laura finding said doll in the mud, missing an eye.

Ideally, people find a middle path that they can live with, and that is meant to ultimately deposit their child in adulthood with a good sense of self and also a spirit of generosity.

When you make a parenting choice which is generally outside the norm (parents do expect some kind but firm enforcement of turn-taking with toys during play dates), you have to be prepared to have that choice met with occasional pushback. If you are confident in your choice, you should be able to defend it, or at least handle it. You certainly cannot expect your children to argue with adults over a policy you have created.

My sense is that you should push a little harder for your children to share. It’s a skill. It’s an important skill, it’s a learned skill, and it sounds to me that your children are lagging in it (they “sometimes” choose to do so, etc.). You can do that while also respecting property rights. If there are particular toys or possessions your children absolutely do not wish to share, make sure they’re safely put away during play dates. I think that’s great. But you do need to teach hospitality, to teach being a good host or hostess. I suggest putting some extra energy there and less on being defensive about your beliefs about child autonomy.

—Nicole

More Advice From Slate

I get along really well with my wife’s brother and his spouse. Our families spend a lot of time together at dinners and on family vacations and it’s always pleasant. The only problem is I have a very strong desire to hurt their 3-year-old son. Don’t get me wrong: I would never, ever do it and he’s a sweet kid who has never done me any wrong. However, when I see him and hold him, I feel it deep inside. I want to hurt him and sometimes I have violent fantasies about what I could do to him. Why do I feel this way and what can I do about it?