Care and Feeding

Is It Crazy to Bring My Toddler on a Flight During the Coronavirus Outbreak?

My husband is dead set against it, but I think he might be overreacting. Who’s right?

A mother and toddler hold hands in an airport terminal.
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 best friend lives in Minnesota, and I was excited to be visiting her for her daughter’s second birthday soon. We rarely get to see each other in person, perhaps once or twice a year, and our children are only six months apart. This was going to be a fun trip to catch up and have my son and her daughter get a chance to play and celebrate her second birthday together. The problem is coronavirus.

My husband is dead set against us going; we have to travel to a large metropolitan city in order to fly to Minnesota. He says he’s terrified of us catching the virus and then dying. I recognize his fear and his worry, but how do we balance this with an appropriate risk assessment? He says we live in a rural area for a reason, and it is an unnecessary trip with high risks. We’d be moving through airports, traveling in highly densely populated areas, and generally be in contact with lots of people. I was really looking forward to this trip but now feel saddened and terrified.

How do we move forward? Am I crazy for traveling with my 2-year-old right now? Am I putting my son at unnecessary risk? I know that I, as an individual, can still go as I make my own decisions, but how about for my son? Taking him with me is “selfish” and unnecessary according to my husband. My husband would like him to stay home where it is safe and coronavirus free.

—Am I Being Selfish?

Dear Selfish,

My answer to your actual question is immediate: Leave your son at home so you can have the glorious experience of driving and then flying without your child. You’ll have an easier visit with your best friend, your husband will feel that you have compromised with him (since he would rather you both stay home), and he’s the one who will have to do the actual work of the compromise: solo child care for a few days. A 2-year-old is not really going to meaningfully enjoy visiting another 2-year-old, and skipping one trip matters not a hill of beans in this crazy world.

Now, let’s get into it a bit. Is your husband generally anxious or a germaphobe? No one is telling rural Americans with normal immune systems to avoid domestic travel (as opposed to unnecessary travel to China) and stay at home. The WHO’s advice on coronavirus is still just the basic advice of cold and flu season: wash your hands. That’s been the most important part of preventive medicine since we discovered that germ theory was real.

If he is just following the (increasingly upsetting) news out of China a little too avidly (“global emergency” is not something that gets tossed around lightly!) and is not normally one to overreact, leaving your kid and going yourself is a good compromise. Two-year-olds touch everything and put everything in their mouths, and I find flying with one to be a nightmare despite being generally relaxed about the Petri dish that is recirculated airplane air and the filthy armrests.

I must admit “we live in a rural area for a reason” did throw me off. Does he live in a rural area to avoid the next great global pandemic? If this were an ongoing issue, I assume you would have mentioned it in the letter, but people do often leave out details to avoid addressing larger matters. If your husband is actually someone for whom concerns about illness routinely drive his actions in outsize ways, that’s something I need you to address with him after this trip.

For now?  Leave the kid. Take the cannoli.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I work at an after-school program in a country where the native language has very strict rules for grammatical gender. (I’m an immigrant and not fluent.) One of our kids is about 7. He wants to be called by a name of a different gender, but due to grammar rules, there aren’t any neutral names, only masculine and feminine. I have been reassured by this kid several times that he wants to use this name, plus masculine pronouns/masculine grammatical features, so I do.

A co-worker told me that she’s not taking this seriously because the name the kid has chosen for himself is also his cat’s name. (The cat name, while masculine, isn’t a legal name for male children, therefore it’s literally not a human name.) His parents haven’t told his school to use another name. Cat Boy is a latchkey kid and walks home from the program every day, so I’ve never met his parents. I *think* the parents are in the loop: Cat Boy has a boyish haircut and wardrobe and has insisted to me over a period of months that they call him Cat Boy at home, but I don’t have any way to check.

Lately, I’ve been noticing that Cat Boy has been getting upset when the other kids use his official name. Sometimes he will pull on me to back him up when one of the kids says “but your name isn’t Cat Boy.” Sometimes he ignores other co-workers if they don’t use his preferred name. He has started latching on to one little girl, who is the only one who without prompting calls him Cat Boy (and goes to his house all the time). I brought this up during a work meeting a while back and said, in my experience, it’s best to just call kids what they want to be called. Everyone agreed, but nothing changed. My boss doesn’t seem to think this rises to the level of talking to the parents, or changing anything, because “kids are weird.”

I am not sure what to do here. I don’t think anyone is outright bullying him, but it’s bothering me that none of my co-workers are lending support. I feel like if he was “just” obsessed with his cat, he wouldn’t be correcting his friends when they use feminine adjectives, or coming to find me so I can have a clumsy argument with another 7-year-old about preferred pronouns. I absolutely do not think I am equipped to have this discussion with both his peers and my co-workers. I’ve been trying to gently explain to the other kids that it’s just nicer to call him Cat Boy, but that doesn’t seem to be getting through (though that might be the language barrier). Any ideas? For what it’s worth, this country is pretty liberal and I know there are a few trans kids in the school who don’t go to our program. This doesn’t seem like it would be a big deal if my boss understood what was going on.

—Herding Cats

Dear HC,

Since you are not his teacher, and just work with him via the after-school program; you are not fluent in his language (which has, as you mention, very particular rules about grammatical gender); and he is not particularly upset, I would simply continue to call him Cat Boy and leave it at that.

If he pulls you over to intervene when someone else calls him by his given name, just say, “He would prefer to be called Cat Boy, and it’s nicer to call people what they want to be called.” I don’t think you have the information or the authority to decide this is more complicated than your colleagues think it is, and if the situation changes, you can adjust accordingly. Until then, just keep doing what you’re doing.

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

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My boy/girl twins are 10, almost 11, and share a room. We live in a small two-bedroom house and cannot afford to upsize. Unfortunately, the twins are beginning puberty. They have not expressly said that they don’t want to share anymore, but I know it’s coming.

When the day does come when it is no longer appropriate for them to share a room and they no longer want to (also, which age is this?), what can I do to give them “their own room” without having to resort to putting up a wall? Also, if it’s relevant, we rent our house.

—Tween Twins

Dear TT,

This is generally “that age” (the onset of puberty), but there’s no hard and fast rule that applies to all kids. If you had a magic wand that would create a new bedroom, you would. You don’t, and throughout human history, people have had to get creative in order to have some sense of privacy in the absence of enough doors.

I will assume you do not possess a basement or some kind of smallish space that could, with a little ingenuity, become a bedroom, or you would have told me. My mother grew up close to a massive family that eventually resorted to having their teenagers sleep in the junked-out cars on their lawn (Canadian weather permitting), which the teenagers did seem to prefer to the complete lack of privacy in their home. This is merely an anecdote; please do not have your tweens draw straws to determine who sleeps in the car.

I think the solution is to pretend they are first-years in college sharing a single dorm room and to look at the multitude of options that said college students usually opt for. There are all manner of free-standing wooden panels and long rods for opaque curtains and folding screens and modular blocks and other ingenious solutions, the materials for which can be found at your local Ikea or Target or Bed Bath and Beyond, and do not involve making permanent changes to a rented home.

Tell your kids your budget, and let them be partners in finding a solution. They’ll be far more contented if they have a hand in fixing the problem.

Dear Care and Feeding,

Late last year, a young boy in our town, the same age as my daughter, was involved in an accident that resulted in his death.

It hit the entire community very hard, and there was a lovely candlelight service for the boy at a local park that many attended but that we did not (for a very legitimate, but confusing issue for me). When my daughter was in pre-K, she attended a different school than she does now, and she was in the same class as the little boy who died. While they weren’t incredibly close (she was never invited over for play dates or birthday parties and never asked to invite him), she would often come home talking about playing with him at recess. She even picked him out of the crowd at her older brother’s basketball games a few times and would walk over to say hello.

Since changing schools, she hasn’t mentioned him, and she has made new friends at her new school. She is 5 and will be 6 in August. My question is, do I tell her about what happened to this boy? Death is such a hard topic to discuss with children of any age, but I don’t know if she is equipped to handle this news, or if I am equipped to handle telling her. I can’t tell you how many hours I spent crying for this boy, for his family, for his friends and teachers and classmates.

Would she even be able to process this news? Or is it better to let her continue her ignorance, and only mention it if she happens to look through her yearbook and asks, “I wonder what happened to him?” I have been struggling with this question for the past month and most of the people I’ve asked have told me to simply just let her be for now. Is this the right thing to do?

—Confused

Dear Confused,

I think so. It’s certainly not an inappropriate age to be learning about death, but the death of a peer is always particularly upsetting, they were not classmates, and, to be frank, I am absolutely worried about your ability to convey the information to her in an appropriate manner. I think most people would be horrified by the accidental death of a small child, but you do acknowledge that your own reaction to it is quite overwhelming and could be traumatizing for your daughter.

I left out several details included in your letter, as a three-second Google search allowed me to find the story of the accident in question and the identity of the child, and I think it might be very surprising and painful for his family to stumble across this question and immediately recognize their son in it. I’m mentioning this so you can be aware of that possibility if you write to a different advice columnist, which is very common, and can edit it down accordingly.

It did suggest to me, however, that your intense feelings around this child’s death and regret at missing his memorial might be assuaged somewhat by writing a note to his family. People who lose a loved one, much less a child, find it very hard to watch others move on when their own grief remains fresh. A simple letter that mentions how much your daughter enjoyed playing with their son and which lets them know that he is remembered fondly by others is the exact sort of thing that bereaved parents treasure, especially after the casseroles stop coming and the vigils are over. Please ask a friend to read the letter before you send it, to make sure it’s appropriate in tone and content. This is not meant to single you out: I write professionally, but if I wrote such a letter, I would want a second pair of eyes on it.

—Nicole

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