Care and Feeding

Picky, Picky

My son’s terrible eating is stressing me out.

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.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My 7-year-old is a poor and picky eater and always has been. We exposed him to a large variety of foods as an infant, but he would refuse them. This has only gotten worse over the years and our following Ellyn Satter’s recommendations (offer him the food, but don’t force him to eat anything) has not changed his habits. He won’t try anything new. He is overly sensitive to smells (he was diagnosed with some mild sensory processing issues). His growth is OK, but not great and we’ve had numerous conversations with his pediatrician regarding these issues. We’ve seen a nutritionist (feed him high-calorie, high-fat foods—lots of milkshakes!), but their recommendations aren’t sustainable for the long term. I don’t know what to do anymore. I’m concerned about his long-term health, and it’s frustrating to have that kid that doesn’t eat pizza at birthday parties or try anything during Thanksgiving dinner. I’m also tired of packing him meals for every event just so he’ll eat something. Does he need to see a behavioral therapist? Do we get him checked for reflux again (diagnosed when he was 5 months old)? He’s always complaining of a stomach ache, but I think it’s his way of getting out of eating his meals because the “stomach ache” always seems to disappear when we talk about dessert. Please help—I’m so lost and stressed about this.

—Not Gonna Eat That

Dear NGET,

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I’m sorry you’re so stressed about this, I truly am (and I remember perfectly well how worrying about this sort of thing can feel like it’s taking over your life; for me, it was issues around sleep—which make parents just as anxious as issues around food, or potty training). But I think you should try to take a step back from this and look around at what’s right in front of you. Your child, it seems, is generally healthy; his growth is “OK.” Does he seem like he’s starving? It sure doesn’t sound like it. It seems he’ll eat the foods he likes—but you don’t mention what those are, which makes me wonder. You’re irritated because he won’t eat pizza at parties (not liking pizza is obviously not going to cause him any health issues) and doesn’t want to try the foods served at Thanksgiving (ditto, I’m thinking). You also mention that you’re “tired” of having to pack food for him to make sure he’ll eat at events. Is that really such a big deal? Is it packing a meal that’s tiring (you pack his school lunches every day, don’t you? You give him breakfast and dinner every day), or is it feeling like he’s the weird kid—that kid, as you say—which makes you the weird parent?

I think one of the things you have got to do is let go of the expectation that he will eat what everyone else is eating in a given social situation. Maybe he’s rebellious. Maybe refusing to try new foods is his way of telling you something. Or maybe he really does have a very limited palate (always has, always will). He is eating. He’s just not eating what you want him to eat.

I remember that when my daughter was your son’s age, she had a friend who ate only white bread, cream cheese, cucumbers, and apples. I remember how stressed it made me when she was at our house for meals, as she often was. I couldn’t believe she’d refuse to try any of the good food I’d made. The mother of my daughter’s friend was remarkably calm about this, I thought. And her kid grew up to be a perfectly healthy and happy young woman. I don’t know if her palate has become more sophisticated—I’ve never asked. But even if it hasn’t: Is it that big a deal? Lots of adults are unadventurous eaters. It isn’t very important.

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I know you know that issues around food often turn into yearslong battles of will between children and their parents. Don’t let this happen to you. Take a few deep breaths and try to put this into perspective. And maybe enlist your kid’s help in packing those special meals, so you don’t feel so put upon. (Or stop packing them at least some of the time! Not eating at a party or holiday meal is not going to hurt him. He can eat what he likes when he gets home, can’t he?)

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

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Dear Care and Feeding,

How early can babies process visual images of gore/horror? My daughter is 6 months old, and I love horror movies, which I usually watch while we cuddle. Out of instinct I turn her toward me during super gory scenes, but I’m wondering when I should make sure to stop watching these movies in her presence? I don’t want her having flashbacks of a man being stabbed in the hand or wearing the skin of a bear.

—Am I Raising a Future May Queen?

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Dear AIRaFMQ,

Look, I know you want me to say, “It’s fine, don’t worry about it! Enjoy your horror movies! She’s too young to understand them!” but the fact is that even though she is too young to understand, that doesn’t mean they won’t do any harm. For one thing, she can hear them, and even if she can’t “process” the visual images, she can tell that something disturbing is going on. And even before she can process the images, I just don’t understand why you’d be willing to expose her to them. Would it be a sacrifice to quit watching these movies while cuddling your child? Sure. Is that the only sacrifice you’ll have to make on her behalf? Nope. Being a parent, I’m afraid, means putting your child’s well-being ahead of your own pleasure. It doesn’t mean you have to give up all your pleasures, though. You love horror movies? Cool. Watch them when she’s asleep, in another room. And keep the sound down.

Dear Care and Feeding,

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About a year ago, my now-15-year-old told us he is nonbinary, which then became trans. We told him we love him for who he is inside and out, and that we will support him no matter what. This includes advocating for him with family members to whom he has decided to come out, getting him counseling, and having his school change his info to “male.” He doesn’t want to do hormones yet.

For the most part I think we’ve handled this well and been supportive. It’s been a bit of a surprise, as I’ve always been the type to let my kids choose their own clothes, etc., and this kid was all about princess dresses and anything pink and sparkly up until about a year and a half ago. But the teenage years are for figuring out who you are, and it’s all good. I do, however, get hung up on his name. When I found out I was expecting a girl, I chose a gender-neutral name in honor of a late family member on my husband’s side. It means the world to many people on that side of the family that our child carries his name. “Tracy,” however, now feels that his name isn’t distinctively male enough, and has chosen his own new name. I understand why, but I do feel a twinge of sadness that the family name is no longer in use. Tracy was named after an incredible man whom we all loved deeply.

But besides this, I’m unhappy about the name he has chosen to replace the name we gave him. It is kind of a gimmick name. Think “John Johnson.” I would NEVER have given my child a repeating name like that. It’s so cheesy! But he loves it. We have been using it, I hasten to say, so that he feels respected as he explores his identity, but I cringe to think that someday people will think his dad and I intentionally gave him a name like that. Recently, the possibility of legal name change came up and I hesitated. What if he regrets it later? I just don’t want to sign off on this name. Would it be appropriate for his dad and me to sit down with him and discuss our concerns? Maybe present him with a short list of names we considered before he was born, with the reasons behind them, and ask him to at least consider them as other options? Ask him to at least take the late family member’s name or middle name as his own middle name? And, if he insists on “John Johnson,” would it be terrible if we said we’ll continue to call him what he wants but we can’t sign off on a legal name change, so he’ll have to wait for that until he’s 18?

—Name Snob Mom

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Dear NSM,

Congratulations on handling your child’s transition (mostly) with grace. It’s maddening, really, that even when we’re doing the best we feel we can, something will come up that feels sort of insurmountable. (That may, alas, just be the definition of parenting.)

Here are my thoughts about the situation you describe. First, you are going to have to take your own feelings out of the picture where the name is concerned. It really doesn’t matter a whit what people think of your baby-naming skills, so please stop cringing at the thought of other people judging you for believing you’re the one who came up with “John Johnson.” (People will judge you for one thing or another no matter what you do—or don’t do, have done, haven’t done, etc. That’s also par for the course when you’re a parent. So it’s best to make a real effort not to care.) As to the lovely gesture of naming your child after an important family member, and everyone in your husband’s family being so invested in this name—well, that was then and this is now. That child you named is growing up. If he doesn’t want to be called Tracy anymore, don’t sit down with him to express your concerns about this. They’re your concerns; they have nothing to do with him. Trying to exert this sort of control over a 15-year-old—over something that matters deeply to the parents but isn’t a question of life and death (or even “simply” the child’s well-being)—never ends well. There’s a reason that parents of teenagers know to pick their battles carefully.

And since you’re proud of having been supportive up to now, consider this: Many people who are trans feel strongly that it’s important to pick their own name, whether or not the name they were given at birth can be considered a gender-neutral one. Tracy doesn’t feel gender-neutral to your son if 1) he was named for a man everyone in the family reveres, and 2) it’s the name he associates with the years of his life he was being raised as a girl. Besides, when someone makes a decision about his identity as significant as this one, it’s unsurprising he’d want a new name to go along with that.

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All of that said, I do think it’s OK not to make the name change legal at this point. If your family lives in the U.S., it can wait a few years, since federal courts have ruled repeatedly that changing one’s name at will, or by “common law,” is every citizen’s right under the Constitution. Using this rule of “common law,” one can change their name without going to court: All that’s necessary is to begin using the name. (My own daughter began using a hyphenated form of my husband’s and my last name—which is not the surname on her birth certificate—when she was in middle school, and that’s the name on both her high school and college diplomas, on her bank checks, and even on her tax returns. It’s the name she’s used consistently for over a decade now, the name she’s known by professionally and personally.) To be sure, there are disadvantages these days to not making a name change legal, especially given the new requirement for a “compliant” driver’s license as ID for boarding a plane. But as your child is only 15, I don’t think there’s any grave harm in waiting until he’s used his new name for, say, a year, and feels absolutely sure this is the one he wants to use forever after. Then a court-approved name change request would need to be filed with the Social Security Administration, so that his driver’s license and passport will bear his new legal name. My daughter’s situation is different, in that she doesn’t care if her legal name—on her passport and so on—is not the same as the one she uses in everyday life. Your son is likely to feel otherwise, as his name change is tied to his very identity.

Which is where things get a little dicey for me. You talk about how supportive you’ve been—and you have been, in many ways. But you also make sure to mention that until recently your 15-year-old loved pink and sparkles and princess dresses—and that teenage years are a time of exploration. Teenage years are a time of exploration, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have to take your child seriously when he tells you he’s trans. If you are communicating to him in any way that you’re humoring him, I believe this is a serious misstep.

Also: Plenty of boys like pink and princessy and sparkly things. You might keep this, too, in mind as you continue to offer support and to advocate for him with family members.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My 16-month-old son loves to sit in my lap and watch me put on makeup. He also loves to play with my makeup brushes and will mimic me putting on makeup. This is all fine for now, but I’m not sure how to handle it when he’s a little older. I don’t think children should wear makeup. I would have the same rule if I had a daughter, but I wouldn’t second-guess myself in that case. I’m worried that telling him HE isn’t allowed to wear makeup (until he’s older) will make him feel like BOYS aren’t allowed to wear makeup. If I had a daughter who wanted to wear makeup I would say, “Makeup is for adults, but you can occasionally wear some when you play dress-up at home and you can wear mascara and lip gloss when you turn 12.” Does that answer also work for a boy?

—Equality at the Dressing Table?

Dear Equality,

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Yes.

—Michelle

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