Care and Feeding

My Son Told Friends He’s Gay. He Tells Me He Was Joking.

Mom hugging her 11-year-old son
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Stockbyte/iStock/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 11-year-old son has been spending a lot of time playing Minecraft with online friends. They talk (I can hear everything they say, mostly silly preteen jokes) and text, and I looked at his chat screen. I read, “Please don’t say anything out loud. My mom doesn’t know I’m gay.”

I asked my kid why he wrote that. He said it was a joke. Then he said his account was hacked. Then he said his best friend is gay. I’m shocked. His dad and I have no problem if he’s gay, and he knows it. Do I give him space? I don’t want to out him (if that’s what’s up), but I hate that he can’t talk to me. My love and feelings for him are not affected at all by whether he’s gay, and I want to respect his privacy. Still, I’m hurt.

—Prying Mom

Dear PM,

I don’t think you should be hurt by this because I don’t think it involves you!

It’s possible that your son was joking. It is a dumb joke, but what do you expect from an 11-year-old? His embarrassment and evasiveness might have had to do with being caught in his dumb joke and nothing to do with hiding the deeper truth about himself.

It’s also possible that he was genuinely coming out to his friends—in which case he was talking to them, not to you. Hard as it can be to accept this, those first steps out of the closet are about him and not his parents.

We can’t know if this is a joke or not. We also can’t know if your son truly knows that you’re accepting and loving, come what may—or if that’s enough reassurance for a kid. You’re his parents, but you’re not his world, and that can still be a scary place. I think you should give him his space.

Feel free to remind him of your love loudly and vocally, but don’t do so in a way that raises the question of his identity because you don’t know anything about that, really, not yet. It’s possible he doesn’t either. Good luck!

Dear Care and Feeding,

My teen’s friends are having in-house get-togethers at one of the child’s homes (group of three to four kids). I told my child that they were not allowed to go, since we do not know the people in the house or whom the other children have been exposed to. We’ve done our best to stay at home, only going out to get food, so we have limited risk—but we could still have been exposed and possibly expose them to something.

How do I deal with being the “bad” parent of the group, since I’m the one that says no? How do I not dislike people now and in the future for making what I feel are poor choices? I also have family members who have made decisions that I question because it puts themselves and others at risk. I struggle with not wanting to talk to or interact with any of these people in the future because of their choices.

—Rule Follower

Dear RF,

I don’t think you’re looking for confirmation, but I think you did the right thing. Our responsibility in this moment is a serious one, and in the big scheme of things what is required of us is a small sacrifice.

There’s no need to feel you’re being the bad parent of the group because you’re being responsible. I don’t expect a teen to understand that, but that doesn’t make it any less true.

We have been given little guidance from the government, and still less assistance. But quarantine or otherwise, one of the few truths in life is that you can’t control others’ behavior, only your own. I think you should continue to do what you know to be right, and try not to be preoccupied with the choices made by family and friends. It will require magnanimity at first, though hopefully over time it will feel liberating. This moment is challenging enough without having to negotiate your own emotions about others’ choices. Keep yourself and your immediate family safe, and follow the rules you establish for yourself. In the meantime, continue to hope that there is a day in which this will all seem distant and hard to believe. Good luck.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I struck the in-laws jackpot by almost every conceivable metric. They share a mutual adoration of our 3-year-old son and help with child care a lot. The issue is that, like with many grandparents, they’re not great with setting limits. My son gets way more snacks, sweets, and screen time at their house.

I’m pregnant, and pre-COVID they watched him one day a week and, as I got into my second trimester, a few hours on Saturday so I could rest and do baby prep tasks. (My husband has to work on the weekends.) Now that day care is closed and I’m working from home nine months pregnant, they have him four to five days per week.

He was progressing pretty well with potty training while in day care, but he’s had a major backslide and mostly refuses to use the potty. If he says he doesn’t want to, my in-laws won’t push it. We used to feel like the parents should do the hard stuff and it was OK for the grandparents to spoil him a bit. But now that they are our child care solution for the foreseeable future (we’re in a hard-hit COVID state and will have a newborn soon), we’re not sure what to do.

We’ve talked to them in the past about things (less screen time, fewer processed foods), and they say they understand, but cave as soon as their precious grandchild protests. My husband and I are torn between being grateful that we have child care help and worried about the lack of structure and limits. Should we try to address these issues with my in-laws again? If so, any recommendations on how to do so effectively? I have some friends who would kill for even 30 minutes of child care help right now.

—Lucky Mom

Dear Lucky Mom,

The toughest thing to me about the tough spot we’re in is that we don’t know how long we’ll be here. Will schools and day cares reopen in the summer, the fall, in 2021, or later? Knowing that would inform every decision we make in the interim, but we cannot know that.

So here we are. I’m among those who would kill for even 30 minutes of child care help, and I fully understand how impossible it is to bring work and life into balance under these circumstances. However lucky you are to have the help of your in-laws, you have a lot to deal with—and you’re about to have another baby! Congrats. I hope this turns out to be one of those magical, maybe mythical babies who loves to sleep and rarely makes a fuss.

But let’s be realistic. You’re in for quite a few months of less sleep and more stress. I think it’s time to pick your battles carefully! It sounds like your in-laws are receptive to honoring your parenting style but unable to in the face of their beloved grandson’s adorable charms. That’s common, and, as you say, in some ways that’s what is so great about the grandparent-grandkid relationship.

It sounds like you have a wonderful relationship with them, so unless you think it might offend them, maybe have one further talk, and come prepared! Talk about how this arrangement, which was meant to be a casual, fun thing, is now a big part of life, and it would be a help to you, especially in your postpartum state, if there were a couple of adjustments! Convey your gratitude, then hand over some games and even new toys they might break out as an alternative to screen time. Suggest some snack options that might be more in line with what you’d like, and offer to provide them—he could pack a lunch just as he might at school.

The one issue I think you should push on is the potty. Gently communicate how difficult it is to change two sets of diapers; you can tell them how important it is to have a consistent message as he masters this skill. Give them tangible tips and strategies for how you’re handling training, prepare yourself for the possibility of some regression when he’s promoted from only kid to big brother, take a deep breath, and remember that no kids goes off to college without having mastered going to the potty himself.

Then I think you should not discuss this any further! Your in-laws will either serve up the carrot sticks or the potato chips; they’ll either play a round of Uno or turn on Sesame Street. Your son is safe and loved and out of your hair for a few hours a day, so just enjoy that. Good luck!

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My sister (whom I’m very close to but don’t live near) just had a baby. Our mom is in her 70s and has COPD and therefore is high-risk for COVID, so my siblings and I had agreed to stick strictly to the social distancing guidelines with her, and that she would not go and visit the new grandkid when it was born (or any existing grandkids!).

In the few days since delivery, my sister has had a rough time of it, with postpartum anxiety and insomnia. I empathize, as I was in exactly the same position a few months ago when my daughter was born, and I did have my mom come for a few days after the delivery. Today my sister cracked and, without consulting the other siblings, asked our mom to come and help out, which she did, right away.

I’m upset and riddled with anxiety about this. In a couple of weeks, I wouldn’t have minded, but my sister and her partner have just been in a hospital in close contact with people who could potentially be carriers of the virus.

The only thing that is stopping me from absolutely freaking out is that my mum was sick a few weeks ago and we think it was probably COVID, although with the lack of testing we don’t know for sure. Am I wrong to be upset about this? What can I do or say? I also don’t want to upset my sister more in her fragile state, and at this point the damage has largely been done. I hate this virus for putting us all in these terrible positions.

—Postpartum Panic

Dear Postpartum Panic,

I share your frustration with the terrible positions we now find ourselves in. Nevertheless, here we are.

Your sister, in a vulnerable moment, broke an agreement you’d made, and that was irresponsible, though surely your mother bears some of the responsibility there. It’s an impossible situation—your sister needed her mom, and your mom wanted to help.

At any rate, what is done is done, as you say, and your feelings won’t change that. The anxiety is difficult to manage, but the anger is comparatively easy to let go. Remember how you felt in those early days after your own kid’s arrival, remember your own good luck at being able to call in the reinforcements, and remember that we’re all only human and doing the best we can.

Please do what you can, from a distance, to be supportive of your sister, even if it’s doing something as simple as leaving groceries at her doorstep. And do what you can to help your mother be more vigilant. Remind her of the gravity of the situation. Perhaps consult with her physician about this specific exposure to your sister, fresh from the hospital, and see what is recommended—whether that means daily temperature checks or increased vigilance about her health.

As for your own mental health: Try to focus on the tangible fact of your mom’s health in this moment, rather than your abstract fright that she might get ill. And remember that even if people do get sick, it can be difficult to isolate the moment of infection. I hope she will be fine, but if she is not, do not think of this as being anyone’s fault.

I’m sorry this happened and sorrier still that we’re in this spot. Try to find mercy for your sister and productively channel your concern for your mother. Good luck.

—Rumaan

More Advice From Slate

My fiancé moved in with my parents and me last year. He has a 2-year-old son whom I’ve taken on as my own and plan on adopting as soon as we’re married. Our living situation is unique, but it works for us. Here’s the problem. We have chosen to limit certain things when it comes to our 2-year-old. We don’t want him watching much TV at all. We DO NOT want him playing with a cellphone or a tablet, period. My parents do not listen to us at all. What should I do?