Care and Feeding

I Think I’ve Screwed Up the Way My Kids Think About Race

Teen boys of different races seated and talking.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Monkeybusinessimages/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 family is white, and we live in a predominately white neighborhood. However, our kids (twin boys) went to a local public charter elementary and middle school that was very diverse. When it was time for high school, our twins were lucky enough to have their closest friends from elementary and middle school attend the same school. Each of the boys had a diverse group of friends, and they were taken aback, as freshmen in high school, by the way other kids sat at tables in same-race clusters. The kids who’d gone to our (small) middle school, where tables were assigned by grade, continued to hang out at lunch together as a mixed group.

Now my sons have graduated, and their closest friends are still a mix of black, Hispanic, and white kids. I have never been concerned about the kids having any issues around race. But one of our sons mentioned recently how irritated he is by the form he has to fill out regarding a college roommate. He has to specify his race, and all of the profiles of potential roommates he views also include race. He says all he cares about is if they are male or female and what their interests are—he doesn’t care about race. With everything going on in the U.S. now, I’m doing more reading on racism, and if I’m understanding correctly, not caring about race is almost as bad as focusing only on race. Should he care what race his friends are? Or is it OK for him to not even care/notice? Is there something we should be doing or talking to our kids about before they go to college, or is it too late? Are they just as racist as someone who only has white friends, or am I worrying about nothing?

—Making a Mountain Out of an Anthill?

Dear MaMOoaA,

I don’t believe for a second that you think your kids are racist, so this feels like a disingenuous question—one that means to challenge the idea that “not caring about” or “not noticing” race is itself racist. So I will say this: Not caring about or noticing race is a privilege reserved for people who are white. Black and brown people in the U.S. do not have that luxury—and not just “with everything going on” right now, but ever.

And that’s the thing you should be talking to your kids about—for starters. As the sociologist Megan R. Underhill, who studies race and family, has said, “White people aren’t ‘outside’ of race—they’re at the top of the racial hierarchy.” Dismissing or downplaying this reality only perpetuates inequity and violence.

In last Sunday’s column, I made lots of suggestions about resources for self-education, so I won’t repeat them here, but I will note that your kids are old enough to begin to educate themselves too, so—all of you—start reading and start talking. It is most certainly not too late.

It’s great that your kids have grown up with a diverse group of friends—it ought to be the norm. And as to their part in contributing to the goal of a nonracist lunchroom in high school—good for them! But nonracism is only the first step toward a more just society. Anti-racism requires more of us. I trust that your sons—given their experience, their friendships, their sense of what injustice looks like—would embrace the opportunity to learn how to take next steps. I urge you to take them right along with your kids.

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

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I am the single mother to two politically engaged daughters. My youngest, a rising senior in high school, is president of her school’s Young Democrats club and is spending her summer virtually organizing for Joe Biden. My eldest—who is home from her sophomore year of college—is a Marxist involved in her campus Young Democratic Socialists of America chapter. I’m sure you can see where this is going. Our house is dominated by talk of politics, ranging from spirited, respectful (albeit LONG) conversations to high-octane arguments. I am sick of all of it. We can’t get through a meal without the conversation devolving into a political argument. Our condo is tiny, so even when I’m not in eyesight, I’m in earshot and can hear the girls going after each other.

I have tried explaining that this endless back-and-forth clearly isn’t moving the needle on anyone’s opinion, so it would serve their causes better to redirect their energy to more volunteering, protesting, etc. (which—to be fair—both of them are already heavily involved in). But each time, I get hard-line pushback from both girls that the other “is basically endorsing Trump” or “supports the bombing of innocent children” as justification for this ceaseless cycle of conflict. Still, I want to ensure that my daughters know the value of civic engagement, defending their opinions, and sticking up for what they believe in. To that end, am I doomed to bear witness to months of political talk, so long as they keep things respectful? Or would it be reasonable to ban political argumentation from the home?

—Sick of Politics at Home

Dear SoPaH,

Oh, dear, I can imagine that being trapped in a tiny condo 24 hours a day with two young people with an inexhaustible appetite for political discourse would be maddening. I appreciate that you would be grateful for some peace and quiet. Through my teaching, I spend a lot of time around people the age of your daughters, and I’ve observed more apathy than passion—even an allergy to strongly held political stances and big ideas about the world. So I think it’s worth saying that from what you’ve told me, I am mostly in awe of your kids. I hope you can appreciate how truly wonderful it is that they care so much (and that it’s not all talk, either—that they both take action too). Of course they are going to argue, and probably more heatedly than they would with anyone else who doesn’t agree with them, because when your own sister doesn’t see that you’re right, it must feel like a profoundly personal affront (not to mention that it probably slides right into the slot of ordinary sibling bickering)—so what you’re seeing is a swirling mass of serious commitment to ideas about the right way to fix the world and old-fashioned sibling I-know-better battles.

I wouldn’t ban political talk, if I were you. I suspect that the more you complain about it, the harder they’ll dig in—they’re both still at that you-are-not-the-boss-of-me age, after all. And honestly, if I were one of your daughters, I’d be outraged if you told me I couldn’t argue about politics at home. Right now, arguing politics is their lifeblood. If I were you, I’d try to concentrate on being proud of them—and invest in a pair of good noise-canceling headphones.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I have a toddler. While of course we’ve made mistakes already, my husband and I feel like largely we’ve made the right decisions for our family (switching to formula when I had a low milk supply, sleep training, me staying at home with him, etc.), but I have trouble sometimes worrying about what other parents think of my decisions and parenting in general. Last fall, I had a very unpleasant conversation with a friend when she came to hang out at my house in the evening. My kid, who had just been put to bed, was crying when she arrived, and she proceeded to tell me (among other things) that any version of letting a child cry it out is pretty much child abuse. I think that talk did some lingering damage to my burgeoning confidence as a parent. How did you develop confidence as a parent and stop worrying about what other people think? I always want to be willing to listen to other people’s perspectives and learn and grow as a parent, but I don’t want to use up too much headspace with thoughts like What would X or Y think about this?

—Developing Confidence

Dear DC,

So I have good news and bad news. The good news is that if you’re already feeling that “largely” you’ve made the right decisions for your family, you are well on your way to developing confidence. When you’re challenged about a decision you’ve made, it will help if you remind yourself of why you made it in the first place. The fact is your parenting decisions are going to be questioned (and sometimes outright countermanded) by others. You will repeatedly be called upon to revisit what you have decided. So one tool in your confidence toolkit should be for you to keep in mind that you’ve made your choices thoughtfully and carefully. (I’m not suggesting, by the way, that this means that you shouldn’t let in fresh ideas from perspectives you may not have thought through. It’s that balance between thoughtful decision-making and an open mind that leads to true confidence, as opposed to surface-level certainty.)

It also helps to have the support of your partner, to seek out friends who share your values, to choose day care, sitters, and eventually schools in which you won’t have to keep exhaustingly explaining yourself or fighting the same battles again and again. And you might think about what’s behind the criticism that you feel undermines you. Sometimes it comes from a place of deeply held different ideas about what is best for children (though it seems to me that no matter how deeply held someone’s beliefs are, unless a child is in fact being abused, people should hold their tongues when it comes to other people’s children—and while I know that that’s not always easy, that doesn’t mean it isn’t right). Sometimes people are just busybodies (I remember very well—and still a little bitterly—the comments one of my grandmothers-in-law made about my extended nursing). And when it comes to other parents, criticism of your choices may stem from their own insecurity. Anyone who has even the slightest doubts about decisions they’ve made (and who doesn’t have at least a tiny bit of doubt when it comes to something as important as how to raise a child?) is going to suffer a little flare-up of anxiety when faced with someone who’s made precisely the opposite choice. And that anxiety often expresses itself as disapproval, particularly in people who have a lot at stake in seeming super knowledgeable and utterly confident (see surface-level confidence, above).

The bad news, I’m afraid, is that you’ll never feel completely confident. But I’m not sure that’s really such bad news. While it’s absolutely counterproductive (and draining) to worry about what other people think, I believe that it’s good to be in touch with your own doubts. For one thing, it means you won’t be one of those jerks telling other parents they have got it wrong, because awareness and acceptance of your doubts will allow you to experience them without that kind of desperation. For another, it helps you keep an open mind: As time passes, you may tinker with some of your plans; as your child gets older and his temperament becomes ever clearer, you will want to be nimble enough to figure out what works best for him.

So I guess the truth is that there’s no bad news after all. Unless you count the fact that even now, as the mother of a 27-year-old, I still sometimes feel less than perfectly confident. And while I do my best to think of this as healthy—and that it suggests a willingness to learn and change—I’ll grant you that it’s sometimes quite uncomfortable.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My wife and I are expecting our first baby. We’re discussing names a lot and are having trouble coming up with even a shortlist that we can both agree on. My question is about the concept of “name stealing.” I don’t think this is a thing. My wife does. She doesn’t want our baby to share a name with anyone in either of our families. This is an issue because her family is big and very close. This takes a ton of perfectly good names off the table. One name that I keep coming back to is Jordan—but one of my wife’s cousins had a son last year, and his name is Jordan. My wife admits that she loves the name too, but she says we can’t pick it because it’s already been taken. I asked her if she could just talk to her cousin about our using the same name, but she refuses to even broach the topic. She’s firm that she will veto any name that is already in use in either of our families and says we’ll just have to keep brainstorming. I think this false limitation on which names we can choose is ridiculous and frustrating. Who’s right?

—Naming Quandary

Dear NQ,

If I stipulate that in this debate—which is itself ridiculous—I would vote for “no limits” on naming, will you enjoy the satisfaction of an advice columnist having (irrelevantly) sided with you and stop this argument immediately? It doesn’t matter who’s right. Veto power when it comes to naming a child belongs to both parents.

You’re frustrated by her insistence that the two of you find a name that no one in your families already has? So what? There are plenty of names to choose from. It makes no difference why either one of you strikes a name the other has proposed, and it makes no difference if one of you thinks the reason is silly.

This letter makes me suddenly nostalgic, arriving as it does right around my daughter’s 27th birthday, for the crazy, sweet (and, yes, kind of ridiculous) discussions her father and I had about her name when I was pregnant with her: when he struck names from my list because they ended with an A—which he had an inexplicable aversion to—or because they were the names of his ex-girlfriends (I remember parting very sadly with the name Rose, which I loved). For my part, I wanted to avoid a name that was already popular—and then, ironically, the name we chose, which had not appeared in the top 100 names for decades, suddenly became popular. Still, that name—the only one, it turned out, that we could agree on in the end—was the perfect name for her.

Keep crossing out names that one of you says no to. Make it a game, for God’s sake. If you can’t make this essentially fun task enjoyable, you’re going to have a hell of a time when it comes to decisions about feeding, sleep, crying, and potty training.

—Michelle

More Advice From Slate

My husband and I recently had our second child. We struggled with thinking of a name the baby and went to the hospital each with a first-choice name and no agreement between us. He very much wanted to name our child a name I strongly dislike, so I said no repeatedly through the pregnancy. He asked me again shortly after the baby was born, and in a haze of hormones and drugs, I agreed. I hate it. What should I do?