Care and Feeding

I’m Tired of Pretending Kids Can Be Anything They Want

If you’re failing math and science, you’re not gonna be a doctor. Sorry!

Child dressed as a doctor.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by vladans/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,

What should an adult say to a child who wants to be a ballerina, astronaut, movie star, or professional athlete? “You can be anything you want” is the standard reply, but the reality is that, no, you probably won’t be the next Beyoncé. For a little kid (like a 5-year-old), saying “You can be anything you want” is affirming, but what about a 14-year-old? Saying, “Well, you are failing math and science, so being a doctor is probably not in the stars for you” is mean, even if it is a reality check.

Is there a kind way to say that? If not, is it kind to pretend they can be anything they want? I do know some people are late bloomers and some do achieve the astronaut goal.

—Optimism Versus Reality

Dear OVR,

Well, my father dropped out of high school and went to work at a nylon factory when he realized (on his own) that he wouldn’t get to be an astronaut, but that’s not really a widely applicable piece of anecdata.

As you observe, this is a very different scenario when it’s a small child who wants to be a fairy princess (“Great! Let’s get you some plastic wings!”) than when it’s a teenager who wants to be a doctor, and I do not think you’re really concerned about the former, so let’s focus on the older kids.

Personally, I have never really gone with “You can do anything you want/be anything you want to be!” statements because I find them to be mostly nonsensical. What I do, and what I encourage, is go to the concrete information. If your older child with crummy math and science grades tells you they want to be a doctor (I am saying “your” because I strongly discourage anyone from shooting down the dreams of someone else’s kid in any way, shape or form), say, “Oh, that’s great. Let’s look at what sort of pre-med requirements you’d have to achieve in college.” Pull up the data! You can say, “Well, it looks like you’ll need X number of courses in Y and Z, so if that’s your goal, that’s what you’ll have to focus on.”

That puts the ball in their court, and you have not had to say anything personally deflating.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I can’t ask my mom or friends this question because it’ll sound like I’m bragging, when I’m really just completely perplexed. My 2-year-old daughter has always hit her milestones very early, especially linguistically. We have normal, complex conversations that I would expect to have with a 5-year-old. A few weeks ago we were reading a book together and she started to read it with me. I didn’t think much of it, thinking we’d read it so many times that she’d memorized it, until the next day when my husband was reading the newspaper at the table and she started sounding out and reading the words in the headlines.

The next few days she would yell out any word that she saw (on signs, etc.) as we were driving. I bought her a brand-new book that she hadn’t seen before and asked her to read it out loud. She got 85 percent of the words. We’ve never done any type of phonics or “reading training.” My husband and I like to read, but it’s not an obsessive thing. I have no idea where this is coming from. Is this developmentally normal? What do I do?

—Bookworm

Dear Bookworm,

She could be hyperlexic! I was/am hyperlexic—it manifested at a similar age. In my case, it was autism-linked, but there’s a lot of people with hyperlexia who show no other markers of autism whatsoever, and I don’t see anything in your letter that suggests that. She could also just be a very precocious reader who is delighted and entranced by her new superpower. Her complex conversation skills don’t indicate any deficits in her expressive language (many hyperlexic kids go through an extended echolalia phase, as opposed to the “normal” echolalia phase that most children progress through on their way to developing their verbal abilities), and I really see no cause for concern, only celebration. Is it “developmentally normal”? Not really. Does that really matter in the context of a child who is not manifesting deficits? No.

Get her a lot of books! Engage her in conversation! As she gets older, seek out enrichment opportunities to allow her to flex her skills. And talk to your pediatrician about it! Not as a concern, just as a useful data point for them to have.

Congratulations on your wee bookworm.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

Can you help me stop feeling guilty about my kids’ eating habits?

I just read yet another column where a parent bragged about how their kids ate “adult” food just like them. Every time I read something like this or hear a friend say how they made sure to give their kids “adult food” from the beginning, I feel a stab of guilt that my children are not like this. The implication always is that this is the right way.

The background: I have two neuroatypical children (elementary age), and it’s not always obvious to outsiders that they are not neurotypical. For a variety of logistical and sensory reasons, they usually don’t eat the same food as my spouse and I. One child has many sensory issues with food; the other child is on medication that increases metabolism and reduces appetite PLUS is very small and didn’t particularly like eating before starting the meds, so the main focus for that one is getting enough intake to meet caloric and nutritional needs.

At my best, I can feel OK about this. We have worked hard at making sure they get appropriate nutrition. They both eat veggies with every meal without complaint as long as they can pick the vegetable (and are willing to switch the current favorite when reminded that having multiple colors is healthy). Both don’t love most protein sources but get enough. The younger one would eat only chicken nuggets and French fries much of the time if we allowed it but we don’t. When I make a list of what they will eat, it’s smaller than many kids’, but not so restrictive they can’t get all the needed nutrients. If we go to meals at someone’s house, they do not complain about food. They say “no, thank you” to what they do not want and eat what is tolerable politely. Yes, we end up making separate meals for them at home, which is also looked down on, but the older one is already learning to prepare their own food, so this won’t be the case forever.

Periodically, I feel like I should make a bigger effort to at least offer them “adult” food every day so maybe they will learn to like more things faster, but even getting them to try a small bite is difficult if it feels coerced. (Over time they have both slowly expressed interest in trying new things if they are offered.) But because they are OK nutritionally and there are other things we are working on, this never quite makes it to top priority, and we struggle on many fronts. I also feel guilty that we don’t usually sit down to eat together because of logistics and because competing sensory needs end up overwhelming the eating most times.

I promise I am doing the best I can. My spouse is happy to offer new foods to kids frequently and is not concerned about this, but I can’t shake feeling guilty whenever someone brags about what “good eaters” their kids are. I know they don’t mean it this way, but it always feels like a dig at me, and I wish I could feel OK prioritizing their nutrition over being “normal.”

—Is This OK?

Dear ITO,

It’s absolutely OK. I think you’re doing a tremendous job, you continue to try to expand their palates when you have the bandwidth, and their nutritional needs are being met. You are feeding your own, existing, neuroatypical children, not hypothetical French toddlers who demand leek soup (delicious as leek soup may be).

I firmly encourage you to feel 100 percent OK, to feel that you are a good parent, and that you are doing an excellent job balancing your children’s needs and their individual issues around food, and I don’t give a rat’s ass what other people are doing.

It’s working. If other people want to brag about the rich and varied diets of their children, they are welcome to do so, but it has nothing to do with your situation or your children, who are being excellently parented and have their sensory issues respected.

Keep up the good work. You’re doing great. Please feel free to print this response out and put it on your fridge if it makes you feel better.

What’s It Like Not to Connect With Your Newborn Immediately?

Dan Kois, Jamilah Lemieux, and Elizabeth Newcamp chat with comedian Mike Birbiglia in this week’s episode of Slate’s parenting podcast, Mom and Dad Are Fighting.

Dear Care and Feeding,

Nicole, thank you so much for answering my letter. You were compassionate and on point in your advice.

Many commenters queried as to the physical distance between my sister-in-law and her parents compared to where we live. They do all live in the same town. However, both SIL and MIL frequently travel together for day and weekend trips to the major city where we live, so MIL would be able to look after SIL’s children while she works.

Before I got sick, we visited each other at least every six weeks. My eldest adored them, and early last year he started to notice that “the grandies” no longer visited, and Daddy was sad every time the subject came up. They then declined to visit at the baby’s birth and also subsequently at her first birthday. They managed to meet her briefly only when they had spare time between other commitments that happened to be in town.

I now realize that it wasn’t clear in my initial letter that we never stopped reaching out to them, and only received very brief and noncommittal responses in return. I should also have mentioned that about 18 months ago, my husband told my MIL that he would have liked to have seen them more frequently. She responded by telling him that it was up to us to visit more often if we wanted to see them. This was a day after I was discharged from the hospital from a minor infection that had blown out due to my reduced immune system, and which derailed my tightly scheduled treatment plan that was aligned to conclude three weeks before delivery. Conversations between them became far less frequent after that.

I love my in-laws. Because of my violent and complicated childhood, they are the parents I never had. I will never forget the feeling of being welcomed into their family. Keeping track of holidays and birthdays was my way of supporting my husband, balancing my mixture of resentment and enduring affection for them, and allaying some of the guilt for the distance between my husband and his family (which only appeared when I got sick).

I’m not sure if or when my husband would be ready for another conversation with his parents and sister. I wrote in for your advice on how best to support him. I understand now that there is no magic fix. I accept that to my in-laws it probably seems I have made our lives seem too sad and too difficult with my illness, and perhaps that’s why they’ve chosen to keep their distance. I can’t change their perspective; I’m simply choosing to continue to be there for my husband, and to love him and our children that much harder for as long as I am around.

Thank you again. You have brought a much-needed perspective.

—Is It Because I Had Cancer?

Dear IIBIHC,

I’m so glad my advice was useful to you, even if only to validate your experience and encourage you to let your husband make his own emotional choices around his family’s actions.

I truly wish that the peace and sense of connection you initially found with your in-laws were still in your life. It’s very hard to have briefly experienced something you have longed for since childhood, and then watch it erode due to what seems to be an unfortunately common, if tremendously callous, response to the realities of a serious illness. They are missing out far more than you are, even if it doesn’t seem that way when you see their relationship with your sister-in-law.

I hope you have a long and healthy life ahead of you, filled with the joy of a happy marriage and the challenges and rewards of parenting your children.

Thank you so much for updating us.

—Nicole

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