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 15- and 17-year-olds snuck out of the house to attend a protest. We had explicitly told them they were not allowed to attend because we’re still social distancing as much as possible (their sister has asthma), there would be increased police presence (we’re Black, so that’s an extreme danger right there), and the protests would likely turn violent. They called us from the rally, scared because it had turned into a full-blown riot, and asked us to pick them up (they know they can call us anytime, anywhere, and we will go and get them). We picked them up, told them to go to bed, and we would talk about it in the morning. We agreed they’d be grounded and without electronics for three weeks, and that was that.
Today, my wife and I noticed that our 17-year-old son was wearing a brand-new pair of costly shoes that we did not buy for him. When my wife asked him where they were from, he said he had bought them from a reseller online. The news is reporting that a shoe store that sells those types of shoes was broken into and looted by several people. We now suspect our son may have stolen them, but we’re at odds on what to do about it. My wife wants to confront him and then make him donate them or sell them and donate the proceeds to the memorial fund. I want to make him go to the store and return the shoes. My wife is worried that the store employees will report him to the police, and he could be arrested, have a criminal record, and lose his Ivy League scholarship. I think that if he’s man enough to steal a pair of shoes on behalf of a black man being murdered, he’s man enough to accept the legal consequences of his actions. What do we do?
—Conflicted and Concerned
Let me get this straight. You want your Black child to be held legally responsible for stealing a pair of sneakers during an uprising over the mistreatment of Black people at the hands of law enforcement and beyond? You trust the same system of law enforcement that triggered a “full-blown riot” in your community and in communities across the world to punish your child?
Not gonna lie, my brother. There’s some language I’d really like to use in response to this letter, but I can’t, because we aren’t simply amongst our own folk in this space. I’m hoping you can determine what it is using our secret Black people telekinesis powers.
I hope you know that many of the freedom fighters of the civil rights movement—who have been flattened into sanitized, uncomplicated, and polite caricatures of polite resistance, largely in an attempt to create a standard for “acceptable” protest that is both ahistorical and unrealistic—were going against their parents’ orders, too. Black parents have always been forced to reckon with a fear for our children’s safety that often finds us demanding that they contort their right to personhood in complicated ways in hopes that they will return to us alive.
However, the uprising that we are seeing right now is taking place because simply trying to comply with “the system” and “be good” is not going to guarantee freedom for any of us, nor will it allow our children’s children to inherit a world that is more just than the one we were born into.
It is not in the best interest of Black people to call the police in most circumstances, not unless there is no viable alternative. You know this. It is entirely possible that a police department that is desperate to make an example of protesters and to demonstrate their continued value to business owners (and those White folks who have finally begun to express widespread concern over police treatment of Black people) would gladly arrest your son on charges that are far more damning than the slap on the wrist you are (hopefully) imagining.
I am absolutely gobsmacked at the thought of a Black man wanting to have his Black child held accountable for (possibly) stealing a pair of fucking gym shoes by an institution that would likely fail to hold one of their own officers accountable if they’d killed you or one of your children. I can’t perform the logical gymnastics that would lead you to put his academic and professional aspirations at risk over a pair of shoes, let alone risking his life because being “man enough” to steal some shoes (maybe) means being “man enough” to face consequences at the hands of a racist, violent system that values those sneakers more than it does your son’s life, or yours, or mine.
Pardon my candor, but fuck those sneakers and those cops that you’d dare sic on your own flesh and blood. While the potential for exposing your household to COVID certainly complicates your sons’ choice to break your rule, your letter doesn’t seem to center that, nor the other tremendous danger that participating in a protest presents: police violence. Furthermore, you want to subject your child to the very police he was protesting. Do you trust the police to treat him fairly? His future institution? Employers? And if so, where on earth did you get that notion from?
Who owns this shoe store? Do they treat Black customers well? Hire Black employees and treat them well? Were these shoes made ethically or in a sweatshop somewhere? Have you heard anything that implies that this shoe store doesn’t have insurance that will allow it to recover, unlike the people whose deaths led to this uprising, and those who have died while it is taking place? And are … you … OK? Did you not take the time to read about the, y’know, 400 years of oppression that have led kids like your son to steal shoes?
Perhaps you are of the opinion that your Ivy League–bound kid should know and do better because he’s experienced certain privileges. To that, I ask that you remember that even “good” Black kids are subject to abuse at the hands of the police, store owners, teachers, classmates, and everywhere that White supremacy can be found, which, in America, is literally EVERYWHERE. If your kids had made it to 15 and 17 without knowing a single thing about racism and only discovered it via the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, these killings would still be reason enough for them to be filled with rage. How could you possibly prioritize following laws that do not give a fuck about your Black-ass kids over their safety?
If you’re so outraged over the theft, figure out a way to pay the store back for the lost sale (without providing any information that could be used to identify your son or your household). Donate the shoes, as your wife suggested, or sell them and donate the proceeds to bail out protesters who are fighting for you, even if you aren’t able to respect or understand why.
Whatever freedoms you have been able to enjoy in this country have come on the backs of Black people who fought, and in many cases died, so that you may have them. This botched experiment of a nation owes your son so much more than a pair of sneakers. I am deeply ashamed of you, and proud of your sons. Hopefully, you will come around to feeling the same way.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
My boyfriend and I live together, and we have custody of his 6-year-old daughter every other weekend. She will also be staying with us for about a month this summer. She is generally a sweet, smart, and loving little girl. Our visits usually go pretty well, but we sometimes struggle with her behavior. My boyfriend often expresses that he doesn’t want to discipline her for every “little” thing when she is with him for such a short time. He does correct or punish her when her behavior is over the top. I also gently correct her when needed.
However, there are many things that my boyfriend considers “little” that I do not. I would not allow these behaviors if she were my child or a child I was teaching (I have taught elementary and high school students). Some examples include her walking up to me and saying, “I’m thirsty,” and expecting me to get her a drink immediately. She will also tell us both to stop talking or “shoo” us if she doesn’t want to hear what we are telling her. She is a very picky eater and will call anything she doesn’t like “disgusting” or “gross” with a sour face. She grabs at my cats and dog and won’t listen when we say that she could be hurting or upsetting them. She is very slow to follow directions like getting dressed or putting on shoes and often wants us to do it for her. She will whine, grumble, or yell wordlessly when she’s upset or angry so she doesn’t have to answer questions. Many of these behaviors are things that I would expect from a much younger child; some are just downright rude and bossy.
I know that she is a brilliant and thoughtful girl, so I don’t understand why some of these things are happening. I have been in her life for a little under a year, so I don’t expect to change her behaviors overnight or single-handedly. I’m just wondering what steps I can take to help deal with some of these issues, in whatever limited capacity I might be able to. She has never expressed any negative feelings toward me and often says that she loves me (I feel the same and tell her so), so I don’t think she has any “stepmom resentment” building or anything like that. I need some tips!
I find it curious that you refer to yourself as this child’s “stepmom.” Why? Is it that you and your partner have agreed to a long-term commitment outside of the traditional conventions of marriage, one in which you are to be regarded as a stepparent? Are you planning to be married and have simply embraced the role in advance? Or do you feel that being in her father’s life in a romantic capacity affords you such a title? If you haven’t given serious consideration to the distinction between a stepmom and “Dad’s girlfriend” and come to a mutually agreed-upon decision to function as the former, then I think you ought to do so ASAP.
That aside, the behaviors you are describing are very much par for the course with a 6-year-old, particularly one who has been allowed to do such things without appropriate correction. If a child is used to simply saying “I’m thirsty” as opposed to “May I please have some water?” and having her needs met, it is to be expected that she won’t simply grow out of making those sort of demands.
You need to speak to your boyfriend and get on the same page about how to properly react when his daughter does something rude or when she’s dragging her feet to get dressed or mistreating a vulnerable animal. If you are going to occupy such a significant position in her life, you ought to be empowered to speak to her with authority more often than not, with kindness and compassion. But please don’t mistake these very common little kid behaviors for anything more damning than what they are. She’s 6, and 6-year-olds can be quite rude and entitled.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
A few years ago, I looked out my window and saw a kid lying on the sidewalk outside an elementary school. I live in Nebraska, and it was below freezing. I ran outside, and as I approached him, a woman called to me from the door of the school and assured me he was fine. He was Black and looked to be around 4. I’m White, and so was the woman who I assume was a paraeducator. I don’t remember our exact words, but I vehemently questioned why this little kid was allowed to lie on the sidewalk in the middle of winter. Her response was he was “special needs,” and to avoid hurting him they wanted him to make a choice to get up and come inside rather than physically compelling him. She stopped answering my questions when I asked how old he was and if his caregivers knew the situation. I walked away and called the principal, and they gave me the same answer.
I still don’t know if I handled the situation right. I am still deeply disturbed by the image of this little kid lying on the sidewalk, and I still feel upset wondering how his parents or caregivers would feel seeing him there. Was I the “Karen” in that situation? Where is the right line to take between inserting yourself in a situation you do not know of and ignoring a person in need? I’m thinking of that letter about the two little girls who were riding their bikes on a busy street—Jamilah rightly admonished us all to help little Black kids (and all kids) in need. I’m terrified of both being a complacent bystander to a bad situation and also of being the person who tries to help but makes things worse. I ask because I truly want to do the right thing, but I don’t feel confident that I will always know how. Help!
—Caring, Not Karen-ing
I’d like for you to close your eyes and imagine the scenario that took place outside your window, replacing the little Black boy with a little White girl. One of those tow-haired, blue-eyed ones that y’all are so smitten by.
Can you see yourself relenting? Do you think you’d be able to give up and just allow her to be outside in the freezing cold without, at the very least, sticking around to ensure that she was brought indoors safely within a reasonable amount of time? I’m having hard time imagining that you would—and perhaps you are, too, which is why this incident has haunted you for years, as it should. It will haunt me too.
Were you the Karen? Yes, and in the worst possible way. See, Karen is most often identified by her sense of entitlement and authority. She demands to speak to a manager, and she expects that her concerns will be heard and addressed with urgency. You could have leaned on that sort of privilege here and demanded that this child be brought indoors. You could have threatened to call the authorities or the school board or the local news and reported what you were seeing. You even could have asked the child himself if he was cold, if he felt safe, if he had been treated badly by his teacher.
Alas, when it comes to the needs of people of color, Karen is a lot less likely to raise her voice for good. You knew that you went outside for a reason, you knew that this situation was wrong, but you gave up. I ask again: Would you have done this if little Cindy or Bobby Brady was laid out on the ground in the dead of winter? A “special needs” child, at that? How might you feel knowing that an adult saw something so disturbing happening to your kid, but gave up when school officials defended their actions?
It’s entirely possible that this baby could not communicate what took place that day when he went home to his family, either because of a disability or a fear of challenging the authority of the adults at his school. His parents may have no idea that anything out of the ordinary happened; worse yet, that sort of awful treatment may have been a routine occurrence for him and/or his classmates.
Treat other people’s children the way you’d want someone to treat your own kids. You’d want to know if your son was in the cold under the supervision of someone who wasn’t willing to go outside themselves to attend to him during a difficult moment. You’d want their care and compassion for him to trump any possible discomfort over “meddling.” Keeping kids safe is part of the work required of adults, and you failed at that task that day. Next time, use your Karen powers for good.
Dear Care and Feeding,
My daughter is 2-going-on-3, and I have a low-stakes question: When is it appropriate to pierce a child’s ears? A lot of her friends are already wearing small pearls. I’m inclined to wait until she asks, but I’m concerned she won’t initiate the conversation until long after she’s started to feel uncomfortable within her cohort. On the other hand, if we begin the conversation, it’s likely she’ll say “yes please” before she’s able to think through the social and hygiene issues involved in the decision. So now I’m looking for a hard and fast rule for an age to get your ears pierced or at least have the option, like how your first (small) taste of (good) beer should be at 11, and your first (small) glass of (French) wine should be when you’re 14. What say you?
Ear piercing is largely a cultural matter, much like drinking. I’ve never heard any adult I know suggest that a first sip of beer should happen during childhood, nor that a 14-year-old should be allowed to have even a small glass of wine. Conversely, almost all of my Black girlfriends and I had our ears pierced in infancy—my pediatrician did mine!—and this is a common practice among certain Latinx peoples as well.
Piercing Pagoda will pierce infants as young as 2 months, so long as they’ve had DPT inoculation. I took my daughter there exactly 60 days after she was born. A benefit of piercing a baby’s ears is that they are less likely than an older child to fuss with the new jewelry, which can lead to an infection.
You’re looking for a rule that doesn’t exist, PP. There are some parents who think that their kids should be old enough to ask before an unnecessary procedure of any sort, those who have decided that middle school or high school is the proper time, and others who think little kids look absolutely adorable with little earrings and go for it at a very early age. I’d say it’s up to you. Consider that a 3-year-old may be less inclined to obsess over a new piercing than, say, an 8-year-old, which decreases the likelihood that she’ll try and take it out or replace it while out of your sight, and that if you pierce now and your kid decides she doesn’t want to wear earrings in the future, you can just take them out. I say do it now while she’s young enough not to obsess over the (brief) pain and to let you properly care for the piercing, but I am also firmly on team “Kids Look Adorable in Earrings.” It’s really up to you, my dear.
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