Care and Feeding

My 7-Year-Old Niece Says She’s Friends With the Devil and Tries to Raise Her Toys From the Dead

She also asks how I’d like to die. What should I, uh, do?

Girl proudly holding a shovel in the dirt.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by vsurkov/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 sister and her husband have two little girls, ages 8 and 7. My fiancée and I live half an hour away, and although we have no kids, we’re happy to be the “cool aunties” who are there for babysitting and slumber parties. Our nieces are staying with us for a week while their parents get a much-needed staycation, and our younger niece is going through a creepy phase. She likes burying her toys in the yard and trying to “raise them from the dead,” reading Goosebumps, holding seances for the ghost of our dead cat, and talks about death/the afterlife a lot. She’ll just walk up to us and ask if we’re going to die soon, or tell us all the ways people can die and ask us which one we think we’d prefer, as well as asking us if we’re going to hell and if we can say hi to the devil for her, because “he’s her friend.”

I was very confused about the devil part since everyone in our family is atheist, but my sister warned us beforehand about this, so I figured it was just the R.L. Stine she was reading. I don’t really know how to respond to this, though: Do I talk to her about the afterlife/ghosts? Do I just ignore it? It’s creepy, sure, but it’s also getting annoying to spend my day talking about my funeral plans. What can I do?

—Please Stop Burying Toys

Dear PSBT,

Don’t ignore the creepy stuff altogether, but don’t give your niece a big reaction to it either; it’s possible that part of the allure of the macabre for her is the fact that most people are turned off and/or afraid of it. Establish boundaries on behalf of yourself and, if necessary, her sister: “We’re done talking about death and dead things for today.” “You know, I understand that you like to spend a lot of time thinking about how you’ll die, but I personally would prefer to focus on thinking about how I plan to keep on living.” “We will not be having a pretend funeral today. The end. Wash your hands for dinner.” You don’t have to be the bad guy who rains on her, um, funeral parade, but you don’t have to march in it either.

Be alert for any hints that she’s actually experiencing suicidal ideation or a desire to do violent harm to herself or anyone else, of course, but in the absence of any true red flags, treat it as any other annoying childhood obsession. Try to balance giving her enough freedom to be herself in your presence with also offering some space to explore less unsettling fascinations. You can also ask some questions to try and glean some insight into just what it is she finds compelling about gloom and doom, and see if there are any sunnier pursuits that may overlap with some of her interests.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My 16-year-old high school senior was “scouted” by a modeling agency from an Instagram post. She is very excited and wants to reach out to the agency and get signed. We checked them out, and they seem to be very professional and legitimate. However, she now wants to completely change where she goes to college because of this. Previously, she’d planned to apply primarily to school on the East Coast, where we live, and really wanted to get into an Ivy; she liked both Brown and Dartmouth, and her guidance counselor thinks she has a good shot at getting accepted. Now, she wants to go to USC, UC Santa Barbara, or UCLA because the agency is located in L.A., and she could combine work and school.*

These California schools are great, don’t get me wrong, and had she ever mentioned them before this, I would be fine. But this all seems to be coming out of nowhere. Those colleges aren’t particularly well known for their programs in her intended field of study. The only reason she wants to apply is so she can model! I think that she’s being a little foolhardy and that while it could happen, it’s unlikely that she could make an actual career from modeling. How do I explain this to her without sounding rude or snobby? It’s not the colleges’ prestige I’m worried about, it’s that this is so … abrupt!

—California Dreaming

Dear CD,

It certainly may be the case that it is the newfound interest in modeling, and nothing else, that has inspired your child to reevaluate her plans. But even if that is the case, if there is a version of college life that pleases her on the West Coast—and one that would please her even if she doesn’t find success in front of a camera—that might not be the worst change of heart a teenager has ever had. There is something wrong about the entire concept of expecting a child well under 18 to decide what they want to do with the rest of their lives and to then begin preparing accordingly, with little room for error and changes of heart costing well into the thousands of dollars.

I’d be remiss not to mention that most modeling agencies of good reputation aren’t going to be recruiting teenagers via Instagram DM. Please be certain that this isn’t someone posing as a representative of a legit business, or some other potentially dangerous or otherwise bad situation. Even if a “real” industry professional of some sort has expressed some interest in her, make sure that she is clear that one person’s endorsement is not sufficient evidence that a career in one of the most competitive businesses on the planet is in the cards.

In light of recent changes to our ways of life, I’m inclined to be open to the possibility that this sudden new interest in heading west could be more than just a simple flight of fancy inspired by the new revelation that your daughter may be “model material.” This particular agency may be L.A-based, but surely your daughter knows that New York City is an international destination for models and that she can certainly pursue work in the field while attending an East Coast school.

Do you think it’s possible that your daughter isn’t just thinking about becoming a famous model, but also experiencing college in an environment that she’d enjoy—especially after having her junior and senior years ostensibly disrupted by the pandemic in a very significant way?

As a long-time New York resident who moved to California just a few months before COVID-19 hit, I am very, very clear on how different sheltering-in-place would have been were I still in a densely populated place with frequently miserable weather where I relied on a subway system for transportation. In fact, I have to credit sunshine and mild temperatures with helping me to survive this period. Perhaps the idea of studying on a beautiful yet dreary and old-school campus that’s a stone’s throw from home seems less compelling after spending months and months indoors?

Is it possible that the interest from the modeling agent has simply triggered an opportunity for your daughter to be honest about what she really wants from her college experience? Or to consider new visions of that time in her life that may still be desirable even if modeling proves to be a bust? And have you inquired to see if she’s actually as committed to her planned field of study as you seem to think she is?

Talk to your kid to figure out, as best you can, how serious she is about moving to the Left Coast and why. Be her thought partner in exploring just what it is that will make her the happiest, while also putting her in a space where she’ll get a great education and study something she’s committed to. Then, work together to either recommit to the original dream or develop a new one. Best of luck to you both.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I’m a single dad to an amazing 12-year-old girl who has done gymnastics since she was 4. She’s very talented and has Olympic ambitions. I fully support this passion, but I also try to make sure she can keep up with school so she has something to fall back on just in case.

Before quarantine, she missed the last two to three hours of school to train with her coaches, and she managed to keep her grades high in her regular classes nonetheless. Now that we’re inside, she trains in a mini-gym in the basement and may start socially distanced training at the gym soon.

I admire my daughter’s passion and dedication, but we’re both nervous about the future of the Olympics and what it might mean for her career. She recently asked to train full time and get a tutor instead of remaining in her school’s traditional distance learning program. I’m not so sure about this; the 2020 Olympics are already canceled, and the 2024 Olympics, when she’d be aiming to compete, may be delayed or canceled as well. If she switches to private tutoring and then ends up not competing, how will this affect her life after gymnastics? She’s got her heart set on this, but are there other options that could work? What do you suggest?

—Nervous About 2024

Dear Nervous,

What are her coaches saying about her chances to make it to the top? If dropping out of traditional school to train all day is on the table, does that mean that she is not just very talented but performing exceedingly well at her chosen sport? Adhering to responsible, diligent, and healthy practicing habits?

If it hasn’t been made clear to you that she is on the Gabby Douglas track (and even if you feel like it has), you ought to speak to the professionals at your gym and any other experts who have seen your kid in action and try to get as many unbiased, qualified opinions about her chances as possible.* And who would this trainer be? Do they have success in getting kids to the Olympics? What is their relationship to the families they’ve worked with? How are they credentialed, and who is responsible for checking their background? Can you afford this without great sacrifice? What about the tutor? Will you be able to get someone who will provide an adequate education? And is your daughter’s learning style conductive to such a unique educational model?

Right now, school isn’t school as we typically have known it, but I still struggle to feel comfortable with the idea of such a young person abandoning even the remaining vestiges of “regular” education in order to pursue something that may be made unattainable because of the pandemic. If she sacrifices that much time with her peers only to fall short of qualifying or for the Games not to take place, she may regret that deeply—and your willingness to comply with such a drastic choice—for a very long time.

I hate the idea of crushing a young girl’s dreams, but in this particular moment in history, I would not recommend planning her life largely around the possibility of the 2024 Olympics happening at all, let alone the chance that she makes it to the final stages of competition to participate. However, I am notoriously cynical when it comes to all things COVID; it is entirely possible that a safe version of the games will be executed, and I certainly hope that is the case—but leaving school to try and compete is still a hell of a gamble. Look to the experts and be prepared to help your daughter figure out other ways to prepare for the tryouts. Good luck to you both!

Dear Care and Feeding,

I am not a parent, but I am seeking the perspective of someone who is. A family friend recently experienced a miscarriage at 20 weeks after many rounds of IVF. She is devastated, and understandably so. But in her Facebook post about her miscarriage, she included a link to a GoFundMe for $10,000 so that she and her husband can start another round of IVF. She has already spent more than $50,000 on fertility treatments, and I am incensed by the insane myopia and selfishness of spending that much money on a bizarre desire to be biologically related to a child.

I entered the foster system at age 12 and remained there until I aged out. Why are people so obsessed with having “their own” children? Is adoption such an inconceivably terrible thing? And how do people justify spending that money on their own crusade for biological parenthood instead of helping children who, you know, already exist? How many starving, impoverished kids could $60,000 feed? (I also just don’t understand why you’d want to bring a new child into the world in the first place. Life sucks, everything hurts, and the only way to escape the horror of living is the sweet release of death. Why would you subject someone who you ostensibly love to THAT?) I don’t get it, and I want to understand.

—Way Too Mad About This

Dear WTMAT,

I know that the closing to your letter was hyperbolic, but I hope you are in a space in which you think of life as being worth continuing more often than not and that when you are feeling overwhelmed by the horrors of living, that you have a safe place to turn to for some support.

I don’t think anyone who isn’t in your friend’s shoes can tell you exactly what she is thinking. Sure, it’s possible that she’s more fixated on the idea of having a child that is a blood relative that begins its life inside her body than she is consumed by the general desire to be a mother. Or perhaps her husband is the one who desperately desires a blood relation. It’s also worth considering that her inability to have a successful pregnancy may be causing this person to feel inadequate as a woman, which is not an uncommon experience since women are at times made to feel that giving birth is the true measure of our value on this planet. One may argue that a couple that would throw $50,000—that they don’t have to lose—at the possibility of pregnancy might not be the best suited to care for a foster child to begin with.

Your own experiences with aging out of the foster care system certainly raise another question that I think should be asked not just of folks who are unable to conceive, but of all who wish to become parents at all: Why don’t more families consider adoption and/or fostering? How can we allow children to languish in a world that can meet their every need, if only there were adults willing to make the sacrifices necessary to do so? And I’d argue that it’s the same greed and selfishness that leads people to ignore social distancing recommendations to engage in activities that would put others in danger, or to vote for politicians who close schools, shut down programs designed to feed the hungry, and sustain systems of bias and inequity.

It isn’t the children in foster care who are unworthy of a forever home, but a lack of homes that are worthy of those children. The plight of children in the system is yet another social issue that we have failed to adequately center as a culture. Thank you for reminding all of us who may be pondering the future of our families that there are young people who deserve to be considered in those plans.

—Jamilah

More Advice From Slate

I have just had devastating news: My 58-year-old second husband of two years has been having an affair with my 25-year-old daughter from my first marriage. I am in a state of utter shock. I had absolutely no idea that this was going on and feel heartbroken, betrayed, and furious at the two people I love most. They want to live together, but where does this leave me? I do not know what to do. Can you advise?

Correction, July 29, 2020: This piece originally misspelled Santa Barbara and Gabby Douglas’ last name.