Care and Feeding

My Child Has Not Seen Any Friends in Five Months

Should I be worried?

A girl blows bubbles while wearing a princess dress and crown.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Vasyl Dolmatov/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.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I have a 4-year-old daughter (almost 5!) who is very bright and happy. She has a late birthday so she was only to start pre-K this year. Because of COVID, my husband and I have decided to skip it altogether and teach her everything she needs to know before kindergarten ourselves. This doesn’t worry me academically, but I am concerned about her development and the loss of the social interaction she was going to experience. She’s an only child, and I’m not a very social person, so before the shutdown, the only children she would see (on occasion) were cousins and the daughter of an old friend—and since March, her only contact with them has been through video chat (which she doesn’t do very well with: She gets absorbed in the filters, effects, and stickers to the point where she doesn’t speak to the person on the other side). I’m worried that when she gets to school, she will have limited social skills and that this will impact her negatively. On the other hand, I’m not comfortable with exposing our household so play dates are out of the question until science deems then safe again. Is there anything else I can do to help make sure she gets everything she needs?

—Anxious Mama Bear

Dear Anxious,

You’re doing the best you can under impossible conditions. And there are going to be a lot of kids starting kindergarten having similarly experienced little in the way of social engagement with other children. Not everyone has a sibling to play with, and not everyone nailed down a pod early in quarantine. I think most kids your daughter’s age will have limited social skills when they find themselves in a classroom (whenever the hell that turns out to be). I think we all are going to have to let go of the expectations we had in olden times (i.e., before March 2020) and 1) accept that we don’t know what the future of familiar things—classrooms, classroom interactions, playground games … and everything else, for kids and for adults—is going to look like, and 2) accept that our long-held ideas about what social development looks like for young children may have to change. It sounds like you and your husband are a lot less overwhelmed than many parents are (take a pause here to be grateful!) and that you are up to the task of taking care of her at home. Enjoy your time with her. Don’t force her to chat via screens (with kids it sounds like she didn’t know all that well in the first place). She is part of a whole generation of quarantined 5-year-olds. It’ll take her a while to catch up once she reenters society, sure—but it’s going to take everyone a while.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

A couple of nights ago my brother and I were reminiscing about elements of our childhood over FaceTime. As is typical with our FaceTime discussions, my three nephews were in the room with my brother, playing on their tablets and zoning in and out of the conversation. Our discussion turned to a restaurant that our father owned while we were growing up. After talking about some of our father’s employees, the customers we remembered, the restaurant’s location, etc., my brother made a reference to the fire that destroyed the restaurant. The fire was an inflection point in our family, and many pivotal life changes happened as a result of it (some for better, some for worse). Upon hearing the word fire, my 9-year-old nephew’s ears perked up. He stopped what he was doing and suddenly got very curious. (Did anybody die in the fire? No. When did it happen? At nighttime after closing. Did someone have a grudge against Grandpa? No. What caused it? It was an electrical fire.) We answered all of his questions honestly and certainly did not make light of the situation. Later that evening I caught up with my father on the phone and told him that my brother and I had had a good time reflecting on the restaurant. My father spoke then about how the restaurant had been his pride and joy and how painful it is for him to think about the fire, even 25 years later.

Now I’m worried. My nephew retains every piece of information he gathers and is a little chatterbox. I am afraid that the next time he speaks to my father, he is going to blurt out everything we told him about the restaurant (everything!). It will hurt my father when he brings up the fire (and it goes without saying, he might get mad at my brother and me for talking about it with my nephew). If my nephew were an adult relative, I’d privately ask him not to bring any of this up with my father, but since he is a child, I am not quite sure what the path forward is. Say something to him? Do nothing and hope my father can handle a tough conversation?

—Nervous Auntie

Dear Nervous,

Since the fire was, as you say, an inflection point in your family’s history, after which all of your lives changed, it seems to me important that you and your brother talk about it. And if mentioning this conversation to your father led him to tell you (which, it would seem, he never has before—or at least not in a way that registered with you) how much the restaurant meant to him and how heartbroken he remains a quarter of a century later—well, that’s important too. It sounds like your whole family is communicating more, and more thoroughly and effectively, in quarantine than they did in pre-quarantine life. This is a good thing, not something to be nervous about. And retaining information and being a chatterbox about it sounds like some very good energy coming into your family in this new generation.

My advice is that you do nothing at all to prevent your nephew from revealing what he knows. And that you do nothing to prepare your father for the possibility that your nephew might bring it up. If your nephew brings up the restaurant and the fire when he talks to your dad, your dad will handle it. Maybe it’ll do him good to have a conversation about it with his grandson—maybe it’ll be a chance to talk about it in a way he never has, and a real opportunity for the two of them to meaningfully connect. But even if it upsets your father terribly, his being upset is certainly not the end of the world. You do know you can’t keep him from being upset, right—that it isn’t your job to? If he is upset, even very upset, he’ll recover. If he speaks harshly to your nephew, your nephew will recover. Hard conversations are part of every family’s life.

As to the question of your father getting angry with you because you talked about this in earshot of the child (or talked about it at all?): If he’s angry, he’s angry. He’ll recover from that, too. And so will you.

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

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Dear Care and Feeding,

A co-worker often makes inappropriate/racist remarks—for example, she’s said she wouldn’t want her daughter to marry outside of her race (and when I told her that was racist, she insisted it was “just a preference”). There have been similar interactions over the years, and although once upon a time I would have called this co-worker a friend (we were at the same firm for five  years, and then when the recession hit, she’s the one who got me in with the current firm we work at), I am now fed up. I’m pregnant with my first child and have been more intentional about keeping her at an arm’s length, but she’s just not getting the hint that I don’t want to share anything with her, no matter how much I ignore her (non-work-related) questions. I just want to cut off the relationship without it being awkward at work. How can I do that?

—Keeping Workplace Peace

Dear KWP,

I don’t think you can cut if off without it being awkward at work. But here’s the big question: So what?

I mean, unless the firm is so small that you are in constant contact with this person you no longer consider a friend—and honestly it sounds like she never was a friend but instead a long(ish)-time co-worker, and at one time you confused that with friendship—the awkwardness is not going to be ruinous. It’s just going to be uncomfortable, sometimes unpleasant, sometimes weird. I’m not saying that’s fun, but it’s not all that uncommon. Over the years I’ve had my fair share of uncomfortable relationships at work—people I’ve had significant policy disagreements with, people who spoke up against tenuring me (they say it’s a secret, but it never is), and in several cases people who really were my friends at one time but became ex-friends. And yes, these encounters are awkward, and when we have no choice but to work closely with people we dislike or from whom we’d simply rather keep our distance, it’s extra-awkward. But awkwardness never killed anyone, and “workplace peace” is hardly worth continuing a non-work-related relationship with someone you don’t want to have anything to do with. Be polite and distant, keep refusing to engage with her on nonwork matters (and keep the work matters down to the essential ones), and stay away from her as much as possible. You don’t have control over whether she stops trying to talk to you, but you have complete control over your own reactions and responses to her. It won’t be pretty, but not everything has to be.

Dear Care and Feeding,

How independent is too independent for a 5-year-old? For background, I have a 1-year-old and a just-turned 5-year-old, “Elle.” My partner and I have been juggling the two jobs/two kids/zero child care thing since March. By choice, Elle spends hours alone in her room each day. Sometimes I hear her talking to herself and doing imaginary play, but mostly she’s reading. When I go in to check on her, she’ll look up from her book and say, “Please leave me alone, Mom!” We do get outside every day that weather permits, and we play board games and eat our meals together. She doesn’t seem unhappy. And I have to admit it’s tough to engage with both kids at the same time, so this gives me more quality time with the baby, but I miss my big kid, and I worry that this isn’t good for her. Is it weird/bad to leave a kid this age to their own devices for such big chunks of the day?

—Looking a Gift Horse in the Mouth?

Dear LaGHitM,

Leaving aside the fact that parents everywhere are reading this letter and spitting out their coffee, shouting, SHE THINKS THIS IS A PROBLEM? (because it’s not a problem, but I get it: When you’re a parent, it’s easy to worry about everything, especially the things that seem far outside the so-called norm, even—or especially?—when they make life easier for you), I feel honor-bound to tell you this: Your daughter is going to grow up to be a writer. (If you hate that idea, then I guess it is weird/bad. Though it’s probably too late to do anything about it anyway.)

In case you think I’m joking: I absolutely am not. Most of the novelists, poets, essayists, and playwrights I know were a lot like your daughter. I was, for sure. We are born this way.

—Michelle

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