Care and Feeding

My Mother-in-Law Told My 12-Year Old to Lose Weight and “Fix” Her Face

A white woman in profile opens her eyes and mouth wide.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by master1305/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,

I am white, and my husband is Korean. We have two daughters who are 12 and 15. My husband and I both come from big families, but his is tighter-knit than mine, and they all live close by. Of his four siblings, three have kids, and our daughters are close with their cousins.

We had a socially distanced family picnic, and when we were saying goodbye, my mother-in-law started commenting on how nice our older daughter looked. But then, she started telling my younger daughter that she needed to start losing weight if she wanted to look like her sister, and if she was in Korea, she would have taken her to get her eyelids and nose “fixed” much earlier “because when you do it now it won’t look as natural.”

My younger daughter was mortified, and my older daughter didn’t even say anything! I was shocked and tried to bring it up in the car, but my older daughter just said it was “how Grandma always was” and my younger daughter didn’t say anything. When we tried to talk to her about it at home, she said the same thing, that she was just old. We are both very angry at my mother-in-law, and are worried about how this impacted our daughters’ self-esteem. What can we do to get them to open up, and how can we confront Grandma?

—Beauty Queens

Dear BQ,

I think it’s telling that your older daughter was unsurprised by your mother-in-law’s behavior—either the blasé reaction of a teen or this is something she’s heard before, even if you haven’t.

I think you’re right to be angry at your mother-in-law, but she said what she said, and it’s a challenge to now undo the effect of that on your daughters beyond pointing out the obvious: that it’s ridiculous, it’s her opinion, and that losing weight or plastic surgery (!) are not something either of your beautiful children ought to be thinking about in the least.

Fortunately for you, you’ve been communicating to your daughter for years—explicit and tacit messages about your belief in their worth and intellect and yes, their beauty too. One unkind remark from their grandmother can’t undo that, or entirely shatter their self-image.

Still, it’s hurtful to tell anyone, let alone a still-developing child, that they need to worry about such things. So you should confront Grandma in specific terms: that she’s not to ever say such things to either of your children, and that if she does, there will be real consequences in terms of her ability to spend time with her granddaughters. Cultural and generational difference is at play here, but that’s no excuse; stick up for what you value as parents, and stick up for your kids, too.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

Due to her mom’s COVID-induced work challenges, we unexpectedly had my 14-year old stepdaughter, Alex, with us for the last months of eighth grade this spring, and Alex will be with us for ninth grade this fall.  She usually spends summers with us and the school year with her mom in a different state.

She’s a bright and curious kid who excelled at her local school, but things didn’t go as well here last spring, where she socialized well but struggled with grade-level reading and writing. We thought part of it might have been the upheaval, but we worked with her teachers and pediatrician to get her screened for any possibly missed diagnoses. The consensus was that her previous state had lower expectations for grade-level work than our local public school, and that she’s a normal kid who’s behind on instruction.

We communicated with her mom throughout the process and sent on the teachers’ recommendations for reading and writing catch-up for her to try at her mom’s over the summer. Now fall is coming, and both her parents agree that they’d like her to be here for school. Alex is upset and angry about it all. Add in remote learning, and the likelihood that I’ll be doing most of the communication with her teachers and encouraging her at home, and it feels overwhelming. How do we work together to get her on track for a better fall? Her mom is a solid co-parent, but very overwhelmed at work and not as concerned about education as my husband or I am, so Mom will not be leading this.

—Suddenly a Schoolteacher

Dear SaS,

The particulars of your case aside, what you’re going through is playing out in households across the country, mine included. Obviously, parenting a teenager is hard work. That this one isn’t accustomed to living with you during the school year is one complication; the ongoing pandemic is of course another. But Alex is fortunate to have three parents on her side!

Education is your priority, and you probably already know that the way to navigate this with your kid is to get organized—printing schedules, stocking up on supplies, making a dedicated workspace—and get involved: communicate with the teachers, familiarize yourself with Alex’s schedule and what her different classes require of her.

It’s a lot but don’t forget that your husband is around, too. You don’t mention whether he’s working, but perhaps you can enlist him to take an active role as well. If you monitor Alex’s video classes and work during the day, maybe he can step in to help with homework, or attend virtual school meetings and the like.

The other thing I’d like to remind you of is to be generous to both yourself and your stepdaughter. These are extraordinary times, and high school is a fraught time, and parents who aren’t themselves teachers are going to have difficulties! I share your respect for education, but I’d point out that there are many different ways to inculcate that. Not every worksheet needs to be done, sometimes teens run late or space on homework, and the occasional below-average mark doesn’t correlate to actual intelligence. You should push Alex to the standard you know she can meet, but you should remember that sometimes a kid does need to ditch the schoolwork and sit outside on the phone with friends, or space out in front of a movie. The tough truth is that this academic period will be a lost year for a lot of students. You can do a lot to keep Alex on track, but you’re one woman, not a school. Good luck to you; good luck to all of us.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My husband and I have 17-year-old identical twin sons, Joey and Nick, who are starting their senior year soon. Since they were little, they have stuck close together in school, and have always been best friends. Nick is a serious swimmer, and has been scouted for swimming at UCLA, which he plans to attend. Joey is now saying that he also wants to go to UCLA, but whenever he mentions it, Nick looks uncomfortable. I asked Nick how he feels about Joey’s plan, and he says he doesn’t want them to be near each other forever, but doesn’t want to start a big fight so he’s not saying anything. He asked me if I could drop hints to Joey that he doesn’t like the idea or convince him to apply elsewhere. I feel conflicted. They’re 17, and should be able to have a mature discussion, but I also know the feeling of knowing you’re going to start a fight and avoiding it at all costs. Should I talk to Joey or make Nick do it? Either way, what should I say?

—College Conundrum

Dear CC,

While I understand your desire to step aside and let your boys sort this out, I am also mindful of the fact that this might be one of the last times you’ll be called in to referee. That Nick asked for your help is telling, but I think he’s the one you should talk to, not his brother.

Remind him of how close they are and have always been. Reassure him that he’s not wrong to want some independence now, and that it’s best for his relationship with his brother if they are able to discuss this candidly. It doesn’t have to be a big fight—instead, it can be a big opportunity, a chance to talk about what the next chapter of their life looks like. Both boys might be craving independence; both boys might be fearing separation. How they determine to negotiate that could help them avoid resentment and ensure their particular bond endures over the coming years.

They’re still teens, and still at home, so you can step in should this play out as confrontation instead of conversation. But try to guide them toward finding a resolution on their own, much as you taught them to tie shoelaces or brush teeth, practicing for independence. Good luck.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My husband and I got a divorce two years ago because he couldn’t handle my coming out as bisexual. My long-term girlfriend just moved in. Our 5-year-old daughter adores her, and our 9-year old son always seemed to get along with her. He got upset with us recently when I took away the iPad for ruining his sister’s project on purpose and shouted that we were a “just a pair of d*kes” and he didn’t have to listen to us. He was sent to his room, had to apologize, and had devices taken away for a month (and we will definitely be watching documentaries on homophobia later).

When he cooled off, I explained that it was never, ever OK to use slurs and asked if he’d heard it at school. He said that it was what his dad called us, and that his dad told him he was a man and didn’t have to listen to us. I was furious, but not exactly shocked. My ex had always been a little conservative, although never homophobic. I don’t know what to do now though. I already have majority and sole legal custody, but should I try to get sole custody? Should I confront my ex? What else should I talk to my kids about?

—Disappointed in Dad

Dear DiD.

I’m so very sorry. It’s incredibly cruel when acrimonious divorce affects kids, and this is a terrible thing your husband has done to his children—to give his son hateful language, and further teach him to direct it at you and your partner, is inexcusable. It’s immaterial whether he’s a homophobe or simply an embittered ex; telling a boy that he is a man, and therefore excused from having to obey his mother or any woman, is poisonous and absurd.

I think you should explain this to him. Perhaps do it in writing if you don’t trust your ability to talk to him calmly. I’m not saying he’ll respond rationally to reason, but I think you have something to say and you’ll feel better saying it.

Whether this rises to the level of your securing sole custody of the children is something you can answer and I cannot. In my opinion, your ex clearly did a hateful and awful thing. But it may be a priority for you to provide your children some relationship with their father, or there might be some other factor that makes you desire some support from this man.

It’s easy for me or some other disinterested party to say “go nuclear,” but I understand that life is often more complex. So I would begin by communicating to your ex that hate speech is beyond the pale, and in particular this kind of bigotry toward the kids’ own mother. Perhaps he will understand; perhaps he will learn something. If he does not, I hope that you will talk to the lawyer or whomever you worked with on the separation and seek their advice. I’m really sorry this happened, and wish you well.

—Rumaan

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