Care and Feeding

I’m This Close to Canceling Christmas Altogether

Woman bowing her head, looking upset, with a Christmas tree in the background
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by vnlit/iStock/Getty Images Plus and digitalskillet/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I live in a part of the U.S. where cases are multiplying at an alarming rate; my state is on a list of states people are advised not to visit. And so my (young adult) children, who live in bigger cities that are struggling against their own second waves, are not coming home for Christmas. It will be the first time we have ever been apart for it, and although I understand why they can’t visit (one of them would be expected to quarantine for two weeks post-visit before returning to work in person at a job they love, and both of them are more concerned about their father and me, who have been strictly isolating since March and are at higher risk than they are, than they are about themselves), I am heartbroken. What I would really like to do is just skip Christmas altogether this year—no tree, no lights, no Christmas cookies, no nothing. I feel that doing anything that evokes Christmas would make me too sad. My husband thinks I’m being “dramatic,” a couple of friends I’ve mentioned this to have made jokes along the lines of “Cancel Christmas? You mean, like, for everyone?” and to be honest I’m afraid to tell my parents and in-laws, who I’m sure would strongly disapprove. What would you do?

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—Blue Christmas

Dear Blue,

What would I do? As it happens, I’m in the same boat, so I can tell you what I am doing. I’m canceling (just my own—nobody else’s) Christmas. I don’t need to be any sadder than I already am about my daughter not being able to come home, or about the fact that this will be the first Christmas of her life that we won’t be together. So I’m sending her a bunch of presents but will otherwise completely ignore the holiday. Well, I might bake my husband a pie as a thank-you if he continues to be supportive of my plan.

One way I’m lucky is that he is being supportive—or at least not judgmental and not complaining (if he has any reservations about this, he’s keeping them to himself). Another way is that I don’t care even a little bit what anyone else thinks about what I do (but I’m from New York—I was born this way).

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Here’s what I think: If there are people in your life who you believe will disapprove of your skipping the celebration of Christmas this year, and you will be upset if they do—just don’t tell them. This is nobody’s business but yours.

I might as well tell you, too, that I think your husband’s being mean—although it’s possible I’m hypersensitive about women being called “dramatic” when they express their feelings. But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe he’s really disappointed and doesn’t want (or is too embarrassed) to say so. Maybe he loves Christmas, kids or no kids. If so, how about this? Let him whip up a fancy Christmas dinner for the two of you and give you a seriously great present. Let him sing along to Christmas music to his heart’s content (out of your earshot, if possible). But if hauling out that box of ornaments will fill you with sadness, keep it stowed away till next year—when, it now seems pretty clear, things will be much, much better.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

We have a very bright 10-year-old daughter who currently attends a public dual language school. She was barely being served in her public school prior to the pandemic. She is the youngest in her grade and outperforms her peers. She loves her dual-language program, however—it has been the saving grace. But since school has been online, the teachers are holding the students less accountable, and she is bored. I worry that she is learning bad habits (doing less and knowing that she is still doing more than others). Recently she came to us and asked us to find her a school that’s taught 100 percent in Spanish. There are few schools in the U.S. that offer Spanish in middle school, and even fewer in our area, public or private. But I did a thorough search, and I have found a wonderful private program, a two-hour train ride away from us. She could be home on weekends. It’s not a boarding school, so that adds a layer of complexity, as we would have to have her live with someone there.

She wants desperately to go, but my husband is opposed. First, he seems outraged by the idea that we would send our child to a private middle school. We are an upper-middle-class, white, two-income family, so he feels our children have enough privilege. (Indeed, we both struggle with the socioeconomic status we have now, as we were raised with much less.) The cost itself is his second objection. He keeps comparing it to our mortgage payment, which it would be very close to. I have tried to talk to him about this being an investment in our daughter, and pointed out that we would be able to afford it with some careful planning. But third, he doesn’t want to “break up” the family. And while I don’t love the idea of our daughter spending her weekdays for three years living two hours away either, if this is what is best for her education, then I want to make that happen.

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I have floated the idea of the whole family relocating, but my husband doesn’t feel like that is an option for his job. I will also admit that I have my own hesitations about abandoning public school. I’m a public school teacher myself. I have always said that public school was good enough for me; I even returned to teach in my old neighborhood district. But now I’m seeing that my highly capable daughter is being underserved. She’s done all the enrichment the school has to offer, and she needs an environment that will challenge her. Is it unreasonable to ask my husband to make these big concessions? Or do we knowingly keep her in a school that isn’t serving her and do our best to keep supporting her ourselves?

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—Public Going Private

Dear PGP,

I think your daughter’s requesting a nuclear option doesn’t mean you have to, or should, go along with it. And the solution you’ve come up with seems beyond the pale to me (have a 10-year-old live with another family so she can attend a private nonboarding school?). I’m with your husband on this one, for all the reasons he mentions and more—and “more” includes the idea that your child’s education can only be served by this drastic solution, as well as the notion that her being “underserved” at this age is going to be a fateful blow to her future. Remind yourself that she should be back in in-person school by next fall (thank goodness, the end is in sight!) and don’t betray your own principles about public school education because you’re panicking.

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There are other ways to make sure your bright, bored daughter is getting enough by way of an education. For example, you might add a tutor or two into the mix (a graduate student or a college student who will speak to her and insist on being spoken to in Spanish only would be a great start). Since you won’t be able to arrange for this in person, indoors, right now, you could start out over Zoom or possibly outdoors (masked and distanced, of course) and later switch to more conventional meetings. (Having to do this virtually could even be a benefit, since you won’t be limited to tutors in your immediate area.) I wouldn’t look for a professional tutor, by the way: I’d find a Spanish major who is excited about the project and who clicks well with your daughter—that’s what’s going to be most helpful for what you have in mind. At one point in my own kid’s education I happen to have employed a grad student who came by once a week to speak Spanish with her and play the piano and sing songs in Spanish with her; he had her keep a dream journal in Spanish, too, which they would then talk about. This was a significant jump-start to high school Spanish, and may be the reason she is fluent in the language today.

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Depending on your daughter’s other interests and enthusiasms, there is plenty you can do to help her stay interested in what she’s learning, and make sure she’s diving deeper when she’s curious about something that’s been touched on in school. My daughter and I took a dive into American history together, watching The Crossing, the musical 1776, and later Ken Burns’ Civil War. We read primary texts such as the Constitution and talked about them (the bonus for me was that I finally learned some American history myself—something I’d never paid attention to in school). We also read novels together that she wasn’t reading in school and talked about them over dinner. (And if you don’t have the time for this sort of extracurricular reading and viewing—and I understand that you very well may not, what with your own students to teach—again, a college student would be a great resource.) Involve your daughter in figuring out what sort of educational enrichment activities would be interesting to her. Let her apply her energy to making that list instead of lobbying for a change of school.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

Where we live, COVID restrictions have lifted enough that kids at my son’s school have been placed in small cohorts with whom they are allowed to be in close contact. Immediately my son, who’s 15, wanted to have a few friends for a sleepover, and after thorough research into guidelines and talking to an RN, we determined that he could invite certain friends from his cohort group to the house. One of them was a friend who used to be on his soccer team, who came out as a trans girl and switched to the girls’ team about 1.5 years ago and is still best friends with my son and his friends. I said no to her coming, as we don’t allow coed sleepovers. My son is furious, and something he said has stuck with me: She’s exactly who she was at all the other sleepovers she’s been to. He says that my saying it’s inappropriate for her to sleep over with the other boys now implies that my opinion of her has changed, and/or that trans girls are aggressive and predatory, as I’d never asked anyone about their sexuality before, but now that I know she’s trans, she’s a danger. The first part, about my opinion changing, I countered with the fact that I didn’t know at the time, but now I’m thinking about the positively medieval standards we set for sleepovers and I’m wondering if he’s right. She’s just as close to the boys as she was before her transition, and I’ve never seen any indication that any of them are interested in each other. They’re at an age where they’re trying on different identities and sexualities all the time, which I don’t want to discourage or discriminate against. I’d never consciously thought about this girl as predatory, but I can’t marry this knee-jerk reaction to her sleeping over and her exemplary past behavior. Are there new rules that are inclusive while still keeping the kids safe? (Even that thought gives me pause—because, honestly, safe from what? I’ve talked at length to my son about the emotional impact of sex, and I have no reason to think that he’ll go wild if I leave him alone with a girl he’s been alone with many times before, and who’s to say he’s not curious about his male friends, whose presence I have not restricted?) And if not, what would be reasonable ones to implement?

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—Inclusive, Not Intrusive

Dear INI,

I don’t know about any “new rules” (who wrote the old rules, anyway?), and I would say that reasonable rules to implement should be specific to the kids involved. As you say, you know these kids. What makes sense to you?

Full disclosure: When my daughter was your son’s age, and her closest friend circle included four boys—two gay, two straight—I did allow coed sleepovers from time to time. These were fairly large groups, and my general rule was that the boys sleep in one room, the girls in another, but I didn’t police them—and what generally happened was that they didn’t go to bed at all. They stayed awake all night in the same room talking and snacking and laughing hysterically and then went home exhausted in the morning. I confess that I made that two-room rule because I too felt tied at least to some extent to the “old rules,” and that even though I was certain nothing sexual was going to go on during those overnight parties—none of the kids were romantically involved with one another—I kind of wanted to have it both ways; i.e., I wanted to honor the reality of the situation as I saw it, and I wanted also to be able to tell the other parents that I had imposed this rule. I should also point out that the two boys who were gay had not come out yet to their parents, and that I knew the two boys who were straight very well indeed. So I felt “safe” and felt all the kids would be “safe”—but this idea now gives me pause just as it does you.

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As you say, what is it we want to keep our kids safe from, anyway? Bullying, certainly. Sexual harassment and assault, obviously. You and I both falter on the question of consensual sex, am I right? We don’t entirely like the idea of sexual activity between kids this young—and we don’t want to seem to be encouraging it at a sleepover party—but we want the kids to have a healthy understanding of and attitude toward sex, and we recognize (at least in theory) that it’s going to be a part of their lives. The “old rules” make clear that it’s not supposed to be.

And for you, the apparently complicating factor is the transness. This didn’t come up within my kids’ friend group nearly 15 years ago, but increased openness and acceptance (thank God!) means that it’s going to come up with increasing frequency for kids today. You want a ruling from me? If these kids are all best friends, let them have a sleepover together. And whatever rules you usually impose on a sleepover are the ones I’d impose on this one.

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Here’s the thing that worries me, though, which I have to get off my chest. You don’t say where in the world you are … but are you sure that a sleepover during this continuing pandemic is safe? I mean safe in the most basic sense of the word? The very idea of it makes me nervous, for reasons having nothing to do with sexuality or gender identity.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

This is pretty low stakes, but I am inordinately angry about it. I (a high school junior) play the oboe. Due to various obligations (classes, homework, ACTs, episodes of Star Trek that need watching), I very rarely practice enough and have to cram in practice right before my lesson. The past two weeks, my sister (a college freshman) screamed at me from her room that I needed to stop. Last Thursday, it was because she was in class; this Thursday, it was because she was taking a final. I would totally stop if she asked politely (OK, maybe I’d be annoyed), but when she just screams at me as if silence in our house whenever she wants it is a God-given right about which she can be deeply rude, I get very angry! I have to practice! I feel as if I am always the one who has to make concessions because my parents know my sister won’t. My parents agree that she’s being rude, but they say I should stop practicing, and while I know my mom talked to my sister about her rudeness last time, it doesn’t seem to have made a difference. I love my sister and parents endlessly, but I’m angry and am sick of being bitterly accommodating. I also hate fighting with my sister because she’s going back to college in a month, and I don’t want to be fighting the whole time she’s home. How should I proceed? Talk to her? Just suck it up?

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—Probably Too Angry About This

Dear PTAAT,

I get it. This is frustrating—infuriating—for multiple reasons. Your sister’s rudeness for sure. Your parents “taking her side.” That you really do need to practice (though the fact that it’s lower on your priority list than Star Trek, I admit, makes me less sympathetic to your plight than I might have been otherwise). But let’s consider her plight for a moment. She just started college, got her first taste of freedom—in fact, barely began to get used to and enjoy life without her parents and younger siblings—and is back in her childhood bedroom and having to accommodate your needs again. And as real and important as those needs are, well, let’s face it: She got robbed. She’s mad. She’s stressed. (I know you are too, but you were already living at home. Unlike her, you had no expectation that you would be elsewhere this year, off on your own adventure.) So try to be unbitterly accommodating. Dip into your well of compassion. Don’t “suck it up” so much as be kind. If she does get to go back to college in a month (don’t be so sure), you’ll be able to practice the oboe to your heart’s content then. Meanwhile, try to see her screaming not as a personal affront but as your poor sister taking her own frustrations out on you. That’s not fair, obviously. But we all do this (who else can we take our frustrations out on but the people we love and who love us most?). You might try saying (not when she’s screaming at you, but at some other, quiet time), “This must be hard,” and “I’m sorry you’re not getting the freshman year you hoped for.” And don’t say it sarcastically. Do your best to mean it.

—Michelle

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Recently a friend of a friend’s brother, Morgan, died of cancer. Lately, I have been teaching my 6-year old daughter about death and grieving. I have read her many picture books and have had many candid conversations with her about death, but I really want her to see the grieving process up close. Is it inappropriate of me to take her to Morgan’s funeral as a learning experience?

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