Care and Feeding

My 7-Year-Old Cousin Is a Sexist Bully

How do I change his ways before it’s too late?

Boy reading with woman on a bed.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by ~UserGI15613517/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,

How do I approach a 7.5-year-old boy who makes sexist jabs at me? Some context: I am his 23-year-old cis-female cousin, and I’ve been watching him full time since August. I adore him, but I am loath to tolerate another “Yeah but you can’t use a drill because you’re a girl” comment. My current approach has been cool puzzlement, “Hmm … why would you think that?” followed up with, “I can see why you would think that but there aren’t such things as ‘boy and girl things,’ and it hurts my feelings when you tell me I can’t do something because I’m a girl.” And then maybe some follow-up discussion about how making that kind of boy/girl distinction can hurt our friends. It is not getting through.

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I think part of the issue is that I am working from home and am currently embodying traditionally “feminine” roles like caregiving plus he is probably getting counter-messaging at home. I love him but these jabs are really hitting me in the soft spot and, honestly, I know these kinds of thoughts are hurting him too (he loves Elsa but told me he can’t play with Frozen toys because kids would make fun of him). How can I better approach this behavior?

— Do I Give Him A Timeout?

Dear D.I.G.H.A.T.,

You’re saying exactly the right things. Keep approaching him with curiosity and openness, and do your best to keep your hurt feelings and annoyance from getting the better of you. It’s not realistic to expect a 7.5-year-old to have a “eureka!” moment about gender. That only happens on TV shows. You’re just one voice, pitted against 90 percent of his peers and cultural influences, maybe even his parents. That doesn’t mean that your voice isn’t important—it might be crucial! Very likely he is hearing you, even if it doesn’t seem like he’s paying attention. I would guess that he is filing all this information away, and will be more and more receptive as he gets older.

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Speaking of TV, if you guys watch TV together, you could try watching shows that have women in traditionally “masculine” roles, and vice versa. Twelve Forever and Bella and the Bulldogs on Netflix might be a place to start.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I’ve known my best friend, “Tabitha,” for 15 years. We’re as close as sisters. Four years ago, I had my son, “Mark,” and Tabitha seemed to instantly be as enamored with him as I was, which made my heart leap. She was very involved with Mark, and so good with him. Then, when Mark was around 2.5, I started noticing that Tabitha seemed to be withdrawing from him. When she came over, she showed less interest in interacting with him, and eventually she visited less and less. I chalked it up to the fact Mark was going through a difficult phase and could be a handful, and even though it hurt that she would pull away, I told myself everything would be back to normal when Mark calmed down a bit. Well, it’s been over 1.5 years, Mark has indeed grown out of much of the behavior (he admittedly still has his moments of patience-wearing willfulness), but Tabitha is still just not interested.

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She doesn’t have children, but I don’t think it’s a matter of not feeling comfortable around toddlers, because I’ve seen her around other friends’ children of all ages, and she’s as engaging with them as she was with Mark when he was a baby. She hasn’t really changed toward me—still talks to me the same amount, still wants to get drinks or dinner (well, for obvious reasons, that’s not happening as much now, but not because she isn’t making an effort). But when I invite her over, she makes excuses more than usual, and when she is over, she shows little enthusiasm towards Mark. He’ll ask to play with her and she’ll say, not now I’m talking to your Mommy, or be dismissive of him when he tries to talk to her (“Aunt Tabby, I went to the playground today and went down the big slide!” “That’s nice Mark.” Then turns back to me). I see Mark get deflated, because despite her lack of interest, he gets so excited when Aunt Tabby is around, and it hurts me so much. I just can’t figure out what changed over the years to take her from the loving, doting aunt, to this detachment. Should I talk to her about it, and if so, how?

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— Where’s Aunt Tabby?

Dear W.A.T.,

Yes, you need to talk to Tabitha to find out what’s going on. Friendships change a lot when one person has a kid and the other person doesn’t. As much as we sometimes wish this wasn’t the case, we have to allow change to happen and even embrace it, because there’s no other option! Even though you probably feel stretched thin right now, you need to make your friendship with Tabitha a higher priority if you want to keep it going. Make a one-on-one plan with her. It may just be that she misses you and wants to talk to you more than she wants to talk to him, which is totally understandable—as fascinating as his adventures on the big slide doubtless are, she’s not obligated to do more than politely feign interest. She might have no idea that she’s hurting his feelings, because she’s not as attuned to his feelings as you are. Also—is she primarily hurting his feelings or yours? It can be hard to separate the two, but it’s important to try.

When you bring this up with Tabitha, please be as open-minded as you can be and try not to take her indifference towards your kid personally. Listen to her and be there for her. You might have work to do in order to adjust your expectations for her relationship with your kid. If you’re willing to do the work, your friendship will make it past this awkward stage and into its next chapter.

· If you missed Sunday’s Care and Feeding column, read it here.

· Discuss this column in the Slate Parenting Facebook group!

Dear Care and Feeding,

I quit my full-time job in the spring so that we did not have to keep sending our then-9 month old son back to daycare during COVID. We were lucky to be able to do this despite the major financial consequences, and it also had given me time to work on healing from PPD/PPA. It’s been pretty great all things considered. Our little boy is doing well for his age despite the extreme precautions we’ve taken that have pretty much cut us off from the world for the last nine months. I’ve always been aware that adherence to routine is one way that I tried to cope with feelings of anxiety, and with no job, daycare, travel, or social life, I’ve been able to keep his routine virtually identical every day: nap in his crib from 1-3, dinner at 6, bath at 6:30, read a book, sing him the same song, and to bed in his crib with white noise and nightlight at 7.

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As the light at the end of the tunnel starts to grow brighter, I’m both thrilled by and terrified by the idea that we’ll be able to visit family and go on adventures again. He may have to miss a nap! He’ll need to sleep in the pack-and-play he hasn’t seen in a year! Will we even be able to fit all the stuff he “needs” in our tiny car? I fully realize how ridiculous these fears sound in light of all the terror and uncertainty we’ve all felt for so long now, but they are really weighing on me. My husband is supportive, loving, involved, and non-judgmental about my neuroses. He’s also the “let’s just see how it goes, I’m sure it will be fine” type. But I’m envisioning our first visit to his (loving, supportive, and genuinely helpful) family being a nightmare of screaming sleeplessness and stressed out toddler. How can I prep him and myself to re-enter a world where everything is not the same all the time?

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— Addicted to Routine

Dear Addicted,

The extreme loss of control that we’ve all felt during the past year has been a huge stressor, even for people who don’t usually deal with clinical anxiety. You know you’ve been using your routines to cope, and the anticipatory anxiety you’re feeling when you imagine the changes that are coming is extremely real. In fact, the anxiety you’re experiencing right now is probably worse than the anxiety you’ll feel when those changes are actually happening, because that’s the nature of anxiety. Does knowing that help? For me, it doesn’t, not really!

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What might help: building something into your daily routine that’s designed to make it easier for you deal with everything that comes next, some of which will be stressful and some of which will be wonderful. The words “self-care” have been drained of all meaning, but you can still try to figure out what they mean to you. For me, even a tiny amount of mindful exercise—I’m talking a 10 minute “Yoga With Adriene” video—or a solo walk off my usual beaten track can make my grinding ruminations lighter and help the tension in my body dissipate. You probably have tricks up your sleeve that work for you. Make sure you’re sticking to them as rigorously as you stick to that bedtime schedule. Get as much help as you can right now from a mental health professional. I’m not a therapist or a psychiatrist, but in my experience, “my son may have to miss a nap at some point in the future” is exactly the kind of thought that an SSRI can turn the volume way, way down on.

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We really don’t know what’s coming; we never do. The best thing you can do to prep for the future, for your kid, and yourself, is to stay in the present. Take it one day at a time, for real, and do what you can to feel better today.

For more of Slate’s parenting coverage, listen to Mom and Dad Are Fighting

Dear Care and Feeding,

I desperately need some concrete strategies to fill up the day with a 14-month-old and a four-and-a-half-year-old. To give you some background, our family moved to a different state in early March 2020 (great timing, I know). So my daughter has been without a single friend for almost a year. She’s doing virtual school, which means 15 minute Zooms four days a week and a list of optional activities to complete. But with a 14-month-old who is just learning to walk, my day is spent corralling him to make sure he doesn’t faceplant on the hardwood floors. Again. He recently transitioned to one nap so now I have an hour-and-a-half, max, to do the laundry, make dinner, and clean up before the next round of chaos begins. There’s an endless parade of dishes to be done, because you know, we’re all home all day every day, and because we just moved into an old house, a ton of fixes that need to happen. So naptimes are already spoken for. My daughter has sensory processing issues, so I’d say at least an hour of tantruming/screaming during the day is the norm. Transitions and toileting are huge sticking points, so once she’s engaged in an activity it is impossible to get her to do something else. And did I mention it’s winter? Because my daughter’s gross motor coordination is so behind, she has an incredibly hard time walking on the ice and because of the sensory processing she is sensitive to the cold and just wants to stay indoors. It’s just … a lot.

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But my question really gets down to how do I not go insane every day? We have no activities, it’s almost impossible to get them ready to go outside by myself with all the crying and winter gear, and there’s nothing to do. All day we wander around the house playing with the same toys over and over. School lessons are hard to complete because I can’t take my attention off my little guy or he runs off and promptly shoves a choking hazard in his mouth. Or climbs up the windowsill again. So I end up playing with his toys with him all day, leaving my daughter alone to engage in whatever she wants to do. Then she gets lonely, bored, and starts acting out. What am I doing wrong? Do you have some suggestions for activities that two kids of those ages could do together? Are there some strategies I could employ to entertain a 14-month-old by himself for 10 minutes? It seems like other people must be going as insane as I am, but I don’t know how other people are coping.

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— It’s Like The Shining Over Here

Dear Shining,

Jack Torrance had it easy compared to you, and we know what happened there. Seriously, though, this is an impossible situation, and you have to do whatever you need to do in order to get through it with your sanity intact. You need help with childcare. Use whatever is available in your area and is COVID-safe, however much of it you can afford. What you’re going through isn’t what most other people are going through; it’s too isolated and too intense, especially considering your older daughter’s special needs. If getting childcare means making some concessions to living in a completely infection-proof bubble, so be it; the benefits outweigh the risks of your continuing to go it alone.

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If that’s still impossible for whatever reason, here are some stopgap measures, many of which I’m sure you’ve already considered or tried:

1. Bundle up, against everyone’s protests, strap them both into an all-terrain stroller, and go for long walks, letting them scream through it if they must, with your headphones in listening to podcasts.

2. Same thing but just drive around aimlessly.

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3. Create a completely safe space for your 14 month old to hang out without your intervention. It needs to be cordoned off and impossible to escape, with nothing in it that he can use to hurt himself. He might not be happy to be in there, but when your daughter needs your help or is tantruming, you at least won’t be dividing your energy between taking care of her and saving him from the windowsill.

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These are kids in a particularly intense age and stage. Soon, not soon enough but soon, they’ll be in their next phase, the weather will be warmer, and COVID restrictions will ease up. But I hope you can get more help before that happens, because you desperately need and deserve it. Everyone does.

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— Emily

More Advice From Slate

My son was at a sleepover a month ago with extremely poor adult supervision, and wound up watching The Babadook. As you can imagine, this was an absolute disaster and we’ve been cleaning up the mess ever since. You’re going to think we’re ridiculous, but we actually wound up taking him to a therapist after the first two weeks of sleep refusal and needing to spend the night in our bed and dozens of questions about death and monsters and ghosts. A few sessions actually really seems to have done the trick, and he’s back in his own bed now and looking less like death warmed over. My question is this: Can we ask the parents who hosted the sleepover to chip in for the costs?

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