Dear Care and Feeding,
My 18-month-old recently decided she’s interested in dolls. I took her to pick one out, and she picked a little Black baby doll. We, as I’m sure you can guess by my specifying the doll’s race, are White. The potential problem: I think she might have named it “Night.”
I can’t tell whether she’s consistently telling the baby that it’s night even when it’s not (she recently learned the words “night” and “day” and still has massive trouble keeping them straight), or if this is how she’s addressing the baby. The latter actually seems more likely. She really loves the baby’s dark skin and strokes its hands and cheeks often. I could see her using “night” as a descriptor, especially because we explain the concept of “night” as “when it’s dark,” and one of the books we got her to talk about race explains how some people are “dark,” alongside a picture of a Black child. What do we do?
— Is Night Alright?
I hope it is alright for me to share that I began sobbing with laughter when I read this, and that I was grateful to have that laugh after the past couple of weeks. Thank you, and thank you to Night’s Mommy as well.
Ask your daughter, “What is your baby’s name?” If she says, “Night” (which you can totally record and send to me!), say “Oh, Night isn’t really a good name for the baby. How about Tasha, or Suzan?” Suggest names that sound like a family member’s name, or the name of a character she likes on TV. You might be able to get through with “Did you name her Night because she reminds you of nighttime? Well, how about Star instead?” In the next year or so, you could more easily explain to her that while Night is a beautiful name, and though night and darkness are beautiful, that she should not give dolls names based on how light or dark they are, and that it could hurt someone feelings. You’ll also need to explain how dark-skinned people are mistreated and why it’s important not to participate in that. (The people who are okay with this will say 3 or 4 is too young for these lessons—ignore them.) But for now, I think your goal should be for her to not be walking around the Piggly Wiggly dragging a Black doll in a stroller, talking about “Come on, Night! It looks like you outside.” If this does happen, I again request footage. But seriously, don’t feel bad. Just be proactive.
Help! How can I support Slate so I can keep reading all the advice from Dear Prudence, Care and Feeding, Ask a Teacher, and How to Do It? Answer: Join Slate Plus.
Dear Care and Feeding,
I have shared custody of my 5-year-old son; he’s with me 50 percent of the time. Both parents were getting along well, and our son is happy at both homes. However, recently he has been expressing interest/preference to stay with his mother. We have a shared custody plan (2-2-3 schedule), and it has been this way since he was 2 years old. My ex has shared with me that he’s mentioned liking her house better, pointed out that I didn’t have a nightlight (I then purchased one), and asked if he could stay with her instead.
We sometimes spend time together as the three of us, and recently, my son has been sticking closer to her during these occasions or simply not acknowledging me at all. It almost feels like I’m nonexistent, which at times can be heartbreaking. He always has had a preference towards his mom, I feel, and I always ensure/try to give him the warmth, care, hugs, love, and yet still guy time. Is there anything I am doing wrong, or that I should be doing to get my son back? I almost feel like I’m losing him, and it really hurts when he just doesn’t seem to acknowledge I’m around when both parents are around at the same time (once a month approximately). He sees me as the “fun dad,” but I want to ensure he knows I am here for him to talk to and feel comforted by as well. I feel like I’ve lost even the 50 percent of the time that I get to see him now.
— Dad Is Down
I am sorry to hear you are feeling this way. There is a lot that we don’t know from your letter that I’d like you to consider as you ponder a solution. What were the circumstances of your split? Was there any time in which your son witnessed you and your ex arguing or being unkind to one another? Is there any reason he may have to feel a sense of antagonism towards you that is connected to his reverence for his mother? Even if there weren’t any really dramatic moments, is it possible that he may have witnessed or heard something that may have stuck with him?
Do you feel confident that your ex is encouraging of your relationship with her son? Do you think may she, even inadvertently, has leaned into the role of the preferred parent without regard for how that would impact your ability to have a healthy relationship? What have you disclosed to your son about why you two aren’t together in the first place? Is it that you chose to leave, perhaps, and he has begun to resent this?
As you acknowledge, it’s sometimes simply the case that a kid is closer to one parent than the other, and as the mother is often the one who has done the most significant percentage of the caregiving from a child’s earliest memories, she’s likely to have that distinction. For that reason and many others, it’s important that both adults are proactive about supporting a child’s relationship with their co-parent (when it is safe to do such a thing, of course).
Take the time to try and figure out what your son may have seen (it could even be from TV shows in which a divorced dad is the bad guy) or experienced that has soured him on you. Ask your ex to support you by encouraging your son to open himself to you. Find out the things they do at Mom’s house outside of using a nightlight, and see what else you may need to take on. Use your words and your deeds to let your son know that you love him and that you are not just the “fun” parent, but someone who has much more to offer than trips to the park. Take some time reading up on successful co-parenting (this is a good book, and there are many others like it). And as I always say, if you can bring in the services of a professional counselor or therapist, please do!
No matter what, don’t give up. You matter to your son as much as his mother, and while you may never have a relationship that feels totally equitable, you can have a relationship that is healthy and whole. All the best to you.
• 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,
My husband’s brother and his fiancé just had their second baby. We are so happy for them. I could never imagine the stress of having a baby during this pandemic. However, they seem completely unaffected. They have been home for only a day or two, and already they have had visitors. Not only that, but they seem upset that we have said that it will be a while before we visit. We have two young boys, one of whom is in Kindergarten. We have been concerned about their nonchalant attitude since this whole thing started, but to get upset because we are trying to protect their newborn seems plain irresponsible. Do we wait to visit? Go anyway and wear masks the whole time? How do we get them to understand and respect our position?
— Respectfully Distancing
Tell your BIL and his lady exactly what you told us: You are concerned by the fact that they already have had visitors and do not seem to be taking the deadly pandemic seriously, you have children of your own to protect, and you only want what is best for their little ones as well. Send a nice gift—send gifts frequently if you can, things that would be useful to someone who is not only caring for a new baby but doing it at a time in which they aren’t able to count on some of the support and comforts you may have had during your own children’s infancy. And be very clear that it hurts you guys not to be able to come hold the new nibbling, that you’d only avoid doing so under the direst circumstances (which, unfortunately, we are living through).
We can’t let people guilt us into putting our households in danger, nor putting them in danger. It sucks ass. My heart breaks for everyone who has given birth or will do so during the pandemic, but we can’t pretend as though it’s not happening. If your in-laws will be down to do a safe baby viewing, like bringing him to the window so you and your kids can see him from a distance, then great. If not, then photos will have to suffice.
For more of Slate’s parenting coverage, listen to Mom and Dad Are Fighting
Dear Care and Feeding,
I’m 13, my sister’s 19, and to put it simply, my parents support her interests a lot more than they support mine. To be fair, my sister is great, and they are completely right to praise her. However, they’re setting the bar for me, an eighth grader, at the same level as her, a college sophomore. For example, my sister and I are both artists, just in completely different ways. She practices realism and is great at it. I am a cartoonist and am actually pretty good at it for my grade and age. Everyone seems to think so except my parents. While they tend to have over-the-top reactions for her art, mine half the time aren’t even looked at or given a rather underwhelming reaction. I get that when you’re 13, your art may look a lot better in your eyes, but they have to give me SOME credit for all the work I’ve put into working on anatomy and creating an original art style.
Another thing, my current career ideas are pretty open-ended. I’ve considered studying business, as well as animation, theatre, graphic design, teaching, and other somewhat profitable professions that I’d enjoy. However, they are dead-set on me picking a career in science, just like my sister. She’s studying to be an environmental scientist. The town I live in is very much an engineering town. All my parents ever talk about with me is being an engineer when I grow up. I. Hate. Engineering. I’ve told them many times to the response, “You’re not even giving it a chance!” I have and I’ve explained that to them so many times. I’ve tried out coding as well as soldering, and I never really got into it.
All I want them to do is be proud of me, or God forbid, supportive of what I want to do. I’ve even joked with my sister about this, only to have her also say that I haven’t given engineering a chance. My career plans may change, but they could at least try to encourage me in one of their only clear shots to finally have a healthy relationship with me. Many areas of our relationship are not very good. But I know deep down that they just want me to be successful, though I think our definitions of success are on completely different sides of the spectrum. How can I get through to my parents about my capabilities and goals without the typical “You’re not trying hard enough?”
— Future Starving Artist By Choice
I hate to hear that your parents aren’t supporting your artwork and that they are pushing you, at 13, towards a career that you aren’t interested in. But I am proud of how confident you are about what it is you love doing and your determination to continue doing things that you love when it comes time for you to make a living.
I’d guess that your parents’ reaction to your cartoon art versus your sister’s realism is directly connected to the idea of “practical work,” much as cartoons/animation do not always receive the respect they deserve from those who deem themselves to be authorities on art. You don’t seem to take this as a reflection of your talent as much this drastic difference in values between you, them, and your sibling.
As much as I’d want to encourage you to think they will behave differently at some point or that they will come around to see things your way, I don’t think we should assume that they will. And so, like many teenagers, you may want to instead strategize ways to survive living in a home where your heart is not being heard on a regular basis.
Be as respectful as possible. Defend yourself, explain why you don’t want to pursue a career in science, and stay true to your art; but do your best to avoid a scenario in which they can easily justify taking it away from you, temporarily or otherwise. Keep your grades up so that there’s never a reason to say art is distracting you.
Scholarships may be a very important part of your future. I don’t know if your parents are in a position to pay for college for you either way, but I would strongly consider taking your academic and artistic performance quite seriously as a means to do so without them if need be. When you are a freshman, start the conversation with your guidance counselor about needing to secure a full ride and what sort of things she would recommend to help you do so.
Art, and your future plans, may be topics that you have to discuss with friends, or a trusted aunt or teacher, as opposed to coming home excited about something and looking to people who have made it clear that they don’t support these things to be enthusiastic or encouraging.
Are you familiar with saying “The customer is always right?” In the service industry, it is widely considered appropriate to defer to the customer no matter what, which is awful because customers are not only human, and thus not “always right,” but they can be terrible towards employees. The same goes for parents; children are expected to behave as though they are always correct and are left to question themselves and (perhaps the world) when they feel strongly otherwise. Parents are not always right, and yours sound like they are quite wrong. They see success differently than you and are doing what they think is right by trying to force that on you. Stay focused on your goals, try and identify any brighter spots in your relationship to your family that may exist, and do your best to balance what you must do for yourself to be happy.
More Advice From Slate
I get along really well with my wife’s brother and his spouse. Our families spend a lot of time together at dinners and on family vacations and it’s always pleasant. The only problem is I have a very strong desire to hurt their 3-year-old son. Don’t get me wrong: I would never, ever do it and he’s a sweet kid who has never done me any wrong. However, when I see him and hold him, I feel it deep inside. I want to hurt him and sometimes I have violent fantasies about what I could do to him. It came on so strong the first time I saw him that it terrified and overwhelmed me, making me feel sick for days after. I’ve never felt this way about any other kid and generally love spending time around children. Why do I feel this way and what can I do about it?