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,
My 16-year-old is basically writing porn. For context, they’re a relatively smart, compassionate teenager and they love to write—and OK, I was snooping and I shouldn’t have been, but they’ve also been diagnosed with depression, and throughout quarantine it’s felt like they’ve been hiding something from me and, fearing the worst, I looked at their iPad while they were taking a shower and found it open to a page of drafts to some site. I haven’t realized until now that they’ve gotten into writing fan fiction, specifically on one particular, popular website, for multiple fandoms, and some of what they write is … fine. Has some swearing I don’t like them using, but I get that it’s a creative outlet for them—some of them might actually be good if I understood the fandoms and such.
But then I found some other fan fiction they’ve also written, and it’s very … mature. And adult. I don’t know where they learned half of this stuff—it feels like a year ago they didn’t even know what a condom was, and now they’re writing explicit and age-inappropriate fan fiction.
Do I give them “the talk”? Ground them? Take away their iPad so they can’t write? Tell them that I’m OK with their creativity, but this is inappropriate and it needs to stop? I’m reluctant to do anything because I know I was in the wrong for snooping, but now I feel like I have to do something.
—They Didn’t Learn This in ELA
No. You do not have to do anything. I promise you that nothing has ever needed to be done less. On your list of Things Not to Do, add “confronting my 16-year-old about their fan fiction,” and look at it often should you need a reminder.
[moves aside so as not to be crushed by stampeding hordes of teens now rushing to change their AO3 usernames just in case you are their parent]
Please don’t ground your kid over this, and don’t try to forbid them from writing, either. There’s a pandemic and they’re depressed, but even if these things weren’t true, writing fan fic is obviously an important and needed outlet for them, and is likely providing some form of community as well. They aren’t doing anything wrong. We are all of us, at any/every age, entitled to hobbies and fandom and fantasies and a rich and private inner life. I read so much fan fiction and so many of my grandmother’s romance novels when I was younger than your kid (which everyone in my family graciously pretended not to notice). They are 16—they could be having sex by now, never mind reading and writing about it.
You can certainly talk with them about sex and intimacy, bodily autonomy, internet safety and the importance of maintaining their privacy online, etc. But I just don’t see any good reason to subject them to a conversation about the fact that you read their rated-E fan fic. And I can only imagine the mortification and anger they’d feel if they knew that you’d snooped on their device and found their stories. Your 16-year-old still thinks their fan fiction writing hobby is a secret (which they must want it to be, for now—at least secret from you, or they’d have told you!), and maybe they also still think they can trust you. If I were you, I would not want to disabuse them of either belief. Stop creeping on their iPad. Don’t read any more of their stories. Let your teen live—and have their erotic fan fiction too.
Help us keep giving the advice you crave every week. Sign up for Slate Plus now.
Dear Care and Feeding,
I married a man last year. He was clear about not wanting kids. I did, but I love him too much. I just found out I’m pregnant. If it had been two months ago, I would have aborted the baby. But recently I have caught him staring at babies and holding them whenever he has the chance. He recently brought up that a day care was hiring, and said he wanted to work with children. Do you think he has suddenly begun to want a child?
—Yes, No, Baby So
I think you know this, but your husband is really the only person who can say whether he wants to have a child.
Enjoying and caring for other people’s kids is not the same as wanting your own (I coo at literally every baby I see; 100 percent do not want to have another one of my own right now). Of course, it’s possible he feels differently now. I know it’ll be hard to ask him directly because what if the answer is no? But I really don’t think you’ll get anywhere looking for signs, trying to pick up on what he says about other people’s kids. You won’t know if he’s changed his mind about having his own children unless you talk with him.
If you were going into this marriage hoping he would change his mind about kids or that you could somehow make him change it, I would have told you not to count on that. But you are pregnant now (which, by the way, he may notice any day if he hasn’t already), and even if your respective wishes haven’t budged, what you want and choose to do about it will necessarily change the conversation.
Tell your husband your news, tell him how you feel about it, ask him how he feels, and take it from there. You two have a whole lot to talk about, and you should start right now.
• If you missed Tuesday’s Care and Feeding column, read it here.
• Discuss this column in the Slate Parenting Facebook group!
Dear Care and Feeding,
My partner was emotionally abused as a child by both of their parents and physically abused by one parent (the other knew about it and did nothing). We have a cordial relationship with them, as per my partner’s wishes—pre-pandemic, we’d see them for meals about twice a month. We are now expecting a baby. My partner believes it is OK to accept child care from them a few days a week when the child is a baby, because their abuse didn’t start until around middle school. I think this is a pretty straightforward issue, and we shouldn’t leave a child with known child abusers. What do you think? And if you do think it’s OK, at what age do you cut that off? How soon can babies understand bad messaging?
—What’s the Right Thing?
Dear Right Thing,
You have already identified the right course here. You should not allow known abusers to babysit your child for any length of time, at any age.
If I were you, I wouldn’t want to allow them any time with my child at all. There are so many ways a child can be damaged by physically and emotionally abusive people—kids don’t have to be their targets, or understand everything they say, in order to be hurt by them. Yes, if you’re there, you can try to intervene or remove your child from a bad situation, but that won’t necessarily keep them from experiencing harm.
It is, of course, entirely your partner’s choice to continue to see their parents regularly, despite their difficult history and past abuse. But I think you both need to draw a hard line when it comes to them spending time with your child.
Dear Care and Feeding,
My husband and I have had an ongoing disagreement, which we’re hoping you could help resolve. Our 5-year-old is unassertive, and our 2-year-old is very small for her age, which sometimes translates to them being targets of children at parks, zoos, and play centers. We have seen other children screaming in the faces of ours and frightening them to the point of tears, or trying to push them off play equipment. When possible, I track down their parents/guardians to explain what has transpired and request they assist in rectifying the situation. I have been met with defensiveness and denial on a few occasions, but no one has ever responded with anger.
If the parents or guardians are oblivious/not around/refusing to rein in these kids, I intervene. My tone is calm and firm, and I state very clearly to the other children that their behavior is unacceptable. I have had to raise my voice on the odd occasion where I’m met with escalated aggression by the other children. However, I remain factual and (I believe) fair. I pull up my own children similarly when required.
My husband thinks it’s only a matter of time before my approach leads to an unpleasant confrontation with another parent. I would gladly take my chances with another parent if it means my children know that I have their backs and it is not OK for others to treat them poorly. I also separately talk to them about standing up for themselves (it’s slower progress with my eldest). Is my approach inappropriate or overbearing?
—Helicopter Parent in Denial?
Dear Helicopter Parent,
I understand the protective instinct, truly. I’m not disputing the fact that some kids can be real jerks and some parents enable it, and that this is far from ideal. And if you really need to speak firmly to a kid you don’t know to keep them from harming someone else, OK. But when it comes to most kids, I really doubt that a stern talking-to from a total stranger will have a lasting impact on their behavior. The kid will probably not even catch all your words because it is disconcerting to be corrected and/or lectured by someone you have never seen before and will likely never see again, and they will (rightly) remember your speech not as a lightbulb moment when their behavior/whole life turned around, but as “that time a strange grown-up told me off on the playground.”
You may think some kids’ parents are oblivious or too lenient, but that’s not really your problem or lookout because you’re not their kids’ parent. Taking other people’s children to task publicly is just not very likely to either work some wondrous change in the kids or revolutionize their parents’ child-rearing approach. And your husband is correct to note that if you continue to admonish (and sometimes … yell at?) other people’s kids, you’re eventually going to get into it with their parents. I really cannot overstress this: Don’t raise your voice to other kids on the playground. I don’t know how often you’ve done it, but any number of times is too many. I also have no idea what “escalated aggression” from a child means, in this scenario, but I will say it does not matter if a kid yells at you first—they’re the child, you’re the adult, and it is wildly inappropriate to raise your voice to children you don’t even know. (The main exception I can think of would be if it is a shouted warning that somehow prevents some child/multiple children from being harmed in the first place.)
Most kids are in a constant state of learning how to behave and socialize and, yes, not be jerks. Plenty still have a ways to go. That doesn’t mean it’s your job or your lane to take charge of personally instructing every kid at the playground. If you really must say something while play is ongoing, brevity is your best bet—I have been known to call out a general “take turns” or “play nice.” But I would step back a bit, intervene only when necessary to prevent actual harm, comfort your kids if they come to you in need of comfort, and keep talking with them about how to handle these situations without tipping into victim-blaming (e.g., “You need to learn to stand up for yourself!”). Of course your kids still need your help sometimes, as they learn to navigate social spaces out in the world, but there is always going to be a limit to the battles you can swoop in and fight for them, especially as they grow and spend more and more time out of your sight. In the meantime, you’re not going to fix the world for them by trying to discipline other kids at the park.
More Advice From Slate
My 3½-year-old son has started to ignore me when I say it’s time to leave a place (he’ll ignore me, or worse, run away when I say we have to go). I refuse to chase him, so when he says he won’t leave I wave “bye” and tell him I’m leaving without him. This immediately ends the “battle,” and he follows suit, but not without yelling “don’t leave me!” first. I usually respond that I’d never leave him but that when I say it’s time to go, he has to listen. Am I mucking this up? Should I change my phrasing so he understands that I’m leaving the place/situation because it’s time to go, but I’m not abandoning him? Just silently walk away knowing he’s watching me? Or should I find a new way to handle these situations?