Care and Feeding

My Mom Has Turned into a Crazy Conspiracy Theorist

A 60-something-year-old woman wearing glasses looks off into the distance.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by 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,

My siblings—one sister and two brothers, with nine kids between us—and I have a problem. Our mom, who is in her early 60s, has recently become a crazed conspiracy theorist, spouting the whole QAnon/Trump/Bill Gates BS that’s been going around (with even weirder stuff that I’m pretty sure she makes up). She’s seen a doctor who said she isn’t insane and doesn’t have dementia, so there’s nothing we can do except try to ignore it. But here’s the thing: despite my siblings and me having a wide range of political views, none of us wants our kids hearing this stuff. We love our mom and she’s a wonderful grandma, but this has gotten out of control. She won’t stop talking about it. It’s impossible to change the subject, and somehow she finds ways to bring it up during every conversation. If someone’s talking about getting a new computer, she responds, “Oh, well, I hope it wasn’t a MICROSOFT because lizard people and mole children and blah, blah.”

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Our kids range in age from 2 to 25. She doesn’t say anything in front of the kids when we’re present, but my older nieces have mentioned that she rants to them anytime they’re alone together (which has seriously damaged their relationship with her), so I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before she pulls this with the younger kids, too. What do we do? Cut her off completely? Only allow supervised visits and no sleepovers? We all live within 15 minutes of each other and see each other frequently. She also babysits a lot. Do we explain that Grandma is insane but we still love her? I hate that she has been sucked into this.

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—At A Loss

Dear AAL,

I hate that she’s been sucked into this, too. I hate that anyone has. I’m a little bit confused about the visit to the doctor who pronounced her sane and free from dementia. I mean, did she ask? Did one of you drag her to the doctor and demand a ruling? Or are you just saying that nothing unusual came up during her annual physical? Obviously I have no idea whether there is a mental health issue underlying this. But whatever the reason for your mother’s spiral down this rabbit hole, if she cannot be reasoned with (and it certainly sounds as if she is too far gone for reasonable conversation), my ruling is that you do not leave the younger kids alone with her anymore (so no more free babysitting from your mom, sorry). If Grandma ends up being unable to resist spouting this vile stuff when you and your siblings are present, you can tell the kids plainly, once their grandmother isn’t in the room, that she is wrong about all the things she’s said. Please don’t use the word “insane.”

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I don’t think it’s a terrible thing for kids, even young ones, to learn that it is possible to love people even when they are … well, let’s use the words cranks and crackpots. That doesn’t mean you have to (or should!) expose young children to this pernicious messaging without firmly contradicting it. And I think the oldest of the younger kids can be talked to in an age-appropriate way about why some people believe things that are demonstrably untrue, disbelieve the truth, are dismissive of science, and embrace toxic fringe “theories.” (I might try something like this: When people are confused and having a hard time, they sometimes try to comfort themselves by telling themselves things that aren’t true, and sometimes those things can be dangerous and hateful. Grandma is confused and scared by the world right now!)

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Meanwhile, as the younger children get older, they may be able to make a difference when you and your siblings can’t. David Neiwert, a journalist who reports on domestic terrorism and wrote the book Red Pill, Blue Pill: How to Counteract the Conspiracy Theories That Are Killing Us, told Teen Vogue last year that pretty much the only thing that may motivate a conspiracy theorist to change their thinking is a relationship they hold dear: deepening such relationships was a key part of his advice to teens struggling with conspiracy theorist parents. And an NPR piece on a similar subject points out that while arguing and countering lies with facts are both futile, “com[ing] at [family members] with unconditional love, as hard as that is, reminding them of the preexisting bonds that you have” may not be. I wish all of you good luck. (I wish all of us good luck, as the divide between the reasonable and the cranks seems only to grow wider.)

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• If you missed Friday’s Care and Feeding column, read it here.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My friend “Tara” lives two hours away (she moved four years ago), and because I don’t have a car, the logistics of visiting her have always included an overnight visit. Recently, she had a baby (she already has a 5-year-old son). She immediately began asking me when I’m coming to visit and meet the new baby. The problem is—and maybe this makes me a terrible friend—I have zero desire to spend one of my weekend nights in a household with an infant. The first reason: sleep. The second is I know I’ll end up being relied upon to entertain the 5-year-old while she or her husband tend to the baby, meals, or cleanup.

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I promise you that I generally adore all of my friends’ kids, and I also have no problem lending a helping hand. But there’s a balance with all of my other friends. Sometimes I’m Auntie, and the visit is about the kids, and other times I get to just be a friend. With Tara, I always visit as Auntie, never as friend. (It might be worth pointing out that she has never come to visit me, unless she’s already visiting for work.) I do want to visit. I’m hoping that I can either rent/borrow a car, or hitch a ride with another visitor, and I told her I’m working to make that happen. She asked why I wouldn’t just take the train and stay over as usual. I had no idea what to say to her. Thus far, I’ve dodged by saying I don’t have any weekends available anytime soon when I can spend the night (which is actually true at the moment). Any advice on how to not insult my friend, especially when she’s already pretty stressed out from taking care of a newborn and very active 5-year old?

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—Can Auntie Sit This One Out?

Dear CASTOO,

You have no desire to spend one—one!—weekend night helping your friend, who has got her hands full? Having one poor night of sleep? Are you sure you’re friends?

Sure, it’s nice that with your other friends, there is a better balance between your role as Auntie to their kids and getting to “just be a friend” to one of their parents. And maybe you will decide that the only people with children with whom you want to remain friends are those who can pull off that neat trick. But it isn’t always possible, for many reasons. And I feel I ought to point out to you—since it doesn’t seem to have occurred to you—that your friend Tara hasn’t been the one to do the visiting since moving away because her older kid was one when she moved. She is not nearly as portable as you are.

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If you were complaining that you see Tara and her family often and are forever expected to babysit for free without any opportunity to visit with the adults, I’d be sympathetic (and would offer different advice). But since we seem to be talking about occasional visits (and just a single visit right now), I am going to have to agree that your unwillingness does indeed make you … if not a “terrible” friend, then not much of one. The way to not insult her is to make the great sacrifice of one weekend night, when you’ve got one available.

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This is only worth doing if this relationship is important to you. (Let me remind you that Tara will not always have small children.) If it isn’t, I think you can keep giving her vague excuses until she gets the hint, or you can take the braver path and tell her what you’ve just told me. Maybe she’ll take it well and you can still be friends, even if the friendship gets put on hold for several years. But I doubt it. The question is: Do you care? Would you grieve the loss of Tara in your life? Or do you dread that conversation only because you are someone who prefers to avoid conflict?

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I was raised in a fairly conservative Catholic household. Although no one explicitly said “no sex until marriage,” that message was definitely the one I got. Plus, I didn’t learn about puberty until I was 10 (I come from a family of very late bloomers, so it was about two or three years before the information was anything more than theoretical) and what they said was a little too scientific for the average 10-year-old to grasp. And they never did have “The Talk” with me—they just told me my school would teach me what I needed to know. And I guess it did. I went to a public school in a very liberal city in a very red state, so while my sex education was technically abstinence-only, it went a little more like, “This is a condom. It keeps you safe during sex. However, I am required by law to tell you that abstinence is the only way to be 100 percent safe. But when used correctly, a condom is 95 percent safe … even so, I am required to tell you abstinence is better … but condoms also work.”

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I would like to do better when it comes to educating my own child about sex. And now that I’m expecting a daughter, I am starting to think about how to do that. My husband was raised the same way, so he’s about as clueless as I am about how to do it right. We know the basics of what we want our kid to know. We know that puberty, sexuality and safe sex, gender expression, and consent are all important topics. But we have no idea how (or when) to start. I don’t want to overwhelm my child with information, but I also don’t want them to be 9 years old and panicking about their friends telling them blood was going to come out of their lady bits someday. Another big problem is that I am a huge blusher. I understand that sex is a natural and wonderful thing, but given the kind of household I was raised in, it isn’t going to be easy for me to talk about it. So I guess I’m asking how and when I can talk about sex to a kid in an informative way without traumatizing them or me for all of eternity.

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—Wondering in Washington

Dear WiW,

This is what books are for! And those conversations, which can be hard for some parents, I know, are a lot easier when they are centered around what you’ve just read with your child.

You might start with What Makes a Baby, from sex educator Cory Silverberg and artist Fiona Smyth. This is a book that’s meant for very young children. It explains that the genetic material in a sperm or egg has stories to tell “about the body [it] came from” and the illustrations show non-gender-specific people, some with internal parts to make a baby and others without. A book called Mommy Laid An Egg OR Where Do Babies Come From? was a big hit in my house back in the early to mid-90s (when it was written, and when my daughter was very small), but it’s a very cis-gendered, straight book (which did not occur to me at the time). I think it would work in combination with the above, though, and it is hilarious.

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There is one more book you might consider for very young children, though it focuses only on sex between men and women and conventional baby-making (it’s delightfully straightforward, though, which has its own value, even if it is very, very straight): It’s Not the Stork, by Robie Harris and Michael Emberley, a writer-illustrator pair that has also collaborated on two other books about sex, each a step up, age-wise.

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For older children (say, 7 and up), there’s a book about sex by the same team that made What Makes A Baby called Sex Is a Funny Word, which reimagines, in comic book format, “The Talk” for the twenty-first century. It is meant to be a conversation-starter between children and their parents that will give the adults a chance to convey their values and beliefs while providing information about boundaries, safety, and joy.

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Of course, for these books to be useful to you, you will have to make sure that you and your husband are clear on your values and beliefs and what it is you want your children to understand about sex. Since you both grew up in “fairly conservative Catholic” families, I think it would be useful for you to have some conversations about this now, if you haven’t already. Not only will this bring you some clarity for future conversations with your daughter, it will also help you understand yourselves better.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I have a 12-year-old daughter who is really into reading. We have the Libby ebook reader, and I can see her history. Well, she hasn’t read the book (yet?), but Fifty Shades of Grey has been checked out, I see. And she had another book open—this one she had read, and it was open to a rather inappropriate scene. I talked with her about it, and after that her shelf was (briefly) clean, but then she began to check out books like The Bluest Eye. And, of course, she checked out Fifty Shades of Grey again. I talked with her again about books she should and should not be reading, but I don’t know if it’s enough. Currently we have no restrictions on the app. Should we?

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-Restricted Reading

Dear Restricted,

No, no, a thousand times no. Please let your daughter read whatever she wants to read—I beg of you. Reading won’t hurt her. Reading is good. Even crappy books like Fifty Shades won’t hurt her. And a really good book like The Bluest Eye is a fantastic thing for her to read. Let her be.

—Michelle

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