Dear Care and Feeding,
I am very close to my 11-year-old cousin whose mother passed away suddenly four years ago (I was also extremely close with her mother). She is being raised by her dad, who had divorced her mom several years prior to her death. I see her once or twice a month (less during the pandemic and only for front porch visits then, but we are back to normal now). She is bright, funny, kind, beautiful, happy—all of those things. However, she has atrocious table manners. She doesn’t know how to hold her fork correctly while using a knife, talks with her mouth full, makes a huge mess on the table, stabs far too large pieces of food with her fork, etc. The other night we were at a white cloth steak restaurant celebrating her birthday (her choice), and while we were chatting after eating, she was playing with her remaining steak absent-mindedly with her hands! I know there are different levels of decorum for different situations and that I may be extremely sensitive to table manners given my uber-mannered grandmother and home ec teacher mother. Am I wrong that an 11-year-old should have better table manners? And if she should, what is the best way to go about helping to correct them? Am I missing something deeper?
If your cousin is otherwise doing well—as it seems she is—I don’t think you’re missing anything deeper. There are two possible explanations for her atrocious table manners: either her father was raised without them and has no idea how to teach them, or he is so preoccupied with the many other aspects of raising his daughter on his own he has simply failed in this one area. You would be doing his child a great kindness if you were to take it upon yourself to gently instruct her when the two of you are sharing a meal without anyone else present.
Modeling good table manners is unlikely to be sufficient, I’m afraid, if you have the chance to do so only once or twice a month (and especially if you don’t go out to eat together, alone, every time—though I encourage you to do exactly that, so you’ll have lots of opportunities for such modeling). In addition to this, you are going to have to explain and demonstrate, and you’ll have to do this without shaming her or making her self-conscious—which I think you can do if you frame it not as “This is how people eat politely, and it’s high time you learned” but as “Now that you’re growing up, I thought we might talk about some of the things adults do when they’re sharing a meal. It’s a little fancy, I know, but you’ll be amazed by what a difference it makes in social situations!” or some such thing. If she is skeptical, it will be useful to add that “While it may not seem fair, people are likely to judge you if you don’t exhibit what they think of as ‘proper’ manners.”
Want to know how I know you’ll be doing a good deed? Because it was my own dad—whom I adored (and I’d give anything to sit across the table from him just once more and be irritated by his talking while chewing, as I was for many years once I finally learned proper table etiquette)—who had no manners. And because I didn’t learn a thing about them until I was out on a first date with someone who took pity on me and was (astonishingly; it still amazes me, 44 years later) kind and generous and gentle in his guidance on the subject, so that I did not feel called out or embarrassed. I’m not sure how he managed this, honestly (I could ask him, I suppose, as we are still friends; he is my daughter’s godfather), and I wish he hadn’t had to—I wish someone had done this for me long before I was 22 and out on a date.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
My 11-year-old had a rough time in the pandemic. She hated virtual learning and felt incredibly lonely, mainly because we live across the country from her beloved cousins, and because she didn’t get to see her two closest school friends in person for almost a year. We are blessedly moving out of this difficult season. During the pandemic, our family dove headfirst into reading to “balance out” the additional screen time. I was so excited to see my daughter get her first library card and get into a number of YA series that she seemed to really connect with. The problem is—and I can’t believe I’m saying this—now my daughter wants to read too much. She refuses to do homework, go on playdates, go to sports practice, or really socially interact in any way. She’s smart enough to make the argument that I should be OK with this because she’s reading … but I’m not OK with it. She’s lost some of her social skills due to isolation, and I’m concerned she won’t regain them if she’s skipping out on social opportunities in order to read by herself. I also know that middle school will be a huge adjustment. I don’t want her to be that kid in the corner reading rather than engaging with her peers. I’ve asked a number of times if something happened with her friend group, etc. but she seems pretty happy with the friends she used to have (unclear if they’re still as close now) and says she just likes reading! Is this a problem? If so, how can I convince her to put down the book and go be a part of the world once in a while?
—Mom of a Reader
I can’t decide if I’m precisely the right or precisely the wrong person to answer this, because this was me (minus the pandemic, obviously). As a child, I always had just one or two close friends, I had no interest in participating in sports (which of course nobody thought was strange in those days), and I far preferred reading to doing anything else. (My grandmother, who helped raise me, was always telling me to go outside … so I would take my book and go out on the fire escape, and sit and read there for hours.) Since I am a very well-adjusted—and extremely social, when I am not sitting alone in a room writing … or reading—person who has a lot of friends (too many, my antisocial husband thinks), I feel confident saying that a childhood spent buried in books does not doom one to life as a misfit. (And for the record, my own child was the same way—until high school, when she found “her people” and became part of a tight-knit group of half a dozen or so kids; in college, where there were lots of like-minded souls, she became something of a social butterfly.)
But I’ll say this: I understand how worrisome this is to you, especially if when she was younger, and pre-pandemic, she used to be much more social. It’s clear that her seeming to retreat from the “real world” into the world of books is disturbing you, even if she seems perfectly happy with it. So how about this? She’s going to be starting middle school in the fall. That will be a huge adjustment no matter what she does this summer—it’s a huge adjustment for every child. I don’t think a few more months of her total immersion in books is going to ruin her for years to come. It might, in fact, well-arm her for the years ahead (I believe it did so for me, and for my daughter). Once school starts, see what happens. Watch her for signs of unhappiness and isolation. But be careful not to confuse the contented solitariness of a preteen bookworm with unhappiness. She may never be the life of the party (does she have to be?), but if she has a couple of close friends (or maybe even just one!), she won’t be lonely. In her new school, she might even meet a fellow bookworm—as I did on the very first day of junior high long ago—and find a new best friend.
And may I add one more note of caution for you? You don’t want her to be “that kid in the corner reading” (that was my kid, every recess for what seemed like a long time to me) while other kids “engage,” but it’s crucial that you not impose your anxiety about this on her. She may or not turn out to be as socially active as you want her to be … but she may not need to be, either. Give her the space to figure this out on her own.
Dear Care and Feeding,
I’m a 19-year-old girl who just finished my freshman year of college, and I’m currently living with my mom and her new husband, who has two kids, a 13-year-old boy and an 11-year-old girl. My stepsiblings and I aren’t super close, but we get along well. The problem is that my room in our new house shares a closet with my stepbrother’s room, so I can sometimes hear him. I’m a night owl—I regularly stay up until 3 a.m., and lately, my stepbrother does too. But unlike me, he’s not studying; he’s, well, discovering Pornhub. And while our rooms are on the second floor and what I’m hearing can’t be heard by his parents or sister, I can hear it clearly through the closet doors, even when they’re closed on both sides. To make this even more complicated, I think he watches a lot of gay porn (based on what I’ve heard), and I don’t want to make him feel pressured to explain it to me or come out if I bring it up. My stepbrother is a shy, quiet kid who spends most of his time playing Minecraft and he has no idea I can hear him, I’m sure. I’ve tried headphones while I work, but he continues his online activities after I’m done working, making it very hard for me to sleep. How do I bring this up without embarrassing him or possibly outing him? Do I talk to my mom or his dad, or go directly to him?
—StepBro, Please Don’t
StepSis, please don’t. Don’t talk to Mom or Dad, don’t go directly to him. Let him be. He believes he has privacy. Let him have that privacy. Buy yourself some comfortable silicone earplugs and, at bedtime, switch from headphones-for-studying to earplugs-for-sleeping. (I can attest to how easy it is to sleep with them in, because as a light sleeper who wakes at the slightest disturbance, I have used them myself for years—and I am as fussy, too, as the princess and the pea about comfort while sleeping.) As to the possible “complicating” factor, when/if he is ready to come out, he will. If you want to do something to make yourself valuable to him as a big sister, make sure you demonstrate (and I do mean demonstrate—not just say) in every way both that you don’t have a homophobic bone in your body and that you’re available for conversation, in confidence, anytime … if and only if both of these things are in fact true.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
I am the proud mom of two wonderful, intelligent daughters, ages 18 and 20. The 18-year-old just graduated from high school and is home for a couple more months before heading off to college in the fall; the 20-year-old has been in college for two years and is home for the summer. Last week was busy: 18 graduated, and we moved into a new house, which has a pool. We’ve never had a pool before. I am struggling to make the transition from “18 is my little girl and pools are dangerous, so I need to supervise her when she’s in the pool” to “18 is an adult and she can enjoy the pool whenever she’d like, just as I do, and I do not need to monitor her pool time.” I do not want to over-parent and insist that these adult women only use the pool when I am around. They’re healthier, more fit, and better swimmers than I am. They are extremely reliable and smart—I have no concerns about them being irresponsible or rambunctious; they’re just paddling around the pool and cooling off. Since toddlerhood, they’ve been swimming (with supervision!) in pools and lakes and the ocean. They are water-savvy. I’d feel a lot better if they only swam with someone else present, but that’s not fair, as their work schedules often do not align (18 has already volunteered that she won’t use the diving board when she’s alone, as she finds that unwise).
Do you think my anxiety will wear off, as my mind adjusts to the idea of 18 as an adult, rather than the high schooler she was just last week? I’m a little nervous about 20 swimming alone too, but a lot less so than 18, although 18 is every bit as responsible and reasonable as 20. (18 asked me if it would make me feel better if she texted me to let me know every time she is swimming, and I said yes, it would make me feel better, but I’m not sure we should reward this alarmist thought pattern I’m stuck in … and she immediately said, “Yeah, plus sometimes I’m going to go swimming at, like, 2am, so that wouldn’t work anyway.”) I know that this is my house and my pool and I could implement restrictive rules if I wanted to, and they would abide by them. But I don’t want to do that. I want to break out of my fearful mindset. I am a worrier by nature, and I don’t want to let that get in the way of my girls (adults!) enjoying the pool for the summer before they head off to college.
—New Adult, New House
As a fellow/sister worrywart, you have my deepest sympathy. If I could wave my magic advice columnist wand and—presto!—make you break out of your fearful mindset (which you already know is unhealthy), I would. All I can do is tell you to listen to your better angels. You know you are “over-parenting” these young women. It isn’t healthy for them or you. And I say this with love and way more empathy for your distress than a healthy advice columnist should have. There is no magic cure for what ails you: you are going to have to fake it till you make it, just like me. (It works, though! Trust me. It just takes time, and a lot of practice.)
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My husband and I (we’re white) have a 2-year-old daughter and are doing our very best to be anti-racist parents. We’re making sure she has lots of multiracial dolls, only consumes books and TV shows with diverse characters, has no problematic Halloween costumes, and so on. But when we try to discuss issues like structural racism, intersectionality, or White fragility, she doesn’t seem at all interested. Have we screwed up somehow?