Care and Feeding

My Teen Stepdaughter Asked Me to Buy Her a Vibrator. Should I?

I want to be sex positive, but I know her mother wouldn’t like it.

A woman's hand holding a small vibrator.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by bombardir/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,

I’m a stepmom to a 13-year-old girl. She lives with her mom and grandma in another state but spends the summers with us. Over the last few years, she and I have become close. I try to always be open and accepting with my children. She came to me first to share that she is bisexual, and I’m the one she comes to and asks if she can dye her hair, get a piercing, etc. (When it comes to those things, I tell her it’s up to her parents but if they say yes, we can do it together.) Today she sent me a link to a vibrator and asked if I could buy it for her. She said she didn’t feel comfortable asking anyone else. They would freak out. I don’t mind buying it for her. The question shocked me, but I want to be sex-positive. I know her mom and grandma will not be happy with me if they find out about it. Her mom and I already have a strained relationship. I don’t want to make things worse. Would I be crossing a line here?

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—Nervous in NY

Dear Nervous,

This is so tricky. I want to tell you to do it, to ask for forgiveness later as opposed to asking for permission that you know you won’t get now. However, 13-year-olds are notoriously irresponsible, and in all likelihood she’ll leave the thing out and have to answer for where it came from. You wouldn’t want to have her in a position to lie about you buying it, and in any case, consider how bad “this adult purchased a sex toy for my child” can sound under, well, most circumstances.

Is there a way that you can facilitate her getting it without buying it yourself? Like, taking her to a Target or CVS, or a Spencer’s-type novelty store in the mall during her next visit, and turning your head the other way while she makes the purchase? Do you feel comfortable letting her know how readily available these things are, perhaps pointing her toward making her own purchase instead of relying on you?

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What is your partner’s attitude about this sort of thing? If they would be OK with this, then you may have some leverage to honor her request, but only if you have clearly communicated to them that your stepdaughter has been talking to you about some of the changes with her body, and you’d like their blessing to be supportive and to perhaps get her a few little items to help her along the way. (If you do decide to send the vibrator, I’d suggest making a little care package with a book about adolescent sexual health, a journal, maybe some PMS treats … decentering the toy a bit and making this less transactional.)

Whatever you decide, just be sensitive to the possibility that your partner’s ex might not simply feel slighted or angry, but that she could use a sex toy purchase as evidence of inappropriate behavior toward her child. Tread lightly. Best wishes to you both.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I do not have kids, but I am a happy aunt to my good friends’ children (I do not have any biological siblings). My best friend that I’ve known since middle school recently had a child. She and I had similar upbringings, rich with emotional and physical abuse and a large dose of racism, sexism, and homophobia. We’ve both done a lot of work and supported each other through the process of enduring, and then distancing ourselves from our parents and unlearning these harmful beliefs via years of therapy and education. However, as soon as she had a child, it was like all that work just vanished.

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She sees her parents for weeklong trips multiple times a year. She pays for them to come visit her while the day care is closed to watch the baby. (Her partner’s parents, who are great, retired, and always down to watch the baby live in the same town, so she has a better option available.) She’s delighted that her parents are “so good with the baby” and “are finally proud of something she’s done.” Of course, they’re good with the baby! They were good with her when she was a baby! They didn’t turn abusive until she was 3 or 4 (again, like my parents) and she started being “difficult.”

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They are still extremely rude to her during these visits, but she says she doesn’t mind so much anymore because her child brings them so much joy. I respect that this is her parenting decision, even though I think it is insane to expose an innocent child to these vile people when they’ve already proved they’re terrible at interacting with children, and just terrible in general (one of them is an actual member of the KKK). I’m sure they’ll eventually show their true colors when the baby is no longer a baby, but why is this bothering me so much in the meantime? And really, the question for you, what on earth happened? Does having a kid just excuse all abuse and terribleness in the name of the family? That’s what my mother always told me, that someday I’d “get” why she did everything she did as soon as I had a child. Is that true? Is she right that the only reason I don’t understand her and we’re not close is that I’ve chosen not to have children? I still don’t want children, so I won’t find out firsthand.

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—Waiting for the Abusive Shoe to Drop

Dear Waiting,

Though it isn’t unheard of to want to make peace with your own parents upon becoming one yourself, what you are describing is not a mere consequence of your friend becoming a mom—plenty of folks have kids and still maintain distance from toxic relatives and/or their deeply held bigoted ideals. That said, it’s not terribly surprising that a survivor of childhood abuse would still be in search of validation, love, and relationship with the family that did her so much harm growing up. Perhaps through her baby, she is able to access some of the feelings of nurturing and care that she may have once longed for; even if her family is still cruel to her, it’s not hard to imagine her still seeing this as a drastically better dynamic than the one she experienced in childhood. As far as the shameful values these folks hold outside of their poor parenting, your friend wouldn’t be the first person to look past those things (especially the beliefs that do not directly impact her) in order to get something she wanted; in this case, it sounds like what she wants is to be loved by her parents.

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The best thing you can do is to be there to support her as you always have. You can point out when one of her folks says something harmful, or ask her pointedly what exactly her plan is to manage the relationship between her child and Grandpa’s local Klan chapter.  However, demanding or urging her to break ties with her family completely, absent some new issue taking place, is likely to find her choosing them. What you might wish to do instead is encourage her with regards to therapy: Is that something you’ve done consistently? What might tempt her to think about speaking with a professional again? Considering the circumstances of her childhood and her now becoming a mom, this would be a perfect time for her to do some checking in and that would likely help her recognize what is and isn’t good about her new bond with her parents. I’d suggest trying to direct her accordingly. All the best to you.

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

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Dear Care and Feeding,

One of my daughters, who is 12, hates roller coasters. I’m not sure why, but she has always despised them. My wife will not let her just sit out the amusement park rides. When my daughter was younger, she would kick and scream, and my wife would just pick her up and put her on the ride even if she was crying. She insists “she’ll learn to enjoy them,” but so far she hasn’t. Now that our daughter is older, my wife still forces her on the rides by threatening to ground her or take away electronics. My daughter isn’t afraid of heights or prone to motion sickness. I’ve asked her why she doesn’t like roller coasters, and she just says they make her feel weird. I’ve never met anyone who dislikes roller coasters without a reason. At this point, I’m ready to just let her do something else for the day so we don’t have to deal with her attitude, but my wife is still insistent that she rides these rides. Is there a reason she’s acting like this? Is there a way to get her to enjoy them so we can finally have peace?

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—Rough Rides

Dear R.R.,

Pardon my language, but WTF? Why on earth do you people insist on making a hesitant child ride a roller coaster? We aren’t talking about swimming or a self-defense class or cooking or showering (you know, life skills), but an amusement park attraction that, in most instances, requires the rider or their parents to assume some level of responsibility for possible injury sustained while doing something dangerous in the name of entertainment. The entire point of riding a roller coaster is to have fun. If roller coasters are not fun to you, you should not ride them and your parents should not force you. This is akin to making a kid who’d rather eat a salad have a bacon chili cheeseburger; having one on occasion isn’t going to kill you, but it could be mighty unpleasant for someone with a sensitive stomach, and only worth the discomfort if they are interested in enjoying the meal.

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It’s one thing to encourage a scared kid to try a ride to challenge themselves (I personally would not do this for fear I may traumatize them, but some of y’all move differently), but it’s another to make your daughter ride one (or more?) every time you go to an amusement park, which I suspect is much more often than she’d like. I am begging you, as a former kid who hated and was afraid of roller coasters, to stop trying to force her into enjoying something she clearly doesn’t and instead, allow her to spend the day with a friend, grandparents, anyone who won’t make her miserable and call it a family activity.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I’m 14 and in ninth grade. I’ve gained some weight since the pandemic started. I don’t know exactly how much, but I’m still within the “healthy” range of BMI. The problem is that my mom thinks I’m really fat and last week she took all my clothes. She let me keep my pajamas and some of my sweat pants, but nothing that she thought was too small or too tight. She says that she doesn’t want me walking around looking like an overstuffed sausage. She gave me a stack of my dad’s old T-shirts and baggy cotton shorts to wear instead. I asked her if we could just go shopping and buy some new clothes in larger sizes. I even offered to pay for it myself with my allowance. She said if she let me get new clothes then that would send the message that being fat is OK. She thinks if I want to have nice clothes then I need to do a better job of taking care of my body. Before the pandemic, I was a lot more active, but I haven’t been able to play sports as much since everything got shut down last year. I’ve tried to talk to her about how embarrassed I am by the clothes she’s making me wear, but she doesn’t care. I feel so embarrassed when I leave the house now that I barely go out anymore. My dad won’t help at all; he says it’s between my mom and me. I just want to wear my normal clothes again and hang out with my friends. What should I do?

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—Fourteen and Fat

Dear F.F.,

I am so sorry that your mother is behaving in such an inexcusable manner. What she is doing is harmful, it is cruel, and you do not deserve it. No one should be made to feel such a way about their body. There would be nothing wrong with you if you were fat, and there is nothing wrong with you now.

Two people in this situation are wrong, however: your mom for her behavior and your dad for failing to defend you against it. This is a scenario no child should have to be in, left to figure out what to do and who to tell when her parents are screwing up, and I wish I had better, easier answers for you. I would suggest talking to another trusted adult in your life: Is there an aunt, a teacher, a guidance counselor whom you can speak to about this? I’m not just concerned about you getting the clothes that you should have, but also that you may begin to see your body differently over time if this treatment continues. You need an adult in your life who can hear you and who can advocate for you with your parents. Whatever has infected your mom to these attitudes is more than you can be expected to challenge on your own.

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No matter what, I want you to remind yourself every day that you are fine, your body is fine, and that your mother is wrong. Do your best to challenge any voice inside that ever suggests that you take her nonsense seriously. I hope sincerely that you get the support you deserve, and soon.

—Jamilah

More Advice From Slate

My son’s elementary teacher sent a note to all the parents last week. The email included a link to her website. Included on the site was a note stating that she couldn’t wait to share Christ’s love with the children. We are a religious minority in this community and, living in the Deep South, I deal with this kind of thing every single year, whether it’s school-sponsored Bible study, the choir concert that includes Christmas songs almost exclusively, or my middle-school-aged daughter feeling like she has to become a Christian because the other kids at lunch tell her she’s going to hell if she doesn’t. Do you have any suggestions for handling these issues?

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