Care and Feeding

My Child Wants to Call Themself a New Name

Do I have to accept it?

A mother puts her head in her hands and looks stressed.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by PIKSEL/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 have a 15-year-old daughter who is gender fluid. This transformation has been coming for a long time, but it has picked up in the last year. With the COVID lockdowns and school online, we’ve spent a lot (possibly too much) time together and on all of our screens (definitely way too much). I love my daughter with all my heart, but I am currently struggling with accepting the changes they demand. They will only accept they/them pronouns. Fine. I’m adapting and practicing, but after 15 years of she/her, it’s taking some time to relearn my vocabulary. Now they have decided to change their name because the name I picked out is “too feminine.” I love the name they were born with. I spent months trying to pick the perfect one. Now, it’s always a source of argument. They glare at me whenever I use their “dead name” and get mad at me when I fill out any kind of form using their old name. Deep down, I know it’s only a name and it’s nothing more than the sound I make to get their attention. But I feel like they’re trying to invent a whole new person because the person I’ve spent the last 15 years watching grow into an amazing young adult isn’t good enough. They swear up and down that they are still the same person—but if that’s true, why do I need to call them something different?

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Another thing: Every one of their friends has decided to change their names also (I’ve known these kids since they were small, and now if I call them by their actual name, the one I’ve known them by for 10 years, I’m the horrible, nonaccepting cis mom). So I understand that some of this may be the desire to fit in with their friends, but I’m worried that in my child’s pursuit to find their “true self” they may lose their core self. Any time I try to talk to them about it, I am told that I just don’t understand the LGBTQ+ community or that I am transphobic. Every time they call me this it hurts. I am not transphobic. I have always been inclusive and accepting of everyone and whatever they want to be. So why can’t I accept this name change? Why do I hit an internal roadblock every time I try and use it?

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—Stuck in Silverton

Dear Stuck,

You can’t accept it because it’s a metaphor. Your child is growing up and changing—both of which are inevitable, neither of which are easy for a parent. And when a child discards the name that was picked out so carefully, and that the parent loves, it feels like a terrible rejection. But you know very well (“deep down,” as you say) that this is not really about the name qua name. For your child, the new name is a declaration of selfhood: This is who I am; this is how I want the world to see me. That declaration of selfhood can be hard for a parent to hear.

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Can you try your damnedest to not make this about you? It has nothing to do with you (this in itself is hard for a parent, I know!). And it is neither here nor there that “all” your child’s friends are also choosing new names. When a child tells a parent, “This is who I am—please see me for who I am,” it behooves the parent to respect that. Do your very best to use the pronouns your child has asked you to use. When you slip, apologize (quickly) and move on. Your child doesn’t need to hear about how difficult this is for you. (I know it is difficult. Talk to others about that.) All your child needs from you is your wholehearted support and love.

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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 husband and I are friends with another couple. We don’t have kids, but their 12-year-old daughter is very close to us. She’s a great kid with a strong sense of self, but this past winter, she asked me if she looked fat in her outfit. This didn’t surprise me. Her mom talks about her weight constantly. Dinner together is always uncomfortable—the topic is usually how many carbs are in the meal, what her weight loss goals are, and how terrible she looks. I know she says things to her daughter about being strong and healthy, but she can’t seem to see how damaging it is to talk about herself that way in front of her. I try to respond with statements like “a body that works is a good body” and “I have more important things to think about than my pants size,” but she doesn’t get the hint. In the past, I have told her directly to zip it; in response, she’s made excuses and kept at it. This isn’t my kid, so should I keep my mouth shut or try again? I’m really concerned about this young woman and the impact this has already had on her.

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—Weighty Conversations

Dear WC,

There’s no point in trying again to get your friend to cut it out. It will not do any good: She cannot or will not do that. But that doesn’t mean you can’t help her daughter. Don’t underestimate the role you play in her life, or how much impact you can have as a role model, if the two of you are close. Having an adult in her life who spontaneously models a different way of thinking about food and her body is a big deal. If you talk about these things differently than her mother does—if you talk to her differently than her mother does—and your behavior matches what you say, then, at the very least, you’re offering her another way through this thicket. It’s a crucial thing for a child to have that. And I know from experience, as the adult who modeled ways of thinking and behaving (not about food/bodies, but about other important subjects about which children I knew were being indoctrinated toxically), that nonparents who have a close relationship to a child and are respected and admired by them can make a huge difference in their lives.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My 5-year-old daughter is a happy, loving little kid. However, she seems to have developed an obsession/fear of death in the last year or so. It usually comes up at night in the midst of a normal conversation while getting ready for bed. She’ll suddenly say she doesn’t want to die, or she doesn’t want me to die. I have no clue where this has come from. She has never experienced the death of anyone she knows, not even a pet. And while she does play video games with us, they are not violent and are very much age-appropriate. I’m concerned about this developing further, and I have tried talking to her about it, telling her it’s not something she needs to worry about, she’s in good health and so am I, and assuring her that we will be around for a while. But this doesn’t seem to help. Others have suggested I tell her we will be together forever, since for little kids “forever” can mean a day or so. But I don’t like that idea, as I work hard not to lie to her about the facts of life. I always try to put things in terms she understands and keep it to her level, but this has me stumped. Do you have any suggestions for how I can help her to move past this, and not let it consume her?

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—Gravely Worried

Dear GW,

At this age, a lot of children have begun to figure out that everyone dies. Some become more preoccupied with this fact than others, and an extremely sensitive—for better and for worse—child like yours may not be able to let it go. But let’s face it: Everyone has to figure out a way to deal with and live with this knowledge. For a 5- or 6-year-old, who has just come to it for the first time and doesn’t have any of the resources adults do, it can be enormously challenging.

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It sounds like you are saying and doing all the right things: steadily reassuring her, reminding her of all the things one needs to be reminded of at such moments. Keep doing that, every time she brings it up. Do your best, when you have these conversations with her, not to let her know you’re worried (she won’t read your worrying as about her; she is more likely to interpret it as your own fear of death, which will further alarm her—and probably provoke her to dig even deeper).

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A helpful New York Times piece about talking to kids about death describes the four “subconcepts” of death, as described by Sally Beville Hunter, Ph.D., a clinical associate professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville: nonfunctionality (your body doesn’t work anymore), universality (all living things die), irreversibility (once you die, you can’t come back to life), and inevitability (you can’t avoid death). The article also notes—and I mention this in response to your wondering where on earth this obsession came from—that adults often don’t realize, because we’re so inured to it, that children are surrounded by death. There is death in fairy tales, in cartoons and movies (The Lion King and The Land Before Time—two of my daughter’s favorites when she was young—are shadowed nearly from the start by death). The leaves on the trees die every autumn; bugs die every day.

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Beville Hunter suggests not getting into too much detail when answering kids’ questions and yet being truthful: When a child asks, “When are you going to die?” you can tell them you take good care of yourself and you are very careful, that you plan to live a long time—until you are very, very old. And then do your best to redirect to another subject: the evening bedtime story, or what tomorrow will be like, or something your child is looking forward to. If she can’t be redirected—even if this is only happening at bedtime—it may be time to talk to your pediatrician about consulting a pediatric psychotherapist. (The general rule is that if a child’s anxiety is affecting their daily life, that’s when it’s time to check in with a therapist. But in practice it can sometimes be hard to identify where that line is.)

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I want to add one more note about this, based on my experience and on my research (because I too had a child who thought about death more than seemed to me “normal”—whatever “normal” means). At this age most children don’t connect death to themselves (and many don’t connect it to their parents yet, either). They’ve figured out that “everybody dies,” but they exempt themselves: Death is for other people, or it’s an abstract concept. It’s only at 9 or 10 that they first begin to understand fully that death is irreversible and that they too will die someday. (Although I will say that years ago, while teaching an undergraduate class, on a day when we were discussing Tolstoy’s novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich—which is concerned with the question of what the inevitability of death poses for our understanding of life: If we must die, what is the point of living?—I mentioned my young daughter’s then-recent revelation that she would die someday. I asked the class if everyone remembered when they had experienced that visceral understanding for the first time, and one 19-year-old put her head down on her desk and said, “Uh … I think I’m having it now.”)

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If your daughter has already had this revelation at 5, her precocity may be challenging her ability to process this shocking news—in other words, there’s a disconnect between what she is able to grasp intellectually and what she can handle emotionally: a developmental gap. This gap will close naturally as she gets older, but it can be highly challenging in the meantime. Therapy may be helpful for this, too.

Dear Care and Feeding,

Can I stop pretending to be interested when every time I meet up with my friend “Amy” (which is three or four times a month), she forces me to look at an over-the-top amount of pictures and videos of her 2-year-old niece? We’re not talking a few pics and a cute 10-second video. We’re talking 20–30 pictures at a time (almost all of the same thing), and videos that are at least a minute long of completely mundane activities, like her niece singing the ABCs for the 100th time, or playing with her stuffed animals. I know I sound awful, but it’s way too much!

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—I Get It, She’s Cute

Dear IGISC,

Sure, stop pretending. Look at two or three pictures, pronounce the kid adorable, then talk about something else. If she keeps showing you more pictures, keep talking about something else. She’ll get the hint.

Or she won’t. If she is so besotted with the child she simply can’t imagine that everyone else isn’t, you have a decision to make. My calculation of the time spent looking at 20–30 pictures and, say, even 10 10-second videos is still under five minutes, total. If that five minutes, four times a month, is so irritating to you that you can’t forgive or tolerate it, it’s time to cool this friendship. Nobody is making you get together with Amy four times a month. The one thing you should not do is make her feel bad about her fascination with her niece. Do not have a talk with her about it. Do not scold her. If a gentle hint—maybe three times in a row?—doesn’t do the trick, then let it go.

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I guess the thing to think about is whether the sacrifice of indulging her—obviously, it gives her pleasure to share her delight in her niece with you—is worth making. Are there enough joys in this friendship to counterbalance this annoyance? Do you love her enough to indulge her? Maybe not. Then don’t.

—Michelle

More Advice From Slate

Over a decade ago, my husband had an affair that produced a son. Every adult in the situation, including me, hails from a highly dysfunctional family. I mention this detail because even now, my husband’s family still tries to pressure him to leave me for her so that my stepson “can have his parents together.” I have spent years trying to work through the anger and resentment I have for how badly I have been treated in this dynamic, including what I had against my husband, who spent years choosing to stay silent as his parents disrespected my place as his wife and favored his son, often at the expense of the children we have since had together. How do I move forward?

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