Care and Feeding

Our Teen Just Discovered Income Inequality and Won’t Stop Lecturing Us About Privilege

I grew up low-income, so I’m really not into the self-righteousness!

A teen girl looks disapproving.
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 16-year-old daughter spent the summer volunteering at a camp for low-income students in our area. She seemed to have a great experience, but she returned home each evening almost like a different person, and her personality has undergone a major shift. She used to be happy and bubbly. Now, she’s jaded and cynical, criticizing us and our privilege constantly. Activities that used to bring our family joy (like going out to dinner together, or spending time at the beach) are now ruined by her sour mood and negative commentary. She says we are frittering away our money while real people out there need it much more than we do. Any attempt on our part to either volunteer or give to charity has been met with continued cynicism (“you’re only doing this for the clout” or “I can’t believe you gave that little.”)

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Here’s the catch: I grew up extremely low-income and worked like a dog to make it into the middle class. I do not want to be lectured by my daughter, who’s never wanted for anything in her life, about wealth and privilege. I didn’t work this hard to provide for someone who constantly throws it in my face. I’m of half a mind to have her move out for the remainder of the summer, earn a living at a low-wage job, and then see how she feels. But I also know I’m taking what is probably normal teen rebellion way too personally. My husband and other kids are stuck in the middle. What can I do to encourage my daughter’s care for the underserved, while making sure she leaves her awful attitude at the door? I find her extremely unpleasant to be around, which makes me feel like a bad parent. Where do we go from here?

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— Mom in Milwaukee

Dear Mom in Milwaukee,

Teenagers are famous for taking a new bit of information and using it as fuel to prove that their parents are somehow inadequate, wrong, or the reason for all that is bad in the world. It’s not bad parenting to feel annoyed by this behavior. You simply have to do your part to help her fully contextualize what she has learned about economic inequality and how to apply it to her everyday life.

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Talk to your child about the structural reasons for poverty, encourage her to explore career paths that allow her to work against them, and be candid about your own experiences growing up. Be clear not to project the idea that everyone can have a comfortably middle-class lifestyle simply by putting forth the effort to do so, but do make a point to explain your own journey to her. Offer ways for her to make suggestions about how your household can contribute towards making the world a better place, while also setting the expectation that she show respect for you and how hard you have worked to provide. And accept that on some level, she’s right: We all know that the world is woefully unfair and that yeah, getting to “lavish” money on gourmet cookies or new shoes for every season stands in terrible contrast to the very real material needs of other people that could be solved, at least in part, if those of us with even just a little excess were willing to redistribute more of their means. Hopefully, in time, she will learn how to save the world, and her own sanity, by engaging differently. Best of luck to you.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I am a nanny to two siblings, ages 3 and 5. I love the kids and my job very much. Any issues are minimal and “normal,” and for that I am grateful. My problem is with their dad. I am a fan of the more authoritative style of parenting, while he is extremely permissive: never says “no,” won’t set any boundaries except maybe in cases of danger, etc. If they cry, they get whatever they want. If their request is impossible, he bribes them to stop crying with the promise of a new toy. In the past, this wasn’t too much of a problem for me. For one, their dad and I were never home at the same time. Also, their mom is more authoritative (I feel like she and I are much more on the same page), and they understand that some adults have different boundaries and expectations, and they act accordingly. But now, with him working at home, within earshot of whatever we do, it has become kind of a nightmare.

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The kids are keenly aware that their dad can hear us, and they know how he operates. Situations that, before, would have been resolved with a calm conversation, are now full-on melt downs. If one of them cries, I don’t even get the chance to resolve it myself because he is immediately in the room, making it worse. Then, when they stop crying, they want his time and attention, which he can’t give because he is working. He leaves, and then they’re disappointed and grumpy, and I’m left cleaning up his mess. It’s an emotional roller coaster for all of us. If he would just leave it to me, these situations wouldn’t even reach the point of tears. His reactions reinforce bad behavior, leave me feeling undermined, and leave the kids bummed their dad can’t hang out with them. I know I can’t tell him how to raise his kids. But I’m also (majorly) helping to raise his kids, and I in fact spend more time with them than he does. Is there any appropriate way to say “Hey, could you please butt out while I’m here because you make my job 10 times harder?”

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— Nanny Seeking Harmony

Dear Nanny,

Given that this father has been present for these moments in which he has escalated difficult situations, he is not without the context to help him understand why it would be best  to allow you to care for his kids solo. So fortunately, I don’t think this should be a terribly difficult conversation to have with him. Talk about what has taken place, how the children get more upset than they were at the fact that they don’t have Daddy access in that moment, and that it is difficult for you to maintain order and command their respect when he intervenes. Explain that while you appreciate his efforts in helping, you really hate to see the kids feeling down about him not being available to them and that it would be easier for you to deal with things alone, barring the most extreme emergencies. He may feel guilty about being at home and either not being able to hang with them, or not being the one to do what you are doing in the first place, so he may be jumping in out of some sense of obligation despite recognizing that these encounters tend to be unpleasant. Hopefully, he’ll be happy to have a reason to stay focused on his work and will gladly allow you to do your job uninterrupted. Just be sure not to present what feels like a value judgment or an assessment of his parenting skills, but instead, a request for him to allow you to work under conditions that are more optimal for all parties. Wishing you the best.

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

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My stepdaughter and I have always had an amicable relationship; I married her father when she was in college and am more of an aunt or older friend to her than any sort of “mom” figure. She and her husband are expecting a baby boy in September, and she recently told my husband and I that their top two names are Bodhi or Omar. They are White, and so is my husband (I am Latina), but my husband and I both feel uncomfortable about their naming choices and frankly don’t know why they like names that are from other cultures, and that they didn’t even pronounce right!

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We have friends who are Asian and Middle Eastern who have mentioned how annoying it is that White people are using the same names they were teased for as kids, and as someone with a “confusing” name, I agree with them. But my husband and I are not sure how to start this conversation with his daughter, who has gotten upset with my husband in the past over what she sees as criticizing her lifestyle (he was asking her if she was sure about traveling to another country during the pandemic). How should we bring this up with them without causing a big fight? I don’t want to seem rude or judgey, but I also would hate to stay quiet and let my stepdaughter appropriate names from other cultures.

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— Concerned Stepmom

Dear Concerned,

You can simply express concern that those names have the complicated history of being deemed “too difficult” or not “normal” enough when they belong to people of color, and that there may be something off-putting about such a choice for a White baby. Point out the mispronunciations on their part as an example of what children with names like this experience throughout their lives, as well as the disconnect between them and these names. As a person of color, you can talk firsthand about your own name experience, and what it feels like for White folks be able to engage with your culture as they see fit, which means picking and choosing the parts that they want to appropriate or “celebrate,” while rejecting and mocking that which they do not. Share what your friends have said about their own feelings about these names being used by people who have no connection to them. But then, be prepared for these two to reject literally everything I’ve said here and to name their kid BodhiOhmar—but do your best to help save them from themselves while you can. Good luck to you.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My 1-year-old nephew can’t pronounce my name, Giselle, properly, so he calls me “Gizoo.” Of course, I don’t except him to pronounce my name properly, but I expected that eventually I’d go from “Auntie Gizoo” to “Auntie Giselle” when he became better at talking. The thing is, my sister and mother think that his name for me is adorable, and have started telling him things like “Honey, can you show Auntie Gizoo your new toy?” or referring to me as Gizoo when talking to him. I know that lots of families have names for relatives that their kids used when they were little, but I don’t like being called Auntie Gizoo! I have tried to correct them by saying “Don’t you mean Auntie Giselle?” or trying to teach my nephew to say Giselle and not Gizoo, but they brush me off and tell me to not “try and correct my nephew so much, he’s only 1.” I don’t want to be Auntie Gizoo for the rest of my life, but my mom and sister think it’s cute and won’t stop using it! How do I stop my family from making this baby talk my permanent nickname?

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— Down with Gizoo

Dear Gizoo,

Tell your family, pointedly, that you do not wish to be known as Auntie Gizoo and that only children whom are too young to properly pronounce your name are allowed to call you that. If Gizoo is your nephew’s interpretation of Giselle, that means that they can still refer to you as Auntie Giselle and he’ll know exactly who they mean, thus there is no reason for anyone else who isn’t a baby to speak to you in baby talk.

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Also, would it be okay if your nephew kept this nickname for you forever? Is there maybe something sweet and precious about it coming from him that you can honor without allowing your other family members to say it? If not, then perhaps consider coming up with a moniker that you can live with (“Auntie G?” “Auntie Elle?”) because there is a chance that he will hold tight to the name he knows you by now.

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— Jamilah

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