Care and Feeding

I Can’t Believe What Comes Out of My 6-Year-Old’s Mouth

The repercussions of one incident could have been very serious.

A girl covering her mouth with her hand.
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 6-year-old daughter is very bright and talkative. I am not sure whether she finds it amusing or not, but twice recently she has said wildly inappropriate things to other people. We haven’t socialized much due to COVID, which may have impacted her social development. I am naturally very cautious and considerate in choosing my words, so these incidents have been mortifying for me.

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One instance was fairly low stakes: She told my sister-in-law I had called her an old maid, which was not true. We had recently played the card game Old Maid and she asked what that meant. I had explained that a long time ago, unmarried women, “like Aunt Betsy,” used to be called maidens or maids. I explained this to my sister-in-law afterward and fortunately it didn’t seem to be a big deal (although I could tell she was a bit embarrassed by it).

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The second instance, however, could have gotten quickly serious. We recently took our first flight as a family in more than two years. A week or so before the flight, my daughter made a joke about a bomb. I told her that bombs were nothing to joke about, and especially not in airports, because people have been hurt by them. So, of course, the day of our flight during security check, one of our items was flagged for explosives testing and tested positive(!). My daughter picked that moment to make a joke about Daddy having bombs in his shoes. Somehow the security agents either didn’t hear or didn’t respond to this “joke,” and we were let go after a pat-down, but the repercussions could have been very serious.

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I try to explain things to her thoroughly because she is very curious, but maybe I shouldn’t have made such a big deal about her first bomb joke? How should I respond to make sure these inappropriate comments don’t keep happening?

—Not the Bomber

Dear Not the Bomber,

Six-year-olds say inappropriate things for a living. They are literally trying to figure out what they can and cannot say, and they are also apt to repeat things they’ve heard without any understanding of or connection to their words. She will embarrass you again and again! What’s important is that when she does make these comments, or when she’s heard something she may be tempted to repeat, that you talk to her plainly about why they’re inappropriate.

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For example, when you talked about “old maids,” it may have also been helpful to add that the term is hurtful and that you would never use it to refer to her aunt or anyone else. Remind her about times in which words have hurt her and why we don’t do that sort of thing to one another. As far as the bomb comment, I hope you had a serious talk about how something as “small” as a joke can have very big consequences, and let her know in age-appropriate terms that you can get in serious trouble for such jokes at places like the airport. But don’t delude yourself into thinking a young kid won’t embarrass you, because there’s a 100 percent chance that they will.

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From this week’s letter, I Want to Pay for My Kids’ College, but I Also Want to Retire: “As the primary earner in my family, my retirement date will have a major impact on how much we can contribute to our children’s education.”

Dear Care and Feeding,

Do you have any advice on how my husband and I can manage clothes shopping and budgeting for our 12-year-old daughter? She’s not super concerned with popularity or wearing designer brands (we wouldn’t buy them for her anyway), but her clothing taste is starting to move in the direction of form over function. Until now, we’ve gotten away with some just buying the basics at the beginning of each school year, supplemented on occasion to provide her with specific items when needed (like an all-black outfit for chorus concerts), but I think we need to reevaluate. Her school has a dress code but not a uniform, and she’s started to feel insecure about wearing outfits that are less trendy than those of the other students. I don’t want her to stick out for being dressed differently, but at the same time, we have a limited budget and even more limited energy and emotional resources to engage in clothing battles. Is there a system you’d recommend we implement such that our daughter has a little more autonomy, but stays within budget and understands the value of money?

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—Frugal in Florida

Dear Frugal,

So long as your daughter doesn’t have dreams of designer gear, I don’t think this is a difficult problem to solve for; however, it may be a little more involved—just a little!—than you have hoped. It sounds like your daughter is at an age where she’s ready to begin to use fashion to express herself and/or to want a certain amount of control over how she looks. You don’t have to go over budget to allow her to do this, but you may have to invest some time.

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It’s important that you don’t enter this conversation from a place of scarcity, i.e., “Sorry, we can’t have it; this is the best we can do and you just have to accept that.” Instead, identify some stores within your budget (four or five would be ideal, but try for at least three) and make plans for two shopping trips during which your daughter can take her time and really look for items that she likes. There’s Ross, Marshalls, TJ Maxx, Rainbow, Walmart, and Target (which has great clearance racks) for trend and staple pieces, as well as Goodwill and other thrift stores; the latter may be a difficult sell but explain to her that the best dressed people in the world know the value of resale shopping and encourage her to at least give it a fair try. You can also expand your search to sites like eBay and Mercari.

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As a child who was raised to shop like that, I definitely wanted to have access to more expensive goods, but I learned to dress within the confines of what was affordable. Over time, I developed a sense of personal style that allowed me to feel confident in what I was wearing regardless of what anyone else had on. Fitting in isn’t the only way to feel good about how you look as a kid; furthermore, you don’t have to spend a ton of money for your daughter’s look to be more “on trend” or more appealing than the functional pieces you’ve picked for her in the past. A limited budget does not mean limited style, just that you may need to do a little more searching to find stuff she likes.

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

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I’d appreciate your advice on how to handle my almost 4-year-old’s comments on skin color. (For context, we are white and these comments come after we interact with people with darker skin tones.) For example, I asked them how they liked their new gymnastics teacher and their first comment was that “she has Black skin.” They have made similar comments after their first swim lesson and after visiting a new doctor. I felt like we were doing the right thing by talking to our child about respecting and celebrating everyone, but now I feel that it has become a fixation. So far, I’ve responded to their comments by simply acknowledging the truth—“yes, they have dark skin”—but then steering the conversation to focus on other characteristics like “Did they make you feel welcome?” or “Did they teach you new skills?” I’ve told them that it is not polite to comment on the bodies of others, but I also don’t want them to think that we don’t discuss skin color because it is bad.

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—We Talked About It but Don’t Want to Talk About It

Dear Don’t Want to Talk About It,

Tell your baby that people come in different shades that are all equally valuable, but that there are a lot of bad people in this world who feel otherwise and that, unfortunately, they have a lot of control over how things work. Those bad people think it’s better to be white than to be anything else, and they work hard to make it so that white people get the best opportunities, the best schools, the best homes, and the best jobs. As people who wish to be good, you and your child have to stand up against that, and have to treat people with fairness and love. Explain that describing people based on skin color only can sound like it’s the only thing that matters to you about them, or that you think something is wrong with what they look like.

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You can’t just tell your kid that people come in different colors; you have to talk about what that means in our society: that color informs how people are treated and how we live our lives—not just Black-skinned people’s lives, but your kid’s life too! They need to hear both about the beauty in diversity and the stratification between who is coded as “good” and who is rendered “bad.” You don’t get to not want to talk about it; that’s not fair to darker-skinned kids and their parents who don’t have the privilege of waiting to explain these things until it feels comfortable—or, in what seems to be the case for so many white folks, just simply not talking about this shit in any sort of meaningful way and just hoping their kids magically end up as “not-racist” as they have deemed themselves to be. Sorry it’s uncomfortable to have to inform your little one that they will experience grace, favor, and comfort over the course of their entire lives simply for being born white, but I assure you, it’s far more painful to have to explain racism to a kid whose life is negatively impacted by it. All the best to you.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My college was shut down during my freshman year because of COVID. My boyfriend let me move into his house since I had to move out of the dorms. He’s in his mid-40s and has a big house (and family money), so I thought it was the perfect solution. After living with him, everything I once liked about him annoys me: I’ve realized he still acts like a frat boy. Now that everything’s opening up, I want to break up and leave.

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The problem is he has a 12-year-old daughter who got really attached to me during the year I was living here. She talks to me about everything, and we hang out a lot; she’s said multiple times that she doesn’t know how she would have coped during lockdown without me. Her dad doesn’t really hang out with her, and even though she gets to see her friends now, the idea of her only having the influence of other middle school kids freaks me out. I’m only seven years older than her but I remember being 12 and unsupervised and I want her to have an adult she can talk to. Her dad has told me in the past that if I leave him (he gets really paranoid about me cheating), I’ll never get to see his daughter again; this is the reason I’m still here. It makes sense to me that he could keep her from me since I’m not legally her stepmom. What do I do?

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—Stepmom Stepping Out

Dear S.S.O.,

Oh, pumpkin. You sound like such a nice, empathetic girl and I’m so sorry that you and your boyfriend’s daughter are in this situation. However, you must accept that you are not her stepmother and that you are not ready, willing, nor able to play that role. I understand why it may have seemed like a great idea to have your older, well-off boo take care of you, and while May-December relationships can and do work, it sounds like this one is exactly what most people are thinking of when they caution against them.

When a man in his mid-40s is willing to move a 19-year-old college student in his home and have her care for his impressionable tween daughter, it implies that his judgment is lacking, to say the least; that this man has not merely expressed anxiety about you cheating but has identified the relationship with his daughter as the consequence for getting caught further confirms that this situation was doomed to fail from the onset.

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You are too young to sacrifice yourself in the name of this child, and the longer you pretend to want to want something you do not—her father—the harder the separation is going to be. So you’ll want to find ways to advocate for her before you leave. Can you talk to him about some of her needs (if she’s been unable to do so herself)? Is there an after-school girls’ club or some sort of activity that you can encourage her to be a part of that may introduce her to some other mentors? Do what you can, while you can.

Unfortunately, you almost inevitably will lose touch with this young lady when you break up with her dad, and you have to make peace with that. Going forward, remember that the decision to enter a child’s life is a potentially consequential one, and that you must not only take responsibility for taking it seriously yourself, but that you should question any man who is willing to rush that process with his children.

—Jamilah

More Advice from Slate

My wife is pregnant with our first kid and has obviously stopped drinking. She has asked me to stop drinking for the duration of her pregnancy out of solidarity with her. We used to do a lot of craft beer tastings, and I would characterize us as moderate drinkers.

Well, it’s been three months, and I want to start drinking again. I don’t see any actual harm in doing it behind her back, if I’m discreet. Is this forgivable or shitty?

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