Dear Care and Feeding,
My 8-year-old son, “Calvin,” has gotten himself into trouble a couple times lately, not for starting fights, but for reacting to them. About a month ago, he was playing with his BFF Susie (a girl his age) at her house; when some older neighbor girls starting getting physical with her in a bad way, Calvin pulled at them to get them off Susie. This upset one of the moms who was present (I wasn’t, nor Susie’s), I think because a boy laying hands on a girl for any reason (even to protect another girl) is a no-no for a lot of people. Today Calvin was at camp and annoying a bunkmate, Moe (think along the lines of “This is the song that doesn’t end”); Moe grabbed Calvin apparently pretty hard, and Calvin bit Moe to get him off of him. (No skin was broken and everyone is fine.) Camp almost sent them both home for the day over this, but thankfully there aren’t further repercussions.
The thing is … I don’t know how to feel about all this. My son is very slight and not particularly strong. He has an instinct, apparently, when someone violently grabs him, to bite that person to get them off of him. And … do I want to train that instinct out of him? He’s about to start at a school with kids up through 12th grade. If an 18-year-old violently grabs him, I would want him to bite that kid to get away. There are no Marquess of Queensberry rules for being bullied by an asshole. Meanwhile, in the first scenario, my gut reaction is, good job, kid! A bunch of older kids were bullying your BFF, and you came to her rescue. But I had to tell him, well, try yelling for a grown-up instead. And if there are no grown-ups around (the kids in our neighborhood often play together outside without real supervision) … I don’t know! “Never lay hands on a girl” seems like a dumb rule to me when, again, Calvin’s about to enter a school where there will be girls three times his size. “Yell for a grown-up” just can’t be the final answer here.
When I was a kid, a lot of the bullying simply took place in the opportunistic adult-free gaps in children’s lives (e.g. walking home from the bus stop). So I’m stuck trying to formulate rules for him when I honestly don’t know what the rules should be, and when I think I disagree at least in part with what I’m “supposed” to think the rules are. C&F Team, tell me what the rules should be, because I’m at a loss.
— The Marchioness of Booberry
Most 8-year-olds, including your son, are old enough to understand that rules aren’t one size fits all. He knows that the best practice is yelling for an adult and not intervening physically in a fight if possible, but he probably also understands that there are exceptions to every rule, and he has to learn to trust his judgment. Other parents will always tend to think their kids are in the right and yours are in the wrong, which is as it should be. The real nightmare parents are the ones who don’t automatically side with their kids—watch out for those people.
The other situation you mention, where Calvin bit a friend to get him off him … hmm, slightly harder to think of Calvin as the hero of this story, but I’ll go with it. You’re right, you shouldn’t be trying to train the instinct for self-defense out of your kid, but the good news is, that’s probably impossible. You can probably impress on him, though, that biting should not be his go-to: If he does break the skin, there’s potential for infection, and people tend to panic about biting.
Going to a new school with older kids is scary, but you can impress on Calvin that in most situations, there will be an authority figure to intervene when fights break out, and that appealing to adults is always his best bet. But to improve his confidence and self-trust, why not enroll him in taekwondo or similar? It’s unlikely he’ll have to use the physical self-defense lessons he learns there, but he might like the structure and rules, and it’s a good way to outsource that stuff so you don’t have to come up with it all on your own.
Dear Care and Feeding,
I have two very sweet, thoughtful, sensitive kids, ages 9 and 11. I grew up often hearing “It’s not nice to talk about that” or “Don’t worry about that” when I had a challenging question, so I’ve tried hard to find ways to answer my kids honestly, if age-appropriately, when they ask about big life stuff—sex, illness, death, etc. This past year they have been very anxious, of course, and I’ve tried to be honest and reassuring at the same time. For example, “I don’t know if we’ll catch COVID, but I know we are all being very careful and whatever happens, we’ll take care of each other.” My problem is, I don’t know what to say when they ask me if my spouse and I will ever get divorced, because I do think that’s a possibility for us sometime in the future. It doesn’t come up often, and is mostly prompted when they learn that a teacher or a friend’s parent is getting divorced. But I don’t want to tell them it will never happen, because I don’t think that’s certain, and I don’t want to leave them feeling it might! Is there a better answer I can give?
— Honest Annie
You can’t have it both ways. You can’t be perfectly honest with your kids when it comes to the possibility that you might get a divorce, and also prevent them from feeling that you might get a divorce. As with your COVID example, the goal is to mitigate their worry and let them know that whatever happens your family will love them and be there for them. You know them better than I do, so you have a better sense than I do about whether they can handle hearing something like “I don’t know what the future holds, but I do know that our family is full of love and that your [other parent] and I will always love and care for you, no matter what happens.” If they’re sophisticated and suspicious enough to follow that up with “So you’re saying you might get a divorce?” (I would!), you might consider a different approach: lying to them! If, later on, you get a divorce and they say “you told us you would never,” you can tell them “you were too young to understand and I didn’t want you to worry.” Which will be the truth.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
My 10-year-old daughter has been having trouble getting along with her peers for a while now. It started last year right before the pandemic when she was in third grade. There was a lot of playground drama and tears, and it seemed like my daughter was at the center of it all. Before schools closed it seemed to sort of resolve itself. My daughter apologized. We stressed the importance of speaking kindly, including others, and watching the tone in which she speaks. I was assured by her teacher and some family members who are teachers that this is incredibly common in third grade, especially with girls. I let it go for the most part.
The world shut down slightly after this and of course it has been a difficult year for everyone, but it seemed to make her social skills worse. She had a tough year getting along with others. She said words just come pouring out of her mouth and before she can stop herself she says something hurtful. She has done this with friends, her siblings, and with me and my husband. Each time we have a heart to heart about what she says and how it is hurtful. She seems to genuinely feel bad, she often cries, and feels guilt after. But then she does it again and again. At the end of school, she had trouble with talking back to her teacher and got in trouble. AGAIN we had the same conversations. Electronics were taken away, she had to write notes of apology and we had a big talk. It was the same thing, I am sorry it just happens, it comes out.
Last week, she went to day camp and again had trouble getting along with the kids there with the same issues as before. She has a solid core group of friends (three to four girls) that this doesn’t seem to be an issue with, and they get along pretty well. It seems to be kids that she is only sort of friendly with. I am sort of at a loss on how to handle this. My husband and I don’t talk this way to each other or the kids. So I know she doesn’t hear this sort of conversations at home. One caveat: My MIL who helps us quite a bit with child care can be a very blunt and honest person. Often words just come flying out of her mouth. I have told her not to do it to me, and she stopped. My husband had these issues early in our relationship that ended in ultimatum of us breaking up or him stopping the brutal and hurtful honesty. He really worked on it, went to counseling and rarely if ever does it anymore. So I am not sure if this is a contributing factor. Is there anything we can do about this?
— At My Wits’ End
Dear Wits’ End,
Your daughter is struggling with impulsivity, which can be related to executive functioning disorders like ADHD. She genuinely doesn’t want to blow up like that, and all the punishments and lectures in the world will not help her stop, as you’ve already noticed. She needs to see a therapist who can help her figure out some strategies for changing her behavior, and who might recommend a treatment plan that includes medication. Please don’t hesitate to get her the help she needs. It might seem like a minor thing, but it could be a symptom of something that’s having a negative effect on aspects of her experience that aren’t as noticeable.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
I wanted to respond to the parent who is “tired and confused” about their child’s journey of gender discovery and also to you in your response. First of all, you can absolutely be polyamorous (many loves) and be asexual (lack of sexual attraction or low interest in sexual activities). Romantic relationships do not have to include sex, and asexuality is not necessarily a complete absence. I say this as an asexual polyamorous adult in my thirties. I’m also a therapist who works with gender diverse teens and adults. It sounds like this parent is not able to support their teen in this journey, and it sounds like this teen is looking for support. There are a lot of great therapists who can help your teen on this journey, and there are really awesome groups for teens who are exploring their gender and other related identities.
It makes sense that it would feel overwhelming and maybe even disingenuous to see your teen trying on genders and identities like outfits, but it is more likely that your teen can sense that the binary doesn’t fit for them and they’re really wanting to figure out what does. It can be an incredibly hard thing to do when your experience and identity are not the norm, and you don’t see yourself represented in media, movies, TV, etc. (take it from a 36-year-old agender person who has been struggling with and navigating gender since 1989). Tell your teen that you absolutely support their self-discovery and that you want to help them find a therapist or group that can help, because honestly, this is about them and not you, and you being tired of it shouldn’t limit their discovery or create shame.
— The Agender Therapist
Mea culpa. I got a lot of pushback about this letter, especially from people pointing out that polyamorous and asexual are not mutually exclusive identities. This is new territory for a lot of people, and a therapist’s help is always a good idea. I’d say “find a great and experienced therapist who specializes in exactly this, if you can” in every response if that wasn’t so boring to read. The one tiny quibble I have with your response to the parent who is tired of discussing their teen’s shifting identities with them is that: Parents also are people, and they also need support. They aren’t perfect, and they are sometimes tired. It’s easier to give someone unconditional positive regard in a therapeutic setting than to process their feelings with them 24/7. The advice I should have given, in addition to everything you wisely suggest, is that the parent who’s having trouble finding the internal resources to help her child find external support with a therapist or group, alongside her kid. Kids can’t thrive unless their parents are thriving, too.
More Advice From Slate
Snapchat, Facebook, Instagram are all (perhaps) necessary evils. Today my 12-year-old was invited to a pool birthday party that was washed out due to thunderstorms. Later in the day he was moping and withdrawn, and when confronted he said he saw on Snapchat that some smaller group of kids was invited to the birthday boy’s home for what appears to be an impromptu make-up event. He’s quite upset that he didn’t make the cut. Telling him it was probably last-minute, and that likely no offense was meant, was met with a blank stare and a shrug. Any advice on how to approach a child who is popular enough but doesn’t always get invited to the hot birthday party? Separately, should I go back in time and strangle social media in the crib?