Care and Feeding

My Son Won’t Forgive Me for My Misguided Advice

An elderly man puts his head in his hands.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by stefanamer/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,

Ten years ago, our son announced that he was using his engineering degree to enter a teacher-training program. I’m ashamed to share that my wife and I were horrified by this decision. We’d funded his college education with the expectation that he’d be financially independent, and we had no idea if he could make ends meet as a teacher. We begged him to reconsider. We didn’t want him to end up financially insecure the way my wife and I both were when we were kids. Despite our efforts, our son became a teacher and has blossomed in that field. He won multiple teaching awards and now works in school administration; he intends to stay in education forever. He does not make a ton of money, but he certainly makes enough for a quiet life with his fiancée.

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The problem is that he continues to hold on to ill feelings towards us about the way we treated his decision back in 2011. I will freely admit that my wife and I completely mishandled it. Instead of trusting him to make a good decision and asking questions to better understand his reasoning, we completely dominated every conversation and acted as if he wasn’t old enough to make his own decisions. In turn, he reacted with anger (as college students do) and said we were ruining his life. My wife now fears we’ve done permanent damage to the relationship. We’ve both apologized profusely, and our son does say he’s forgiven us and understands where we were coming from, but there is still distance there. He doesn’t talk to us about his teaching accomplishments and has said it’s because he still feels like we’re judging him. I’m heartbroken at the damage we’ve done—but I also feel like I’m being punished for wanting the best for him and choosing the wrong way to express it. I’m starting to get frustrated that he does not seem to be willing to let us repair the relationship. Do you have any ideas on how we address and apologize for the hurt we’ve caused, and move on as a family?

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—Father of the Educator

Dear FotE,

I’m sorry to hear about the distance between you and your son; I’m sorry he still feels judged, and I’m sorry you’re so frustrated. But I’m not convinced that you understand what it is you need to be sorry for, which makes me wonder if your profuse apologies have been along the lines of “I’m sorry that you felt we were ruining your life” rather than “I’m sorry, we were utterly wrong, we did not understand that the decision was yours to make, or that wanting you to be a ‘financial success’ was more important to us at the time than your sense of fulfillment and happiness.” You say that you feel as if you’re “being punished for wanting the best for him.” The best what, exactly?

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It seems pretty clear that after ten years he is still hurt and angry. He’s not “holding on to” his feelings: he feels them. If you want to make headway here, you are going to have to understand what his feelings are and why he has them—why he had them then, why he still does. If I had to guess, I’d bet that he feels resentful and judged because he feels—deeply—that you equate success with money. This is a message children pick up from their parents all the time, even when there isn’t the sort of outright crisis of values that occurred in your household: they hear their parents’ derisive remarks about other people’s choices of profession; they see how their parents treat people they don’t consider successful. It seems to me that you’ve done nothing up to this point to make clear to your son that you don’t equate money with success. It seems to me that in fact you still don’t see the problem for what it is—that you have confused “success” with earning power, and that you continue to confuse the two.

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Is that really what makes a “successful” life? Earning the most money one can? Why? Your son has honorable, meaningful work he loves and is committed to; it seems he has a partner he loves and is committed to. He has a roof over his head and enough to eat and “certainly enough” for the life he is interested in leading. He doesn’t feel the need for anything else. Except perhaps your approval and genuine pride—and your heartfelt acknowledgment that you were wrong. Make sure when you tell him this, you mean it.

Slate Plus members get more Care and Feeding from Michelle each week. Sign up today! From this week’s letter, “My Daughter Refuses to See My Dying Father in the Time We Have LeftHe’s not a predator; he’s confused.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I have a 6-year-old son who started first grade last week. We are in a deep red state with little to no masking and poor vaccination rates, and our son has a heart condition that makes him medically fragile. After we heard kids were being airlifted to neighboring states for ICU beds, my partner and I made the decision to pull him out of school and teach him at home (the school doesn’t have a remote option). We spoke with the school registrar and his guidance counselor, who assured us that we can re-enroll once he’s able to get vaccinated, but now that he’s no longer a student, we have lost access to all the online resources provided by the school. My partner and I are panicking. Did we make the right decision? We’re worried he’ll fall behind academically and won’t be able to catch up. Of course, on the other hand, if he dies from COVID, then being behind on his ABCs isn’t a big deal. I suppose I just need some reassurance that we did the right thing.

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—Suddenly a Homeschooler

Dear SaH,

Yes, of course you did the right thing. Putting a medically fragile child in a classroom full of children who may not be wearing masks, whose families may not be vaccinated—whose teacher may not be vaccinated!—while we are still in the midst of a raging pandemic would be madness.

Take a deep breath about “falling behind academically.” Your plan is to homeschool your child (or so your signoff indicates!), not to have him sit out a year of school. Since you’ve lost access to your school’s resources, do some research on homeschooling: Make sure you know what happens in first grade and that you know what your state’s expectations and requirements are and what the first grade curriculum looks like there. (This sounds more daunting than it is. When I homeschooled my daughter for a year, I learned what I needed to teach her simply by googling “eighth grade curriculum state of Ohio.”) Your state may be one that will provide resources (not the steady stream of online materials offered during periods of remote teaching, but resources specifically for homeschooling in your state). But if it isn’t, there are many other places to turn for help as you create a curriculum for him. And given that he’s in first grade, not eighth—or eleventh—everything you are going to be teaching him is something you know well, even if you don’t (yet) have experience in how to teach it. (I had to teach my daughter a couple of subjects about which I remembered nothing—or seemed to have never really learned in the first place—and I managed. You’ll be fine.)

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I do feel obliged to mention that parents who successfully homeschool young children tend to be two-parent families who can survive on one income, since it’s hard to teach effectively while working from home (and impossible if both you and your partner have work that involves leaving the house all day every day—unless you hire a teacher, rather than a babysitter/nanny to come to your home and do it for you). As I say, my kid was in eighth grade when I homeschooled her: I was able to leave her with her day’s reading, writing assignments, and homeschool math textbook while I went to work, and when I got home we talked over what she’d learned, and I read what she’d written and we discussed that; I hired tutors for subjects I knew I couldn’t handle myself—Spanish and earth science. But a first grader is a horse of a different color.

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If, however, you weren’t using the word “homeschooler” literally—if all you meant was “I’m going to keep my kid at home until he’s vaccinated and hope for the best”—and everything I’ve said up to now has made you hyperventilate (sorry!), then take it down a few notches. Just make sure you’re spending as much time as possible reading together, using everyday activities to help him think about basic math and science (for example, cooking), and avail yourself of as many free online resources as you can find (that link is just a start). But I feel honor bound to note that even when children his age are able to be vaccinated, you may not feel ready to send him back to school if most people around him remain unvaccinated by choice (or by their parents’ choice) and are still not masking. So while falling behind on his ABCs is definitely not a more important priority than keeping him alive, you will want to think about how to keep his mind engaged while he is staying home—not so much so that he doesn’t “fall behind” but so that his life is as full as it can be.

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

• Discuss this column in the Slate Parenting Facebook group!

Dear Care and Feeding,

I have often read in this column that children should be enthusiastically wanted. So what do you do about someone who reluctantly decided to have a child and is clearly going to be a terrible mother? My friend’s husband wanted kids and she didn’t, and after a decade of back and forth, she grudgingly gave in. But after complaining constantly throughout her pregnancy, she now has a child she isn’t interested in. She “jokes” that her plan is to find a way to make so much money that she will barely have to see the child (i.e., by hiring 24/7 childcare).

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Both my friend and I had neglectful parents, so I am finding myself triggered by this. I am a cautious and anxious person who thought very carefully before having kids of my own. I understand that people have different processes, but I can’t help feeling disappointed in her, and I realize I have lost respect for her. I know she is hoping I will now be her go-to mom friend—mostly for her to complain to (anytime I try to give her gentle advice, she gets upset with me)—but I don’t want to be in that role. There is also no meaningful way in which I can help her child, since I don’t live nearby and don’t really know her husband. Is it terrible that I want to keep my distance?

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—Don’t Want to Be Your Mom Friend

Dear Don’t,

Friendship is a choice, not an obligation. It’s easy to forget that, especially after many years—and it’s difficult to end a friendship, or even “just” to let it peter out, demoting it to something more like friendly acquaintanceship. But when a friendship has become more frustrating or upsetting than fulfilling—or when you discover that a friend is not the person you thought (or hoped) she was—it’s OK, not terrible, to get yourself out of it. I recognize that you have a voice inside you telling you that you must do something for this child, but I think you may be catastrophizing (understandably) because you identify with the child. Your friend may turn out to be a good mother despite her longtime resistance to parenthood and her complaints and jokes about it now. If it turns out she can’t/won’t be the kind of parent you wish she would be, there’s nothing you can do about it. I advise you, for the sake of your own well-being, to start cutting these phone calls short and then stop taking them. If she doesn’t get the message, and you can bear to face conflict head-on, there’s nothing wrong with telling her how you feel. She won’t like it, but she doesn’t have to.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My 16-year-old is bright, articulate, and struggles with ADHD that we, and they, are figuring out how to manage. They have a very hard time getting started on schoolwork, and while their work is good, and they always put a lot of thought into it, it is consistently late and their grades are not so great as a result. We have supports in place—a good psychiatrist and a therapist who is helping with executive functioning skills. But it seems that as soon as my kid masters something, the work gets harder, so they are always behind. I hate watching them struggle like this. They are actually interested in a variety of academic topics; it’s just the execution that is rough. I am also anxious about college, in part because they already don’t cope well with unstructured time, and in part because I worry about them getting in to a school that both supports their skill-building AND gives them a peer group that shares their love of learning. Junior year in New York City is ridiculously competitive. I guess I’m just looking for reassurance. Please tell me my kid will be fine?

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—Kids Should Be Allowed to Screw Up a Lot, Even Though Colleges Look at Grades

Dear KSBAtSUaLETCLaG,

I’m glad to tell you that! Your kid will be fine.

Lots of bright kids with issues like yours go on to college and do very well. Yes, they’ll need support. Some colleges are better than others at offering it. Here’s one list (there are plenty of others). And honestly, most 16-year-olds have poor time management skills and have to figure it out once they get to college: it’s the number one question I get when I ask groups of first- and second-year college students what they find to be their biggest challenge. Yours will have an even harder time with this than those who don’t have ADHD, but that’s why it’s important to make sure that any school that’s on their application list has supports in place.

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As for the less than perfect grades: I know it’s hard to keep this in mind when you’re in the hypercompetitive world you’re in, but it is possible to get an excellent education at a vast number of colleges (and some of them care less about grades than others, too). Take the time to look at an array of schools with your child: Don’t limit the search to the usual suspects.

When I advise college-bound students, one of the first steps I take is to introduce them to Rugg’s Recommendations, a non-narrative guide to colleges in the U.S. that groups them by “selectivity” and by the areas they are strongest in, lists the majors available, and notes their size. These lists can help a high school junior think about what is most and least important to them, such as what subjects matter to them, and what size school they’d like to attend. Once you have a rough list, thanks to Rugg’s, you can cross-check it with the list of schools that have the kind of supports your child will need, and then they can start narrowing it down (with your help, or with someone else’s) by looking closely at each school’s website. Be very patient with your kid through this process. It’s stressful for both parent and child. But in the end, I feel confident assuring you, it will all work out. I should probably also assure you that you will be much more freaked out than your child on move-in day at school, two years hence.

—Michelle

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