Dear Care and Feeding,
I am the mother of two wonderful, passionate, rambunctious 16-year-old fraternal twins. “Delaney” was born female and “Henry” was born male, but they have always been extremely close. About a week ago, they came to us and announced that they both identify as nonbinary. The next day they went out and got matching gender-neutral haircuts. Since then they have started sharing clothes, and they both switch between more masculine and feminine clothing every day (and often within the day!). For example, Henry will come down for breakfast wearing full makeup, a bra, and a skirt, while Delaney will arrive in jeans and a black sweater. By noon they will have swapped outfits. The two of them looked extremely similar even before the matching haircuts, so as you can imagine this has caused confusion to no end in our household.
My husband thinks we should tell them to knock it off. He fully supports the LGBTQ+ community, but he feels that the twins are treating this like a joke and are playing us for fools. He’s concerned that if this continues, it could cause major problems for them at school (where they will likely be in several of the same classes). Henry and Delaney have always been silly, humor-loving pranksters. We’ve always loved their sense of humor, but I think my husband has a point that they may be taking this too far. I agree with him that the chances of both of them being nonbinary are not high, but it’s also not impossible. I don’t want to say anything that could ostracize them or invalidate their identities. What should I do?
Dear Who’s Who,
I think your instinct is correct, though I’m not sure why you think it’s unlikely that both the twins are nonbinary. So, they’re pranksters—but do you have any evidence that they aren’t serious about how they identify? Getting a haircut, adopting a new and fluid wardrobe; these aren’t minor things without potential ramifications. Why not take them as some solid indication that the twins are in earnest about their identities?
Even if you and your husband are not entirely convinced, I wouldn’t tell your kids you don’t believe them or discourage them from dressing how they want. If your husband is genuinely concerned about how they might be treated at school, the two of you can try to be proactive and reach out to their teachers and school administration to ensure that they are supported there as well. They are neither the first twins nor the first nonbinary kids to go to school—even if some of their teachers mix them up or aren’t sure how to react at first, they can and should make it their business to learn.
Nothing you’ve said has me convinced this is a joke, but for the sake of argument, let’s pretend for a moment that it is just a prank. What’s the actual problem with just shrugging it off or playing along for a while until they get tired of it? You lose nothing by doing so. Whereas if they’re serious and you say or do something to make them feel you don’t accept them, the potential for harm—to them, to your relationship—is great. I generally think that you should err on the side of affirming your kids, even if you have your little doubts at the moment, and doing your best to believe what they’ve told you and parent accordingly.
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From this week’s letter, “My Daughter Is Terrified to Come Out to Her Christian Best Friend”: “I would never have expected this from them!”
Dear Care and Feeding,
I’m the parent of a 3-year-old and 3-month-old. We are lucky enough to be able to afford a full-time nanny at home, but I was also planning on sending my 3-year-old to a part-time nursery school in September. I’ve read lots about mask mandates in schools, and feel terribly for parents of older kids who have to send children to in-school classes that feel unsafe. But I’ve heard little to no guidance for parents of younger kids. Preschool is obviously optional, but half of my child’s life has been during a pandemic, and I think he’s starting to suffer from the lack of social interaction with peers. But given what we know about the delta variant, are we crazy to send him, since preschool is optional?
—Totally Confused Toddler Parent
Dear Totally Confused,
I feel for you, and every parent weighing a decision like this—I am deeply anxious about sending my kids back to school, and honestly have no idea what I’d do if I had a preschooler for whom it was optional. I understand why you want to send your son to preschool and don’t think it’s ridiculous at all. He stands to gain a lot from being in a classroom with other kids, and after witnessing a year and a half of virtual school for my older kids, I tend to doubt whether there is some great and highly effective way for 3-year-olds to work on social/emotional learning over Zoom.
Definitely find out what precautions your local preschools are taking, and choose a school whose plan you feel comfortable with. I wouldn’t blame you at all if you kept him home and waited to enroll him until (if) things calm down, especially if preschools in your area aren’t masking up. But I definitely don’t think it’s wrong or irresponsible to send him now if you find an option that feels workable.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
My wife and I are the parents of four adult children (ages 22–30). They live all over the country, but we enjoy organizing two to three family visits per year, at our home, when all four children fly in for a long weekend or holiday break.
The issue is one of our middle children, “Caley.” While the other five of us enjoy outdoorsy adventures, Caley is bookish, much preferring to stay inside and read/play board games or perhaps go to a museum. She also enjoys a slower-paced day, with perhaps one activity out of the house. Meanwhile, the five of us enjoy things like mountain biking, downhill skiing, and rock climbing. These adventures often take up a whole day and involve some less-fun portions (like hiking to the climbing area) alongside the fun. Caley used to be a pretty good sport. Lately, however, she’s been balking at joining us for these trips. She’ll either refuse to go outright—staying home by herself all day—or she’ll put a seemingly arbitrary “limit” on what we can do, like a 5-mile hike instead of a 10-miler. Everyone else gets grouchy that their fun is limited because of Caley, and Caley’s grouchy that she’s the odd one out. No one enjoys themselves.
We’ve started just acquiescing and leaving Caley home, but the result is the rest of the family has high-quality bonding time without her—and I know she’s bummed about this. I don’t want her to think of herself as a “black sheep” and I do respect her desire to set boundaries about the level of outdoor activity she engages in. But I also think it’s ridiculous for her to fly across the country only to sit home alone. None of us want to sit inside all day with her. I know that differentiation is an important part of growing up and I’m worried about how to handle this in a way that respects everyone’s wishes. Do you have any advice?
— Not a Bookworm in Boise
Dear Not a Bookworm,
My advice is to genuinely accept and respect all of your children, not just the ones you have an easier time relating to because they share your hobbies. That your twentysomething daughter Caley is, like all your children, an individual with individual likes and preferences shouldn’t be such a source of conflict in your family—it’s only an issue because you’ve alternatively bullied her into going your way or excluded her when that was more convenient for you. You clearly don’t entirely respect her boundaries or her wishes, whatever you say, or you wouldn’t be calling a 5-mile hike “an arbitrary limit.”
Now, does being part of a family require us to occasionally go along with an activity we might not be wild about? Of course. But by your own admission, Caley has been a “good sport” for a long time—after twenty-odd years, you can’t claim she hasn’t given that #outdoorlife a try. She’s accepted that you all like what you like, and sometimes she does things she doesn’t personally like in order to spend time with you, the people she loves. Yet you have not done her the same basic courtesy! What you really seem to want is for her to be just like your other children—i.e., just like you—and enjoy everything you personally enjoy, to the degree to which you enjoy it. This is neither fair nor realistic. You’re fortunate that all of your adult kids are able and willing to have big family get-togethers at your home several times a year. You must know—especially after a year-plus of pandemic life—that the time when all of you can have these visits together is both precious and finite. Do you really think it makes sense to spend any of that limited time excluding or making one-fourth of your children unhappy?
You owe Caley an apology—and not the empty “sorry you feel this way and are no fun, Caley” sort of apology—as well as kinder treatment from now on. I promise it won’t kill you to spend a half-day or even a whole one playing board games or doing a puzzle or visiting a museum or just, I don’t know, eating good food and having some real conversation? Maybe you’d get to better know and appreciate your daughter if you tried to care about things she cares about and deigned to join her in activities she enjoys once in a while, instead of always insisting she spend time with you solely on your terms. Stop wishing for her to be another carbon copy of the rest of you, be glad she is her own person, and accept and love and appreciate her as she is.
Dear Care and Feeding,
My daughter is starting high school soon. She has struggled with anxiety since the beginning of the pandemic, and last year, before the school year, her doctor had suggested that she get a therapist. She had been doing much better, but recently I had found a list in her room that read: “How to become pretty for high school.” On that list, she had written things like “get abs” and “tone arms.” She is at a healthy weight, but she’s always been insecure about her body. She had been doing all of these YouTube workouts, and she hasn’t been eating as much as she normally does. We don’t let her have social media, and we monitor her phone quite often, but lately she’s been looking up all of this stuff about weight loss, and I am very concerned. I try to tell her not to go overboard, but she always responds with “I’m not, Mom. I’m just trying to be healthy.” I’ve seen the way she sometimes lifts up her shirt and sucks in her stomach, and I am concerned about all of this. Am I overreacting? Should I talk to her about it?
— Concerned Mom
I don’t think you’re overreacting; I’d be pretty concerned as well, particularly as you say she has a history of insecurity about her body. No matter how we may try to encourage our kids to have a healthy view of themselves, there are so many terrible messages out there, so much harmful and insidious pressure to look a certain way—and kids, I think especially girls, start internalizing this so very early. You mention, too, your daughter’s anxiety, which could make her even more vulnerable to obsessing over her weight or appearance as things she believes she can control.
I would suggest being more specific than “Don’t go overboard.” You can try to make sure she’s not over exercising. You can encourage her to eat good, full meals, to not be self-conscious about her portions or diet. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with making the implicit explicit, and telling her that disordered eating would be a serious threat to her health and well-being and you hope she never experiences that pain, but you want her to feel safe coming to you no matter what. If you (as many of us do) have friends or family members who tend to make negative comments about their own bodies, or constantly talk about dieting and caloric intake, or obsess over their exercise before or after eating, privately ask them to stop saying these things in your daughter’s presence. (You don’t have to tell them about your deeper concerns if you feel it’s none of their business; you can simply say that you are strongly endeavoring to help your daughter develop a positive view and attitude about her body, and all of those little comments many of us neither notice nor closely interrogate can and do add up.)
You can be honest and vulnerable yourself, as this may encourage her to be the same with you—talk and share with your daughter and let her know that you relate, if you can relate. If not, you can still ask and really listen to how she’s feeling. Maybe you can also help her think about and appreciate the things about her body that have nothing to do with size—what does she like about it? What feature does she perhaps appreciate or feel proud of? What ability is she glad to have? You want her to eventually understand and believe that a body isn’t “good” because it’s thin; her body is good simply because it’s her own. It does not have to look a certain way or be capable of a certain thing to be good and worthy of respect. She may not learn this overnight, and some of us are never entirely able to believe it at all, but the more positive, healthy, affirming messages she gets at this age, the better.
Your child’s doctor had already suggested having her talk with a therapist about her anxiety, so I think that’s another avenue you should pursue, whether she does virtual or in-person sessions. Try to find a therapist with experience working with adolescents and knowledge of disordered eating and weight/body image issues, and privately speak with them about any concerns you have so they’re aware. Again, I don’t think this is an overreaction—even if what you’re doing is more prevention or harm reduction than anything else, this is something it’s good to be proactive about. The problem may not have progressed much beyond Googling weight-loss tips and watching what she eats, but I think the more help and support your daughter gets now—the more you can try to help guide her toward a positive self-image and real acceptance of her body and herself—the more likely she is to avoid worse outcomes down the line.
More Advice From Slate
My son, who is in first grade, is a very bright, imaginative child who seems to be well-liked by his peers, and his teachers describe him as “everyone’s buddy.” Despite this, he often comes home from school dejected because no one wanted to play with him at recess. When I ask for specifics, it generally comes down to his having wanted to play an elaborate game of his own creation when his friends would rather be on the swings or monkey bars. I have encouraged him to join the others and let go of his determination to put on a Broadway production of Robin Hood, but this counsel seems to go in one ear and out the other. For the record, his younger brother and the children he plays with outside of school usually cheerfully go along for the ride on whatever imaginary world he dreams up, which I think may be contributing to the problem he has at school. Should I say or do anything else, or let him work these playground politics out on his own?