Care and Feeding

A Chasm Is Growing Between My Teen and Me

A white man puts his hand on his head and looks contemplative.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by GlobalStock/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,

I am an almost 40-year-old, well-educated white male. When I was a teenager in a southern state, my Black girlfriend—also a teenager—and I had a child. Our relationship didn’t last, but I’ve been present in my son’s life, taking him for most vacations, including summer and holidays. His mother understandably moved to a more Black city to raise him amongst people who look like him, but she never married and he remains, for both of us, our only child. She’s done a great job raising him and our relationship is cordial. Our son spent half his quarantine with her and half with me.

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Our son is graduating from high school this year. He and I have always had what I perceived to be a good relationship, but recently we’ve been having trouble communicating. He’s very angry about a lot of things that are of course things everyone should be angry about, but lately I’ve felt that he’s using me as a proxy for his wider rage at structural inequalities, using me as a stand-in for all the white men in his world and in the world at large who are at fault for a lot of historical and modern crimes. I try not to take it personally (after all, he’s had to “not take personally” a lot of things, and he’ll keep having to in order to survive, much less thrive).

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Still, it is beginning to impact our relationship in a way I don’t like. I can’t offer advice as a father without being told that it’s impossible for me to understand anything about him. I can’t offer help without being told that I’m indulging my white guilt. My family, with whom he has regular contact and who have supported him as much as they do other family members—contributing to his college fund, taking him on family vacations, sending him cards and phoning regularly—are also a bit scared to react to some of his frustrations, so instead they simply agree with him and keep their mouths shut, which is perhaps the best I can do, too, though it is not what I want to do. I’m his father, and he’s becoming a young man—and I’m proud of him, but he’s still prone to mistakes that kids make (for example, he wants to skip university despite having the financial and academic ability to go to a good one of his choice because he feels that “universities are part of the structural inequality that holds [his] people down”). I don’t want to be cut out of his life because I’m the wrong color. How do I handle this? How much of this is normal teenage rebellion against one’s parents? Should I try to help him avoid potential mistakes, or just make it clear that I’m here if he needs me?

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—Want to be a Good Parent

Dear Want,

I think you’re missing the point. Your son is rightfully angry (as you grant, in passing). He is figuring out enormously important things and questioning things you take for granted. His fury at structural inequality is “beginning to impact” your relationship in ways you don’t like, but your not liking that is not the crucial piece of information here. Your son is going through something big. If it’s hurting your feelings that right at this moment he isn’t interested in advice from his white dad (who in fact cannot understand what it feels like to be him, to live in his skin and move through the world), you are going to have to recognize that your hurt feelings are not central to what’s happening. Stand back. Listen when he talks. Accept the fact (as all good parents have to when their children start growing up) that you don’t always know better, and that this is just the beginning of a shift in the dynamic between the two of you. When the two of you talk, own up to the fact that there are things you don’t know, that you’ve made mistakes, that there are things you feel helpless about.

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And for what it’s worth, by the time our kids are 17 or 18, we can’t help them avoid potential mistakes—and this part of the parenting equation has nothing to do with Blackness and whiteness. We can try, sure. We can talk ourselves blue in the face. But insisting that they do what we want them to do—what we are sure is the right thing to do—pretty much always backfires, one way or another. So, for example, if he feels strongly that he wants to skip college, there’s no percentage in forcing him to go anyway (even if you could, which I doubt), and debating the merits of going (straight on) to college is unlikely to yield a win for you. It’s possible that he’ll work his way through this on his own, however, given time and space to think; it’s possible that he’ll decide later to go to college.

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It’s hard for parents of older teenagers to hear this, I know. We’ve spent so many years guiding our kids, overruling them when they want to do something dangerous or destructive, flinging ourselves in front of them when we see something coming that they cannot. Supervising them. And then they grow up and we need to recognize that their lives are theirs, not ours. And even that there may be some things they know more about than we do. This is only the beginning of that journey for you. If you can reframe the way you’re thinking about it (like: he’s going to cut me out of his life because I’m the wrong color might be recast as how can I best continue to support and encourage him while recognizing that there are limits to what I can understand about his experience), you will be giving him more of what he needs and less of what you need.

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Also: letting kids who are on the precipice of adulthood know that we’re there for them if they need us is always best practice.

• 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,

My husband and I met when we both had careers and identities established, and I did not even consider changing my last name when we married. But now we are getting ready to start a family and the inevitable question has come up about how we are to handle our child’s last name. Neither of us is particularly interested in using the other’s last name and we wanted to do something that would celebrate the fact that we are equal partners in our marriage and that one person’s last name isn’t more valuable than the other’s. We thought we would use my mother-in-law’s maiden name as a compromise, as it is a testament not only to each of our Italian heritage, but also to my husband’s late maternal grandparents. When he mentioned this to his mother, though, she got very upset that we would even think of such a horrific idea that would “disrupt the family lineage.” I find this sort of thinking incredibly misogynistic, but at the end of the day, if she would prefer we don’t use her maiden name, we will find another alternative. That said, my husband now thinks we should “just use his last name” to avoid family drama, while I don’t really feel like perpetuating a tradition that was created back when women were considered property. Am I overreacting?

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—Namely Nameless

Dear NN,

Overreacting to what? To your husband’s implicit admission that the two of you are not in fact on the same page about “one person’s last name [not being] more valuable than the other’s”? Or to his quick acquiescence to his mother’s wish to avoid disruption of their “family lineage”? Maybe it’s both, and calling this (either of these, or both) misogyny doesn’t seem like a stretch to me but also doesn’t seem like the real issue here. You were already going to honor his family by using a name from his history, not yours, which although it breaks tradition doesn’t break it in a meaningful way—it just hides it, really. There is no good solution to the “inevitable question” of naming, I’m afraid. And there is definitely no solution to the problem of a husband who so readily capitulates to his mother’s wishes in an effort to avoid drama. Hyphenate your two (current, not family-historical) names, use your last name, choose a historical name from your side of the family, make up a new name—or, as your husband suggests, take the most conventional path and perpetuate the tradition in a way you had both agreed not to do. No matter which you decide on, it has drawbacks. And also doesn’t matter. It’s just a name, after all.

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In my group of friends who had children around the same time, we all “solved” the last name problem in different ways—none of them fully satisfying, and none of them consequential in the end. One friend used her name for her first child’s last name and her husband’s name for the second. One hyphenated. One created an entirely new family name. My husband and I went with my name as a middle name and his as our daughter’s last name—and, as I’ve talked about before, my daughter rebelled against this (our making his name “the more important one”) and began to hyphenate the two when she was still in elementary school … but after 20 years, she’s sick of the long hyphenate last name and fed up in advance with the question of what to do, then, about her own future children’s names. She plans to jettison her name and take on her fiancé’s when they marry (a decision that astonishes me).

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Just make a choice, whichever one seems least objectionable to you. Know that whatever the choice is, your child(ren) may reject it later. And consider whether the real issue for you right now is that you were sure you and your husband were equally invested in trying to find a unique solution to what you both agreed was a problem—and that it turns out maybe you weren’t.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I am not a parent, but my question concerns how to interact with my parents, so I thought you might have some advice. About two years ago I came out to my parents as non-binary and told them that I use they/them pronouns. They handled it pretty well and assured me that they loved me no matter what. We talked about how I’d come to terms with my gender; I answered their questions. They seemed genuinely supportive. But they still don’t use my pronouns, like, ever. I’ll correct them in a bunch of different ways. Sometimes I wait until they finish talking and repeat the sentence or phrase with the proper pronouns, sometimes I interrupt and just say “they” or “them,” other times I’ll make jokes—like when my dad suggests we split up into teams for a family game night as boys vs. girls, I’ll say, “So which team am I on, then?” and he’ll say, “You know what I mean.” And I do know what he means. I know what they both mean. They still see me as a girl. I was assigned female at birth, I still dress very femininely, the average person on the street will think I’m a girl—but my parents know I’m not. I’ve told them I’m not. And it’s started to really get on my nerves, especially now that I’ve just graduated from college. I’m scared to enter the “real world” as a non-binary person, and I have a lot of imposter syndrome about being “trans enough,” and my parents aren’t helping. How do I get them to really commit to gendering me correctly? How do I start a more formal conversation about it now that it’s been two years and those initial conversations are far behind us?

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—Query from the Genderqueer

Dear Query,

It seems pretty clear that despite the good conversation you had two years ago with them, your parents don’t understand your gender identity or what it means to you to be recognized for who you are. I believe their intentions are good (or they would not have responded the way they did when you came out to them); I think they want to support you and not just pay lip service to that support. But not only do old habits die hard—and require a real effort to change, which so far they haven’t made—your own reluctance to fully engage with them about this over the last two years hasn’t helped matters.

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Look, I get it: Why should you have to be the one doing all the work? You told them; they said they understood (or something along those lines, I assume—you don’t say much about what handling it pretty well means, beyond their promising to love you no matter what). And of course there is a possibility I’m wrong about their good intentions. Maybe they were humoring you two years ago; maybe they thought, “Oh, this will pass, it’s just a kid’s momentary identity crisis.” Maybe they pretended to understand because they were ashamed they didn’t, or couldn’t, understand. Maybe they were trying to live up to an idea they have about themselves as progressive and open-minded and LGBTQ-positive, supportive of their child “no matter what,” but it was only a surface-level idea, one that had no roots deep within them. You won’t know until you sit down to have a real conversation with them, one that goes beyond correcting the pronouns they use to refer to you, and beyond jokes. Yes, it would be nice if they were the ones to initiate this conversation, and even nicer if they would do the work to educate themselves about what it means to be non-binary. But it’s evident that this is not going to happen. If your relationship with them matters to you—if you want to have a relationship with them—then you need to tell them directly how much it hurts you when they misgender you, and you need to tell them (a lot more) about what your identity means. Give them a chance to prove that they will stand with you, respect you, love you in the way you want and need to be loved. I know that your anxiety about life post-college and about not being “trans enough” are a lot to deal with right now, and that you’d prefer not to have to do the heavy lifting when it comes to your family. But just waiting for things to change is not productive, and the longer you wait to revisit this in a substantial way, the harder it’s going to be.

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And I don’t want to get ahead of myself, but since this is my only chance to help you through this thicket, I’ll add one more piece of advice: if, after you’ve talked to them honestly, they continue to misgender you, do whatever you need to do—walk out of the room or hang up the phone if you have to—to make clear to them that not accepting who you are is not acceptable.

—Michelle

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