Dear Care and Feeding,
I am struggling with how to best support my eldest child, a high school senior whose grades are good, who has good friends and participates in extracurriculars and works a part-time job, and who is dead set against college. And in theory I am fine with that, because even though his dad and I are both college grads and college has always been the assumed path for all our kids, we do know that college isn’t the right choice for everyone. But our son has become 100 percent anti-school of any kind. His goal is to open his own business in the hospitality field, and yet he refuses to consider any sort of post-high-school education, training program, skill development course, entrepreneurship/business mentoring program, or anything else that might help him reach his goal. There are lots of local options for such things in this field and most are very affordable. We are able and willing to help pay for them. But he considers all of these to be “school” and believes that all he needs is “grit and determination and hard work.” He considers any suggestion about putting together even a rough plan for his post-high-school life and career to be insulting evidence that we are not supportive. He is an independent (and stubborn) thinker and I believe he is very capable, even if a bit naïve at not quite 18. And I very much do support his goals and want to help him achieve them. But we are really worried about him. He thinks that by skipping college he’ll be getting a head start on his peers in a career, but I think he is risking being left behind. Do we need to be stern and tell him he can’t live at home (he has no plans to move out anytime soon) unless he is doing some kind of a formal career training program? Is there some advice we could give him that could help him see the future more realistically, or do we just let him experience the consequences of his bad choices? All of our friends with kids his age are focused on college acceptance and financial aid right now (as are the guidance counselors at his school), so I have no one to brainstorm this with. I am a traditional-minded and risk-averse person, so maybe I simply don’t have the imagination to see what he sees?
—Lost, Alone, and Worried
I am here to brainstorm this with you! You are not alone!
I don’t think you have a lack of imagination. I do think you might be worrying excessively, though. He’s still in high school, he isn’t even 18 years old, he is indulging in a fantasy (that has unfortunately been stoked, I’m sure, by a superficial message that’s been promulgated by self-help gurus and inspirational speakers, and that seems to have drifted its way over to your child) without any plan for a means of achieving it. But he has plenty of time to course-correct in any number of ways.
He does not risk being “left behind.” He is still a kid. That he is taking a less common path than his friends are doesn’t mean he is making a mess of his life. I understand that you’re worried, but I hope you can take your foot off that gas pedal. Step back from all the advice and options you’ve been throwing at him. He’s not ready to hear any of it. He may be telling you that he’s insulted by your suggesting that he needs any sort of schooling or mentoring to get where he (currently thinks he) wants to be, but I suspect he’s mostly feeling overwhelmed.
I think it would OK to tell him, gently, that you know he’ll be fine no matter what he chooses to do, that you love him and have faith in him (and do your damnedest to mean every word of it), and leave it at that for now. I don’t see sternness as what’s necessary here. Reality will begin to sink in as the school year nears its end: he has to do something with his time. Give him some leeway to figure that out. Easing off on the pressure may help him do that. You don’t mention what he means to do, practically speaking, once he isn’t spending his days at school and the hours after it engaged in extracurricular activities. Does he suppose that he’ll continue at his high school part-time job? If so, what will he do with the rest of his time? Daydreaming about his future hotel empire isn’t going to cut it (for him or for you). Does he plan to get a full-time job? You may decide to tell him he has to (which will be appropriately stern when the time comes, if he continues to live at home and he isn’t in school or a training program). Perhaps he hasn’t begun to think about any of this yet (perhaps he doesn’t want to think about it yet, or perhaps he simply can’t). Give him some time. Graduation is still months away, and you’re in a position to offer him essential support (i.e., a roof over his head, meals) when he finds himself facing choices about what to do next. (And he can make plenty of what you consider bad ones, by the way, without wrecking his life. I think you all may need to take a breath right now.)
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From this week’s letter, “Our Son Keeps Saying He Loves Me More Than His Dad”: “’Just today, my son said, ‘Dad, I love you one heart but I love Mom two hearts.’”
Dear Care and Feeding,
My husband and I have two daughters (late elementary school-age) who are close to my brother’s two daughters of the same ages. My husband and I have a somewhat more structured approach to parenting than my brother and his wife do: our daughters’ homework is checked nightly, there’s dessert only on set nights during the week, there are limits on screen time, etc. I know there are both pros and cons to our approach, and I try not be judgmental of others’ parenting styles. The problem is that as our two families have lately resumed in-person activities, and my daughters have been having regular sleepovers at their cousins’ home, we’re finding that they are difficult to deal with upon their return. I’ve tried hard to avoid the assumption that interaction with their cousins is causing this misbehavior, but the pattern is clear: on weeks when my daughters don’t see their cousins, their behavior is noticeably better, whereas the day after one of these sleepovers, they’ll push back on our rules, they’re disrespectful to my husband and me—using language I’ve heard their cousins use—and they are really irritable (and irritating). We tried skipping the sleepovers and instead having playdates with their cousins (in case lack of sleep was the issue), but that made no difference—they still came home imitating their cousins, debating our rules, and generally being unpleasant. We’ve also tried to be direct in explaining that different households have different rules, and that when they are at home, they must continue to abide by ours! But this isn’t getting us anywhere. I don’t know what to do. I’m wary of approaching my brother because I don’t want to come off as arrogant or critical. Is there a way for me to rein in my daughters while still encouraging them to have a strong relationship with their cousins? Is their misbehavior just the “price of doing business,” so to speak, or is there anything I can do to curb it? Please advise.
—Over It in Ohio
Dear Over It,
I hate to be the one to break it to you, but your nieces’ “bad influence” on your daughters is just the beginning. You ask whether the irritating fallout of your kids’ visits with their beloved cousins is “the price of doing business”; I’d ask you in return to think harder about what you mean when you invoke that expression. Because this is really about more than the “business” of letting them spend time with their cousins. It’s about their living life—living in the world that’s bigger than your household’s, and trying to make sense of it.
Your kids are simply discovering that there are other ways to live (and to be). The fact that your daughters snap back into shape after a day or so—and that if they’re away from their cousins altogether they behave in reassuringly familiar ways—means that they are still the same kids you’ve raised them to be. But it isn’t surprising that after a trip to a looser, less structured, it’s-OK-to-talk-back-to-the-grownups environment, they’d experiment with what it might be like to live that way once they get home, flexing their muscles, questioning the rules they live by, “acting up” a little. What I’m here to tell you is that the cat’s out of the bag: they now know some things they never knew before. And unless you plan to make sure they never experience any other households’ environments, or you hope to strictly control those experiences (carefully vetting their friends’ families to make sure their home environments closely match yours), rather than making your children pull back from their relationship with their cousins—or curbing what you’re calling misbehavior—I believe it would be more helpful to all of you if you were to adjust your expectations. Think about reframing/renaming in your own mind what happens in the first 24 hours after the kids get home from their uncle’s house, as well as your reactions to it. As they get older, there will be many forces besides yours acting on them (that’s just part of their growing up—and you know that, right?).
As for your brother, you most certainly should not “approach him” on this subject (to say what, exactly? “I don’t care for the behavior your children are modeling for mine”?). Instead, invite your nieces to spend more time at your house, where you can demonstrate what your childrearing style looks like. It will be good for them, too, to find out that their parents’ ways aren’t the only ways. (And sometimes kids who are raised without much structure crave it. The grass is always greener.)
One more thing. Before you know it, your kids will be teenagers, and you will have to learn to appreciate their core strengths and to accept with forbearance a certain amount of healthy, age-appropriate rebelliousness. I wish I could tell you that you can inoculate them, and yourself, against the possibility of truly worrisome behavior once they’re in their teens, but that isn’t possible. With any luck, if it occurs, it will be short-lived (my own, as I recall, went on for about two years; my father, on his deathbed, finally forgave me for it). In any case, you’d do well to recognize that pulling the reins tighter rarely solves that problem.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
My tween has requested they/them pronouns and a new name. We are changing our habits on the pronouns, but we haven’t gone along with the name change. Though their first name is stereotypically feminine, we more often use the shorter stereotypically masculine form (think Samantha to Sam). Their middle name is gender ambiguous. These names were chosen with much love following a family/cultural naming tradition. While we are supportive of using any version of these given names to reflect our child’s gender, we aren’t on board with a name change. We will not call Sam(antha) Simon, Stevie or Susie. Is this so wrong?
—What’s in a Name?
Yes, it’s wrong. Call your child what they want to be called. Why does this matter so much to you? Yes, you chose a first and middle name lovingly, with family traditions and your culture in mind. Many of us do that. And then our children are born bearing those names and we raise them doing the best we can, teaching them the things we know and believe, offering them guidance of many kinds, making every effort to keep them safe and healthy. And as they begin to grow up, we help them become independent and strong. Insisting on using the names you bestowed upon your child at birth, after they have let you know this is not what they want to be called, is a way of saying, “I don’t care who you say you are—this is who you are to me, and that’s what matters.” I know that’s not the message you want to give your child.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
Is my sister trying to mess with me through my daughter’s birthday gift? My sister, “Ashley,” and I have never been close. Growing up, our parents always pitted us against each other because (so they have claimed) they thought this dynamic of competition would help us become successful. It did not work, and our relationship has always been strained. The last straw was when my father left more money to me than to Ashley in his will. This seemed to really bother her, and we haven’t talked much since he passed.
Last weekend, my daughter—who is trans—turned 7. My sister knows that “Isabella” is a trans girl, but for her birthday she sent a plush dinosaur. It seems to me that giving Isabella a birthday gift that isn’t girly was a passive-aggressive way of getting at me. So I asked Ashley about it. She claimed that she doesn’t see dinosaurs as particularly gendered and that she herself (supposedly) liked dinosaurs as a child. I don’t buy it. Dinosaurs are known to be a boyish interest. (For what it’s worth, Isabella seemed happy enough about the gift and thanked Ashley over the phone. But I can’t tell if she was just being polite to her aunt.) Am I overthinking this, or am I right to be suspicious?
Let me get this straight. You are a sufficiently forward-thinking person to fully support your trans child’s identity (yay for you!) but also so backwards-thinking that you have the genuinely wacky idea that dinosaurs are for boys? I will confess that it’s hard to concentrate on the meat of your question (Does my sister hate me? Is she expressing this hate by meanness toward my child?) when my brain is spinning ceaselessly around the central mystery of your letter.
But I’ll try. I don’t know if your sister hates you, though your father leaving the two of you unequal amounts of money was a seriously cruel parting gesture—unless there are extenuating circumstances you haven’t mentioned here, like Ashley is well off financially and you are desperately strapped. If addressing your years-long conflict/competition with your sister was really important to you, and your financial situations are comparable, you would have taken matters into your own hands and made the bequest equitable after the fact, so that your parents’ misguided, mean, bizarre child-rearing tactic didn’t end up getting the last word. So I would say that the troubles between you two can’t be laid entirely at Ashley’s feet. As to whether her (possible?) antipathy toward you found its expression in the gift of a stuffed dino—which is in no way I can imagine, no matter how I much I stretch my imagination, a toy that only a boy could love—the only possible answer is what on god’s green earth are you talking about?
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