Care and Feeding

My Teen and I Are in a Standoff Over This Totally Basic Issue

A teenage girl stands defiantly with her hands on her hips.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by 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,

My 14-year-old daughter, “Elizabeth,” has decided that she no longer wants to wear a bra. Apparently she read online that bras are oppressive and anti-feminist; she says she no longer wants to buy into what she sees as a patriarchal clothing norm. I understand where she’s coming from—I’m a feminist, for God’s sake—but she’s also a teenage girl. Girls her age are already sexualized so much. I don’t want boys and men to objectify her because they can see her breasts through her shirt. I’ve suggested a compromise—perhaps she could wear a bralette, camisole, or layered clothing—but she won’t budge. When I made the mistake of telling her I was concerned about guys staring at her breasts, she accused me of victim-blaming and slut-shaming. She’s a stubborn kid, and at this point I worry that I might not be able to change her mind. It’s not as if I can physically force her to wear a bra. But the thought of her going braless is seriously icky to me. Is there any way that I might be able to persuade her? Is this one of those situations where I should just let her figure it out for herself?

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—Braless Wonder

Dear BW,

I’m sorry to tell you that it doesn’t matter if it’s icky to you. While you’re right about one thing—boys and men should not be objectifying her by reducing her to her body parts—the solution to that problem is not persuading her to wear a bra, “bralette,” cami, or multiple layers of clothing. If she doesn’t want to wear a bra, she doesn’t have to. This is not one of those situations where you “should just let her figure it out for herself.” It’s one of those situations that is genuinely her business, not yours. (There will be many other such situations—they are right around the corner—so you might as well start getting used to it.)

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Slate Plus Members Get More Advice From Michelle Each Week

From this week’s letter, “I Cannot Stand the Weird Way My Husband Talks to Our Kid: “I can’t help wondering how long this will go on.”

Dear Care and Feeding,

Recently I learned that my cousin, who lives on another continent and is in their early teens, is queer. My cousin lives in a pretty liberal environment overall, but queer identities are not generally accepted by our families “back home.” My cousin and I aren’t really in touch, though we’ve met several times and our parents speak to each other often. Apparently my cousin is out to my parent’s sibling but not to their other parent. I’m bi and my sibling is queer too, and while we’re both out to our parents, we’re not out to the extended family, so my cousin has no idea they have queer family members they could reach out to for support. When I asked if I could contact my cousin, my parent said absolutely not—their own relationship with their parents and siblings is too tentative and fragile. Of course I don’t want to disrupt that or disrespect their agency and right to privacy. At the same time, I feel an obligation to my cousin to tell them they’re not alone, and that, as someone who has been out for 10-plus years already, I am happy and all is well. Should I wait till they’re a bit older to talk to them? Or do they especially need this support now?

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They Is for Anonymity

Dear TIfA,

I am sympathetic to and supportive of your desire to reach out to your faraway cousin and offer your support, and I hope you will be able to do that before too long. But if your cousin has told only one of their parents, and that one parent has told only one sibling—your parent—with whom a fragile, tentative relationship exists, and your parent then told you, in confidence, what their sibling revealed, I don’t think it would be ethical for you to contact your cousin to say, “You are not alone. I’m queer too.” Not right now, anyway. This whole winding game of telephone is too fraught and you don’t know enough (you don’t know anything) about your cousin’s situation.

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I do have two suggestions. One is that you drop a line to your cousin that is nothing but a friendly hello—a reintroduction to them, as it were—with the invitation to keep in touch (you can be pen pals!). The other is that you let your parent know that you are doing this, and that you have another conversation—perhaps this time with both your parents, and (for good measure) with your sibling in on it too—talking frankly about why you believe your support may be helpful to your cousin, but at the same time also assuring your anxious parent that you will not betray their trust. If you establish a solid long-distance relationship with your younger cousin—if the two of you truly become friends—they may eventually feel ready to come out to you themself. That’s when you can be of real help to them.

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Catch Up on Care and Feeding

• If you missed Friday’s column, read it here.
• Discuss this column in the Slate Parenting Facebook group!

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I need advice on how to deal with what may seem a minor problem, but it is driving me batty. As I get older (I’m about to turn 40), my mom is increasingly obsessed over the fact that I’m single and don’t have children. She will never say it outright, but instead constantly questions me about everyone else’s relationship status, and also presses for details about my social life in a way that makes clear what’s on her mind. Here are some examples of our conversations (which, I promise, are not exaggerated): 1) “How’s your new co-worker?” “We’re working well together.” “That’s good—is she married? Does she have kids?” “Why does that matter?” “I’m just curious!” 2) “What did you do this weekend?” “Went to Amy’s birthday party. Remember Amy? You met her a few weeks ago.” “Who threw the party, her husband?” (I never mentioned whether or not Amy was married.) 3) “What are you doing tonight?” “Going to Kayla’s house.” “Is she having a party?” “No.” “So what are you going to do over there?” “Order food for dinner. Talk, catch up.” “But isn’t she married?” “Yes.” “So you’re just going to sit there with her and her husband?” I could go on, but you get the gist. This happens every time we talk.

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She also feels the need to tell me whenever someone gets married or has a kid, even if I don’t know the person. I’m finding it harder and harder to want to talk to her. And I feel terrible about that, because she is truly otherwise a great mom. She’s always shown me love and support, and I know she would do anything for me. She doesn’t even pester me to call her more often; she doesn’t call me all the time. And if I don’t call her for a week or two, she doesn’t say, “Why haven’t you called?” But I know that it hurts her if we don’t talk, as we used to talk a lot more. I’ve tried telling her how much it bothers me when she comes at me in the subtle ways she does, but she says I’m being too sensitive, that she’s just asking questions to make conversation. I know that I’m lucky to have her as a mom, especially after reading a lot of the questions submitted to this column about horrible parents, so part of me feels like I just need to swallow my irritation. But every time I try, it bubbles right back up, and I want to end the conversation immediately; then I find myself dreading the next conversation. Please say you have some advice!

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—Spinster Daughter

Dear SD,

Here’s a thought experiment: What if she is asking questions just to make conversation? What if she can’t think of anything else to talk to you about? Does that make you feel any better?

Look, I’m not saying that she doesn’t wish you were married. For all I know, she wants that more than anything in the world (except maybe a grandchild). What I’m suggesting is that you take her at her word and take charge of making conversation yourself. That is, steer it in the direction you want it to go. Since you’ve provided examples of the kinds of exchanges that madden you, how about steering clear of them? And if you can’t steer clear—if the only thing she can think of to ask you about a new co-worker you mentioned the last time you talked is whether she’s married or not—then redirect her. Instead of asking her why that matters, why not say, “I have no idea. Hey, did I tell you about … ” and then tell her about something that happened at work, or anything else you feel like talking about? If she asks whether your friend’s husband threw her birthday party (and the answer to that is yes), say, “Yes, he did! It was so much fun/so not fun”—and then tell her about the party. If the answer is no, because Amy doesn’t have a husband, go ahead and say, “What husband? No, she threw it herself”—and then tell her about the party. In other words, jump that track and onto a track you lay yourself.

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I can’t tell you whether your mother is “obsessed” with your single and child-free status or if this is just her frame of reference—the filter through which she views all of the world—but the way to avoid getting caught up in exchanges that drive you batty is to shift to ones that don’t. (And have ready some good ways to change the subject quickly, since you know she’ll make these comments—TV shows you’re watching, books you’re reading.) If you didn’t value your relationship with her as much as you do—if you hadn’t been in the habit of talking more often, and longer, before; if you hadn’t mentioned how lucky you feel to have a supportive and loving parent—I might offer different advice. But it sounds like you love your mom. So why not see what you can do to make it possible to enjoy talking to her again (or at least not to hate and dread it)?

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I do feel I must say something else before I close, OK? While I empathize with your frustration, I can also say with considerable certainty that when something gets a person’s goat as much as this does, it’s because it’s clanging a bell that’s already (maybe silently) chiming within that person. When someone constantly brings up something that is of no consequence to us, it’s mildly irritating—boring, maybe; annoying, even—but not infuriating (certainly not infuriating enough to make us want to avoid someone we dearly love). But a topic that is painful or a source of sorrow to us will make us miserable. Perhaps you already know this—perhaps you thought it was just too obvious to mention. But if you are unhappy about not being married, and doing your level best not to dwell on it, the problem is not your mother.

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Want Advice From Care and Feeding?

Submit your questions about parenting and family life here. It’s anonymous! (Questions may be edited for publication.)

Dear Care and Feeding,

Two of my closest friends—I was friends with both of them before they were a couple—are married and have a toddler. Their daughter is their first child, and although I am not a parent, I grew up with several younger siblings and thus have experience with children. Since she was born, I’ve been happy to come over and help them out with her while catching up with them. Long story short: I’ve begun dreading my visits because I so dislike the way they’re spoiling her as she has become able to ask for things and do things more independently. She’ll tear a room apart while they watch and say, “I wish she wouldn’t do that.” They never say no to her, and if she does something wrong or gets hold of something she shouldn’t, they offer her a treat or some other incentive to leave it alone. Even when she really misbehaves and they say they know there should be some consequences, they never enact any because—they admit—they’d feel bad punishing her. If they take her to a store, they buy her anything she wants, no matter what it costs. She is on no sort of a sleep schedule because they don’t want to “make” her take a nap.

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God, I’m reading this message and even I realize how bitter I sound. I know that parenting is much easier to critique than to do. But some of the parenting no-nos they commit feel like really low-hanging fruit. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to think they should be setting some boundaries with her. I should also note that both of them are youngest children and that both grew up with a lot of money; I am the eldest child in my family and grew up in poverty. So there are definitely inherent class and other differences in our upbringings that are showing themselves in this scenario.

I recognize that it’s fundamentally not my business to dictate how they should or should not raise their child. Still, it’s become difficult to observe. I love them and cherish my friendship with them, but I am full of resentment toward them after spending an evening at their place lately. I don’t want to hurt them! Is there a polite way to say, “I love you both but I need to take a step back from spending time with you because watching you turn your child into Veruca Salt is killing me”? At this point, I’m with them often enough that a step back without explanation would be noticeable, and socializing with them without their child is a nonstarter for them—they don’t leave her with babysitters.

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—Critical and Childless

Dear Critical,

Alas, there is no polite way to explain that the reason you are taking a step back from your friendship with this couple is that you’re horrified by their parenting. If it’s possible to socialize with them one-on-one without their child around (one-on-one so that they don’t have to—gasp!—get a sitter), talk about anything except their parenting (and if that’s what, or all, they want to talk about, listen without comment). If this idea doesn’t appeal to you—or them—I see three possible choices: 1) grin and bear it (which it’s clear you do not want to do); 2) tell them the truth; or 3) quietly recede from their lives in the least hurtful, least dramatic way you can. It should be obvious that I vote for No. 3. If you can get away with being busy or tired every time you are invited over, go for it. They will either get the hint eventually and stop asking, or they’ll come out and ask you what’s wrong—and if the latter occurs, I would still stay away from a parenting critique, since no good can come of that. You already know, I think, that there is nothing you can do about the way they are (or aren’t) rearing their daughter—that nothing you might say would be news to them and thus bring about a miraculous change in their approach/behavior.

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I am all for honesty, but when complete honesty can serve no purpose except to cause additional pain, I would suggest something along the lines of “This friendship has turned out to be too much for me, I’m sorry.” That’s about as direct as I’d get in this minefield of a situation.

I hear you insisting how much you love them and wish you could continue being their friend, but I also get the sense that you disapprove so profoundly of what’s going on here I don’t really see a path to that. Sadly, sometimes over the course of a long friendship, we learn something about a friend, hitherto unrevealed, that we find truly unbearable—something that appalls us and about which we can do nothing. When that happens, I believe it is time to end the friendship.

—Michelle

More Advice From Slate

My husband and I are parents to an amazing 20-month-old boy. Before I became pregnant, my husband and I went out weekly with co-workers after work. My husband still attends these and ends up getting sloshed. I love staying home, and I’m over these get-togethers, but my husband insists I need to get out more and should come along. What should I do?

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