Care and Feeding

Why Won’t My Son Stay True to Himself?

A woman looks concerned, with her hands placed on her cheeks.
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 son, “Isaac,” is 13, and this year he has become close friends with another boy at his school, “Liam.” While Isaac tends to be shy and reserved, Liam is confident and charming and considered cool. Since becoming friends with Liam, Isaac seems to have given up a lot of aspects of himself to be more like him. I first noticed that his taste in movies, music, and food were changing, but when I pointed this out, he claimed that he’d never liked the very things he used to love! He insists, in fact, that the only thing that’s changed is that he has stopped pretending to like things he didn’t actually like. Now he has started to dress more like Liam—he even borrows clothing from him. Phrases that Liam likes to use are now the phrases I constantly hear coming out of Isaac’s mouth. But what really shocked me was when he announced that he wanted to stop playing piano, which he had always enjoyed, and instead take up rock climbing like Liam.

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I fear that my son is giving up his individuality to be more like his friend. On one hand, I understand the desire to be like one’s friends, especially if those friends are considered cool, but on the other hand, I am very sad to see him changing who he is. Besides affirming him, is there anything I can do to show that I value who he is and that he doesn’t need to change his whole personality?

—Change is Hard

Dear CiH,

Oh, dear. If there is one way to get a 13-year-old to dig in his heels about who he is and what he likes, it’s to tell him this isn’t who he is and what he likes. So my first piece of advice is: Stop doing that. Your certainty that Isaac was perfect just the way he was before Liam came into his life isn’t what interests him right now. In fact, what you appreciate about him may be, at this moment, what he most dislikes about himself. Your kid is trying to figure out who he is and who he wants to be; he’s in the process of learning what is immutable and what can be changed by dint of will. Plus he has found a friend he admires, and longs to be more like. Is it so surprising that a shy, reserved child longs to be more confident? Now he has found a model for that sort of confidence! (Does it make sense that in the process of trying to learn from Liam how to be confident, charming, and cool, he also is absorbing Liam’s tastes and interests? No, of course not, but that’s beside the point. It is impossible for Isaac to untangle Liam’s interest in rock-climbing or his taste in music from anything else about Liam. For now, Isaac is absorbing and imitating the whole package.)

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Isaac is also determined to shed what he thinks of as childish things—that is, anything he associates with being a child (and piano, for example, is probably part of that—at least for now). All of this is pretty commonplace. It’s part of how kids move from childhood into adolescence, and then from adolescence into adulthood. And this is not only about Isaac’s wish to be more like someone he admires—that is, more like someone he wishes he were instead of who he’s been—nor is it only about him trying to figure out how to shift from being a little kid into a bigger one (and into not being a kid at all anymore, which is what most teenagers wish desperately for!). There is also a piece of this that I think you’re having trouble seeing—which is that it is possible that some of the things he seemed to like he was pretending to like, because it so pleased you. Or if not “pretending,” then taking on faith because you—the person who used to be most important to him—valued these things. He is trying to figure out now who he is apart from who you want him to be and what most pleases you about him. I know you wish that if he has to do this, he would do it without trying on his friend’s personality, but this is often how it works for children.

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I will say this, too. My telling you that all of this is “normal”—better yet, let’s call it “par for the course”—doesn’t mean I don’t sympathize with you. I do. Change is hard. And one of the hardest changes of all is when a parent’s precious, beloved child leaves them behind (even if it’s temporary, as it generally is in a healthy parent-child relationship!) as the child begins to grow up. The answer to the question you close your letter with: There is nothing you can, or should, do to demonstrate that you value him the way “he is.” He already knows that. It’s not what matters to him now.

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Slate Plus Members Get More Advice From Michelle Each Week

From this week’s letter, My Sister Has Been Saying Horrible Things About My Parenting Behind My Back: “We haven’t spoken since our fight, and I find that I am second-guessing myself.”

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My father-in-law has depression and other emotional issues. He’s been laid off from multiple jobs due to his antisocial behavior, and, as he’s gotten older, he’s become even crankier and quicker to take offense. He has particularly come to hate the mess and noise created by small children. We live six hours away from him—and also from my husband’s siblings, nieces, and nephews—but we visit at least twice a year, including Thanksgiving. This Thanksgiving, we stayed in a hotel and got together with everyone for meals and activities. My FIL was angry the whole time. He made it very clear that he was offended by everything my husband, our children, or I did. Thankfully, his behavior is mostly passive (for example, not talking to me throughout the entire visit), and I know not to take it too personally because he takes turns getting offended by different family members. I do my best to ignore his unpleasantness because it’s important to me that we keep up a relationship with the rest of the family (who are also frustrated by his behavior).

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However, I’m wondering at what point I need to start interfering on behalf of my children. For example, when leaving, my FIL gave each of his grandkids a hug—except for mine. When my kids were toddlers, they wouldn’t have noticed (or frankly, wouldn’t have wanted to give him a hug), but now they are getting old enough to notice Grandpa’s behavior. He barks at all his grandchildren for not following his rules, but when I realized the only things he said to my kids this whole visit were, “You can’t do that,” or, “Stop!”—with nothing positive, ever, to balance it out—I started getting angry. My kids adore their cousins, uncles, aunts, and grandmother. Honestly, they mostly ignore their grandpa. I need a second opinion. Is this getting serious enough to make a fuss, or do we all just agree to ignore grouchy grandpa?

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—Daughter-in-Law Who’s Had It

Dear Daughter-in-Law,

What good would making a fuss do? Your father-in-law is not going to change as a result of it. He will not be banned from family gatherings as a result of it, either. The one thing it would make sense to do, if you’re going to keep getting together with your husband’s whole family (and honestly, I applaud you for not pulling out of these visits because of your father-in-law’s behavior: it takes a lot of patience, kindness, generosity of spirit, and big-picture thinking to endure this sort of thing), is to talk to your kids frankly about their grandfather when you are not with him. It sounds like they have pretty much got it figured out: ignore him, and keep your eyes on the prize (the joyful relationships with everyone else in the family). But you don’t know what kind of stories they’re telling themselves about the way Grandpa behaves. So make sure they know this is not about them, it’s about problems he has. Maybe go a step further, if they’re old enough, and talk about his depression and “other emotional issues” as an illness. I know your father-in-law’s behavior is making you miserable, but I’m 100 percent sure it makes him even more miserable. Why not take the high road and try to find it in your heart to feel sad for him (look what he’s missing out on!)? That way, you also get to model empathy, which will do your kids a lot of good in the long term. And be grateful that you have to see him only a few times a year, and that you don’t have to stay under the same roof when you visit.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

Recently my sister’s best friend’s 11-year-old came out as nonbinary. Soon after, the child began to be bullied at school (they live in a fairly conservative part of the country). My sister mentioned this on the phone with our parents, but instead of being sympathetic to her concerns about her friend’s child, they acted as if she’d announced that she was going to join a cult! Then, as soon as they hung up, they called me to express their outrage. My parents, both former teachers now in their 70s, were extremely distressed that this child is being “pushed” to be nonbinary. How can a child this young know that? they demanded—and went on and on about how they “know how kids are” and pointed out that the children of that age whom they taught never claimed such a thing, that this was not even a subject of discussion among them.

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Well, that was then and this is now. On its own, I’d just roll my eyes, write it off with “OK, Boomer,” and drop it. The problem is that I think my 5-year-old nephew may also be nonbinary or trans. He is insistent on keeping his hair long, likes to paint his nails, and sometimes likes to wear dresses. My parents have already side-eyed my sister for allowing any of this. I’m worried that if he, or for that matter any of the other children in the family, comes out as nonbinary or trans, my parents will not respect their identity and/or think their parents are pushing this on them. My parents have already expressed their concern that the 5-year-old is going to be bullied in kindergarten if he wears a dress to school (though it is looking likely that my sister is soon going to move to a more progressive part of the country). When I try to talk to my parents about how times have changed, they shut me down with their whole we-were-teachers-so-we-know-more-than-you-do line of “reasoning.” How can I convince my aging boomer parents that they are wrong? Or at least make them understand how damaging their attitude is, and how fearful their own grandkids are likely to be of coming out to them if coming out is in their future? They are reasonably progressive otherwise!

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—How Do You Get Through to Boomers?

Dear HDYGTtB,

First, let me say that I wish you wouldn’t paint everyone born before 1965 with the same broad brush. Your very own friendly advice columnist may be old (born 1955, in the second wave of boomers!) but I am most certainly not a relic, frozen in the ideas and misinformation of an earlier time, and neither are my dearest friends.

Your parents, alas, are a little bit stuck. In their case, it’s not just their age; it’s also the circumstances of their former lives. They’re right: when they were teaching, children were extremely unlikely to come out as nonbinary or trans. That doesn’t mean that no child they taught felt uneasy about the gender assigned to them at birth or flat-out knew it was wrong or had the sense that neither “male” nor “female” accurately described the whole picture of their gender identity. It means they didn’t have the language at hand to describe this—or it means that when they did try to talk about it to their families, as some of them may when they were very young, they were told not to be silly.

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The shift in our culture—the awareness that gender is more complex than many people once assumed—is fairly recent. It’s not surprising that your parents don’t understand that (I’m not sure I would, either, if I weren’t surrounded by young people and I didn’t pay attention when they talked, or read as much as I do). Given that your parents felt like (and still feel like!) experts on the subject of children, finding out that there’s something they didn’t know is confusing and probably painful to them—they don’t want to let that information in (and they don’t know how).

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I would say that you might just have to give them time. This is not about “convincing” them that they’re wrong and you’re right. It’s about educating the former educators. You might start with the gift of Marlo Mack’s beautiful memoir How to Be A Girl, about raising her trans daughter (the separate audio version is great if they’d rather listen than read). But what will really help move them forward is getting to know young people who have come out … or discovering that people (including, of course, children) they already love don’t fit into the classifications they have been assigned by others.

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I do want to add a note of caution for you, while I’m here. I’d file this under the category of “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” Because you are aware, as your parents aren’t, that some children’s identities are at odds with the gender assigned at birth, you may be jumping to conclusions about your 5-year-old nephew. Not every child AMAB who likes to wear his hair long, paint his nails, or wear dresses will eventually come out as trans or nonbinary. Gender expression and gender identity may take many forms. It behooves us all—not just your parents—to recognize this.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I’m a single mother of two great kids (9 and 12), and I have what’s probably a low-stakes question: When should I stop reading them bedtime stories? Honestly, I don’t WANT to stop. I’ve read to the kids every night for years (everything from Matilda and Charlotte’s Web and The Secret Garden to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings) and it’s a beautiful part of all of our days. Not to mention that upholding the tradition means that both kids go to bed early (between 7:00 and 8:00, generally) and are asleep before 9:00 (which affords me a lovely couple of hours of alone time at the end of each day). But my son’s getting older, and I’m starting to wonder if maybe I’m infantilizing him by continuing to read aloud at bedtime (and, therefore, holding him to the same bedtime as his younger sister). There’s an additional twist in that the kids happen to be bilingual, due to several years spent living abroad, and even though we’re back in the States now, I’ve been using bedtime reading as a way to keep them connected to their second language (we’re currently in the middle of the relevant translation of the Harry Potter series). So … should I stop? Is there an age cutoff for bedtime reading?

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For what it’s worth, neither of them has ever complained about it (I think they love this tradition nearly as much as I do). I guess I’m just wondering if there’s anything I should be concerned about that I haven’t considered. Thanks in advance for your thoughts!

—Storytime-loving Mom

Dear Storytime,

This is a lovely ritual, and as long as your kids are still enjoying it, then I give you my blessings. There’s no age cutoff: the cutoff is when your child doesn’t want to do it anymore. Just make sure you’re paying close attention, since your older child may soon want to stop (13 is on the horizon, after all, and if 13 doesn’t do it, then 14 almost certainly will) but may be reluctant to say so directly, if he fears it will hurt your feelings—if he’s a sensitive kid—or wreck things for his younger sister. Are you attuned enough to him that you’ll be able to tell when he’s less engaged, less happy? For that matter, while I know he doesn’t complain about being read to (or about the early bedtime), why not ask him if he still enjoys it? And pay close attention not only to what he says but how he says it. If he says, “Sure,” can you tell if he means it? (If you can’t, don’t press him. But maybe ask again in six months.)

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My guess is that he will let you know, one way or another, when he’s ready to be done with this. You might prepare yourself for his sister’s reaction when that happens (in other words, have a plan). I hope you do get to continue doing this for as long as possible. It sounds awesome.

—Michelle

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