Care and Feeding

Should I Help My Daughter Get Out of a Ridiculous PE Unit?

Collage of a teen girl looking up, gym lockers, a swimming pool, and a stopwatch
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Wesley Tingey/Unsplash, Image Source/Getty Images Plus, Peshkova/iStock/Getty Images Plus, and Stas on Unsplash.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. In addition to our traditional advice, every Thursday we feature an assortment of teachers from across the country answering your education questions. Have a question for our teachers? Email askateacher@slate.com or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

My sixth grader is due to have swim as a unit in gym in January. She does not want to do it. She doesn’t want to change—she hasn’t had to because of COVID, and this would be full strip-down. She doesn’t want to wear a bathing suit in front of classmates and just is generally uncomfortable. She is asking if I can get her out of it. We are new to the school, so I don’t even know if it is a possibility, and even if it was, I am not sure what is the right path. I have communicated with her gym teacher (who she really likes) but nothing is making her more comfortable. But I am not sure if just discomfort is a good enough reason to sit out. And at this age, I am not sure if being the kid who didn’t swim is going to be worse than whatever she is afraid of. Help!

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—Drowning

Dear Drowning,

Your poor kid. Being a girl … in a bathing suit … in sixth grade … at a new school … so many compounding factors.

Talk to the PE teacher. Explain the anxiety the situation is causing. Can your daughter swim? If she can, I’d inquire with the teacher about an alternate assignment. Could she walk laps? Lift weights? Do Zumba?

If she must show swimming proficiency and it’s fiscally feasible for you, perhaps you could get her private swim lessons and provide documentation that she has mastered the PE standards.

If the answer is no, consider taking your request up the chain of command.

There are times when “feel the fear and do it anyway” is the life lesson needed, but in this situation, it seems like that would do more harm than good. Let her off the hook.

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—Ms. Scott (high school teacher, North Carolina)

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For the life of me, I cannot get my 15-year-old to read any classics or “hard” books. We are big readers in our house, and my child does read nightly for pleasure, and he certainly does not have any aversion to books or reading. That said, I find lots of classics I ask him to try are brushed off as “boring,” and the few he reads are through school (and I wish school would assign more of them, frankly). I’d love to find some quality literature for my son that has that compulsively readable feel he enjoys, but that I know are also really wonderful quality—good writing, strong characters, some depth. Bonus if it truly is a classic. Do you have any recommendations?

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—Classic Taste

Dear Classic Taste,

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As the novelist Neil Gaiman has said: “Well-meaning adults can easily destroy a child’s love of reading. Stop them reading what they enjoy or give them worthy-but-dull books that you like—the 21st-century equivalents of Victorian ‘improving’ literature—you’ll wind up with a generation convinced that reading is uncool and, worse, unpleasant.” From an educator’s standpoint, Gaiman hit the nail on the head. We know that students are better readers when they get to read what they want or at least have some say in what they are reading.

But as a parent, I understand the desire to help your son grow as a reader. In middle school, my favorite books were either based on Star Wars or were part of a historical fiction series called The Drummer Boy, which followed various fictional youth through conflicts like the Civil War. But as I got into high school, my father challenged me with Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels and Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. His approach was wise. It brought me into the world of adult literature through topics he knew I was interested in, introducing me to books that he counted among his all-time favorites. Consider your son’s taste, and see if you can’t suggest some books that hit on his interests. If your son has been reading graphic novels, maybe he’d be interested in Persepolis or Maus. If your son is stuck rereading Percy Jackson, offer him Beowulf (I did this very thing with my nephew some years back). If he’s into Maze Runner or The Hunger Games, give him Anthem or 1984. My 11-year-old stepson loves the I Survived books. When he’s old enough, I plan to suggest Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys. But don’t suggest a book merely because it’s been dubbed a classic.

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Classics (a term I don’t much like—who defines these “classics”?) certainly have a lot to offer—they can push us outside of our comfort zones, teach us how to be better people, and illuminate other cultures and history, among other things. But as I consider your question, I return again and again to Gaiman’s words of caution. There are some classics that I’ve loved, others that I didn’t but I’m pleased I slogged through, others still that I wish I hadn’t wasted my time with (don’t get me started on Moby-Dick … stupid whale).

I’ve found that the classroom is the best place for most kids to encounter those books. That way, even if they don’t enjoy the read, they’re in a place where an educator can foster discussion and offer context on why the book is worth reading. That’s the right place for students to be challenged with a book they might not otherwise read.

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At home, let him enjoy reading in the wonderful environment you’ve fostered. Because in the end, do we want our kids to have read things, or do we want them to be people who read?

—Mr. Vona (high school teacher, Florida)

I have a day care and early childhood education teacher gift etiquette question. I know teachers don’t want knickknacks and “stuff,” and that money is better. But I’ve seen some threads where parents advise dropping a percentage of monthly tuition (at least 20 percent) on each educator. What if you can’t afford that? In part due to the cost of child care, we’re scraping by and my budget for each adult (family, teachers, co-workers, etc.) this year is $10 per person. I got each teacher a nice hand cream/lip/lotion set, as my mom used to work in early childhood education and said it was always hard on her hands. The only reason I was able to get any teacher gifts this year was because I got a $100 Target gift card for participating in a research study.

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I noticed some parents advocating for a lavish gift or substantial amount of money in part to make up for educators’ criminally low wages, and the response to “I can’t afford that” has been “If you can’t afford X amount, you can’t afford to ethically have your kids in day care.” I get that this comes from a well-intentioned place and a desire for social justice, but I think it puts some low-income parents in a bind. I like the idea of a joint gift with other parents, but due to strict COVID protocols, parents have next to no contact with one another. Is there a happy medium for struggling parents who want to give back between the thousandth Best Teacher mug and $150 in cash?

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—Gift Conundrum

Dear Gift Conundrum,

First of all, anyone who is shaming you for being under financial stress needs to take their head out of their rear end. That’s absurd. Child care isn’t a luxury; for families where both parents work, it’s a necessity. How else are you going to go to work when you have a toddler? But in this country, it’s extremely expensive, despite low wages. There are reasons for this—I recommend this article to understand the problems in the industry—but the net result is that many families, like yours, who have to pay for day care or preschool end up in a challenging financial situation.

I don’t think that there’s a problem with getting teachers hand lotion. Of the gifts I received last year, the only ones I still regularly use are the lotion and hand sanitizer. The candle is collecting dust on a bookshelf; the chocolates were eaten; the various gift cards were nice, but not lasting. The lotion and hand sanitizer are both on my desk for easy access. I suspect they were the least expensive gifts I got, but they had that bang-for-your-buck quality I always love in gifts.

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If you don’t want to do lotion (or have given it in the past), you can always consider classroom supplies. That’s actually what teachers want—I’m not allowed to accept money, but if I did, I’d spend it on my room anyway. Last teacher appreciation week, I wrote this list and all of it was under $30 at the time of publishing. You can also ask the teacher if they have an Amazon wish list or a DonorsChoose you can donate to.* Since most of the gifts are going to go to the classroom anyway, that’s a way to collaborate with other parents to send teachers what they need.

One last thought: Yes, teacher pay and especially early childhood educator pay is criminally low. Yes, we’re overworked and underappreciated. Yes, if every family gave us $150 (and we didn’t spend it on our classroom), it would make a big difference to us financially. But the solution to that definitely isn’t to shame families that can’t give $150. I’m sure at your job, if every adult you encountered gave you an extra $150, it would make a big difference to you, but that’s not how structural change happens.

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If these families want to compensate for teacher’s low wages, the answer is to get involved in politics. Attend school board meetings. Advocate for better working conditions for those teachers. Support strikes—not just the teachers union, but all strikes, as solidarity is such a big part of labor movements. Lobby politicians to pass bills that improve working conditions for teachers. Social justice has to be just first, and a movement isn’t just unless it’s just for everyone. You can tell those parents that no teacher wants their low-SES families to feel guilty around the holidays or break the bank over gifts they’re giving out of guilt. We as a society need to improve so that everyone gets what they need, and that doesn’t happen through virtue-signaling with the price tag of your holiday gifts.

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—Ms. Sarnell (early childhood education teacher, New York)

I have a question about tween angst in middle school. What is normal for girls? My daughter says that most of her friends make negative exaggerated comments about themselves constantly. The most concerning ones are things like “I just want to die” and “Let’s go bungee jumping, and I hope my rope breaks.” How do you determine at what point this is a real call for help?

—False Alarms?

Dear False Alarms,

Every statement like that should be taken seriously until investigated by a professional. If a student makes a statement about self-harm or suicidal ideation, teachers (some of whom are mandated reporters when it comes to self-harm, as well as abuse—laws vary from state to state) should immediately bring the matter to the school psychologist, social worker, or relevant mental health expert.

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The very last thing you want to do is assume that it’s simply talk and then later discover otherwise when it’s too late. It’s true that much of what children say is just that: talk. Angsty drama and exaggerated comments.

But that is a determination that should be made by someone in a position to make those decisions. If even one of those statements is a cry for help that has gone unanswered, it could result in a tragedy. Better to follow up on all rather than missing one.

I’d advise your daughter to find a trusted adult in the school to whom she can relay her potential concerns privately. If these are things you are overhearing directly, please let these girls’ parents know. If these are things your daughter is confiding in you, listen and support her, and have an honest conversation with her about needing to tell her friends’ parents about these passing comments. In situations like this, it’s always better to be safe than sorry.

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Good luck.

—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)

Correction, Dec. 23, 2021: This piece originally misspelled DonorsChoose.

More Advice From Slate

Last weekend, my wife’s and my mutual friend had a pool party for her 16-year-old daughter’s birthday party. The birthday girl invited male and female schoolmates to the party, all around 15-to-17-year-olds. My wife started to put on her one-piece swimsuit to join the swimming until I stopped her. I felt like it was inappropriate for her to consider swimming with a bunch of teenagers, since she is a teacher at that school. What do you think?

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