Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here.
Dear Care and Feeding,
My son, “Thomas,” is 14, and I am becoming increasingly concerned about the influence of his friends. Over the past few months, his peer group has become obsessed with mafia movies and shows like The Sopranos. To me, I don’t think mafia-themed content is appropriate for kids, who can get a glamorized view of a life of crime. These days, when I hear Thomas talking to his friends, it’s all “Goodfellas” this and “Don Corleone” that. One of his friends is even talking about having a mafia-themed birthday party. I get that teens go through phases, but most of those phrases don’t involve a fascination with organized crime. Additionally, so many of those movies and shows are deeply sexist, racist, and homophobic, and good luck finding any halfway decent role models for young boys there.
As a mom, I think it might be challenging to persuade Thomas to seek out new friends or stop spending time with his friend group, but I wish I could. I have tried to discuss this with his friends’ moms, but they are treating it as “just a phase.” While it may just be a phase, this is the age where some boys start experimenting with crime, and the last thing I need is my own son going down that path. I tell my son not to watch mafia movies, but then he does it behind my back with his friends. When I explain my concerns, he accuses me of being controlling. What is a mom to do?
— Against the Mob
Dear Against the Mob,
I completely sympathize, having gotten myself suspended in eighth grade when my clique, the “Bad Girl Mafia,” decided to do a little graffiti in the girls’ bathroom to let people know we were a thing. This was a result of a fixation on mob-obsessed rappers and the La Bella Mafia TV miniseries. In response, my parents made a point to highlight just how awful members of the mob were to one another, that even the most popular mafia tales are filled with stories of brothers shooting brothers and friends turning on friends, and how elusive honor truly is among thieves. It was important information for me to have, and for you to share with your son, just as you must continuously make a point to highlight the sexism, racism, and homophobia in mob movies and TV shows. That doesn’t mean that he’s going to stop thinking this shit is cool right away, but he needs to hear these messages over and over again to counter-program what he’s getting from watching this stuff.
You also want to ensure that he is taking in a steady diet of content that is age appropriate and that emphasizes the sort of values you want him to have. He should not be allowed to only chose mafia TV shows, books, and video games. What are you exposing him to that reflects the man you’d like for him to be? And how can you align that with his interests? Ask him just what he finds so compelling about these characters and seek out material that reflects what he’s craving without feeding his fixation.
Slate Plus Members Get More Advice From Jamilah Each Week
From this week’s letter, My Mother-in-Law Is Using Her Grief to Take Advantage of Us: “I’m honestly fed up with supporting someone who insults me every chance she gets.”
Dear Care and Feeding,
My sister recently received the shock of her life when her husband was arrested for child pornography. We both have toddlers. She instantly moved out and is trying to put her life together, find therapy for my nephew, and figure out if he was abused. She and I were both completely shocked. There was nothing about her husband’s behavior that would have suggested this. The problem is that I am now suspicious of my husband. Every time my son screams for mama when I leave him with my husband, I wonder if he’s just a mama’s boy or if he is suffering the same abuse as his cousin. I never had any suspicions of my husband before, but my sister and I never had any suspicions of her husband either. How can I find out for sure that my son is safe? Is it always obvious if a child is being abused?
— Mama Bear
Dear Mama Bear,
I am so sorry that your family is going through such a devastating thing. I’m glad to hear that your nephew is heading to therapy, and I think it would be excellent if your sister considered getting herself some professional help—and that you consider doing the same as well. Though it wasn’t your husband who was revealed to have such a sick fixation (and I am assuming, because you did not mention it, that there was no close relationship between him and your brother-in-law that would make you inclined to believe that this was something that they indulged in together), your sense of safety has been rocked to the point where you are now worried about his treatment of your child. That is a deeply difficult set of feelings to process and one that you should not have to navigate on your own. There’s no handbook for this, but there are professionals who can help you take an accurate assessment of your own household and to (most likely) begin to feel the comfort you once held within it. A therapist will also help you to navigate your role as a support system to your sister and nephew.
In the meantime, look at the relationship between your husband and your child. Watch how they interact, how your son responds to him. Abuse isn’t always immediately obvious, but there are often signs that something is amiss, such as a once outgoing child becoming withdrawn, or one displaying a new sensitivity to touch or hesitancy to do things they once enjoyed. Do you now, or have you ever, seen anything that points to a problem? You certainly shouldn’t assume that abuse can’t strike the same family twice, but you also don’t want to imagine something there that isn’t. Again, the support of a professional can help you to better see and grapple with what is before you. Wishing you, your sister, and your children all the best.
Catch Up on Care and Feeding
Dear Care and Feeding,
My child fixates intensely on things. It could be a food they like, a new hobby, or really whatever the current obsession might be. When they are obsessed, it’s like a compulsion: That’s all they want to eat or to do. It’s been fine so far, if occasionally annoying, because it’s been mostly benign or even healthy fixations. But I’m terrified if they ever try opioids or any other addictive substance. They just seem predisposed to addiction. Is there anything I can or should do to help them prepare (or avoid)? Or am I conflating two different issues?
— Hoping Obsessions Stay Benign
There may be a theme in my advice this week, which is, “take this to therapy.” A lot of parents hesitate to get their children into counseling unless something terrible has happened (and some, still even then), for fear of stigmatizing them somehow or making them feel that something is wrong with them. I see it otherwise. You can call an exterminator when you see a bug or two, because there might be a problem, or you can wait until they’re crawling all over your house and you know there’s a problem.
These fixations, to me, sound like a couple of bugs. They could have come from off the street or they could be the first signs of an infestation; or, in other words, this could be a phase, or a minor quirk, but they also could be the sign of something a bit more significant. I certainly couldn’t tell you that it’s a sign of a predilection to addiction or some personality disorder, but I do know that obsessive behavior can certainly become a problem. That seems, to me, like reason enough to check in with someone who knows how to discern a major challenge from something that shouldn’t compel worry. Call the exterminator now; if it’s no big deal, great. But if there’s cause for concern, you’d do better to know now than when things may have gotten out of your control. Good luck to you.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
My 5-year-old daughter loves to kiss. She gets it honest. My husband and I have been smooching on her since the day she came into our lives. When she was around 2, she started placing her hands on my face and kissing me in a way that made it clear she was emulating romantic love scenes she’d probably seen on some show I should have turned off when she was in the room. It was cute, though, but to discourage her from kissing others in the same manner, I started to pretend to be turned off by it and kind of comically would reject “disgusting romance” by dramatically gagging and shielding my eyes. She thinks this is hilarious. The face cradling has stopped, and she actually pulls away from our kisses more now, as is to be expected—however heartbreaking for me and her dad.
But the other day before bed, she told me she was going to dream of doing “disgusting romance” with someone. When I asked who, she said her cousin’s name and mentioned they’d done it before. This triggered me. I was molested by a cousin for years in childhood, and adults in my life failed to intervene. Her cousin, my husband’s sister’s son, is about twice her age, and I believe they share a bed (for lack of space) when she sleeps over at her aunt’s house. Unlike my own experience, I can imagine that if anything happened, my child is the instigator, but I feel a strong need to stop this behavior now, no matter how innocent. I feel like the sleepovers should end and that we should ask my sister-in-law to speak to her son about why he should not kiss my daughter or should discourage him from allowing her to kiss him.
And as far as my child, I’m not even sure how to broach the topic of kissing anymore. She’s obviously interested, but also obviously too young to understand concepts like romance and arousal (not to mention incest), although we are trying to teach her about consent. Or am I just freaking out because of what happened to me and overreacting to a kindergartener’s crush on her cousin?
— Cutting Off the Kissing Cousins
Dear Cutting Off the Kissing,
There’s nothing wrong about you putting a stop to these sleepovers, or at least requiring that your daughter and her roughly 10-year-old male cousin cease to share a bed, which seems like a less than ideal sleeping arrangement for a number of reasons at this point in their lives. I don’t think you owe your family much explanation, but if you feel that you do, you can talk to them about your daughter’s kissy faze and the feels she has for her cousin (asking that they, of course, are mindful explain this stuff to him in a way that he can understand). If they don’t seem to get it, then you may wish to share your own experiences, if you feel comfortable doing so, and letting them know that this is simply non-negotiable for you going forward.
As far as your daughter goes, continue to explain the difference between the good kinds of kissing for a little girl (sweet kisses to and from Mommy and Daddy!) and “disgusting romance,” which is a type of kissing that adults who are not relatives can participate in. Let her know that it’s not surprising that she’d like her cousin, because he’s a great kid, but that her thoughts about him are not the kind of thoughts we have about cousins and not the kind of thoughts she should be having at this point in her life. Be careful not to make her feel judged for her actions and her urges, letting her know that lots of kids have crushes and feelings like she has, that it’s a totally normal part of growing up and becoming a big girl. All the best to you.