Care and Feeding

My Son’s School Wants Me to Offer My Expertise for Free

A woman wearing glasses smiles as she gives a speech.
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,

I’m a Black woman married to a white man and we have a teenage son together. Our son goes to a private school in the next town over that’s probably 85 percent white, and one of the school’s administrators asked if I could speak to the student body during their Black History Month celebration in February about the importance of creating a racially inclusive community. I’m not an experienced public speaker, but I have some good ideas about how the school could improve in that regard. The only sticking point is the school isn’t willing to pay me to speak, and the admin said, “The speech will provide you with great exposure since it will be broadcast virtually to influential parents and boosters. Also, your speech could help numerous parents see the light, and you can’t put a price tag on that.” This irks me because this school is flush with cash, and I know they’ve paid other (white) speakers before. When I told my son that I wanted to approach the administration about wanting to be paid to do this, he begged me to speak at the event for free and not make a scene that could put a target on his back. I’m not sure how to proceed. Should I take the unpaid speech for the sake of my son?

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—Unpaid Labor

Dear Unpaid Labor,

As a Black man who speaks to schools and corporations as an anti-racism expert for a living, I’ll be very clear here: Unless I want to, I never work for free.

The sheer audacity of that school to ask a Black parent to share her expertise on being Black to help its predominately white community “see the light” during Black History Month without payment makes me roll my eyes so hard that I can see out of my own rear end. Not to mention exposure is not currency.

I cannot count the number of times in my career that I’ve had companies approach me for advice on how to help them create a more inclusive and equitable workforce, but followed up with something like “We don’t have the budget to pay outside consultants right now.” As one of my friends in the business says, “You can pick my brain after you pick your payment type.” Humility aside, I believe I’m one of the best in the world at what I do, so why would I give up my expertise for free? You need to hit your son’s school with the same energy.

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As for your son, you’re teaching him a valuable lesson by standing up for yourself and owning your worth. In life, there will be people who want to use his time and talents, and he should only do so on his terms, not theirs.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I am a white, cis-het single mother of two biological children (also white). In addition, I am a licensed foster parent for my county department of social services, or DSS. We live in a rural, impoverished county in the mountains of a Southern Bible Belt state that is roughly 88 percent white and 5 percent African American. Recently, I was contacted by DSS to foster a brother and a sister, both African American and both under 5. The kids all get along, we are learning about each other, and it has been an incredible experience to really become our own little family. The community we live in, however, has proven to be filled with the most intolerant and horrible people that you can imagine. My neighbors, once they realized my foster children are part of the family, have all but shunned us. There are comments and insinuations cast at us when we’re out in public as a family (mostly about my apparent choice in sexual partners, since I have both white and African American children). Even our church has changed how it interacts with us—a place where I was once a central volunteer.

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And it isn’t just the white community. I needed help learning how to care for my daughter’s natural hair, so I took her to a salon that specializes in the care of her hair texture, and I was met with similar disdain. I even overheard one of the African American stylists make a comment about white saviorism in reference to me and my daughter. I really don’t know what to do. The kids and I all talk openly about how wrong this behavior is and how we can be strong as a family. We have stock responses of “that is rude and racist” that even the youngest children have grown accustomed to delivering, and I seek out spaces in larger towns in our region where we can be comfortable in public. But what on earth do I do in our hometown?

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As a parent, I am isolated and exhausted. The kids are often brokenhearted. My older children’s social groups are starting to exclude them lest I show up at an event with their siblings. I own a home, work full time at a well-paying job, and can’t afford to move. Plus, there is a possibility that if I did move, I would lose my son and daughter. The DSS isn’t any help; they barely have enough resources to keep the doors open and just tell me what a blessing it was that I was “willing” to accept my children into my home. I lie in bed most nights crying, both at the injustice and my seeming helplessness to shield my children. Are there any strategies you can offer for how we can survive this? It’s like we’re trapped in a horrific Jim Crow–era time warp that never ends.

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—I Have a Dream

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Dear I Have a Dream,

This letter is heartbreaking, but also not the least bit surprising—at least not surprising to me. America was built on the premise of white supremacy, and it permeates through the Bible Belt just as much as it does in blue states. Predictably, whenever the dirty boots of racism land on the doorstep of an unsuspecting white person, it’s often met with the incredulous shock that I read here. I get that you’re “isolated and exhausted,” but that describes the experience of countless Black people who lived on this land for the past 400-plus years.

You mentioned that you don’t have the means to move and that relocating could result in losing your children. That could be a blessing in disguise, because I think you should stay and fight. Not fight literally, of course—but fight for love and equality.

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Here’s the question, though: Are you built for it? I’ve noticed that many white people say they’re about that anti-racist life, but as soon as it gets hard (and it always gets hard), they’ll curl up in the fetal position or make excuses why it’s not worth the hassle and quit. Don’t believe me? Then why is racism still a thing in America? Spoiler alert: It’s not because Black people aren’t doing enough to stop it.

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We celebrated Martin Luther King Jr.’s holiday yesterday, and if we want to truly achieve his dream, we need more white people who are as loud with their love as they are with their hatred and bigotry. In other words: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness—only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate—only love can do that.” Show up as a beacon of love and light all day, every day. If you do that, I guarantee that good people in your community will gravitate toward you and your children. But you have to persevere through the darkness to find them.

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As difficult as it is, remind yourself that their hatred is their problem, not yours. You should also remind yourself that you’ve done absolutely nothing wrong—and since that’s the case, you should walk around your hometown with your head held high knowing that you stand on the right side of history. None of this will be easy, and as a Black man in America, I know that all too well.

Because, as the great Dr. King once said, “love is the only force capable of turning an enemy into a friend.”

Catch Up on Care and Feeding

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

Dear Care and Feeding,

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My daughter has exhibited behavior that is very concerning. She is 9 years old and mostly a happy and content child. However, she can rage at her father, her brother, and me about seemingly innocuous things. For example, she will scream at her brother and throw items at him if he doesn’t comply with a request or if he acts a little pushy. He is the older annoying brother, so I totally understand, but sometimes it seems excessive. If she doesn’t get her way, she will scream at both of us, run upstairs, and slam her door and tell us we don’t understand her or we don’t care. I could understand if perhaps she were in the midst of puberty, but at 9 it has me worried.

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For context, I do occasionally yell at my children for misbehaving; we are a loud Italian family, so that happens. But we don’t swear or use hurtful language and we try to help both of our kids understand the importance of kindness towards others. She is a perfect angel in school and saves all the raging for us. She also gets very upset about the loss of one particular family member who she never met and will sort of spiral about certain topics. I am just not sure how best to help her or if this is typical behavior for a young girl. Thank you so much for your help!

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—Troubled Mama

Dear Troubled Mama,

You mentioned that you’re part of a “loud Italian family” and you’ll yell at your kids every now and then, and you’re wondering where your daughter gets her rage from? I’m not saying it’s 100 percent why your daughter flies off the handle, but not every child adapts well to that type of environment—even if it’s the only environment she knows. And just a friendly reminder: You don’t have to curse out a kid in order for the language to be deemed hurtful. In many cases, just the sheer volume of your voice can be damaging, as research has shown that kids are more prone to have behavioral issues when exposed to constant yelling.

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To be clear, I’m not saying that you yell at your family 24/7 like a lunatic—but I am saying you may not be aware of how much your yelling affects your daughter whenever you do it. A perfect example of this is how she transforms into a “perfect angel” at school. I’d venture to guess that she views school as a safe space where she won’t have to hear loud voices and is able to thrive and be happy. She should feel that way at home, too.

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That said, it’s hard to tell from your example exactly how concerning the behavior is. If an older brother is taunting her and she gets upset and throws a teddy bear, that’s different from raging—and throwing something that could hurt someone—for no reason at a sibling who has done nothing to them. Not to excuse bad behavior by any means, but there are gradations of bad behavior.

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But since it’s bad enough that you’ve written, and it’s alarming you, I’ll assume that it’s the latter. That behavior does not sound typical for a 9-year-old child, and it could go sideways, fast—especially the part about throwing things at her brother, which can easily escalate to more violent behavior if not addressed. I suggest taking her to a family therapist to help her regulate her emotions, uncover any other issues, and get her the help she needs.

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

Dear Care and Feeding,

My husband and I met in college while attending a prestigious university, and after graduation we both became public school teachers. This caused some consternation in our family that we were “wasting” our expensive degrees on our low-wage career choices. While we enjoy teaching, we have been forced to live frugal lifestyles as a result, and honestly, we regret taking this vocation. We now have a bright, outgoing, and seemingly well-adjusted teenage son who recently received a very generous need-based scholarship to a very selective university. For much of his life, he complained to us that our family never had money for any expenses (while his peers enjoyed lavish vacations, received cars when they got driver’s licenses, etc.) and often told us that he “doesn’t want to end up like Mom and Dad.” We were actually happy that our kid was looking to improve his economic lot in life. We were surprised last month that he arrived home from college and told us that he wishes to become a public school teacher just like his parents. When informed of this, we asked him what led to this drastic change of attitude and warned him that he may end up broke like his mom and dad. All we could get in response was “I dunno, I like the material and I think I’d be good at it.”

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We love our son very much and wish to see him happy. If we were able to afford it, we would have set him up financially so he can realize his dreams as a teacher, but other than our pensions, we have no savings and very little equity in our town house. Our son is also an adult. Any advice on how we can gently and positively encourage him to select a more financially stable career that won’t leave him in the poor house when he reaches middle age (other than marrying into money)?

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—Tormented Teacher

Dear Tormented Teacher,

If you’re looking for me to tell your son to not follow his passions and simply look for a high-paying job, you’re barking up the wrong tree. On the surface you may look at the neighbors with nice cars and fancy vacations and think they’ve “made it,” but you have no idea what life is like for them behind closed doors.

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I know at least 10 people earning between $250,000 and $750,000 a year in income who are completely miserable due to their jobs. They work long hours, have health issues due to stress, have no relationship with their kids, and are deeply depressed (one even contemplated suicide a couple of years ago). What good are all of the material things if they come with all of that baggage? If I had to choose between my mental health or money, I’d choose my mental health every day of the week.

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I think you should sit down with your son, have a heart-to-heart with him, and remind him that there are a lot of different career paths and he should figure out something he’s passionate about. If he’s choosing teaching by default just because he doesn’t have much exposure to other possible options or because he wants to please you, it wouldn’t be wise.

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However, if he is passionate about teaching, then you should throw all of your support behind him and let the chips fall where they may. As I alluded to earlier, the old saying that money can’t buy happiness is one of the truest statements of all time.

—Doyin

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