Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here.
I took my 5-year-old to a family gathering last weekend, and though I usually keep a very close eye on her, she was running around and playing with her cousins all through the house. All the adults were supposed to be watching them, but somehow, no one noticed when my daughter took a large sip of beer because she “thought it was apple juice.” There had been no apple juice served on this day, and the beer was in a cup that was bigger than anything my daughter would have been given. She spit it out because it was nasty and yelled for me immediately, but am I wrong for worrying that she drank the beer on purpose knowing that it was “Mommy juice”/“Daddy juice”? For context, my wife and I do not drink much in the house or at restaurants with her, but she has seen us enjoy adult drinks on occasion, and we have explained to her that there are beverages that only adults can consume. She was so upset that I didn’t want to make a big deal about it, but I keep wondering if this was purposeful and if so, what to say to her.
— Did You Sneak a Drink?
Dear Did You Sneak,
It is entirely possible that your daughter did this on purpose, and it’s entirely possible that this was an honest mistake. You can ask her, “Hey, when you accidentally drank that nasty stuff the other day, you weren’t being silly and doing it on purpose, were you?” She may or may not give you a straight answer. What’s far more important than her original motivation here is that she understands just how dangerous “Mommy juice”/“Daddy juice” is for kids and that she could end up very sick and in the hospital if she drinks it. You don’t want to make her feel guilty or shamed for what happened last week, but let her know how glad you are that she’s okay and how important it is that she’s always careful to only drink things that were given to her by you or other trusted grownups. Adult beverages shouldn’t seem cool at 5, they should seem dangerous and scary. Make sure you get that through to her, though it seems the icky taste of beer may have likely started doing that work for you.
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From this week’s letter, My Neighbor Turned Into a Complete Monster Over a Parking Spot: “I was discussing this with my ‘friend’ when she started piling on with insults about why I was in the wrong, saying that she has known me for a year but doesn’t trust me at all, and that she wouldn’t trust me to be there to care for her child if needed.”
Dear Care and Feeding,
My ex-husband and I have 50/50 custody of our 12-year-old son. My ex also has a new baby with his second wife, who is significantly younger and quite attractive. Recently my son tried to talk to his dad because he found himself getting aroused when his stepmom breastfeeds in front of him, and he wanted a free pass to leave the room when it happened, rather than getting in trouble for excusing himself in the middle of dinner, etc. My ex blew up and called our son a pervert. Now he’s freaking out because he thinks he’s some kind of monster who needs to be locked up, and he doesn’t want to go back to his dad’s. How can I reassure him that this is totally normal (it’s normal, right?) and try to get my ex and his wife to show him a little understanding? I got the impression that my ex doesn’t want his wife to even know about this—do I need to bypass him, if necessary, and speak to her? What do I even say?
— Mom in the Middle
Dear Mom in the Middle,
Let your son know, which I’m sure you have already, that there is nothing wrong with him and that his body is simply going through a stage where he is very easily excited, sometimes on occasions in which he knows it isn’t “right” to be excited. He had a very normal physical reaction for someone his age, and he did the right thing by asking his father to allow him to leave the room during nursing, even if it doesn’t feel that way right now. It was brave of him to share something that embarrassing. While you don’t want to pile on your ex in front of your son, you can say that his reaction was disappointing, it was wrong for him to call his son a pervert, and that you are going to talk to him about it.
Your ex is being completely unreasonable here. He should know, at his big age, that penises have minds of their own and are known to respond to certain stimuli regardless of how inappropriate it may be—especially for a 12-year-old boy. Explain to him (if he’ll listen to reason) that your son’s reaction is not his fault, nor is it a sign of some sort of moral failing or deviant sexuality. While your son does have to learn how to compose himself when he’s surprised by an erection at an inopportune time, let your ex know that it’s more than fair for him to ask to excuse his pubescent self in the presence of something that makes him uncomfortable. Hopefully, he can quickly get past the shock of what your son shared; the information itself may have been awkward for a man to hear about his wife, but the only thing at all remarkable here is that your son was honest about his challenges instead of keeping them to himself.
You probably shouldn’t say anything to the stepmother. You don’t know if she’s aware of this situation at all, and it doesn’t seem to be the nature of your relationship for the two of you to have important conversations without your ex present. Focus on reminding your son—and his father—that he’s just a typical kid. Best of luck to you.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
My extended family recently came over, and two of the members slept in my room. I’m normally okay with this, but I found some things under my bed that weren’t there before, including dirty socks, a used pad, and a leg razor. I can tell they’re not mine, and I’ve been told to confront them “with gusto and force” (something that I am incapable of doing). I’m also worried on how to approach them about it, since one of them responds to criticism with yelling and blame-throwing, and my sensitive self can’t handle that. Any ideas?
— Nervous in New York
I don’t know how popular my answer is going to be here, but I disagree with the person who told you to confront your relatives. Especially not with “gusto and force!” What will be accomplished by confronting them at this point? They aren’t still in your home, so it isn’t as if you’re correcting behavior that is continuing. You have now learned that one (or both) of these people can be either trifling or forgetful, but bringing it up now is likely to just make them defensive and uncomfortable over what maybe, maybe, could have been a series of unfortunate mistakes that led to nasty stuff under your bed. What you found was pretty icky, but there is the possibility that some of these items fell from a trash bag while the room was being packed, or that the razor and pad were intended for the trash and somehow got separated. I realize as I am typing this that it doesn’t look very good for this possibility, but I still wouldn’t discount it all together.
Next time the occasion comes up for them to spend the night with you, mention that you found some gross things under the bed last time and ask that they are more careful to tidy up. Some people wouldn’t give them another chance after this, and if that’s how you feel, honor it. But save the conversation until you’re going to be sharing space again and, maybe, you know, avoid doing that unless you absolutely have to. Good luck.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
Can parents of younger children ever give advice to parents of older kids? Or is it just as annoying as getting “tips” from non-parents, because we haven’t been through potty training/Kindergarten/driving lessons/whatever?
— Not There Yet
Dear Not There Yet,
I sure hope so, because it has happened via my Care and Feeding contributions on many occasions! This is a sensitive subject, as it is tempting for parents to disregard the thoughts of people that haven’t navigated exactly what they’re up against with their children (and even those of people who have). I remind myself frequently is that all adults are former children. So while someone may not have experience with parenting a 13-year-old, they know what it feels like to be a 13-year-old. Valuable perspectives on children can come from anyone.
However, it is incredibly important that anyone attempting to dole out advice to a parent about parenting be very mindful of just how sensitive the subject of one’s own childrearing can be. It is also necessary that non-parents are mindful of the bias that may exist against their thoughts on these matters and that they acknowledge where their perspective comes from and what it lacks. Whether you’ve got no kids or a house full of them, no parent wants to hear advice from a friend or relative who talks down on them, or tells them what they “need to” or “must” do. I think it’s wise for us to listen to a number of perspectives on this strange journey called parenthood, but like most parents, I’m only interested in those that are delivered with respect, both for me and for the work of parenting that I’ve done thus far. Messages are received based on how they are delivered, and I think non-parents and parents alike need to be very mindful of how they say what they want to say to someone else about their parenting, all the while preparing themselves for the possibility that they won’t be heard. Not giving parents an excuse, but culturally, we have a lot of autonomy around the way we care for our children, and some of us will use that power as a reason to silence any outside ideas, especially when they aren’t coming from an “expert.”