Care and Feeding

If We Take In Our Nephew, Must He Get the Same Opportunities as Our Kids?

Collage of two boys wearing school uniforms in front of a school bus
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by monkeybusinessimages/iStock/Getty Images Plus and Nerthuz/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

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 sister has had untreated mental issues for many years. It has culminated in her losing custody of her baby. My parents are aging and realistically cannot raise the baby. I am not close to my sister, but my husband and I are more than willing and happy to take the baby—excited even. But! The big but is that we cannot give the kid the same opportunities as our own children. We live paycheck to paycheck in order to send our two kids to private school. While the public schools are not horrible where we live, they aren’t great, and it was a decision we made early on. Because of this, my family thinks we are more well-off than we are. The truth is sending another child to private school would certainly put us over. There is just no way. My parents think we are just ghastly in thinking we’d send my nephew to public school when my other children are in private school. “Might as well put him in foster care!” is what they say. As is, I would have to find a different job to accommodate another child to the mix. School is a ways off and my children would be in middle school when he is old enough to attend. We really don’t want to pull the kids out of their school altogether. They have friends and a community they love. Are we so horrible?

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—Third Time’s the Dilemma

Dear Third,

Yeah, you cannot do this. Not because I think a public school education would be unacceptably inferior to your kids’ private school—I don’t—but because it reveals an unmistakable difference in your perception of this baby and his role in your family and that of your biological children. Before addressing matters of schools or finances, it’s your mindset that you need to tend to.

I’m sorry that your sister isn’t well, and I’m really sorry that she and her son cannot be together healthfully. This is a weighty situation, and while I’m glad you’re able and happy to care for the baby, you also have a responsibility to be careful and thoughtful as you proceed. I am worried that you phrased your concern as “we cannot give the kid the same opportunities as our own children.” If you adopt your sister’s baby, he is your child, fully and completely, and you need to structure your life as thoroughly around him as you do your other kids. That is what he needs and deserves, and every decision you make has to be founded in the premise that he is an equal member of your family. I get that you weren’t expecting this and aren’t currently prepared to absorb the financial impact of adding a third child, and there will be changes and tough decisions on the horizon. But the solution cannot be that you maintain one particular standard of living for your biological kids and the baby gets whatever’s left.

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So, in the case of your kids’ education, if you can’t afford to pay three private school tuition bills (and there is no financial assistance available), then I’d first begin by making sure you’ve given your public school district thorough and fair consideration. My impression is that your decision not to enroll your kids was based more on the district’s reputation than your personal experience, and given what a hardship the tuition has been with just two kids enrolled, I would definitely try to get more familiar with your public option. Reach out to administrators to ask for an overview or see if you can visit; talk to local parents. If you just can’t get on board with what you find, then your next step should be reaching whatever solution will allow you to distribute your resources equitably among your three kids, whether that’s both parents making a job change, moving to a new district, or whatever else your personal circumstances allow.

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Again, though, it’s not so much about the school decision specifically; that’s ultimately just one of a lifetime’s worth of choices in which you are obligated to offer your generosity and consideration to all three kids as fairly as you possibly can. The first thing you need to do is ensure you are mentally and emotionally prepared to do that.

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—Ms. Bauer (middle and high school teacher, New York)

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I know elementary school homework can be a hot topic. Do you have any advice for getting a 7-year-old to sit down and do 10 minutes of homework a night? The work is not too hard, but the getting him to do it is hard. Taking things away doesn’t seem to be working and giving him incentives doesn’t seem to be working. Any other ideas/tips/tricks would be much appreciated! Thanks in advance!

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—Homework Police

Dear HP,

When both the carrot and the stick cease to have meaning for a child, that is quite the conundrum. I’m happy to hear that homework is only about 10 minutes per day. Most children your child’s age should be able to complete this amount of work, so perhaps a few of these ideas might help.

One of the biggest barriers that children face in terms of completing work is the fear of making mistakes. This can be paralyzing to kids, so if a culture of effort over results has not been fostered at school or home, that may make an enormous difference in your child’s attitude toward homework. Be sure to emphasize a solid effort over accurate results. “Mistakes are valuable” is the mantra in my classroom, and it often frees kids up to try their best.

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You might also make homework a time when everyone in your family is academically engaged. If your child sees the rest of the family reading, writing, and otherwise engaged in intellectual interests, attitudes may change. Modeling preferred behaviors can be enormously helpful for kids.

You may also want to revisit your incentives. When a teacher tells me that their incentives are not affecting student behavior, I tell them that they have the wrong incentives. Ask your child what he might like to receive in exchange for hard work. While it would be ideal for your child to be intrinsically motivated, they are still young, and frankly, most of us require incentives to do many of the things we do today. We would probably stop going to work if we didn’t receive an adequate paycheck and satisfaction from our work. Your child is no different.

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A mentor might be helpful, too. If your child was paired with an older student who could help with homework and talk about the importance of a work ethic, that might help, too. Kids will often listen to kids a few years older than them while ignoring parents completely. Sad but true.

Best of luck.

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—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)

I have a 7-year-old first grader who is an excellent reader, and reading is her hobby of choice. She’s a very fast reader and often finishes two to three short, first-to-third-grade-level chapter books in a day (500–700 Lexile). We chat about the books and characters enough that I feel comfortable with her comprehension—and she will often read them a second or a third time. However, I can’t get her to read longer or higher-grade-level books. If she can’t finish it in a day, she rejects it. Is this OK because she’s reading a lot and enjoying it, or is there something I can do to get her to read at her capabilities and develop patience enough to spend a few days on a longer book?

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—Short and Sweet?

Dear Short and Sweet,

It’s amazing that your daughter has developed such a strong love for reading so early. I think it’s perfectly fine that she’s rejecting longer and harder books at this age. In my opinion, just because a child can read more challenging books doesn’t always mean that they should. In early education we try to pair children with “just right” books. Just right books are easy, enjoyable, can be read with no support, and most importantly are developmentally appropriate. Books like these build a love for reading instead of pushing kids to read books that may be too difficult or frankly uninteresting to them. This approach reinforces the idea that reading should be entertaining rather than laborious.

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If you still want to push your daughter to expand her literary skill set, you could try finding shorter texts that may be a higher Lexile level to build her reading stamina slowly. I’ve also found that high-Lexile picture books are incredibly effective in helping children to build their understanding of more complex topics without dampening their enthusiasm for reading in the process.

—Mr. Hersey (elementary school teacher, Washington)

My high schooler (rising 10th grader) very much looks at homework through the lens of doing the bare minimum required to keep up his grades. I feel like homework should be completed regardless of what he “needs” to get—to learn the subjects, get the practice, respect his teacher, and generally reinforce good work habits. Often, if I ask if he’s done an assignment, he’ll answer with something like “Even if I don’t do any homework for the rest of the quarter, I’ll still get an A in the class.” I have no trouble with his ultimate performance in his classes (i.e., what’s on his report card). Is this a genius move on his part, where he’s able to preserve more of his free time, cause less headache for himself, and do less busywork? Or am I right that it’s better to reinforce good work habits and do the work?

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—Reinforcer

Dear Reinforcer,

I’m inclined to agree with you. Unchallenged students who are gifted enough to coast through on little effort aren’t really learning anything. Worse still, they don’t learn how to be good students. They don’t learn how to put in effort, how to grapple with difficult concepts, how to persevere through long study sessions or difficult tasks. They also don’t get the sweet reward of having mastered something that was once beyond their grasp. When students like that encounter a difficult subject later in life, be it in college or grad school, they are often unprepared for the fight that can be learning and flunk out when it really matters.

All that being said, I don’t blame your son one bit. I’m inclined to blame the teacher. If he’s able to get the grade without doing the homework, what motivation does he have to complete it? The teacher should not have assigned work that is inconsequential to both his grade and his understanding of the material. If he isn’t going to do it out of an intrinsic desire to learn and there’s no extrinsic motivation when it comes to a report card, what other kind of motivation is there? You’re right that he needs to learn good work habits, but is he really going to learn the value of those work habits if he’s toiling for no reason? You might as well send him into the backyard to dig holes.

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I know this answer isn’t that satisfying—how are you going to get the teacher(s) to change their habits and practices? A first step would be to get your son into more challenging classes, at least in the subject or two he likes the most or that relates most to the field he wants to go into. It’s also possible for him to learn the value of hard work through something outside of school such as sports, community service organizations, or other extracurriculars. Those kinds of passion projects can really allow for young people to come into their own. If you want him to learn how to be a hard worker, he needs to be challenged, whether that comes in the form of a teacher that really makes him work for the A or a subject that he’s not innately gifted in. If you want him to be a good learner, he needs to be challenged by a teacher who gives him meaningful and rigorous assignments and a subject he values.

—Mr. Vona (high school teacher, Florida)

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My daughter is currently in half-day kindergarten. She loves it. She loves her teacher. All seems well, and she seems to be excelling academically—at least as far as I can tell. We’ve received one conference report, had one conference in mid-November, and we’ve received a few math assessment reports, but nothing else. Is that normal?

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