Care and Feeding

My Son’s School Is Treating Him Really Unfairly

How can I right this wrong?

A teen boy holds his head in his hands.
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,

For spring break my 16-year-old son Caden went on a multi-day class trip with an emphasis on swimming and water parks. Caden is on the autism spectrum and despite being a brilliant student has always struggled socially. But he’d been looking forward to this trip immensely, and as a single mom I sacrificed to ensure he could go and have a great time. I even bought him a GoPro so he could record his adventures. On the first day when they reached the very first swimming destination, several girls objected to Caden using his GoPro, claiming they didn’t want to be filmed in their swimsuits. Their boyfriends added pressure until finally the chaperones got involved and confiscated the GoPro. But according to Caden, two popular boys also wore GoPros for pretty much the entire trip. When I went to the school to retrieve the GoPro the teacher in charge would not confirm or deny this, but said in any case it wasn’t a problem because no one objected to these other boys using them. I’ve been discriminated against myself and it breaks my heart to see my son now being treated differently. I can’t get over feeling like the school system should refund me the cost of the GoPro, since Caden didn’t get to use it for its intended purpose, and preferably also pay some compensation for his disappointment and suffering. Should I pursue this, and how?

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— My Son is Not a Creep

Dear MSINAC,

I feel for you and your son; nobody likes to feel the injustice of a double standard or being singled out, and for it to happen to a child who may not be able to “read” social dynamics fluently is particularly frustrating.

Unfortunately, I do not think you can request compensation; or rather, you can request it, but I do not know that you’ll have much luck. Kids on field trips have devices, toys, etc. confiscated or limited all the time, or privileges revoked, without there being a fee owed to the parent. In my experience, unless property was damaged or an activity was canceled, compensation wouldn’t be issued.

I would, however, request a meeting with the teacher who supervised the trip, as well as the principal and possibly Caden’s guidance counselor or a similar advocate, if one exists. It’s important to discuss whether there was indeed a different level of restriction placed on Caden compared to his peers, not necessarily so that you can recoup any losses, but so that you can try to help avoid a similar situation for other neurodiverse kids in the future. While society and schools have come a long way since I grew up in terms of accepting kids with autism and other disabilities and neurological conditions, it’s still sometimes too easy to treat those on the spectrum as “different” or “weird” and apply different rules to them. But by having a focused conversation with the teacher, you might learn that Caden’s account wasn’t fully accurate, or that there were extenuating circumstances that lead the teacher to think they were acting in good faith. Yes, this is unsatisfying and doesn’t help Caden feel better in the short term. Yes, it is exhausting to always have to be the “learning opportunity” for others in our society. But nothing that happens in this meeting can change Caden’s trip. It can change someone else’s, though, if indeed something went awry here. Minimally, future field trips may have better guidelines or restrictions for film equipment.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I’m seven months pregnant and my partner and I cannot stop fighting; it’s horrible. From his perspective, he’s trying to be sweet and supportive but never knows what is going to set me off, and has withdrawn some to protect himself. From my perspective, he seems preoccupied with work, and if I burst out crying at feeling neglected or hurt by something he said, he seems annoyed and is often frustrated with me when I want comforting. After being so excited to be engaged and have a baby, I’m full of daily doubts we are just not right for each other. It doesn’t help that I think I have some prenatal depression, since I’m crying a lot, and I am very sensitive and insecure. But it feels like he just makes it worse because he doesn’t have the bandwidth to be supportive. I don’t know what to do, I feel very alone, but if I express that to him he gets frustrated and says I’m not seeing the ways he is being there for me. Communication has broken down. I have a therapist but she’s honestly not that helpful. Talking about this with friends is hard, as I think it makes him look bad, and I don’t want to do that. Will things improve? Are we doomed as a couple? Is this normal? What do I do?

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— Pregnancy Blues

Dear Blues,

First off, please do talk to your OBGYN about prenatal depression ASAP. If something is off with your brain chemistry, it’s best for you, your marriage and your baby that you address it, and there is no shame in that. It also may be that you’re coping with good ‘ole pregnancy hormones, and your doctor can talk to you about those, too.

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Second, if you don’t think your therapist is very helpful, that means they aren’t the right therapist for you! I once spoke to a counselor who said that finding a therapist is like going on a lot of blind dates; when one doesn’t work, it doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with you or them. The chemistry just isn’t there. If you aren’t feeling like therapy is helping, don’t give up on the concept; it’s time to try another provider. But in this case, I would suggest prioritizing a couples’ therapist for you to see together. It sounds like both you and your partner are frustrated, sad, and scared about what is happening in your relationship—and it’s only going to get harder when baby arrives. Working with a therapist together will help you communicate to each other in a way the other person can understand, and can help you articulate expectations for how to operate as a new family of three. While you find someone and wait for your first appointment, maybe you want to read a book together that can help with your communication styles. Many of my friends swear by the oldie-but-goodie The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman, if you want a place to start.

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I don’t think you are doomed as a couple; you don’t mention having any doubts before you conceived, so it sounds like these are relatively new conflicts, or at least their intensity is new. So, do not despair yet. Think of all of this as a way to invest in yourself and your family, which is the best gift you can give your new baby.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I have a low stakes question: I have a three-year-old and a three-month-old. We are currently renting a two-bedroom apartment, where the three-year-old has his own small room and the baby’s crib is in with mom and dad. We are hopefully moving fairly soon to a three-bedroom house. Most of the ones we’ve looked at have had a master bedroom, a second bedroom, and a much smaller third one. Right now, it’s a non-issue since the baby is oblivious to getting the tiny room. But I can see that as siblings grow into squabbling children and adolescents, the matter of one child having the clearly superior bedroom might become a bone of contention. Of course we can fall back on the “be glad you have your own room at all!” response, but honestly when does that ever work? Barring the ability to make two bedrooms equivalent, how can we make the division fairer?

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— All’s Fair

Dear Fair,

When I was a young girl, I had the slightly bigger bedroom, but I was always jealous of my little sister’s grander windows. I’m sure my mom rolled her eyes when I mentioned it one day, and she probably thought that familiar refrain every parent knows well: no one is ever satisfied, and nothing is ever fair.

The point is, more than likely there will be some other attribute of the room or its furniture (the loft bed, the closet, the laptop, the bean bag, etc.) that will draw ire and indignation from either child, so unless you’re talking about a significant difference (and even if there is one) it’s probably not worth losing sleep over if the rest of the house is perfect for the family. (Maybe you even intentionally give the youngest kid a cool room set up down the line to compensate for the size.) Still, if it bothers you, there’s nothing that says the kids can’t share the large room and have the small room as a playroom or shared desk space. Lots of kids I know have loved sharing a room with their sibling, either for a few years or their whole childhood. And in my husband’s family, the kids traded bedrooms every few years! Or perhaps you can put a bedroom in the basement when the oldest kid becomes preteen. However you proceed, you have lots of options and there are no right or wrong ways to arrange the house. If the otherwise-perfect house presents itself, don’t let a bedroom size be the thing that stands in the way.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

Our neighbor has a daughter who is the same age as our oldest daughter (9 years old). They are great friends and play often, many times at the neighbors’ house. We get along with her parents but aren’t friends per se, as they are older than us. They also have a son who is a freshman in high school.

We have different parenting styles, which is where my concern comes in. They often leave the nine-year-old home alone. We have the rule for our daughter that if there isn’t a parent home, she cannot be there. It seemed to work until today when the dad left the kids at home alone without telling them he was leaving. I noticed his car wasn’t in the driveway when I went to get the mail, and I asked my daughter to come home. She is generally a rule follower and I believe her when she says they didn’t know.

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Am I overthinking this? Is nine too young to be home alone? I think I’m more upset about him not telling them he was leaving, but is it worth a discussion with them?

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— Possible Helicopter Parent

Dear Helicopter,

As they say, your mileage may vary, but to me nine seems like a reasonable age for a responsible child to be left home alone for short periods of time. Would I go to dinner and a movie? No. But the post office? Sure. You can look up the laws in your state to see whether there’s any legal risk there; while a handful of states have minimum ages set, most leave it up to parents’ judgment (the states that do have a law seem to set the age anywhere between six and 14).

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It’s perfectly reasonable to speak to your neighbor about your comfort level. You might ask that he not leave the kids unattended, or that if he does leave the kids both come over to your house. Or you might decide that you’re ok taking this step towards childhood independence, but you want a courtesy call from the neighbor before he leaves. You mention the neighbors also have a teenage brother; if no parents are in the house but the brother is, how do you feel about that? High school freshmen are quite capable of being in a caregiving role for a few hours, so perhaps that’s a middle ground to explore if you’re still nervous.

Your final option is to reiterate your rule to your daughter once more, so that if/when the neighbor dad leaves, she comes back home. Hopefully some combination of these options will feel right to you based on your daughter’s and her friend’s maturity and your own gut instinct. Ultimately, different parenting decisions and styles will always crop up, and a good neighbor (in the “it takes a village” sense) should be more than willing to work with you and your comfort level around this.

—Allison

For More Parenting Coverage, Listen to Mom and Dad Are Fighting

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