Care and Feeding

What Do I Tell My Son About His Friend’s Terrible Loss?

A toddler looks sad.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Schnapps2012/iStock/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,

My 3-year-old goes to a day care center. We found out this week that the infant brother of one of his classmates passed away suddenly at home. We aren’t close with this family (we wouldn’t know the parents on sight) but of course our hearts go out to them. We contributed to a memorial collection in their child’s name, and also sent a sympathy card.

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I have worked with young children before and I know that they process things verbally, often with peers. I expect that my son’s classmate might bring up his brother’s death. Obviously, toddlerhood is a hard time to explain complicated ideas, like death, but I want to be prepared. How much should I talk about this with my son ahead of time? Or should I wait until he talks about it? How can I help him understand? And how can I make sure he is a good friend to his classmate, as much as a toddler can be?

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—Searching for the Right Words

Dear Searching,

You are a kind person for wanting to support your son and his classmate in this. I would definitely encourage you to talk to your son. Children understand death very differently than adults do. It varies, of course, depending on how close they are to the person who has died. It often doesn’t have the gravity for very young kids that it has for us, and although you find this event very tragic (rightly so), your son and even his classmate won’t experience it the same way you do, with that same level of emotion. Sit down and discuss death in a way that is easy to understand, matter-of-fact, and consistent with your spiritual beliefs. With the help of your librarian, you should be able to find age-appropriate books on death and dying that might help you. One book I recommend is Lifetimes by Bryan Mellonie. Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood on PBS also has an episode about Daniel’s fish dying that you could watch together.

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Another way you can help ensure your son is a good friend to any classmate is by teaching him caring behaviors. Talk about ways we help each other when we are sad—offering a hug (in non-COVID times) or making them a card, for example—and be sure to model that in your own relationship with him. Narrate your feelings and ask for comfort: “I had a bad day. Could I have a hug?” You’ll be teaching him that other people—even grown-ups—have big feelings, and that he can help make things better.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

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My 5-year-old “James” started kindergarten last fall. Because the pandemic killed a lot of the enrichment activities that we would have otherwise sent him to, I did have some worries about his level of socialization and interacting with other children when he started. It’s been a long kindergarten season, but I was very gratified to hear him start talking a few weeks ago about a new friend he made in another kindergarten class named “Henry.”

Unfortunately, it is starting to look like Henry is a bad influence on James. James has taken to coming home from school, immediately running to me with a shout of “Milkies!” and trying to grab at my breasts. I’ve had to physically push him away to get him to stop. I’ve told him how rude it is to grab at a woman’s chest and how he should never, ever do it, but the attempts persist. When I asked him about it, he told me that Henry taught him to do this. I’m under the impression that Henry still breastfeeds at home, despite being the same age as my son, and that this is a normal, enjoyable thing so he wanted his friend to get in on it.

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I’m tempted to minimize Henry’s involvement in James’ life. On the other hand, I know James has had trouble socializing and it feels like it could cause other damage to take steps to restrict him from interacting with his friend. I don’t seem to be making headway trying to counter whatever reinforcement Henry is giving James, although with children this young, I suppose it might go away on its own. What should I do?

—Not Sure What to Do

Dear Not Sure,

You say you were worried about James’ ability to socialize with his peers, but I’m wondering whether Henry might also be adapting to life outside of his home? He may not realize that other children aren’t still breastfeeding like he is. And although kids begin to demonstrate empathy as early as the toddler years, it takes several years for that skill set to fully develop, even without a pandemic in the mix. So it’s very possible that what you’re seeing is simply Henry’s and James’ lack of awareness that different people’s home activities and personal boundaries are different.

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I would sit down with James when he is calm and explain that you don’t like to be touched that way and how it makes you feel. Describe the feelings so he can understand how his actions affect you. I would also explain breastfeeding to him and tell him that although it’s something Henry might still do with his mom, it’s not something you and he do. Depending on how the conversation goes, you could even consider offering him an alternate way to greet you when he gets home—a secret handshake, a silly kind of hug, or something like that.

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You don’t go into any detail about whether the breast-grabbing is the only new behavior James has learned. If you do have other concerns, or even if you’re just curious about the relationship between the two friends, I think you’ll get a much clearer insight into their dynamic by setting up a playground or backyard play date. You can observe the boys’ interactions directly, and you’ll get a chance to get to know Henry’s parent(s) too. Since Henry’s intentions seem good, unless you see disrespectful behavior manifesting in multiple ways, I wouldn’t worry. This sounds to me like two kids who are figuring out that the world has more variety than what they have experienced within their homes’ walls.

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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 parents have always favored my younger sister. I did well in high school and was part of important clubs, whereas she skated by and only played one sport, but our parents hyped up her successes like they were on the same level as mine. I got accepted into an Ivy League school for pre-med despite being the first in our family to go to such a school, and they did celebrate it, but they made as big a deal out of my sister going to community college and living at home two years later. She graduated her two-year computer coding program the same year I finished my undergrad, and they threw us a joint party in their backyard.

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Because our parents paid for our education, she graduated debt-free. I’m grateful that they paid for college, but I now have to work to pay for medical school. Since my sister got a job, she’s been making a huge deal out of giving our parents money. I can’t afford to while in medical school for the next several years. Our parents constantly praise my sister for the financial help, and I’m now not even getting cursory praise for my achievements. Once I’m a doctor, I’ll make much more money than my sister, but I’m not sure I even want to give anything to my parents. What can I do for now to make them understand that treating our achievements as equal is insulting to the extra work and success I’ve had, and save our relationship by the time I have money again?

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—Equal Rewards, Unequal Work

Dear ERUW,

Let me offer a scenario to consider. If you had two children and one scored higher on an IQ test, would you make sure you praised that child more than the other throughout their childhood? Similarly, should a sports-loving parent heap praise on their athletic child and offer demonstrably less encouragement to the kid who prefers to draw? I hope your answer to both is an emphatic “no.” My point is that while I know you’re proud of your accomplishments, you’re suggesting that your parents’ affection and praise should be conditional based on what you (or society) value as “success.” So, with kindness, I do not think you deserve more praise than your sister because of what you have or will accomplish or earn.

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The way your sister talks about financially helping out your parents clearly bothers you, and that is fair. You’re within your rights to explain to her how those statements make you feel and ask her to tone them down, since you can’t make any financial contributions to your parents for many years. It’s possible she feels the same sense of comparison that you do, and this is her way of demonstrating her worth. As to your parents, if you feel like there is a history of them treating your sister with favoritism, that warrants an open and vulnerable conversation with them as well. Ultimately, I think you need to find a way to be intrinsically satisfied with your own achievements rather than comparing yourself to anyone else.

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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,

I am so embarrassed to be writing this question but here it is: Since he was little, my 12-year-old son has picked his nose and eaten his boogers at least a few times a week. It’s a disgusting habit that my husband and I have tried to stop, but nothing works. Our son only does it at home, and I’m quite sure his friends have no idea or else they’d tease him mercilessly.

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I don’t know what else to do. We’ve tried gross-flavored nail polish, punishment, grounding, everything, but our son still does it to comfort himself. I guess our only option now is to hope he grows out of it—I’m sure his future wife will hate it. Are there any other options we’re not thinking of? Could this be a sign of something actually wrong with him?

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—Snot Cool

Dear Snot Cool,

Good news/bad news. The good news is that I don’t think this is a sign of anything deeply amiss. You may want to keep an eye out for any other kinds of compulsive behaviors like pulling out hair or picking at skin; taken together, those could be a sign that your child does need some help.

The eating part is rather gross, I’ll grant you, which leads to the bad news: I’m not sure there is much you can do about this whole habit. If he knows not to do it in front of his friends, he will also likely keep it out of sight of a future partner (I hope—at least for the first few years!). You can help those odds by gently interrupting the behavior when you see it and telling him to go to his room or bathroom. You can also have one final conversation, without judgment in your tone of voice, about how unsanitary it is, and hope that that plants some seeds in his head for the future. Ultimately, you might not be able to stop this self-soothing behavior, but with calm consistency you can hopefully modify how he does it.

—Allison

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