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 7-year-old son is in Cub Scouts and loves it; me, not so much. It seems to go against everything I’ve been trying to teach my boys. There is a lot of God and patriotism. At every meeting they promise to be clean and reverent, to do their duty to God and be morally straight, which makes me cringe. We are atheists, which the program technically bans. Up until recently the Boy Scouts also had anti-gay policies. It seems like a no-brainer that this group isn’t for us, but my son loves it. Our “den” gives the option of community service instead of going to church for the “Duty to God” badge. Other than the pledge in the beginning, we have really enjoyed the family friendly activities, projects, and group campouts. I’ve heard comments about masks and losing freedoms, I’ve seen a Let’s Go Brandon flag in a leader’s garage, but overall everyone has been friendly and welcoming and hasn’t talked politics.
I’ve talked to my son about why I don’t think we should continue, but he is 7 and just wants to build cars and go fishing. It doesn’t help that his best friends’ parents are the leaders of the program. With the recent Supreme Court rulings, I just can’t stomach these meetings anymore. He is supposed to march in the Fourth of July parade and I have no desire to celebrate America right now. I’ve checked and cannot find any similar groups in our area. My husband says it would be wrong to make him quit because of my beliefs. But he is 7, isn’t it my job to teach him my morals? I’m so torn on what to do!
— A Mom Just Trying to Do the Right Thing
Dear Just Trying,
Since each Boy Scout troop takes its own approach to the rules and traditions of the national organization, I’m not going to try to explore or debate the positions of the national organization, because that’s not the heart of your question. Your question is really whether your discomfort with the national organization is reason enough to pull your kid out of the local program, so the local is what I’m going to focus on.
It is your job to teach your son your morals, but at some point it’s also your job to let him codify his own set of values, which may or may not line up with yours. Don’t worry, I’m not suggesting that your 7-year-old is ready for that! But I think having an eye toward that future point is your best course of action here. It sounds like you can be reasonably certain that the den leaders, or at least one of them, have different political beliefs than you, but that at least so far those beliefs have not entered the Scout activities. Same goes for the religious elements inherent in the program—in fact your den made some accommodations for your family so that your son could fully participate. Although I understand your discomfort, I’m not sure now is the time to pull him out of the program. If these leaders continue to be respectful of political boundaries and your religious beliefs, then there seems very little danger, at least for now, that your son would pick up anything objectionable to you. And it sounds like both the activities themselves and the other boys in the group are motivational for your son.
I think this is one of those situations where you can let your son continue to be involved with the Scouts while also continuing to speak with him and read with him about the social and moral perspectives you want him to adopt as he grows. Keep an open dialogue and involve him in activism to the extent you are comfortable. In doing so, he may come to question the Boy Scouts’ “shtick” all on his own and find another activity. Or, he may continue to be involved in Scouts, but also grow up to be a rabid liberal, in which case he has learned a really important skill: how to coexist, collaborate, and have meaningful relationships with people who have different views than oneself.
I don’t mean to downplay your discomfort at the rhetoric of certain political factions and recent events regarding a person’s rights—I share it. But I’m also not convinced that the lesson you want to teach your son, or these other parents, is that you feel the need to isolate yourself away from anyone who seems like they vote “R.” So long as these leaders and parents create a respectful space for people of all beliefs, you can wait until your son is old enough to make a decision about his association with the group for himself.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
We recently learned through a third party that my 16-year-old daughter changed her name at school and is claiming she is transgender. When we approached her, she broke down and confirmed it to us. My husband was and is devastated; she was our youngest baby girl and was always dressing up girlish and loved posing for pictures. He’s not willing to accept it, and I do not know how to deal with this. The school has been calling her the name she wants and addressing her as a “he” for a year, which I never knew about. They say they want to be accepting and encouraging. But shouldn’t the school tell the parent so that the parent can keep an eye on their child? Shouldn’t the school ask the child to think things through before making decisions, as this is a lifelong change? I approached the school to question them, and they said it’s not their place to tell parents until the child does something to themselves. Really? I worry the school’s approach of encouraging, rather than questioning, is influencing my child. I will love my child for whoever she wants to be but how do I talk to her to think this through? What if down the road she feels confusion about whether she was trans in the first place?
— Gender Confusion
Your feelings of uncertainty and shock are normal, and they are ok. But you do need to find a way to support your child. In terms of the school’s decision to not tell you about his pronoun and name change, you need to understand that for many LGBTQIA+ kids, it is incredibly dangerous to come out at home. Children coming out to their parents encounter any number of hardships, from ridicule to violence to abandonment. But moreover, students have rights that the school needs to protect. Title IX requires the schools observe the gender identity of a child, including chosen name and preferred pronouns, and the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) prevents schools from “outing” a student.* So, while it feels totally baffling to you that you didn’t know this aspect of your child’s identity for an entire year, do understand that this decision was made in order to keep him safe.
One thing that can be hard to grasp around the subject of transgender identity is the idea that things can be fluid and change. Your letter indicates that you do not want your child to make a permanent decision now that he will have to live with forever, but understand that he may adjust his identity, name, pronouns, and how he defines for himself what it means to be trans. Think of this year as the first step on his journey, and give him the space and support to explore the nuances of his gender identity, rather than expect him to have all the answers right now.
I recommend this page from Trans Youth Equality, which is full of YouTube videos and resources specifically designed for parents like you. PFLAG is also a great organization that provides support groups, hotlines, and other resources for parents and family members of LGBTQIA+ individuals. The most important things you can do right now are to ask and listen. Ask your child how he is feeling and what led him to make this decision to come out at school. Ask him how you can support him and listen to the answers. Lean on the advice of others in your community (or in an online community) who have gone through this experience. It is ok to be vulnerable and not know the answers; it’s also ok to take your child’s lead on this topic.
Finally, please explore a gender-affirming therapist who can constructively help your child through this chapter of his life, and if you can afford one for yourself and your husband, all the better (if you can’t, make ample use of the resources above). This is a change for you all, but there are professionals who can guide you and help ensure that your child and your relationship comes through it with strength and love together.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
I am vegetarian, my partner is not, and we have been raising our 2-and-a-half-year-old as a vegetarian. Our plan has always been to let her decide whether to eat meat once she is old enough to understand what it is. She hasn’t really noticed that her dad eats meat because she eats dinner earlier than we do, and when she sees him eating something she doesn’t recognize, we tell her it’s something daddy eats but we don’t, which has thus far appeased her. But she has recently started to ask more questions about what animals eat (“maybe some lettuce? maybe some chickpeas?”). It also seems that she has started to suspect that animals might eat things besides vegetables. She has recently become very interested in alligators and wants to know what they eat. She has said that they have big teeth and they might eat her. We are trying to figure out how to talk to her about animals and people eating other animals without making her too sad (she loves all animals) and without making her upset with her dad for choosing to eat it. Do you have any general advice on how to begin to introduce the concept of meat to a toddler and a timeframe for doing so?
In my experience, toddlers are very matter-of-fact about this kind of thing, so you can be, too. They want to know the points of information, they want the explanation, but they don’t necessarily imbue things like carnivorousness with the ethical weight that older kids and adults do. I think your best bet is to be straightforward in both information and tone. You might try reading some books on the topic with your child. I like Who Eats What: A Slide and Learn Book by Stephanie Babin and What Eats That by Ryan Jacobsen for a slightly older crowd.
In terms of how to approach the carnivorous nature of many animals, I’ve found it helpful to talk about teeth (“some animals have sharp teeth for cutting meat, and some animals have big flat teeth that are good for chewing plants. Humans have both kinds of teeth so we can eat both kinds of things.”) and to have simple food chain conversations (“the deer eat the grass, but if no one ate the deer, there would be way too many! And there wouldn’t be enough grass to go around, but there also wouldn’t be enough room for anything or anyone else! So, the wolves eat some of the deer, and that makes sure there is enough food and space for everyone.”).
If she asks why dad eats meat and mom does not, you can explain that different individuals make choices based on their tastes or what feels right to them, and that neither is “right.” When she does see her dad, or others, eating meat, feel free to explain it to her. “This is a hamburger, and the meat comes from a cow. Do you want to taste some?”
As for timeline, there’s no time like the present. In 15 years as an environmental educator, I’ve never heard of a toddler who was traumatized by learning about carnivores. And I’ve met many 6-year-olds who understand the food chain and where food comes from, and they have opted into and out of eating meat for themselves. Starting now gives you a long runway to have these conversations in small, manageable bits along the way so that you are enabling her to make her own choices as she grows.
Dear Care and Feeding,
My ex-wife and I have joint custody of our 2-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter. After paying for child support, daycare, and renting a 3-bedroom apartment on one income, I don’t have much left over, but I managed to buy my daughter the bike she really wanted for her sixth birthday. This past weekend the kids were with their mom, and she took them to the park, where an 8- or 9-year-old girl pushed my daughter off her bike and took it, right in front of both their moms. The other mom refused to make her return it, and for reasons it would be counterproductive to get into (and I personally think are stupid), my ex did not try to take it back, call the cops, or anything—she just let them have the bike while my daughter bawled.
Now my ex expects me to buy our daughter another bike ASAP. I could, but it would be a stretch to do it now rather than in three or four months. Plus, my ex can’t swear the same thing won’t happen if the new bike gets grabbed under similar circumstances. She is not rich either, but I think since she’s responsible for letting the bike go, and refuses to defend the next bike, she should be on the hook for buying as many bikes as it takes. I’m really frustrated with her, not just because of the money, but because my daughter has expressed a lot of hurt and resentment over the incident. Plus, I think my ex probably shot herself in the foot if she hoped to raise our daughter to share her same principles, but that’s getting into the counterproductive part.
I could just buy the bike and not let my daughter take it to her mom’s, but that seems like a waste because she spends half her time there where she has more space to ride it. What should I do?
— Mad Bike Dad
Frankly, your ex’s reaction to all of this seems totally baffling. Without knowing the circumstances (is the other family in desperate financial need? Are they a potential danger to your wife? Is she doing this to spite you?) it’s really hard to offer any advice on how to navigate your next steps. From the bit that I do know, I agree with you that she should be responsible for replacing the bike. Conversely, in a circumstance where the bike was damaged in an accident or stolen from a garage, I’d advise you to split the cost of a new bike. That is also an option here, of course, but your letter makes me question whether that would be a good investment of both your money.
Clearly there is a significant difference of opinion between you and your ex regarding shared property. If you cannot come to an agreement as to how big-ticket items like bikes should be cared for and managed (including things like repairs, tune-ups, etc.) then I think your best bet is to keep the households separate. If you replace the bike, it stays at your house in your control. That way, you are responsible for your own investments, and she for hers. You’re right that it would be far more economical to work together on this, but you wouldn’t be the first set of split-up parents to need the clean break that comes with entirely separate household goods.
Correction, July 8, 2022: A previous version of this piece misstated that students’ protections at school are the law, and that FERPA prevents schools from outing a student to their parents. While students have certain protections at school, these protections do not always fall within the realm of legalities.