Care and Feeding

Should I Split My Children’s College Funds With My New Stepkids?

Sad woman sitting with her elbow on her knee, resting her head in her hand.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Prostock-Studio/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,

I am a married woman with two children (14 and 17 years old) and two stepchildren (12 and 15 years old). My children’s father is deceased. My stepchildren live with us 60 percent of the time. My husband and I have been together for four years, married for two. My children both have fully funded college savings accounts. The money is sufficient to pay for private college and graduate school for each of them. The funds were deposited in the account from their father’s life insurance and the money their paternal grandmother left them. Before their father died, we discussed his intention for the money; it was to pay for the children’s education. Anything left over was to be converted to a retirement savings account for them. The problem is that my husband and his ex-wife have not saved anything for their children’s educations. They are pressuring me to distribute the money evenly among the four children.  Technically I can do that because the money can be redistributed to siblings or stepsiblings. On the one hand, it is unfair that my children will get a free ride while his children will not. On the other hand, this money belongs to my kids, and it doesn’t feel right to give it away. My kids are adamant that I have no right to “steal” their money. My husband says that my children are spoiled and selfish. I have offered a compromise that I pay what I can for my stepchildren out of my own assets, but it wouldn’t be much beyond what FAFSA requires of me. Please help!

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— Stuck about Sharing

Dear Stuck,

It’s hard to know whether I should be reading red flags into your letter. It strikes me as problematic that your husband and his ex-wife are pressuring you to share your kids’ money. And no matter whether they couldn’t or didn’t save for their kids’ education, it’s not your responsibility to make up for that deficiency. And it sounds like it could potentially damage the relationship between you and your kids if you tried to redistribute the funds. That warrants a lot more understanding and a lot less name-calling from your husband than what it sounds like you’re getting.

For the sake of argument, though, let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and just assume tensions are high because money does weird things to people. It would be inappropriate for any of grandma’s money to go to these new stepsiblings, with whom she had no relationship. So, at the very least those funds need to stay with your kids. That leaves the insurance money. In my opinion, a life insurance settlement is meant to help a family thrive after an income-earner is no longer in the picture, and using it to help new members of the family isn’t necessarily out of bounds. But this would have been much more palatable if the money were in your account. I would check with an accountant or lawyer that there isn’t some obscure reason you can’t give the money to the stepkids. But, even if you legally can redistribute the funds, you involved your kids in the decision-making the moment you informed them of the money. You told them about the money and what it was for—and put it in their names—so their wishes should be respected.

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You offered a reasonable compromise of helping the stepchildren from your own financial assets. This feels like a perfectly valid path forward. I think you have some soul searching to do—not about the money, but about the interpersonal dynamics that are popping up. Why does your husband feel entitled to your kids’ money, and why does his ex-wife get a say about it? Additionally, what are the root causes of your children’s opposition? Is it about the money for them, or is there some bad blood between them and the stepsiblings or stepfather that needs to be addressed? Your children may simply feel like they are being asked to concede something intimately connected to their father, but I think it’s in your best interests to fully understand, and stand by, their points of view.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My son, Jake, will turn 12 in the fall. He has an exceptional memory, especially auditory memory. While not truly eidetic, pretty much everything he hears, he remembers, and can call it up in an instant. His visual memory isn’t quite as good, but it’s still extremely acute. It was abnormal enough that we took him for a battery of tests when he was younger, and one of the things we were told is that while it will likely always remain above normal in recall, his memory is likely to fade a little as he progresses through and out of childhood.

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We seem to have reached that point. About a week ago, Jake approached my husband and I in tears because he couldn’t recall the exact lyrics to a song. We tried to be comforting, but as far as Jake is concerned, this is the end of the world. He’s been moody and withdrawn and is absolutely convinced he’ll fail all of his classes once they start up again.

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As far as we can determine, he’s still enormously above average in terms of memory. And he has not always used his gift well; he’s always had a problem of being rude and dismissive to people, especially kids his own age, who forget pretty much anything. Quite honestly, I do think it’s good for him to have this privilege stripped away from him, to see how the rest of us live, but that’s butting heads with how I should be acting as a mother—I feel like I ought to be consoling my frightened son. I don’t know how. Everything I’ve gotten concerning his memory has been about how to nurture it or how to motivate him to study with it in mind, not things like how to reassure him that his memory’s fading ever so slightly. What do I do here?

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— Clueless Mother

Dear Clueless,

You have to engage your empathy and your de-escalation centers. Let’s start with empathy; it’s perfectly fine for you to feel less concerned—glad even—at this change for your child, but that’s a sentiment to keep to yourself. You can empathize with your child without giving credence to his feeling of doom. When he talks about the changes to his memory, name his feelings: “I can see you’re really worried.” “You seem really unsettled right now.” He may correct you on the specific emotion, but it is a way to show your son that you acknowledge and validate his feelings. For de-escalation, your focus is not to prove to your child that he’s worrying for nothing, but to stop him from spiraling. You may gently suggest that he wait and see how school goes, and not go “seeking trouble.” You might also turn the worrying around, and ask him, hypothetically, how he’d suggest addressing it if it did become a problem for his school work. Either of these approaches may help him remember he has much more control over the situation than he might feel at first.

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Remember that your son is 12 and that is a hard age without experiencing this kind of change. Hormones and emotions are high, the academics of middle school are much different than elementary, and the social side of being a pre-teen is a world unto itself. I’d suggest you focus less on this specific reason Jake is currently moody and stressed and think of this as your (perhaps) first step into parenting a pre-teen. Your job is to teach Jake not how to deal with memory changes—that can come later if his studying and grades do suffer—but to teach him how to face stress and fear. I’d suggest reading the book How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish, which offers strategies on how to navigate these situations.

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For better or worse, growing into adulthood is a rite of passage that means the elimination of many of youth’s “superpowers”—flexible, noodle-like bones, perfect skin, etc. But just because change is natural doesn’t mean it is always easy. Be kind to Jake and help him hone the tools he’ll need to be adaptable and resilient as he matures.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

How do you draw the line between fat-shaming and expressing concern? Here is the deal: my nephew came to visit us for the first time in seven years. He lives with his father and paternal grandparents on the opposite side of the country from us. His mother is dysfunctional and out of the picture. Until the pandemic hit, we visited at least once a year, but the last time he came to visit us was when he was 6.  We maintained contact only through FaceTime and phone calls over the past two years. Well, I was in for a shock on this visit. My nephew is 13, about 5 feet 4 inches tall, and is pushing 250 pounds. He is not athletic, so it’s not like he’s built like a football player.

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In the two weeks that he stayed with us, he didn’t eat a single vegetable or fruit. Any salad or vegetable side dish, at home or out, was left untouched. He even removed lettuce from restaurant burgers. All he ate was chips, sugary cereal, meat, bread, and pasta. Not even an apple or a banana. I understand that kids in general are not great fans of broccoli and Brussels sprouts, but most will eat carrots with ranch dressing, or strawberries or bananas on their waffles, or munch on some grapes, etc. Not my nephew. He moved anything “plant” to the side of his plate and left it absolutely untouched.

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I had to bite my tongue. With adults, I mind my own business because how other people eat is not my business. We are not health nuts. We do eat chips, burgers, and pizza sometimes like everyone else.  It’s just that’s not the only thing we eat. We have plenty of fruit at home, and our kids will pick up an apple or eat a couple of cuties or a banana for a snack as a matter of course.

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But my nephew is not an adult, and I am concerned about his food choices and their impact on his health. I don’t want to fat-shame him. He is a kid, but he is not stupid; he knows he is severely overweight. What I don’t think he understands, though, is that with his diet, he is on the fast track to diabetes (if he is not already there) and heart disease by age 20.

My husband says we should leave well enough alone since it’s his grandmother and dad who are raising him, and not us. I am of two minds: to call his dad and voice my concern or, indeed, to stay out of it.  What should I do?

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— Conflicted Aunt

Dear Conflicted,

To be fair, you don’t know what your nephew knows and doesn’t know about his dietary choices, because you didn’t ask him. I’m not suggesting you necessarily should have, but I want to caution you against making assumptions here. It’s very likely that he has already had conversations about this with his doctor, or father, and grandparents. For all you know, they’ve been making him eat more fruit and veggies at home, and he figured the week at your house was when he could get away with ignoring all that. So, however you handle this, please recognize that you don’t have all of the information, and approach the topic with humility and care.

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Do you call your brother? I think a lot of this answer depends on your relationship with him and how much you’ve discussed your nephew and/or parenting in the past. But even if your responses are that you’re very close and that you have had all kinds of “real talk” over the years, I’m not sure picking up the phone out of nowhere is your best play. Talking to your brother while your nephew was with you or immediately post-visit would have been a natural time to bring this up, so you may have to just wait for nephew’s next visit or hope it comes up in conversation. If you do choose to discuss your nephew’s eating habits, though, remember that you’re likely not telling your brother anything he doesn’t already know, and no one likes to be told they aren’t parenting well. Asking with a tone of gentle curiosity and concern and offering support (not unsolicited advice) are the best ways to approach this conversation.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I’m heartbroken to say that our son Ollie is experiencing bullying and ostracizing because he confessed a crush on another boy in the neighborhood, Tim. Both boys are 9.

Apparently, he said he wanted to marry Tim so that they could ride scooters and play Minecraft together forever. This isn’t Ollie’s first crush on another boy, but this time Tim told his parents, who are very right-leaning, politically. Tim’s dad called our house and yelled at my wife. I took the phone, and he was irate. Nothing physical occurred (Ollie said as much and Tim’s dad admitted it too), but Tim’s dad accused us of using Ollie to “groom” Tim. I ended up cursing him out. We live in a red state, but we are more progressive.

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Now, Ollie doesn’t have anyone his age to play with because the other boys his age have shunned him. The parents in the neighborhood who are on “our side” have kids who are either older than him (14+) or much younger (0 to 5). His sibling is 2. The teens have been very gracious about including Ollie when possible and age appropriate, but mostly he is lonely, sad, and feels like it’s his fault we’re not invited to the Labor Day barbecue this year, typically held at the home of a more right-leaning neighbor, who expressed support in private but was unwilling to rock the boat.

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We raised him to feel it’s okay to be and like whoever he wants, but to be honest, we really didn’t prepare for him to be interested in boys or how tough that would be for him. How do we support our son in this? What can we do? We can’t afford to move. I’m afraid this will follow him into school this year.

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— Miserable in Missouri

Dear Miserable,

This is an incredibly hard position to be in.

I don’t know where you live, nor do I know the social dynamics among the local 9-year-olds or parents, but it’s very possible this might blow over once school starts back up. It can be hard to keep someone on the outs forever, especially if enough of you or Ollie’s peers are ambivalent about the whole situation and being “followers” of Tim and his dad. I’m curious about the barbecue-hosting neighbor; do they have kids Ollie’s age? If so, I wonder if there is a way to guilt—I mean, encourage—them to encourage their kid to do the right thing.

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In case I’m being too optimistic, you might consider investing in a future social net. Ollie has two to four years before he hits middle school; can you look into any activities, clubs, or playdates with kids he doesn’t go to school with currently, but will at the middle school level? Even if the school day doesn’t have allies for him, knowing he has other friends out there, who will be part of his daily social experience soon, could help him feel less cut off. You might also consider talking to his teacher or school counselor—if you feel they would be on your same page—to watch the social dynamics in Ollie’s class and intervene when possible.

Finally, since it seems like you might not find much support in your immediate community, you might  look to The Trevor Project, PFLAG, and other networks both for yourself and for Ollie when the time is right. Unfortunately, your family is not the first to feel alienated by their community, and you may be able to lean on the advice of others who’ve been through similar situations.

—Allison

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