Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here.
Dear Care and Feeding,
Our school district’s areas were redrawn last year, resulting in my youngest son “Adam” going to an unfamiliar new high school. In getting assignments for September, I learned my Adam’s ninth grade biology class is being taught as a hybrid class that covers both honors students (including Adam), the regular class (a bell curve of many kids) and the remedial class (they call it something else, but it’s for kids who struggle in the average science class). The explanation the administration gave was that there will be one lesson taught, and then the groups will be assigned different experiments in class and different work after class, based on their skill levels. I experienced this class structure in my high school and hated it; it was pure chaos with 35 kids, so I was often bored in class and got into trouble. Adam has not historically been a troublemaker though. I also believe that Adam is not as empathetic to others at different skill levels as he could be, so learning about others could be a silver lining here. Nonetheless, this does not seem like a great academic opportunity, and Adam has been worrying a lot about it, particularly as a nerdy kid who was teased a lot in general classes and found a haven in making most of his friendships through his previous school’s gifted academics program. How do I prepare him to take on this less-than-ideal situation as a new high school freshman? A lot of things are changing right now, and he’s fixating on this as a harbinger of the school year to come.
— Controlled Chaos
Dear Controlled Chaos,
This is not an ideal class situation, but that doesn’t mean it will be as bad for Adam as it was for you. You should definitely have conversations about having empathy and patience for kids who learn at a different speed than he does. Talk about how uncomfortable it may be for students who realize that there are not one, but two groups of kids who are considered stronger learners than they are, and that it may feel embarrassing for them that they are being presented with the least difficult version of the curriculum. Let him know that it will be very important for him to remain focused in a class this size; it’s easy to be distracted by how much will be going on, but it’s critical that he remains engaged with his own work. Encourage him to carry a book with him or to work on other assignments if he finds himself with downtime in class. Let him know that teasing is something that insecure, unhappy people do, and that if he experiences that again, it’s a reflection of how those kids are feeling about themselves. Also encourage him to talk to you, and to his teacher, if something like that happens again. Adam will likely do just fine in this class. Make sure you check in regularly to see how things are going to be sure.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
I’m an uncle to my three niblings (A, B, and C), all in the same family, all under four. About two years ago, I took a picture of Grandma holding B right after their baptism that turned out really well, and I had it printed and framed for Grandma as a gift. What do I owe to A, and to C? Should I order prints of them as well? I have pretty good shots of both with either Grandma or myself. (Not perfect like that one though.) I haven’t seen them all a lot due to the pandemic, but now that I see them more often, I feel that I’ve shown inadvertent favoritism by having that photo of B up at Grandma’s. Do kids care? Do parents care? Should we all have more or fewer photos around? What’s your take? (P.S. long time, first time, no children.)
— Here’s Looking at You, Kid
Dear Here’s Looking at You,
I don’t think this is something to be overly concerned about. I would imagine that Grandma probably has other family pictures on display, including pictures that feature the other two kids. However, if you want to make sure they feel represented, you can simply order prints of them and gift them to her framed as well. Or, you can wait until “perfect” shots of them happen and then get those pics framed. Do parents and kids generally care about these things? I think it could only be an issue if it were the only picture that was hung, or if there were multiple pictures of B and none of their siblings. Consider hanging up shots of the kids at your house too so they can be reminded of how much you love them when they come to visit. But in the meantime, relax, you haven’t done anything wrong.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
I’m a white single mother to a mixed-race 6-year-old boy. His father is Black and only drifts through our lives occasionally; I’ve been on my own from the pregnancy onwards. I get very little help from family, and most of the time I’ve been proud of independently making this life work for me and my son. We live in a very small town of around 2,000 people, and it’s very white. I feel I can’t move away, because I really lucked out with buying my house before the market exploded, and I’m sure I won’t be able to afford a house in a better area. I feel like I’m doing the best I can under really limited circumstances; I’m a couple of years into a really great career in finance which may provide opportunities for us in the future, but which also further entrenches me in the community. I’ve got tons of concerns, way too many to list here, but there is one in particular which is really giving me a hard time. We have a big problem with white fragility on my side of the family, whom my son loves. Back in 2020, I made the “mistake” of asking an extended family member if they would be willing to publicly stand for racial equality. All hell broke loose. I was excluded from my niece’s first birthday party because my mother didn’t want my presence to upset people.
My son is developing his sense of racial identity, and this dynamic is sending the message that we don’t talk about race for fear of upsetting people; it’s disgusting. I’ve tried speaking with my mother about the issue to no avail. I did try to talk to my son’s father about the white fragility incident, and although he often tells me about his own experiences with racism in our small town, he doesn’t think this will be an issue for our son because of how popular he is with the local kids. My brother and other members of the family have created a wall of white solidarity which they refuse to reconsider. My family will pay lip-service to things like Black Lives Matter, but it seems very superficial and shallow to me; as soon as white solidarity is broken, I’m shunned. I’ve had to explain things like why we don’t use the term “mulatto.” One of my aunts once asked me “will he get darker?” I feel white people often like to believe that racism is only in the realm of right-wing Trump supporters; we don’t do a great job of understanding that progressive, left-wing Bernie supporters like my family can be just as racist or racist-adjacent. It’s always some other white people who are to blame—we don’t like to look at ourselves.
My instincts tell me that I need to cut ties with the family. I’ve been subjected to a lot of scapegoating and emotional abuse throughout my childhood and adolescence, and I don’t think I would feel a loss by cutting ties; it would be a relief. The problem is that my son loves my mother and other extended family who have upheld the white fragility narrative.
He wants to call “Na-na” and visit her all the time. At first, I thought I could walk the edge of the knife by letting him stay at her house without me, asI can’t stand to be around her for very long. I realized pretty quickly that this wasn’t going to work—it gives her an opportunity to feed him these narratives without check; she will facetime the other relatives and it’s been a good way for all of them to maintain a relationship with my son while excluding me entirely. It’s becoming clear that I’m going to need to either go no-contact with my mother, or else I’m going to have to stay with my son in her presence.
What can I do? Is there a way to explain it to my son in terms he can understand? He and I have had talks about the dynamics, and I’ve tried to make it age-appropriate, but I just don’t think he understands the full implications (he’s 6!). How can I mitigate the loss he’ll feel when I cut ties with his beloved family members? We don’t have a lot of family. I’ve tried to establish relationships with relatives on his dad’s side of the family, but they don’t seem interested in him at all. I’ve thought of trying to find a support group, but I tend to be afraid of being judged harshly; single mothers of mixed-race kids face a lot of scrutiny, and for good reason. I’m at least peripherally aware of my own failings as a white person and it haunts me. How can I be a good parent to my son when I’m coming from such an imperfect and very white place? My son is otherwise doing great, getting good grades in school and making lots of friends, and he seems really happy and well-adjusted. As soon as we can afford therapy, we’ll go—any other advice?
— The Scapegoat
There is obviously a lot going on between you and your family, and I’m sorry that they’ve been so difficult for you to navigate all these years. I think you need to give some of your priorities some reconsideration. You mention your house as part of the reason you are hesitant to leave your area, but what exactly does home ownership mean to a mixed-race Black kid who is surrounded by white folks? How does having a house, as opposed to say an apartment, make him any safer or happier in his surroundings? Where did you ever get it in your mind that a nearly-all white area was a safe or viable environment for a Black child? You are right in acknowledging that single moms of mixed kids face a lot of scrutiny, and that is due in part to the fact that far too many white ones seem to think that they can raise children in areas where they never get to see people who look like them and that somehow, these kids will turn out with a healthy sense of racial identity. There are entirely too many stories of tortured biracial kids out there for anyone to still believe this to be true.
If your family is not on board with civil rights and dignity for Black people, and doesn’t feel comfortable expressing their belief in these things, then they are not people that your child needs to interact with. I am so sick of people trying to protect their racist Mee-Maws; it’s time to let these people go. You have a Black child, you should not compromise his humanity in order to maintain a relationship with people who do not have a healthy relationship to his identity. It doesn’t matter how much he enjoys these people now; the older he gets, the easier it will be for him to see that they aren’t on his side. Let them go, and set about the business of relocating to an area where your son can enjoy the quality of life he deserves. Find an area where there are Black people—he needs Black men, Black women, and other Black children in his life urgently, especially considering that his father is largely useless and his father’s family hasn’t worked to maintain a connection with him. It’s unfortunate that his father doesn’t know better than to mistake your young son’s popularity as evidence that he’ll be just fine surrounded by white folks, but if he knew better, he’d likely be looking to take a more active role in his son’s life.
Furthermore, beyond your concerns about your family’s engagement with race, it seems that you’ve got some deep-rooted issues with them related to how they’ve treated you. Perhaps relocation will give you the space to heal from that. I don’t mean to suggest moving as if it’s the easiest thing to do. It’s a huge decision that would involve a lot of moving parts. However, it sounds as though you could find a better environment for both of you—one where there’s the racial diversity your son deserves and where you can be distant from a family that has caused you so much distress. Regardless of whether you decide to leave or stay, you will have to continue having those complicated conversations with your son about race and it’s great that you’ve already begun them. He will learn the truth about your family in time, and it will hurt, but he deserves to know.
As you continue to grapple with what your long-term strategy will be to keep your son happy and safe, do what you can to surround him with reaffirming images. Expose him to books, TV shows, and movies that have Black and biracial characters. Talk about how the beauty of his hair, skin, and facial features. Explain that there isn’t anything Black people have done wrong to warrant the way we have been mistreated throughout the world, and let him know that you are committed to making the world a better place for him. Let him know that your family isn’t unique for having the attitudes that they do, and that most white people in this country simply weren’t raised to believe in fighting for equality. Choose white friends that reflect the values you have and bring them around instead of this toxic family of yours. There are far too many white women with Black kids who don’t have Black friends; you need Black people in your life who haven’t been in your bed, people with whom you have meaningful friendships. Create a world for your son with great people who have the capacity to care for him as he needs to be cared for.
You don’t need to be in a perpetual state of guilt over your whiteness, but you do need to be proactive about being the best parent you can be to your Black child. He needs you to be an outspoken ally, a student of history, and a champion for his needs. It won’t be easy, but your heart is in the right place. Now it’s time for you to get to work. Wishing you all the best.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
I have been treated for anxiety and I am learning to manage it since my beautiful daughter was born nine weeks ago. I still struggle from time to time over knowing if I have a reasonable concern or if I’m spiraling, but my spouse and family have thankfully been around to help talk me down. However, now they are proposing that I start doing things away from the baby, and no argument from them has made me feel comfortable with the idea. All my mom friends vent about wishing for time to themselves, which is totally valid, but I don’t want to be away from my daughter. I miss her even in the brief moments we’re apart, like when she’s sleeping or my spouse is caring for her while I shower! I love this tiny baby time where all she wants is to be loved and fussed over.
My family is telling me this is unhealthy, and the baby needs time away from me as much as I need time away from her. They say I’ll feel better once I’m away from her, but I never have, and she’s so little; she’s not even three months! Is that old enough to be away from the breastfeeding/primary care parent for longer than a quick grocery run would take? Part of me wants to try, only because my spouse has mentioned feeling disconnected from me and wants to focus on us for a few hours. But my mom instincts are saying our daughter is too young, and we should wait until she’s at least a bit more independent from my body, can play and be occupied by other people more, and understands enough language that she knows we’re coming back. Is nine weeks old enough to be left alone with a family member she knows, but hasn’t been alone with before?
— Nine Week Wonderings
Dear Nine Week Wonderings,
Though you have experienced anxiety issues prior to pregnancy, please know that what you’re dealing with here is highly common among new moms. You spent close to ten months nurturing this little person inside of your body, and the bond that you all created is an incredible one. It’s not surprising that you’re struggling to imagine leaving her, even for a brief time. However, your baby is more resilient than you think. As you may know, there are many mothers who return to work postpartum after only a few weeks off; you are very fortunate not to be in this situation, but let it be a reminder to you that infants can survive being away from their mothers.
Instead of going straight for a romantic dinner with your partner as your first outing, practice with a few shorter absences. First, identify a family member or two that you trust and get in the habit of having them around. Take a 15-minute walk by yourself while they watch the baby. Once you’ve done this a few times, graduate to a grocery run. Spend a couple of months slowly integrating time away from the baby on occasion and graduate to an outing with your partner once you’ve gotten more comfortable. You don’t need to rush this, but you also don’t need to spend the first year of your child’s life unable to be separated from her either. Wishing you all the best.