Care and Feeding

Is My Child Too Young to Go Away On Her Own?

A young girl leans on a suitcase.
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,

My husband and I have a 5-year-old daughter. We are sending her away with her aunt to visit my husband’s parents for 12 days in August. My husband and I will stay home to work during this time but are excited about our daughter finally getting to reunite with my husband’s family after 3 years of Covid separation. They plan to spend that time at the family cottage on a lake, where our daughter will be with her grandparents, two aunts, and her great-uncle. Now that the trip approaches, I find myself becoming increasingly anxious at the prospect of sending my young daughter off and potentially being alone with two men—her great-uncle (a lifelong bachelor whom I don’t know well) and her grandfather (who himself raised two daughters and seems very trustworthy from all our past interactions). I have no reason to suspect these men have nefarious intents, but at the same time, I am generally suspicious of how society sexualizes women and girls and often feel worried about my daughter being alone and potentially abused by a family member (I have friends who were abused by uncles when they were young). Now I’m considering requesting that my sister-in-law ensure my daughter is never alone with any man during their visit. My husband thinks I’m being overly paranoid—am I?

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—Paranoid or Realistic?

Dear Paranoid or Realistic, 

You’re certainly not being paranoid. Similarly, I know my share of people who were abused by family members when they were young, and I wouldn’t feel comfortable sending either of my daughters on a trip like that.

With that in mind, I’m not sure how effective it will be to tell your sister-in-law to keep an eye on your daughter at all times. Although she may agree to do so, she won’t be able to watch her 24/7—not to mention, that’s a pretty hefty responsibility to place on someone who isn’t a part of your immediate family. Can you or your husband go on this trip as well? With so many companies allowing remote work, maybe it’s possible one of you can continue to work while also being there for your child.

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I know not everyone will agree with my assessment, but I believe 5 years old is too young for a kid to be away from her parents for almost two weeks on vacation. Also, if your intuition is telling you that something isn’t right, then you should trust it.

I’m not saying you should deny your daughter the experience of hanging out with her grandparents, I just think one of her parents should be there, too.

Dear Care and Feeding,

Our kids go to a well-funded, modern public school, much like my husband did. Our older daughter took to reading quickly (end of pre-k/ beginning of kindergarten), but our son is almost seven and still not there. His teacher was reluctant about allowing him into first grade, and my husband is equally concerned. I don’t share the urgency. We have a house full of books, and I am happy to do lots of reading aloud, reading together and modeling. I’m not usually the laid-back parent but I feel like we can wait a few years before panicking, especially because he’s meeting all the other milestones easily, which is what pushed him towards first grade in the end.

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I was a deeply stubborn kid, and I got my elementary education in a very old-fashioned rural public school, so you can imagine exactly how that went. I didn’t learn to read until age eight, when I decided I was ready. Although it was frustrating, I thrived anyway— by middle school I’d read the school library top to bottom, and I went on to get a full ride to a good college on the strength of my writing. My successful professional career today involves absorbing a lot of written material quickly. Am I mapping too much of my experience on to my son? Should we be pushing harder at this point, or is it fine to wait and see?

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—Not Reading Yet In NY

Dear Not Reading,

I don’t think you need to push the panic button right now. I was also a late bloomer who didn’t read, write, or speak well for the majority of my early childhood—and unlike your son, I had one teacher who flat out told me that I wouldn’t amount to much. Now I’m an avid reader, an author, and a public speaker. That’s not meant to be a humble brag—I want to give you peace of mind that kids often operate at their own pace.

One thing I cannot stress enough is how incredibly influential my mom was during my aforementioned academic struggles. When that teacher made her hurtful comment to me, my mom was right there telling me how amazing I was—and she kept doing it throughout my childhood. It’s not hyperbole for me to say there’s no way in the world I would be where I am right now without her love and support during those times. My message to you is to continue to do the same for your son—because there will be outside forces (teachers, other kids, random family members, etc.) who will line up to say that your son isn’t “good enough” due to not reading yet.

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Of course you should be on the lookout for severe developmental issues for your son. It might be worth having a second conversation with his teacher last year to get a bit more information, and it also might be worth having a conversation with his teacher this year about his past teacher’s concerns. But it is also possible that what he’s experiencing is normal. In the meantime, consistent positive words and reinforcement from you will mean the world to him.

Catch Up on Care and Feeding

• If you missed Monday’s column, read it here.
Discuss this column in the Slate Parenting Facebook group!

I am writing to you, Doyin, since you often advocate for the mental health of dads. My husband and I have three wonderful kids (5,3,1) who we both adore. He is generally a great dad, but between the pandemic and our third child, it’s been tough. He is overwhelmed and stressed often, if not nearly all the time, and it comes out as a lot of snapping at the kids and being angry with me. I don’t like the level of “do this, do that, don’t do this, don’t do that” and how frequently he loses patience, and I will contradict him when I think the kids are not doing anything wrong, or I think they should be treated more respectfully (which also makes him angry with me).

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It’s not a great dynamic, and after my own crappy childhood I’d really like to do better for my kids. For what it’s worth, they are great kids and will generally listen and do what’s been asked when I ask them calmly. All that being said, I recently had it pointed out to me that the way he behaves may be a symptom of clinical depression. I think that may be possible, and it would certainly explain a lot, but how on earth would I encourage him to look into that? Outright suggesting that he may be depressed would almost certainly get me yelled at, but I would love to find a way to bring my husband some relief, and make our home a little calmer. Do you have any suggestions for how I could encourage him to seek some help?

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—West Coast Wife

Dear West Coast Wife,

First off, thank you for reaching out to me directly with this. I was in your husband’s shoes prior to getting the help I needed for my clinical depression, and needless to say it was a difficult time for my entire family.

Let’s start with the bad news first—there truly isn’t a way you can get him to reap the benefits of professional help without him first realizing he has a problem. I know that may seem like common sense, but it’s an important thing to understand. If you dragged him into a therapist’s office right now, he would just sit there unengaged with his arms folded until the session ended, because he thinks he’s just fine.

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The good news is it’s possible for him to “get it” as long as he has the proper motivation to change. In my case, it took my wife, my brother, and my mom to intervene and basically say, “Look dude, the way you’re carrying yourself is toxic to yourself and others, and we can’t stand by and allow it to continue. We love you, but we’re done if you don’t take the proper steps to get help.” Even though I was in a less than reasonable mindset back then, I had the wherewithal to realize that if three separate people complained about my behavior, then I must be the problem. I scheduled a therapy appointment shortly afterwards, and now my depression is under control and I’ll in September, I’ll have been sober for six years straight. It was the aggressive wake-up call I needed, and hopefully it will serve your husband as well.

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Depending on how serious this situation is for you, I suggest a similar approach with your husband. If you have friends and family members who agree with your assessment of his behavior, then you should have them by your side (virtually or in-person) when you discuss this with him. Most importantly, you need to be firm with him. I know from personal experience that a soft conversation along the lines of, “You know, um, you seem kinda stressed out. I don’t know, but maybe you’re depressed?” wouldn’t have worked at all. I needed multiple people to lay down the law and essentially say, “Enough is enough. Get your life together, or we’re done.” Even if you don’t have allies in this fight, it can be effective if done alone. Your goal is to simply look him straight in the eyes and say his current state of behavior is unacceptable to you and can’t be continued.

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The next step will most likely require some handholding. I went to therapy on my own after the intervention, but I’ve noticed that isn’t always the case with others. You should offer a warm demand (not a suggestion) that you go to therapy together to work out your issues. That probably means you’ll have to handle the heavy lifting of scheduling the appointment, securing childcare, etc., but it will be worth it in the long run to hash this out. On a positive note, any therapist worth a damn won’t allow him to skate by without taking some level of responsibility for his behavior.

But as I said earlier, all of this stems on his ability to point the finger at himself. If he’s able to do that, there’s a high likelihood your story will have a happy ending like mine did. If not, then you may have a difficult decision to make regarding your long-term future with him.

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Again, you must be firm about what you want for yourself and your family and never waiver from it. No matter what happens from there, you have to be at peace with knowing you stood up for the right thing. I hope he decides that his family is worth taking the requisite actions to improve.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I have a question about how to deal with racism in my family and how to shield my son from it. My white mother recently made a comment about my Black cousin, saying he’s such a better father than most Black men because he is there for his kids and he has a stable job. I stopped her and said, that’s an untrue stereotype about Black men, she interrupted me and said where she lived it was true. I told her that was racist, and I didn’t want her saying that in front of my son. She kept trying to defend her comment and I said, “Let’s not go there. You’re not talking like that in front of my child.”

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She has made other comments about how my son has “chinky” eyes like her (I finally got her to stop saying that, at least) and how certain types of people act certain types of ways. I don’t know if I’m handling this correctly, if I’m overreacting, or being one of those annoying “woke” people.  I want to do the right thing and I don’t want my son to think these sorts of comments are OK. Do you have any advice on how to handle these types of situations in the future? My relationship with my mother is hanging by a thread, but I’m willing to cut that thread if necessary to protect my son.

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—Concerned Southern Mother

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Dear Concerned Southern Mother,

Before I dive in, let me address your “woke” comment. Words cannot describe how much I hate the fact that this word was hijacked and is now used as a pejorative by many people. If “woke” means protecting the rights of marginalized people, then I’m proud to be it, even if less enlightened people view me as annoying.

In the interest of being direct, your mom has some pretty obnoxious racist opinions, and as a Black dad myself, I will be the first to say that her viewpoints on Black fatherhood are comically inaccurate. I cannot count the vast amount of great Black dads I know, including my two brothers, and a study conducted by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) shows that Black men are the most involved fathers in America. That notwithstanding, just using an ethnic slur to describe your son’s eyes would be bad enough.

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I think you need to ask yourself why you would want an obvious racist in your life or your son’s life. What possible value could she add? I know I wouldn’t willingly have anyone around my children who feels the way she does, and it seems that you would agree with me. If you aren’t close with her, I would suggest that you cut her off completely. I know it seems like the nuclear option, but I’m not in favor of negotiating with terrorists, and that’s exactly what racists are.

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If you think that’s too harsh, then at the bare minimum you should flat out tell her that any racist comments should be kept to herself. Of course that doesn’t mean she’ll stop being racist, but at least you’ll put her on notice that she can’t be racist around you and your son. If she refuses to listen, then you should choose to do what I’ve mentioned before in this column—love her from a distance.

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I think we’ve tried to play nice with racists for too long and after 400+ years, it simply hasn’t worked. It’s time that we stop allowing them to work for our companies, hang out with our children, and welcoming them into our communities. If people can’t understand that everyone deserves to be treated with respect and dignity, regardless of their skin color, then we should marginalize them as they choose to marginalize people of color. Some would argue that “two wrongs don’t make a right,” but I don’t see anything wrong with not wanting to be cordial with bigots.

Hopefully your mom will eventually see the light, but you shouldn’t put her anywhere near your son until she does.

—Doyin

More Advice From Slate

I’m currently attending college, and to help pay for various expenses I got a summer job at a daycare. A few weeks ago, a parent accused me of making an inappropriate hand gesture at them during pick up. I didn’t do it; I’ve never had so much as a conversation with this woman. What should I do?

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