Care and Feeding

Ugh, I Said a Very Bad Thing to a Play Group Parent About Her Son’s Diagnosis

How should I have handled this differently?

A woman embracing her young son.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Tatsiana Volkava/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here.

Dear Care and Feeding,

Recently, my kids have started attending a play group. This is pretty casual, not like an actual daycare with a fixed group of kids but more like a support group for caregivers and play area for kids to mingle and play together. However, you get to know some people who attend regularly. Today, such a mom disclosed that her son was diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum. Without thinking, I said “Oh no, I’m sorry” and then immediately felt pretty bad about that because I felt it indicated a value judgement about her son in a way. (It seems to me that unlike a broken arm where it was likely bad luck and my response might be adequate, here the condition is more inextricably linked with the person her son is and reacting negatively to hearing about the diagnosis could come across as a rejection of her son.) So, now l am wondering more generally what would be a courteous and empathetic way to react to such information given by a very casual acquaintance?

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— Hope I Didn’t Offend Them

Dear Hope I Didn’t Offend,

That was certainly a less-than-ideal response, and though the mother is probably used to hearing reactions like that, you are correct in wanting a better way to react when another parent has shared difficult news about their child with you. Next time, something along the lines of “Thank you for sharing that with me” would be far more appropriate. You can also follow up by asking “Are there any things I should keep in mind for when we get the kids together? I want to make sure your son is comfortable and having a good time. Please let me know how I can be supportive.” Allow the parent in question to share as they see fit. Be empathetic and thoughtful, and mindful not to offer anything that sounds like pity or judgement. You shouldn’t have to say much; focus on listening and understanding what this parent wants and needs you to know about their child, and receive it without a big reaction.

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Slate Plus Members Get More Advice From Jamilah Each Week

From this week’s letter, My Daughter Just Confided in Me About Her Love Life. My Ex-Wife Is Not Going to Be Happy About This: “Lisa is frightened about what would happen if her mother found out about her dating life.”

Dear Care and Feeding,

My partner and I are starting the adoption process, and I am gritting my teeth in anticipation of my parents’ response. My dad was adopted and has a lot of unaddressed trauma and feelings of abandonment from it (like the large majority of adoptions at that time, it was a closed adoption), and my mom has used this trauma as “evidence” of why I shouldn’t adopt since I began expressing an interest in being an adoptive parent when I was a teenager (I’m in my mid-30s now). As I am getting close to the end of my ideal fertility window and it is no longer possible for my partner to get pregnant, I am anticipating my parents are going to increase their questions about what our plans for parenthood are.

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We are working with a pro-choice, queer-affirming adoption agency that only conducts open adoptions where both the adoptive family’s parental rights and the birth family’s visitation rights are legally outlined and protected. As progressive agencies like this are rare, the waiting list is fairly long. We could be waiting years for a child. I am fine with the waiting, but I don’t want to deal with years of my parents trying to talk us out of this while we wait. We haven’t told them about our plans yet, so should I just wait to tell them until we get the final call that we have a child? Do you have a script for how I can shut down their misinformed concerns? And then how do I protect our future child from their grandparents’ opinions? Preparing for years of ignorant questions is robbing me of my excitement in this process.

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— Adoption Anxiety

Dear Adoption Anxiety,

If your parents inquire about your plans for children, I think you should be honest and explain what you and your partner have decided to do. Explain the difference between this sort of adoption and what your father experienced. Acknowledge his traumas and let him know that you are being intentional about avoiding the potential for a situation like his own. Let them know that fertility has informed your decision and that your choice is not up for discussion. Ask your parents to try their best to understand and respect what you are doing, and let them know you are committed to making this process as healthy as possible for the child you will one day welcome into your home. Do not entertain more than a few questions, resist getting into an argument or debate, and be as firm as possible.

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Hopefully, in time, your parents will make peace with your decision. Let them know how much it would mean to you for them to do that, and that you hope they are able to embrace your child with open arms, regardless of how you go about bringing them into your family. I doubt that your father would go out of his way to say things in front of your adopted child that were hurtful or offensive, but if he proves to be so inclined, then he should not have access to them. Give your parents a chance to do the right thing; hopefully, your dad will be able to see beyond his personal issues and support you. Wishing you all the best with the adoption process and in finding harmony with your parents.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

During a recent trip to the mall, my 13-year-old daughter and I had a disagreement about the school appropriateness of a shirt she really wanted. My initial position was something like “Yes, I agree that dress codes are sexist and there’s nothing inappropriate about your shoulders or your navel. But you still can’t wear a cropped halter top to middle school. That’s just the world we live in.” She argued that “the world we will in will never change if we refuse to change it ourselves.” I absolutely agree with her about that. But it’s complicated! When pushed further on it, I realized that I don’t have a single argument against my 13-year-old wearing a cropped halter top to school that isn’t rooted in slut-shaming or rape culture, and her school doesn’t enforce a dress code. But does this mean that I should stop setting limits on clothing choices? I’m okay with her wearing crop tops, but why does the halter/crop top combination seem so icky to me?

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Her father, who has joint custody but leaves parenting decisions up to me, worries that her clothing choices will attract the attention of “creepy old men,” and I feel adamantly that the thoughts of creepy old men are outside of our daughter’s control and she should feel safe and secure in her body without worrying about other people. But if I’m being honest, I’m wondering if my own ideology is getting in the way of practicality on this issue. Sending my middle schooler to walk alone to school in a halter crop top just doesn’t seem like the right move. Setting limits on navels and shoulders seems arbitrary and patriarchal. What’s the solution?

— Cropped and Halted

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Dear Cropped and Halted,

Rules prohibiting crop tops are, as you said, the product of rape culture and patriarchal ideas about how girls should and shouldn’t behave. The complicated truth of the matter is that while modest clothes are not enough to protect them from sexual harassment, revealing ones are used to justify this behavior. Creepy old men may look at girls in sweats, but we tell ourselves that the girls who put on crop tops invited their attention. And when it comes to school-aged boys, we hold their female peers responsible for dressing in a way that won’t distract them or invite harassment, as opposed to raising boys to respect girls regardless of how they are dressed.

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Ultimately, girls and women are in a lose-lose situation when it comes to “sexy” clothing. When we exercise the autonomy to dress as we see fit, we’re blamed for how other people react. That doesn’t mean that you’re wrong for feeling averse to the halter crop. Regardless of how secure (or not) your daughter is within herself, there is attention that is drawn by wearing revealing clothes. As someone who has enjoyed wearing body bearing garments since I was around her age, I have always had to deal with downside: judgmental commentary, unwanted attention from older men, sexual harassment from males of varying ages. Do you think your daughter is prepared to handle that? If not, she might not be ready for that shirt.

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Talk to your daughter about some of the complications that come with dressing sexy. Explain to her that you can’t protect her from those consequences forever, but that you are trying to keep her as safe and comfortable as you possibly can. Figure out compromises that you can live with when it comes to her clothes; for example, a halter crop may be a bit much for school, but perhaps she can wear it to the beach. Speaking of, it’s not necessarily sexist to identify certain garments as being inappropriate for a specific location; as your daughter gets older, there will likely be some difference between her school clothes and her weekend clothes. School is not a party, it is a place that she goes to learn, and your kid will have to work on figuring out a version of her style that makes her feel good without looking like she’s going to the beach on a Monday morning. All the best to you.

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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 daughter is 10 and has been friends with a neighbor since they were five. They each have friends outside of each other but spend a lot of time together. Recently, my daughter became upset when this friend told her she is a lesbian and that she has a crush on her. She asked my daughter if she wanted to be her girlfriend. My daughter told her she didn’t feel that was her path and that she’d like to remain just friends but that felt like a lot to process and she thought maybe they should take a break. We discussed this, and it sounds like the root of my daughter’s issue is having to keep this secret from her family. They are very direct and seem to be open-minded, and she feels like it would be uncomfortable to be there but continue acting like nothing changed. She feels overwhelmed.

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The mother has invited my daughter over several times since this conversation, and I finally told her that the girls had a discussion that put some tension on their friendship and a little time apart seemed fitting for right now, but she has told me several times that her child has no idea what I’m talking about and maybe we should fill her in. I want to support my daughter in her feelings. I don’t want to upset or out her friend. I have had a very direct relationship with the mom until now. Her son has dealt with a lot of bullying and that has pushed their family to be a bit reactive with their daughter’s relationships. How do I be a supportive parent to mine and a friend to this mom without outing her child and coming across as insincere?

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— Feelings Are Hard

Dear Feelings Are Hard,

You already seem to understand this, but under no circumstances should you out this child to her mother. You have no way of knowing how she’ll react, and it isn’t your news to share. Let the mother know that the issue was between the girls and that she should talk to her daughter about it for more clarity, and let it go. You can try and deescalate a bit by suggesting that you don’t know the details, it didn’t sound like a big deal, and that you’re sure the girls can work things out on their own.

As far as your daughter goes, she’s in a difficult position. Knowing someone has stronger feelings for you than you do for them doesn’t feel good. This seems to have compromised how she feels about the friendship, and she may be wondering if this other girl can, in fact, see her as just best friends. Encourage her to be understanding of her friend. It surely took a lot of courage for her to reveal her feelings. Let her know that it’s okay to assert boundaries, and that she can let her friend know that she is only interested in friendship and that it’s important that these feelings are respected. However, she needn’t treat her friend like some sort of suspect or guilty party either. As long as her friend is able to resume behaving the way she did in the past, they should be able to carry on their relationship; hopefully, her friend isn’t too in love or heartbroken by the rejection to do so.

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It’s also important for your daughter to understand why she needs to keep her friend’s orientation to herself, and that it isn’t her business to share with anyone—including her friend’s mom. It may at first be difficult for her to be around her friend’s family knowing this huge secret, but she must understand how important it is to allow people to come out when they choose to do so. She doesn’t know what her friend’s mom feels about homosexuality and if she’ll be embraced or not when and if she does choose to disclose her identity. Talk about the complicated experiences of LGBTQ youth and why it is important that we all do our best to support them. Encourage her to power through the awkwardness of it all and to focus on loving this girl as she has since she was five years old—surely, she could use her bestie right now.

Jamilah

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