Care and Feeding

Should I Prevent My Daughter From Playing With Our Evangelical Neighbors?

Two young girls play dress-up.
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,

When my husband and I moved into our new house, I was thrilled to find out that the family living across the street had a 7-year-old, “Elizabeth,” the same age as our daughter, “Emily.” The parents were also wonderful in welcoming us to the neighborhood. I admit, I had fantasies of a repeat of my own childhood, where my best friend lived on the same block and our parents often socialized. Then Elizabeth’s parents invited us to their church and we turned them down, making it clear we weren’t interested. Suddenly, they became politely distant neighbors. I’ve looked into their church and found out it’s fiercely evangelical. Befriending people in order to recruit them to the church is even mentioned on the church website! I would be fine with the polite distance between us now, as I find their behavior toward us (i.e., their church’s methods to gain members) offensive and dishonest, except that Emily is still getting invitations to play with Elizabeth. I have no doubt that Elizabeth’s parents will proselytize to our daughter against our wishes. I have considered letting the girls play at our house only, under my supervision, but the church website also mentioned teaching children to “share” their beliefs. I feel terrible looking at a 7-year-old with suspicion, but I don’t want Emily exposed to this. I have no problem telling Elizabeth’s parents that I feel our values are not compatible and the girls can’t play anymore, but how do I explain to Emily that Elizabeth is not her friend?

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—Don’t Want to Disappoint My Daughter

Dear DWtDMD,

I think Elizabeth and Emily can still be friends, and in fact I urge you to allow them to continue to play together for as long as they are interested in doing so. The world is full of people who don’t share your beliefs; it simply isn’t possible (or even a good idea) to shield your child from all of them. And even if Elizabeth’s parents—or 7-year-old Elizabeth herself—proselytize, Emily will not be converted by them. She might come home (or spend time after a playdate at your own house with Elizabeth) asking questions about what she’s been told by the evangelists across the street, but that’s all to the good: it gives you an opportunity to talk to your child about different people’s beliefs.

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Which is a good thing for her to know about. It’s a big world, and if you want to instill in your child the ideas about that big world that matter to you, and that you hope she’ll share as she grows up, the way to do it isn’t by keeping her from learning that others think differently. (Another bonus: talking to her about such matters without being disdainful—modeling critical thinking that isn’t mean-spirited—will be good for you as well as for her. Plus, letting her know that spending time with, and enjoying the company of, those who don’t see things exactly as we do will help her to grow up to be a more tolerant and open-hearted, open-minded person. Which I’m sure is what you want for her.)

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This advice, by the way, is not purely abstract. When my child was young, we too had evangelicals living across the street, with a daughter who was only a year younger than mine. I can’t tell you how many times my child and I had to revisit the conversation about how Daisy (not her real name) had told her that we were going to hell because we were Jewish, or announced that she wasn’t allowed to play with my daughter’s Ouija board because it was “the devil’s work” (etc.).  My daughter learned to cheerfully tell Daisy, “Well, my family doesn’t believe that.” Daisy and my daughter played together nearly every day after school and on weekends for years. And while the two kids grew apart by the time they were in high school, they are still on friendly terms. I think that early friendship did both of them good, to tell you the truth—exposing both of them to ideas and beliefs (and non-beliefs) they would otherwise not have learned about for a long time. (And by the way, I kept my polite distance from the parents, as did they from me.)

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Slate Plus Members Get More Advice From Michelle Herman Each Week

From this week’s letter, My Mom Doesn’t Pressure Me to Have Kids: “I have finally decided I don’t want kids (after being on the fence for a while).

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My husband and I live overseas, so when our daughter was born two months ago we were fortunate enough to be able to hire a full-time nanny. Things have been going well, even though I am introverted and a huge fan of silence, whereas she is on the chatty end of the spectrum. I noticed from the start that she seems very dissatisfied with her appearance, which would be none of my business except that she brings it up constantly. She rarely eats a full meal, though she is welcome to everything that’s in our pantry. She talks about her weight gain, skin blemishes, graying hair, the size of her nose, her short stature—you name it. I have made some attempts to challenge the disparaging comments she makes about herself and expressed concern when she skips lunch (she gets migraines as a result) to no avail.

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I have accepted that it’s none of my business and have stopped engaging with her over these matters. My question is hypothetical for now, but if she were to stay with us long-term, I am genuinely concerned about the effect all of this would have on my little girl. I don’t know at what point she would be able to process these comments, but I guess I don’t want to wait until she begins to. What is a kind but firm way to phrase a rule about not using this kind of language about her body or anyone else’s while she’s at work? She has already suggested I use a corset for my mommy tummy, expressed amazement at my East Asian husband’s ability to eat rice every day and remain slim, talked about how nursing leaves some women’s breasts “looking like eggplants,” and has said multiple times that it’s great my daughter inherited my (European) eye shape. It’s easy enough to push back on individual comments but what’s a general rule I could introduce to shut this down? Or am I overthinking this?

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—Mirror, Mirror

Dear Mirror,

You’re not overthinking this. If you are going to have a full-time nanny in your home, the way that person speaks to and around your child is important. This emphasis on physical appearance, if it is being streamed at your child nonstop, will certainly have an effect on her. But you are not going to be able to change an adult woman’s way of thinking and speaking about herself, or her way of thinking about and talking about others. If she were going to be in your child’s company only a few hours a day at most, I wouldn’t take such a hardline approach. But in this situation, I’d say: This is not going to work. Hire a different nanny, if you must have a nanny. You say, “things are going well,” but they are obviously not going well. There is more to childcare than tending to physical needs.

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I would make this change soon, too. The longer you wait to hire someone in whose care you are entirely comfortable leaving your child, the harder it’s going to be on the child. Don’t wait until the nanny can be understood—and your daughter is deeply attached to her. Do it now.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I am 20 years old. I have been living with my much older brother and his wife and kids for the past two years as I go to school, since I’m estranged from my parents. My brother “Jake” and his wife “Amanda” have 7-year-old twins, “Danny” and “Natalie.” Natalie was born with a leg condition that my brother and sister-in-law were told would take a lot of surgeries to fix; doctors recommended amputation rather than putting her through that, which Jake and Amanda refused.

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Danny and Natalie are amazing kids and they love me and see me as a cool big sister rather than a boring old aunt (their words, not mine). I often babysit them, and Jake and Amanda pay me well when I do. About four months ago, right after the twins’ seventh birthday, Natalie was slated to have a relatively routine surgery. Jake was away for work, so Amanda took Natalie to the hospital while I stayed at home with Danny. Danny was stressed, as Danny and Natalie have a very strong sibling bond. I told him that it would be just like all the other surgeries that Natalie has had, and she’d probably be back home within a few days at most. But as it turned out, the surgery resulted in a bunch of complications, leading to Natalie having her leg amputated and spending seven weeks in the hospital/outpatient recovery before finally being able to come home.

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Due to Covid restrictions at the time, Danny wasn’t able to go to the hospital at all. The kids talked every day on video calls, sometimes for more than two hours. They had fun with it and roped me into some mischief (I bought some clear glasses for Danny while he grew out his hair so that when Natalie came home they would look “identical”), but the whole experience was still clearly traumatic for both of them. When Natalie did come home, the twins were extremely clingy with each other. For example, when Natalie went to physical therapy to strengthen her leg enough that she could be fitted with a prosthetic, Danny would be crying the whole time she was gone. They both started seeing a therapist, which has helped them a lot, but they still have a great deal of anxiety around being separated from each other.

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Amanda blames the kids’ anxiety on the way I reassured Danny, saying that if I hadn’t said what I did he wouldn’t have taken what happened so hard (Jake disagrees, as of course do I). Aside from yelling at me once (which she did apologize for), Amanda hasn’t acted on this in any meaningful way, but she is much colder to me than she was before. Natalie and Danny have noticed this and ask me if I’m fighting with their mom. I understand that Amanda has been living through a really stressful time just like the rest of us and that this is her way of dealing with it, but honestly I am starting to get tired of it. I am also really frightened, because growing up I’ve only ever lived in dysfunctional families, and I don’t want this family to end up like that. How can I fix my relationship with Amanda?

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—Sister-in-Law Conflict

Dear Sister-in-Law,

Take a deep breath. You can’t “fix” your relationship with Amanda. I don’t even know if it’s broken! And while four months feels like forever to you, it’s not really all that long for a mother who has seen her daughter suffer—and be hospitalized!—for nearly half of that period. Give Amanda some time to recover (it will probably take her longer than it will take either Danny or Natalie). Sure, she’s projecting; she’s blaming you for something that isn’t your fault. (And in case you need to hear it: Danny’s distress is not your fault!) But she doesn’t know what to do with all the feelings she’s having.

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Have you tried talking to Amanda? Telling her you love her, you love her kids, and you would never do anything to hurt any of them? I wouldn’t address the “false hopes” scenario head on (I think it’s a straw man, frankly; I don’t think she really believes this). If she brings it up again herself, perhaps you might try saying quietly, “I did the best I could.” It might help ease things if your brother talked through this with his wife too, but he may know that right now is not the time: that she needs space to grieve and work through her own complicated feelings.

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Your history of living within dysfunctional families makes this all harder to bear, I understand. But it doesn’t sound like there is anything dysfunctional going on here. This is a family that has been through an ordeal. They are working through it as best they can. If I were you, I’d concentrate on my relationship with the children and their father right now—not to mention your own life, your schoolwork and your friends—and except for the brief, gentle reassurance I’ve suggested above, let your sister-in-law be for a while. And please don’t force a timeline, though I realize you are getting “tired” of this strain between you. Live with it. Breathe through it. Sometimes relationships get hard for a bit. That doesn’t mean they’ll stay hard forever.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My parents and my husband have had some issues since we got married two years ago. I have tried to remain neutrally in the middle whilst trying not to get into arguments on either side. For their part, my parents are all smiles when he is around, then have a full commentary when he isn’t. I work with my parents, so their friction ends up affecting my workspace. My husband has issues he says he is slowly healing from but hasn’t gotten over. Recently my parents took a vacation and brought home gifts for our 1-year-old daughter and me. When they gave them to us, I asked if they had gotten anything for my husband and they said no, because they didn’t know his size. I was surprised, as the joke around the family is my dad could be used as a measurement for my husband since they are built more or less the same. Should I ask my parents about this gift thing or should I let it go?

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—Gift Conundrum

Dear GC,

This is a not a problem about gifts (in any case, gifts are not an obligation, and one should never ask why a gift was not given, or expect them to be given, ever). This is a problem between the people in your life whom you love, whom you want to love—or at least like … or at least tolerate—each other. I don’t know if this is possible or not. I don’t know what issues your husband has, or whether they relate to your parents or are baggage carried over from his own family. I don’t know why your parents seem to dislike your husband—or whether they even really do (is it possible that they are just having trouble sharing you with them?). The only way to sort this out is to talk directly about it. Forget the gift. And stop trying to walk a neutral middle ground and stay silent. Ask your parents what the deal is. And tell them you don’t want to hear their complaints about the man you married—that you would hope they’d come to care for him as a member of their expanding family, but if they don’t, and won’t, you will not tolerate their bad-mouthing him. Maybe this will shock them into better behavior. As to your husband, if he has a problem with your parents, it’s time to talk that out with him too. Silence and passivity have never helped anyone with any relationship.

—Michelle

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