Care and Feeding

My Daughter’s Friend Has No Freedom to Explore Other Friendships

The leftovers of a piece of birthday cake, after it's been eaten.
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 ex-husband and I are pretty close and have a great co-parenting relationship. We have 2 kids together—an 11-year-old boy and a 7-year-old girl. Our daughter Ruby has a mobility impairment that primarily affects one of her legs, and she cannot walk unassisted (she mostly uses crutches, though she uses her wheelchair at school). She also has a vision impairment, which is only partially corrected by glasses, and a few other minor disabilities. Ruby has a few friends at school. Since our homes are designed or outfitted for Ruby’s needs, most playdates happen at our houses. It can be frustrating at times, but her friends and their families understand.

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About a year ago, through her stepmother, Ruby became friends with a girl named Lila who is a year older than her and uses a wheelchair full-time. She was paralyzed below the neck when she was 4 and has slowly regained some use of her arms since then. Lila lives with her aunt and uncle, who have a rule about who she is allowed to be friends with. Lila is only allowed to be friends with people whose houses are accessible, which really limits her friends to just Ruby and her neighbor. Ruby really likes being friends with Lila because Lila’s house is accessible and Lila is one of the few friends she can comfortably play with outside of our house.

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Recently, my ex-husband’s family threw a party for their daughter’s first birthday, and both our kids were allowed to invite two friends. Ruby invited Lila and a friend from school. Lila and Ruby’s friend were playing together quite a bit at the party. When Lila’s aunt came to pick her up from the party, she was furious that we would provide a situation where Lila might become friends with someone who she shouldn’t be friends with due to their strict rules. Lila’s aunt said that if things like this continue, Ruby and Lila might not be able to be friends anymore.

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My ex and I both feel bad for Lila; not only does she have to deal with her disabilities in a world that is not set up to be accessible for her, but she also has to do it with her overbearing aunt and uncle. I want to know if there is any way we could help her gain some independence without jeopardizing her friendship with Ruby, since Ruby is one of two people Lila is allowed to be friends with.

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— Friendly Neighborhood Supermom

Dear Supermom,

I’m sure I don’t need to tell you this, but cultivating friendships only with people with accessible homes isn’t realistic. I can understand the motivation behind Lila’s caretakers’ rules; they probably want to avoid uncomfortable situations for Lila and prevent her from being in a situation where she feels like her disability is a burden to herself or her friends. Disability does put limits on the types of activities or locations a person can comfortably be in—as Ruby herself has experienced—and Lila’s aunt and uncle might be trying to shield her from that. As you’re well aware, instead of protecting Lila, they’re preventing her from learning how to adapt and face adversity or discomfort.

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I don’t know if there is a way for you to help Lila. An important first step could be the stepmom getting to know Lila’s aunt more, learning whether the playdate limitations are purely about physical logistics or whether the adults are afraid of bullying or unkind behavior. Depending on the answer, maybe playdates at one of Ruby’s houses, but with a non-disabled person also present, could be OK. There are also camps that specifically put children with and without disabilities together as a way to foster empathy, understanding, and empowerment. These kinds of engagements could help expand Lila’s social circle with reduced emotional and logistical risk.

Other than that, there is not much you can do except to make it clear to Lila’s aunt and uncle that Ruby does not have the same rule as Lila, so a variety of people may be at parties or other gatherings. Emphasize how much Lila’s friendship means to Ruby and make it clear you want the girls to be able to continue their friendship in a way that is comfortable and fulfilling to everyone. Hopefully you can come to a consensus that doesn’t involve the girls being limited only to one-on-one playdates, but it might come to that. Ultimately, you may not agree with their parenting choice, but you do need to respect it to the extent that it doesn’t infringe on Ruby.

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Catch Up on Care and Feeding

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

Dear Care and Feeding,

My almost-6-year-old has always hated washing himself and his privates. He even got upset when he was a baby getting baths or diaper changes, particularly when we had to clean the area around his penis. He hates baths and refuses to soak. He literally just stands in the bath with the water rarely going over his shins. If I try to tell him he has to wash himself (or even just sit in the water for a while) he starts screaming and crying. I don’t want to force him, as this seems traumatic. How worried should I be? I always assumed he’d grow out of it but after almost six years I’m starting to fear he won’t. When do I need to bring in an expert?

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— Won’t Rub-a-Dub-Dub

Dear Rub-a-Dub,

I’m assuming, though you don’t say it, that you’ve tried showers and it’s the same scenario? If not, give that a whirl, because even if he doesn’t directly clean his private areas, they’d still get a rinse, which sounds like better than what he’s managing now. Can your son articulate what it is that is uncomfortable for him? (Don’t try to ask him in the heat of the moment, but at a totally separate, calmer time.) Good hygiene, as you know, is only going to get more important as he approaches puberty, so I do think now is the time to be sure he’s on the right track.

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I would consult your pediatrician about the issue. They may do an exam and ask you and your son some questions, or may refer you directly to a urologist to investigate whether something physiological going on. If nothing shows up, the pediatrician might consider other avenues to explore, like an occupational therapy consultation.

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The last thing I will say is to be careful you aren’t focusing too much on the issue. Unless you observe some problematic symptoms like rashes, odors, etc. I would pull back on any interrogation or correction. The medical experts can determine whether you have a real problem on your hands; if you keep pursuing it on your own, you might unwittingly compound the problem and add to any shame or embarrassment that might already be present.

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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,

Every morning is traumatic, and I need help. My daughter is an only child, almost 6. We have always been very close. I am a gentle parent, and while my husband is less so, he does pretty well.

She has always been sensitive to the way that clothes feel, but they don’t seem to bother her to the same degree all the time. I believe her about the clothes, but I think it’s amplified by her emotional state. For example, when getting dressed to play with the neighbors, she’ll do it on her own with no fuss. But every weekday morning when it’s time to get dressed for school, she will stall and stall and stall. Then she throws a fit about the clothes and we’re already short on time by this point. This morning my husband carried her to the car with no shoes and socks as she screamed about wanting a hair style. (We had no time to do her hair, but I think it was another stall tactic and not actually about the hair.)

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I was out of town part of last week, and she got dressed with no issues for my husband on school days, so I think it’s all related to me. She says she wants to stay home with me, but that’s obviously not an option.

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I hate every morning. However, this is not a self-fulfilling prophecy; I have inattentive ADD so I literally forget this happens until it starts.

She does very well in school and I’ve talked to her teacher who says she’s been participating more and more and is well liked by everyone in the class.

She fights bedtime in a similar way. What can we do?

— Morning Madness

Dear Madness,

In the immediate term, I would have your husband take over all morning routine duties if possible, since it seems like there might be something about the dynamic between you and your daughter that is stressing one or both of you out. You should also consider having her choose her clothes the night before so that that is one less potential fight in the morning (and if she complains about an item, leave it to her to choose an alternative, don’t participate or help). I would also have her get dressed first thing when she wakes up. She’s more likely to be malleable, and you won’t have had time to get on each other’s nerves yet. Plus, breakfast is then both a motivator for her to get dressed faster and a natural consequence of her actions if she is late and has to go to school hungry.

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I would also investigate tools for morning and bedtime routines that take the burden off of you and your husband. Lists and visual schedules provide a neutral, objective reminder of what has to be done in the day so that you aren’t the constant bad guy. (You’re not telling her to get her shoes on; the list is telling her to get her shoes on!) My son benefits a lot from timers. We have this one in both the kitchen and his bedroom so that he can pace himself during breakfast and dressing times—his slowest periods.

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Finally, I would get your daughter assessed for ADHD, sensory processing disorder and anxiety. ADHD is highly heritable and can be accompanied by these other two conditions, and they can all manifest similarly to one another. Neurodivergent girls often go undiagnosed because these conditions generally look different between the two sexes, so just because her teachers say she is doing well in school doesn’t necessarily count these out as possibilities.

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Above all, as the Brits say, keep calm and carry on. Morning and bedtime routines are many parents’ least favorite parts of the day. While your situation sounds more extreme than many, you are not alone.

Dear Care and Feeding,

Last month, my 14-year-old daughter, Amy, and I were cleaning up the attic. While we were going through some of the boxes, we found some books that had gone into storage, including my old Harry Potter set.

I stopped to reminisce about the books and how I liked them when I was about her age, and they got me into reading for pleasure, not just something for school assignments. I thought it was just a bit of harmless reminiscence, but Amy went absolutely mad about it.

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She started accusing me of being a terrible person if I liked that “garbage,” and how even before the author revealed herself as a transphobic bigot, the books were incredibly problematic, featuring widespread acceptance of slavery with the wizarding world’s attitudes towards the house elves and how Hermione’s abolitionism is treated as a joke; a casual acceptance of mind-altered consent in the form of love potions being treated more as a gag item than anything else; and, referring to the end of the fifth book, how the books’ heroes, and by extension Rowling, approve of punitive rape with the implication of Umbridge being dragged away by Centaurs.

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I tried to tell her that that’s certainly not what I took away from the books, but she just kind of rolled over any objection I could make and eventually announced she was done with me. I thought it was a childish outburst and a fit of pique, but she hasn’t spoken one word to me since August 6. No amount of punishment or persuasion, even begging, has gotten her to relent. She’ll show up for meals, she’ll do her chores, she’ll even comply with punishments, just in absolute silence. I don’t know what to do anymore, and I don’t even understand what I did wrong.

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— Crushed

Dear Crushed,

Sigh. Am I allowed to sigh at your daughter? Because my first reaction is that this all reverberates with that sense of absolutism that young teenagers have perfected over generations. Not everything is as cut and dried as “the youths” think it is—in fact, most things aren’t.

I think you are allowed to like Harry Potter. If you want a perspective on why, actor and writer Wil Wheaton summed it up really well in a Facebook post, which Upworthy reposted. The full post is worth a read—and Wheaton is known among his fans for being incredibly reflective, progressive, and “woke” about issues like abuse, ableism, racism and more—but one of the most salient parts, to me, is this: “I believe that when some piece of art is deeply meaningful to a person, for whatever reason, that art doesn’t belong to the person who created it, if it ever did. It belongs to the person who found something meaningful in the art. If it feels right to you to put it away and never look at it again, that’s totally valid. But if it brings you comfort, or joy, or healing, or just warm familiarity to bring it out and spend some time with it, that’s totally valid, too.”

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I’ll leave it to the Ravenclaws of the world to debate your daughter’s specific objections to the books. I am more concerned about her treatment of you. In a word, it’s unacceptable. She doesn’t have to agree with your literary interpretations, she doesn’t even have to like you (sometimes liking one’s parents is a high bar for a teen), but she does need to acknowledge you and treat you with a base level of respect and kindness. If you have a partner, now is the time to send him or her in to get to the bottom of what is going on inside your daughter’s head or heart. It seems bizarre that this would be only about Harry Potter, and if there is something deeper or more pervasive going on (conflict with you, gender identity questions, general disillusionment with adults), it’s better to know it now. Given how long this seems to be going on, however, be prepared that your partner might not have much luck. You may need to find a therapist who can help your daughter process and articulate her feelings and then mediate a conversation(s) between the two of you. Your daughter may be resistant, but you deserve more than what you are getting from her.

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—Allison

More Advice From Slate

A few months ago, I began therapy for severe depression. A few weeks later, I met a man who (he said) had just been through a nasty divorce. We bonded over mutual misery, and for the first time in my life, I began a “friends with benefits”–type relationship with him. Flash forward to last week: I ran into him and his wife at a grocery store. It turned out, I know his wife—she’s my therapist. I held it together at the store but made sure later that he knew our “relationship” was over. I have ignored all subsequent contact attempts but have saved the messages and texts while I decide whether or not to tell her. So my question: Should I?

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