Care and Feeding

My Son And His Friends Made a Really Stupid Choice—so Why Is Only My Son in Trouble?

A group of boys hanging out.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Roger Weber/iStock/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 14-year-old son and six of his friends were at a sleepover when they decided to sneak out and meet up with a sleepover of three girls in an adjoining neighborhood. This group of ten 14-year-olds walked around the neighborhood from midnight to 2 a.m. Then they went back to their own hosts’ homes. Neither group had permission to leave. The next morning, doorbell camera footage outed all those involved, and the kids confessed to their parents.  My son texted me letting me know what had happened.

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My problem is not so much what happened, but how it was handled. I was upset with my son. He knew not to leave without permission. I thought he was incredibly rude to his hosts to put them in that position and had broken trust with me. He was very sorry, and we’ve had many good discussions since about peer pressure and communication. I took away his phone for the weekend and grounded him from social activities for two weeks.

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The other parents of the boys think I am being completely ridiculous. They have no punishment for their sons at all. They are frustrated with me for “overreacting.” They have told me things like “this is just part of being in high school,” and “you just need to forgive and move on.” I have definitely forgiven my son! I agree that this is part of growing up, but actions have consequences, and I think sneaking out is serious. Nothing bad happened that night, but that doesn’t make sneaking out a harmless thing to do.

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Meanwhile, all three girls have had significant punishments. One is grounded for the rest of the school year. All three have their phones confiscated indefinitely. Their parents are much, much angrier.

In text exchanges, my son’s friends’ parents have said things like “the parents of the girls have way more to worry about than we do,” and “what were those girls thinking, sneaking out with boys?!” This seems like a huge double standard to me. Why is the same infraction harmless when boys do it, but incredibly serious when girls do it?

I would really appreciate any help you could give me. I’ve never felt so out of place as a parent. Usually my views pretty much align with my parent friends. Everything is great right now between my son and I, but we both feel judged by his friends and their parents.

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So, did I overreact in punishing my son? Is sneaking out normal for boys but horrible for girls?

— The One Mean Mom

Dear TOMM,

No, you did not overreact.

Yes, sneaking out is normal for boys (and girls).

No, it is no more “horrible” for girls than boys.

Yes, the patriarchy is the worst.

In my opinion, the consequences for your son (the punishment, the several heart-to-hearts, and your forgiveness) are perfectly proportional to the “crime.” Regardless of what I think, though, it is 100 percent not those other parents’ business.

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Your parent friends seem to have a severe case of “boys will be boys, so girls better watch out” syndrome. If I were you, I would tell the other parents to mind their own business about both your parenting decisions and how the young women comport themselves. If you feel a bit like poking the proverbial bear, you might ask them why they think it’s OK for boys to sneak out and not girls. Depending on their answers, you can remind them that preventing harm to young women is the responsibility of both sexes, and that you are raising your son to recognize that his actions have consequences, especially where others’ wellbeing is concerned. Or, just forget this whole endeavor, because I’m not sure whether these parents will get the message.

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I would also have a conversation with your son to create a game plan for if (and when) this happens again. Will he truly be able to stay back if the rest of his friends sneak out? Will it be social suicide if he does? Sorry to be hard on your and his peer groups, but if this is the response you are getting from the adults for what is a reasonable punishment, I worry that those kids will not hesitate to ostracize or ridicule your son for playing by the rules in the future.  

Catch Up on Care and Feeding

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

Dear Care and Feeding,

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Hello, I’m a single soon-to-be 41-year-old woman. I froze my eggs about five years ago in the hopes that I would have met Mr. Right by now, but it just hasn’t happened. Because of this, I’ve thought long and hard over the past few years about having children on my own. I’ve talked it over with friends, family, and my therapist. I have so much love to give, and I’ve always pictured myself having a family. I think I possess the self-awareness, empathy, and kindness to be a good parent—but I’m so worried about the logistical ramifications of choosing to be a single mom. I’m a physician, make decent money and live in a high cost-of-living area that I love and is near family, though I can’t rely on family for any childcare. So, I’m thinking an au pair would be a good solution. These are my general concerns: do children conceived from sperm donation have trauma later on from not knowing their father or where they “came from?” Do they suffer from not having a father or second parent growing up? If so, how can I best help with this? And my biggest concern: will it be detrimental for my child to have an au pair they spend so much time with who ultimately leaves when the child becomes school-aged? Will it hurt them like the loss of a parent? That seems like an awful thing to subject a child to. Sometimes I feel like I’m trying to do something selfish.

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— Dreaming of Being a Mom

Dear Dreaming,

You could argue that any decision to start a family is inherently selfish: we have children because we think it will bring us joy, fulfillment, purpose, someone to take over the family business—whatever! So please absolve yourself of those feelings of guilt and doubt.

I do not have any personal acquaintances, that I know of, with experiences using a sperm donor. However, several people in my life have adopted, been adopted, and/or given children up for adoption. From those folks, I can tell you that some adopted individuals feel a sense of incompleteness in not knowing their whole biological story, and some do not. I think a lot of that depends on the person in question: their personality, their family relationships, their sense of self, even medical questions. As you explore the donor process, I would ask the facilities what biographical information is given, or can later be made available, to the resulting child. Some facilities do “open-identity sperm donation,” which means that the donor agrees to have at least one contact with the child once they turn 18, if the child wishes. You may choose to conceive with one of these facilities if you want to leave that possibility on the table.

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Your next question, about whether the child suffers from not having a father or second parent growing up strikes a familiar chord with me. As a widow, I have this question often for my own two boys, as do other widows I know. We worry whether our hectic juggling or low threshold for stress is unfair to the kid, but also whether they will feel emotionally or existentially cheated as they grow up without two parents. Again, some kids do and some don’t (and some go back and forth), depending on a variety of factors. A feeling of loss or “something missing” can also happen with international adoptions, when a child feels cut off from their ethnic and cultural heritage. My point is that many parents wonder these same kinds of questions for their children, yet those family structures are still valid and accepted ways to make a family.

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Finally, I don’t think you are risking any future emotional trauma with an au pair. I’m certain you can find a lot of advice in the au pair communities on social media (there are several) and elsewhere about how to manage all aspects of that relationship, including the eventual separation. And for what it’s worth, my dear friend growing up had an au pair much of his childhood, and she attended his college graduation! Some of these relationships do endure, and even if they don’t, it doesn’t make them less meaningful.

I think it’s pretty clear from my counterpoints here that I see no reason for you to hesitate or feel guilty about your choice to have a family. If you pursue this, you’ll have much more in common with a variety of non-traditional parents out there than perhaps you might have thought at first, and a whole community of parents to be your sounding board along the way. If you have love to give and the resources to parent successfully, I see no reason that you can’t go forward.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I have a good friend from college who has a very cute 4-year-old. I am childless but love this kid like a niece. The thing is, my friend has some SERIOUS mental health issues since the quarantine period of the pandemic. She fears leaving her house, and mostly doesn’t. Neither does her daughter. Going outside is a BIG production.

I love my friend, but I also love her daughter, and I’m concerned that she’s not growing. She’s not potty-trained, she’s not weaned, she doesn’t know how to share, she’s afraid to be near people—she’s like a 2-year-old in a 4-year-old’s body.

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But…she’s not my kid. My first instinct is to stay out of it. But I’m genuinely concerned. What do you think I should, and can, do to help?

— Concerned “Aunt”

Dear Concerned,

Normally, I vote for butting out of other people’s parenting choices. But, if you’ve read my columns, you’ll know I also normally vote for therapy. In this case, therapy wins.

If everything is as you say, and if you are truly as close to this friend as you indicate, then I think you have a situation where you can and should step in, gently. (Does your friend have family you can talk to? What do they say about all this?) I’d encourage you to ask more questions than stating opinions. Is there a plan for potty training, or for school? Are there medical reasons they have to remain this vigilant? Etc. Ask her what support you can lend—taking the daughter out yourself for mini-excursions, calling around to find a therapist, or speaking to the pediatrician might all be small steps your friend would be willing to entertain. As you talk to her, keep the focus on her daughter and what she needs, not what your friend is doing wrong.

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You may have to have this conversation a few times before much progress can be made. If your friend is open to it but slow to act, don’t give up. Slow progress is still progress, and consistency from you might be able to help it happen. Good luck!

Dear Care and Feeding,

Please help settle a dispute between my husband and me. Over Labor Day weekend, we both had to work, and we let our 7-year-old go to the beach with my in-laws without us. We packed plenty of sunscreen and a hat, and we talked to my in-laws about how often they needed to help her reapply it. Well, she came home BADLY sunburnt—we’re talking blisters and peeling skin, and tears at bedtime because it hurt to lie down. When we asked my in-laws what happened, they said something about “losing track of time” and forgetting to reapply sunscreen as often as they should have. To them, it was an unfortunate oopsie that just happens sometimes, not a serious screw-up on their part.

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I am furious. She has never gotten more than a very minor sunburn with us, despite having fair skin like my husband. Sorry, but it’s really not that hard. You just look at your watch or set a timer on your phone. To me, this is no different than if she had come home with stitches or a broken bone due to their negligence.

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I don’t want her to be alone with them for outdoor activities again until she is old enough to be fully responsible for her own sun protection. An afternoon with them where we can apply her sunscreen beforehand? Sure. But no more beach trips without us, and no more all-day visits where there’s any chance that they’d need to reapply her sunscreen.

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My husband thinks it wasn’t great of them but that forbidding any more outdoor activities alone with them is overreacting. He got multiple nasty burns like that as a kid, so I guess to him it’s normal. He thinks it’s enough to tell them we were really upset about the burn and that it’s extremely important that they follow our instructions in the future. I don’t want to give them a second chance on this, because getting even a few severe sunburns as a child greatly increases your chances of getting melanoma.

Who is right? Is there some compromise where we can let her continue to have extended visits with my in-laws while ensuring that this never happens again?

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— Don’t Want to Get Burnt Again

Dear Burnt,

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You are right to be furious, but I have to agree with your husband on this one. The in-laws get one more chance. Next time a long-term outdoor playdate is set up, you (and your husband—you must be a united front on this!) need to stress to the grandparents just how much pain your daughter experienced and how that simply cannot happen again. Give them the tools you just shared with me (setting timers, etc.) and just enough guilt to let it stick and see what happens. If she again comes back badly burned, then at that point you can discuss whether these outings are off limits.

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However, letter writer, you can help the in-laws (and your daughter!) by outfitting her more protectively. My Swedish niece and nephews wear long-sleeve rash guards, which have UV protection built in. That dramatically lowers the surface area you need to apply sunscreen to and makes forgetting way less risky. Sending your child in this gear is extra insurance against her getting hurt, and also diminishes the “set-your-in-laws-up-to-fail” dynamic you might be heading towards otherwise.

Finally, your daughter is 7, and that’s old enough for her to understand the importance of sunscreen and help her grandparents to remember it. I’m not saying the responsibility should be all on her, but if you can motivate her to protect her skin—or just avoid pain—she’ll be more likely to either proactively apply it herself, remind her grandparents to set the timer, or both.

Bottom line: mistakes happen (ask my son about his sunburn!) and our loved ones deserve grace, at least until their mistakes become chronic. Sorry to vote against you!

—Allison

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