Care and Feeding

My Stepdaughter Is About to Make a Grave Mistake by Pursuing Her Dreams

A young woman draws by her laptop.
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 20-year-old stepdaughter is in her second year of community college. She needs to apply to four-year colleges and pick a major soon. Her dream is to be a freelance graphic artist. The problem is she can’t draw. She loves making screen caps and photo manipulations but has no interest in drawing. Her last drawings are from a few years ago and look like they were done by an 8-year-old. I’m not being mean, I can’t draw any better, but I’m also not looking to have a career in art.

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I bought her a step-by-step book on teaching yourself to draw as an adult and she never touched it. She says nowadays you don’t need to be able to draw. She won’t listen when I explain even if you can squeak by and get your degree, you’ll still be at a disadvantage compared to an artist who can draw. She won’t always be able to get away with just changing the colors of copyrighted photos or making simple outlines out of automatic shapes if she expects to charge money for it.

My husband is with me, but he thinks she needs to be allowed to fail and learn from experience. I’m concerned she’s going to get an expensive degree and not be able to get enough work to support herself and will still be financially dependent on him when our younger children, now 10 and 12, are starting college. Her mom is flat broke and no help. Any advice?

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—Dream Doubter

Dear Doubter,

I really don’t think it’s your place (or your husband’s) to evaluate her career prospects—at least, not at this stage. If she gets into a graphic arts program, she’ll get a pretty good idea of where she stands skills-wise from her professors and peers. And since I gather from your letter that you are not an expert in this field, I am not sure how confident you should be in your assessment of her prospects. (Incidentally, I spoke to a freelancer friend of mine who said that drawing skills were not necessarily essential to this career path.)

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If she really wants to do this for a living, and if she finds—either in college or the job market—that her skills are lacking, she will either do what it takes to improve or pivot to a new profession. If you are concerned about the financial burden you might bear if she is underemployed for a prolonged period of time, then by all means have that discussion with her. Make it clear that you expect her to be financially independent by a certain timeframe, but don’t include any commentary on her chosen field.

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Finally—and I know this is a very privileged point of view—as a proud owner of a (quite random) liberal arts master’s degree, and the friend of several theater-majors-turned-teachers/photographers/marketers/etc., college isn’t always just about career preparation. In many cases, it is the time when a person is encouraged to pursue their passions (provided they or the family have the financial means to do so). Curiosity, self-exploration, and saturation in one’s interests can be completely viable ways to experience college, and one never knows how what you learn will shape your path. It not just about the future job. Let this go for now. Don’t crush her dreams before she has a chance to try them on for size.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I am a single father with a 12-year-old daughter, Daisy. Daisy has a few minor visual impairments. She was born with cataracts and had surgery as a baby. Even with glasses she doesn’t have great vision, and without glasses her eyes essentially cannot focus. As a toddler she suffered an infection that resulted in moderate hearing loss.

Daisy has few friends her age. She is part of a Deaf hiking club, but unfortunately the other kids in that group live too far away and are too busy to hang out regularly in person or online. She also has a best friend, Aidan.

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Daisy and I are very close. Daisy’s idea of a fun time usually involves me, and she confides in me. She tells me everything about her school life, crushes on boys, the funny thing her teacher said, etc. I’ve noticed that her more recent stories haven’t involved Aidan.

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Aidan was at my house waiting for Daisy to come home from school, and I mentioned something about “when you sit together at lunch.” Aidan looked really guilty and said that he loves being friends with Daisy but doesn’t talk to her at school—if he is seen hanging out with her, his other friends won’t be friends with him. I was shocked and didn’t say anything more about it, but I did talk to Daisy about it later. She confirmed what he said—no one voluntarily hangs out with her at school.

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Daisy is shy, but I’ve seen her interact with the other kids on her hiking trips, and she is able to navigate social dynamics well. She has a crush on a boy in the hiking group and is much more normal around him than I would have been at that age. Daisy is a bad liar, and when I asked her if she was being bullied she said no, but I suspect she wasn’t telling the whole truth.

I have noticed a few recent changes. She confided in me two new worries she has: one, that all the other girls have started puberty, and she hasn’t; and two, that she is apparently so skinny and lightweight that anyone could beat her up if they wanted to (she hasn’t been beaten up or changed her diet or anything). She also has a newfound interest in her disabilities, especially her minor visual impairment. She declared that she wants to be a pediatric optometrist when she grows up, which she never mentioned an interest in before. She cries more often, but if I ever ask her about it she says she still misses our cat who passed away somewhat recently. All of these things are fairly minor by themselves, but combined with what I learned from Aidan make me very worried for her. Am I being paranoid? Would it even be possible for me to help her if she refuses to tell me what’s going on?

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— I’m Scared for Her

Dear Scared,

Middle school is a brutal time, often made even worse if you have something that makes you stand out from the crowd. I’m sorry that Daisy is in this position (and Aidan too, for that matter). Most of the advice on helping kids through bullying and other tough social situations deemphasizes parental intervention and instead stresses listening, validation and investment in the child. So I think anything you can do to validate her feelings and follow her lead is your best bet forward.

Although I’m sure you feel rather powerless in this situation, the fact that Daisy talks so openly with you is a really good sign. The more you can keep that going, the better. She says she isn’t bullied, but it sounds like she is being ostracized, and those are two different but closely related situations. She may not have the language to fully share with you what is going on. I’d suggest reading this article and reflecting on some of its points with Daisy; that might help you both articulate what exactly she’s facing at school and how to move forward. You could also ask her if she’d like to talk to a professional.

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You might also talk to Daisy about whether you can help her with her new concerns/interests. Does she want to start martial arts lessons to gain some confidence? Does she want to start finding ways to explore a medical career? These may help her feel like she’s taking a more active approach to managing what’s happening around her.

Last, I would encourage Aidan to confide in his parents about what is happening. I would also give her guidance counselor a head’s up. Although it doesn’t sound like Daisy is in immediate danger, bringing them into the situation provides one more set of eyes; they can be on the lookout for escalating behavior and may have ideas for how and with whom Daisy can build a social network.

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It’s very likely that, by the time she gets to high school, the social Hunger Games will dissipate, In time, Daisy will be able to find her own niche of friends. For now, keep listening and helping her build a positive sense of self in the ways you’re already doing.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I’m in my mid-forties with a brother a year younger than me who lives at home with my parents. It is obvious to anyone who has ever met my brother that he is on the autism spectrum. When we were children, this wasn’t diagnosed as frequently as ADHD (which he was diagnosed with), and so he never received a proper diagnosis, treatment, and resources. In his early twenties, he had a severe substance abuse problem from which he has recovered. He is otherwise physically capable and of above average intelligence.

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Since recovering from substance abuse, his pattern has been to get a wage job like stocking shelves, or something similar. Then, someone at the workplace begins to pick on him because of the way he speaks or how slowly and obsessively he moves through tasks, and eventually he quits the job or is fired. My parents are so loving, and frankly, I believe just incredibly grateful that he didn’t succumb to his substance abuse problem, that they have always supported him and never pushed him to stay in these positions. They are not by any means well off (now retired, my mom cleaned houses and my dad worked in a factory), but they are very loving parents.

I love my brother very much and appreciate his struggles, but the reality is that my parents will not be around forever. I’m concerned about their lack of planning for my brother when they are eventually not here. They have enabled him (perhaps for good reason) to not have to learn to care for himself. I don’t think it’s fair of them to assume that I will eventually take on the responsibility of caring for my adult brother, who could be a functional adult with the appropriate support. I’ve made a really good career for myself, as has my husband who had a similar socio-economic background. We have two kids of our own to care for.

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After speaking with friends with neurodiverse children, I’ve learned about resources for getting my brother properly diagnosed, so that he can get some support in learning to work with other people, and perhaps be matched to workplaces that are more welcoming to people with autism spectrum disorder. The problem is that my brother and parents won’t take any of my advice. My brother’s response is that he knows he’s on the spectrum, so why would he need an official diagnosis. My parents take offense and accuse me of making morbid conversation.

The entire situation causes me a lot of anxiety (and I don’t tend to be a big worrier). Is there any way that I can better approach these conversations without outright saying that I simply won’t support him, and they need to figure something out, which simply feels cruel?

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— Anxious Sibling

Dear Anxious,

In situations like this, I think going straight to the experts is the best move. The Autistic Self-Advocacy Network (ASAN) has a guide on accessing home and community-based services, which might be informative for both you and your brother—if he’ll agree to take a look. They also have some information and resources regarding diagnoses. And the Asperger Autism Network (AANE) hosts support groups where you may find some helpful advice from people who have been in similar situations to yours.

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I’m hoping that those resources can give you some tactics and data to ease the conversations with your brother. Notice, I didn’t mention your parents. In many respects, their ability to help you—and their stake in the game—diminishes with each passing year. Plus, they have already demonstrated that they are unwilling or unable to talk about future events in this way. Since it is you and your brother who will be navigating the future together, I would recommend speaking about all of this directly with him. I think you will have to get specific and firm. Let him know what support you will and will not be able to offer him and ask him what his plans are. Since he is a capable adult, he may resent and resist the conversation if you make it sound like you are making decisions for him. Be clear that you are willing to let him “drive the bus” so to speak, but that you want to create some plans together.

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It’s perfectly reasonable for you to feel trepidation at the prospect of financially and logistically supporting another adult in addition to your spouse and kids, and he hasn’t shown you any evidence to suggest that that won’t be your future. On the other hand, family is family, and to some extent you are going to need to be involved in your brother’s affairs simply because you will be his next of kin and it’s the right thing to do. So it becomes a matter of trying to identify now a balance you are both fully aware of and comfortable with, so that these decisions don’t have to be made later amid a lot of stress and urgency. Good luck!

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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,

I am a high schooler. When I come back from school, I like to spend some time by myself doing homework, reading a book, etc. It feels nice to relax after a long day. Ever since the pandemic began, and my dad stopped going to the office every day, he is at home a lot more. This is usually nice, but he has an annoying habit of coming into my room at least twice an hour. Sometimes he just sits on my bed and watches me work. I know he wants to spend some time with me, but I really just want to be alone for a while. When I ask him that nicely, he either gets mad or ignores me. He says that it’s his house and he can do whatever he wants. I guess that’s true, but how do I tell him that I want some space?

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— Want to Be Alone

Dear WTBA,

When you tell your dad that you want some alone time, is that while he is in your room, trying to hang out? Timing matters, and no one likes feeling rejected when they are seeking connection. Instead, find a neutral time to chat with your dad—say, a weekend afternoon—when you can explain how you feel and set parameters together for how after school time can go. You might suggest that when you come home from school, you’d like a half hour to yourself, and that then you will come talk to him about your day. I think you’ll have more success if you can present it as a solution that gives everyone what they want, rather than a rejection in the moment.

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If the conversation goes well, though, do make good and follow through on it. It’s very possible that your dad is hungry for some real-life human interaction after a full day of working in an empty house. If he is an extrovert, he recharges by making connections with others, whereas it sounds like you recharge by having alone time. Neither is better or worse than the other, so it’s all about striking that mutual respect and peaceful coexistence.

One other thought: if you have a second parent in the house, you might follow up with them after the conversation with your dad. Chances are that he has expressed frustration to his spouse about your apparent detachment. If you can explain to the other parent where you are coming from and the solution you are proposing, they might prove a helpful ally.

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—Allison

More Advice From Slate

I’m a 55-year-old divorced college professor who earns $140,000 a year (plus interest, dividends, and royalties). I have around $3.5 million in investments, home equity, and savings, so I am fairly well off. My 51-year-old girlfriend has little savings, works an hourly wage job, and earns around $40,000 a year (she’s had a much tougher life than me). I would be happy to support us both and would like her to quit working (or work much less) so we can travel more and have more free fun time. But she is worried about losing independence and being financially dependent on me. How do we bridge this?

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