Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here.
Dear Care and Feeding,
How do you model not hiding the truth when hiding the truth feels right?
My 9-year-old is taking online French classes, and he doesn’t want his dad to know because Dad puts too much pressure on him and likes to continually correct him (it’s borderline bullying). I have no influence over Dad, since we are not together and he has another family. My kid is taking French classes out of his own initiative, he already speaks two languages, and he has my 100 percent support.
Here’s what ended up happening: One day, Dad asked to pick him up early. I said “Sorry, he has an online commitment, let’s keep the original time.” Now Dad will ask him what was the online commitment. My gut instinct was to talk to my kid and say “Hey, sorry, but I told your dad you had an online thing. Let’s be ready for him to ask you about it. What answer do you want to give so we can align?”
Am I teaching him to lie? I believe he has the right to not share, especially for the reasons that he is not sharing. But I don’t want to teach him to keep the truth from his parents. What is the “right” way to manage something like this? What would you all do?
— To Lie or Not to Lie
Dear To Lie or Not,
It’s hard for me to say what I would do here, largely because of what I don’t know about your own relationship to your son’s father, nor can I say what the “right” thing to do is with any certainty. I do, however, have a few thoughts.
First, I realize that the two of you are not together and that you don’t perceive yourself as having influence over your son’s dad. However, does that mean that the two of you are beyond the point of advocating to one another on your son’s behalf? Unless there is a reason for the two of you not to communicate in such a way (and I realize that your relationship could simply be that contentious), I think you should be able to talk to him about how his behavior makes your son feel. You can let him know that you appreciate his high standards for your child and his belief that he can achieve, but that at times, his approach can leave him feeling unnecessary pressure.
You could hide the class from him, but then there would be the matter of a standing appointment on your son’s calendar that will always prohibit Dad from picking him up early. There’s also the matter of your son beginning to know French. What happens when he slips up and says something in this new language in front of his father—how will he explain that? What if he plans to continue with French long term? It doesn’t seem like this will be an easy secret to keep forever.
It may not be the most fruitful conversation, but I think it’s worth it for you to tell your son’s father that he’s been taking a French class and exactly why he initially chose to keep it a secret.
It is possible that Dad doesn’t realize the adverse effects of putting extra pressure on his son, and he may benefit from hearing that it has led his son to want to keep secrets from him. Hopefully, he’ll realize the error of his ways and fall back.
If Dad is just toxic and impossible and guaranteed to make things worse if confronted, then it may be in your son’s best interest to keep the class quiet. Lying isn’t ideal, but if it feels like a necessary means to protect your son from being mistreated, then you do what you must do. But if there’s any chance of reasoning with Dad at all, be honest with him. I think that’s what I’d do. Wishing you all the best.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
As a teenager, I admit that I can sometimes get on my mother’s nerves. I daydream a lot and have a hard time following instructions, which I imagine can be frustrating to my parents because they often have to repeat things. Other than that, though, I think I am a pretty average, good kid. I don’t really do things that would get my parents very upset. However, my mother is constantly angry at me for something, and I feel like it is really hurting our relationship.
The other day, she screamed at me because the cord of my hair dryer was hanging out of the bin in my closet in my room. I did not understand why she was so mad: No one could even see it because the door was closed, but saying that just made her even more mad. She does the same thing when I sometimes leave my sliding closet door open a few inches when I am in a rush to get to school. My mom has a very short temper, and it makes it exhausting to be around her because I am always walking on eggshells. At dinner a few days ago, I told her I was full and didn’t want another serving of food; she started yelling at me so much that I just gave up and ate it. I don’t know why she got so mad because I am perfectly healthy, and even my doctor said that I am old enough to decide how much I want to eat and that my mom needn’t be so worried.
I wish her first reaction to everything wasn’t to yell and get mad. I tell her that sometimes she can be a little mean, but she responds that calling someone mean is a very childish thing to say and tells me to grow up. I think my mom has a habit of getting involved in things she does not need to and she stresses herself out and upsets everyone around her. The frustrating part is that a lot of my friends think my mom is so cool and funny, but she can be very rude and mocking at times. Sometimes she will mimic my tone. I don’t know why she does that because I feel like most moms wouldn’t be so immature, and I told her I don’t like it. She just really hurts my feelings all the time, and I don’t know how to make her see that. I want to know if I am in the wrong. Am I just being ungrateful and is she being a normal mom?
— Troubled Tones
Dear Troubled Tones,
Obviously, there is a lot that I do not know about your relationship with your mother, but it certainly doesn’t sound to me like you’re “in the wrong” or “ungrateful.” According to you, your mother has a short temper and she can be mean to you at times. No child would feel good about being treated in such a way, and no child—including you—has ever done anything to deserve that sort of treatment. There’s nothing wrong with how you feel about your mother’s behavior.
It’s good that you have tried to advocate for yourself to your mother, and I encourage you to keep doing so. Let her know how her snide remarks make you feel. Ideally, she will one day take your comments to heart and change her behavior. However, it is more likely that she will continue to behave as she has in the past because it seems like this is who she is as a person. There’s something going on with her and the way she feels about herself that leads her to treat other people negatively. It is unfortunate that you have to navigate this, but it is not your fault. Your responsibility here is to yourself, and it is to survive your mother’s treatment. Your job is to do the best you absolutely can to prevent her words from impacting how you feel about you. I realize that this is no small task and few people can influence us more greatly than our mothers, but you have got to fight this fight. You have to care for you, in the face of your mom’s cruel words and when she isn’t able to be the source of tenderness that you might need.
A reader once suggested Nedra Glover Tawab’s Set Boundaries, Find Peace for another letter writer with a similar dynamic between she and her mother; you may find it useful as you continue to figure out how to peacefully co-exist with yours. You will spend the rest of your life continuing to grapple with your mother, but I encourage you to be very honest with yourself about why that is: the way she treats you. And, once again, you’ve done nothing to warrant that. Try to remember this when things get difficult, and she’s on the verge of making you feel small. This is about who your mother is, not who you are. You have to make it through the rest of your time living with her to the best of your ability. It is critical that you place responsibility for your dynamic at her feet and focus your energies on being as positive and happy as you possibly can be in the face of her negativity. Remind yourself not to let her get you down. Surround yourself with friends who make you feel good, who treat you the way you want to be treated—and remember how your mother made you feel if and when you become someone’s parent yourself one day.
Let the toxicity end with her. Give yourself as much grace as possible; what you’re dealing with is both difficult and unfair, more than a kid your age should have to face. Continue to advocate for yourself, but don’t feel responsible for this adult woman’s actions. She’ll have to answer for her behavior in time, potentially via the shape your relationship takes when you’re no longer reliant upon her for survival, and I think she’ll come to see the error of her ways. Wishing you all the best.
Dear Care and Feeding,
I am a 41-year-old man with a 14-year-old son “Terrence.” Terrence has started asking me some questions about sex, and I’m not sure how to answer. I’ve tried sending him over to my wife, but she is both uncomfortable answering and not the best source when it comes to dealing with male sexuality.
I don’t feel prepared to have this conversation with Terrence. At the same time, I feel like he does need his questions answered, and I know I’m not the one who can answer them. What do I do?
— Broaching the Birds and the Bees
Dear Broaching the Birds,
You should take the time to do some reading about teen sexuality so that you can be a useful resource to your son. Planned Parenthood’s In Case You’re Curious is a comprehensive guide with answers to lots of questions about sexual health, birth control and bodies. Consent: The New Rules of Sex Education focuses on what teens need to know about dating, bodily autonomy, and navigating romantic relationships. Everything You Wanted to Know About Puberty (And Shouldn’t Be Googling) is a great look at the changes taking place in a boy’s body and brain and ways to cope with them.
You don’t have to feel prepared for these conversations to recognize that it’s important for your son to know about responsible sexual behaviors and the measures he must take to protect himself and others, physically, emotionally and otherwise. Get some books, spend some time Googling and become the resource that he needs. You are more than capable!
Catch Up on Care and Feeding
Dear Care and Feeding,
I have a trans son; he came out in 2019 when he was 12. For the most part, his transition has been met with love and acceptance from the majority of my family. However, even though my parents purport to love and accept him, they continue to “accidentally” misgender him, even three years later. It has made our get-togethers fraught, to say the least. They occasionally slip and refer to him as “she” or “her,” and the last time we were together, my mother was taking a picture of him and me, and said, “Smile, girls!” I was dumbfounded. My child was hurt and livid, and the outing ended with a giant argument (my son become uncommunicative, and my mother got angry that he was acting rude). My son and I cut the outing short and went home.
My parents are in their late 70s, and while in good health, anything can happen. They still want to be in our lives, and I don’t want to be estranged from them, but I cannot let them continue to hurt my child this way. Do you have any language I can use, or resources I can point them toward so they will stop misgendering him? They usually apologize and correct themselves, but not always, and they seem to have an excuse to hand (i.e. “we’re old, and change is difficult”).
— Words Don’t Match Actions
Dear Words Don’t Match,
Instead of waiting for the next infraction, spark up a conversation with your parents before you see them again. Let them know that while you understand how difficult change can be at their age, that it is terribly important for them to stop misgendering your child. Talk to them about how damaging misidentification can be for trans people, especially kids. Share this article from Harvard Medical School, which explains it plainly: “When people are misgendered, they feel invalidated and unseen. When this happens daily, it becomes a burden that can negatively impact their mental health and their ability to function in the world.”
Ask your parents to think about how they might feel if someone called them by the wrong name or wrong pronouns. Remind them that LGBTQ youths, especially trans kids, are more likely to consider or attempt suicide and that central to many of those young people’s struggles has been a lack of acceptance from friends and family. Let them know that the stakes are very high here and that you need them to try the best that they can to adapt; if they misgender your son, they must apologize immediately and correct themselves, not default to “I’m old and this is hard.”
Finally, it should be made clear that they can only continue to spend time with your son if they are putting forward their best effort to address him properly. If you ever feel that they aren’t trying or that they have misgendered him intentionally, then that should impact their access to him going forward. You have to think of your child’s emotional well-being before anything else, and if they aren’t able to see him for who he is, then they shouldn’t be able to see him. Hopefully, they’ll pull it together ASAP.