Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here.
Dear How to Do It,
I have a 7-year old-daughter, “Kayla.” We live in a rural area, and our local school is bordered on three ends with empty fields. Kids can often see wildlife on the other side of the fence, and are regularly told not to interact with the wild animals without adult supervision. This is not a lesson Kayla has heeded. Apparently, there was a weak point in the fence and a coyote managed to slip in and explore the recess yard. Kayla’s known about it for almost a month, frequently taking portions of her lunch to feed the “outdoor doggy” during her recess. Nobody noticed until yesterday, when the coyote in question, probably hoping for more treats, followed her inside when she went back to class, causing chaos and requiring animal control to be called to take it away.
I’m very worried about my daughter. Poor judgment I can expect from a child her age, and I can handle teaching her to be more cautious around wild animals. But this went on for about a month and nobody seemed to have noticed. I don’t trust the school’s ability to supervise her anymore, but we live in the middle of nowhere and it’s not like there’s another school I can send her to. Short of moving (which is not really financially feasible), I don’t know how to get her to a new school, so I’m going to have to do something to fix this one. How do you get a school to start taking their student’s safety seriously?
— Worried and Angry
At first, I wondered if this really happened, given that coyotes generally avoid humans when possible. But according to the Humane Society, “outdoor doggies” can occasionally become habituated to people through exactly the kind of feeding Kayla undertook, so there you go! Your daughter should definitely be told that the “don’t feed or approach the animals” rule isn’t just for her safety; it’s for the animals’ as well. You can talk with her about the fact that the coyote must have been scared to be chased, captured, and taken away. (It may also have been destroyed, but I don’t think you need to tell her that.) At 7, she’s old enough to learn this lesson—for her good and the good of the creatures—and hopefully she has! If you still have concerns, it’s fine to ask for a meeting with the principal or vice-principal to ask what specific plans they’ve put in place to ensure that there is no repeat of the coyote incident, with Kayla or any other student. At many schools, there are just one or two adults keeping an eye on several classes’ worth of kids at recess; given the amount of wildlife living just beyond the fence, perhaps more recess aides are warranted at your school. (And obviously, they need to fix that fence!)
I understand that your faith in your school has been a bit shaken. But remember, your child spends most of her day in the classroom with her teacher, beyond the reach of any wild animals. While I agree that someone should have spotted her feeding the “outdoor doggy” long before it followed her inside, this strikes me as a truly wild one-off situation, and one that doesn’t necessarily point to a lack of safety or supervision throughout the entire school day.
New Year, Same Problems
For an upcoming special edition of Care and Feeding, we want to hear about the messy situations plaguing you that you’d like to shed in the new year. A pet fox corrupting daughter? A 10-year-old behind the wheel? Harsh PTA crackdowns? Submit your questions anonymously here. (Questions may be edited for publication.)
Dear Care and Feeding,
After years of being very late to hit her developmental milestones, our 3-year-old niece “Sarah” underwent genetic testing. It was discovered that she had a chromosome microdeletion. It’s rare, and the small bit of information we’ve been able to find about it states that symptoms vary greatly between individuals who have it. Their geneticist recommended that Sarah’s parents be tested, and it was found that Sarah’s dad also had this microdeletion. (Sarah’s dad is my husband’s brother.)
In the year since Sarah was diagnosed, my mother-in-law has encouraged everyone in the family to be tested for this deletion. It was determined that my father-in-law and my husband’s two siblings both have it as well. My mother-in-law has seemed to seize upon this deletion as the reason for every problem any of her children have had (“That’s why John didn’t potty-train until he was 5,” and “That’s the reason Jane had to take resource classes in elementary school”).
My MIL is encouraging my husband, who hasn’t been tested yet, to be tested for this chromosome deletion. If he has it, she wants our children to be tested. My husband has been ambivalent about being tested, mostly because the insurance doesn’t cover it, and he doesn’t want to pay for an expensive genetic test out of pocket. Now my MIL is pressuring me to just get the kids tested, and I’d like a second opinion on how important this really is. Our kids haven’t had any issues hitting their developmental milestones or shown any atypical behaviors, and besides, there’s no specific treatment or medication for this particular syndrome. What are your thoughts?
— To Test or Not to Test
Dear To Test or Not to Test,
Ideally, both parents would be in agreement about the importance of genetic testing for their children. You said your husband is ambivalent about being tested himself—I’m not sure how he feels about testing your kids—but if he isn’t on board, that’s something to pay attention to. Your children are not currently experiencing any symptoms or delays you feel a need to investigate. Of course, that doesn’t mean genetic testing would never be worthwhile for some other reason, but right now it doesn’t seem pressing, despite your niece’s diagnosis. If I were you, I’d ask your mother-in-law to back off and respect your prerogative and ability as parents to decide (phrased more gently, if you like). She seems to be dealing with her feelings or anxiety over your niece’s situation by fixating on this one piece of genetic information, but she doesn’t have the right to pressure or force everyone else in the family to undergo genetic testing—it’s a major decision that could have ramifications for a lifetime.
When I discussed your situation with Shelley Towner, a pediatric genetic counselor, she said, “The first thing that comes to mind is autonomy, which is one of the first principles of medicine. By testing children who don’t currently have any medical or developmental concerns to address, we’re making a decision that should be theirs to make in the future, if they want to—and it’s a decision that could have a serious impact on their self-esteem, their understanding of themselves, their future life.” She made an important point about genetic discrimination: While a federal law—the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act, passed in 2008—protects people from discrimination based on genetic information with regard to employment and medical coverage, that protection does not extend to life insurance, disability insurance, or long-term care. In other words, a life insurance company could one day ask your children if they’ve ever had genetic testing done (legally, your children would need to disclose it if so), and the company would then be allowed to use that information to make decisions about coverage.
She also said that genetic testing can be difficult from a psychological standpoint; it can be confusing or cause real anxiety for children. And it burdens parents with difficult decisions: When do you tell your children about their results? What do you tell them, especially if there are currently no symptoms to tie it to? When it comes to testing, she noted that some people believe knowledge is power, and it can be—but others really don’t want to know every single detail about their genetic risk, and seeking out or accepting that knowledge is their decision to make. (As an adoptee, I’ve often been asked if I want to undergo genetic testing. Personally, as an anxious person, I do not, unless one day I find that I have a strong medical reason to do so.)
“Typically, genetic testing in children is not recommended unless they have symptoms, or their routine care or screening recommendations would change based on testing positive for something,” the genetic counselor explained to me. “There are certain microdeletion syndromes that can be associated with a risk of thyroid disease, or a heart defect, for example. But we also remind parents that you can screen for these things without doing genetic testing—you can schedule an echocardiogram, or test for thyroid conditions. Unless genetic testing would reveal something that might impact their medical management as a child, we generally don’t test children; we try to defer until age 18.”
Genetic testing is not something your husband should be pushed into by his mother, and it’s not a decision you need to make for your kids right this moment. Remember that part of protecting your children is respecting and guarding their ability to make their own informed decisions when they reach adulthood. Especially given the absence of any symptoms or delays, I think it’s okay to wait—give them time to mature, and all of you time to consider and learn more about genetic testing. One day your children (and your husband) can decide for themselves whether it will supply information they actually want.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
I have a 16-year-old trans son who came out in 2019. Even after four years, my parents are still unable (unwilling?) to get his pronouns right all of the time. As recently as a year ago, my mother was taking a picture of him and me and said, “Smile, girls!” It immediately ruined the lunch we were at. My son got angry and stormed out of the restaurant. I explained the problem to my mother—again—and left with him.
When my child first came out, we all struggled with switching his name and pronouns, but four years in, it appears to me and to my child as if my parents don’t accept him, despite their protests that they do. My parents are in their late 70s, and in pretty good health. They do not have memory issues, so their excuses are flimsy, at best. They often apologize for misgendering him and for using his deadname, which happened as recently as this past summer. They also make excuses—they are old and forgetful, they knew him as someone else for 11 years, they just got excited in the moment.
My son has decided he wants to have no contact with them. After seeing how badly it hurts him when they “forget,” I don’t blame him, and I have said that he does not have to keep a relationship with them. He has decided to cut them out of his life. I am unsure what to do about my own relationship with them, however. My son says I can stay in touch with them, and my decision to maintain a relationship with them won’t bother him. I’m not sure I believe him, and in any case, I’m not sure how to conduct a relationship with them when one of my children doesn’t want them in his life. Do we stop visiting them at their house (they live about two hours away)? When they travel to the city we live in, should just my husband and I meet them for lunch or something? I don’t want to be estranged from my parents, but I also cannot abide them misgendering my child.
Of my other two children, my eldest also isn’t happy with their grandparents, and didn’t see them on their last birthday. They told my parents they were busy with friends (they are 18 now, so this is hardly surprising). They confided to me that they don’t like the way my parents treat their brother, and will probably keep their distance in the future. My youngest child is 12, and while he’s aware of the issues, hasn’t decided to change his relationship with my parents.
My husband says he’s not sure how this situation gets fixed—and I’m not sure it does get fixed. My parents are the only people in our lives who regularly screw this up. They don’t have an excuse. I have told them the margin of error on this is zero. I absolutely hate that they are hurting my son. Keeping them out of my children’s lives seems cruel, but so does their behavior.
Cutting them completely out of my life would be difficult. I could probably arrange to see and stay in contact with them, but likely holidays would be completely disrupted because I don’t want to bring my son around them, knowing that he will be hurt. Family gatherings, of which there are many, may be out of the question for the foreseeable future. Should I just make a clean break from them, and tell them why? I can’t keep giving them chances, and I am not sure how to move forward with my relationship with them.
— Impact Is More Important Than Intent
Dear Impact Is More Important,
I don’t blame your two older children for being done. Four years is far too long for your son to have endured this treatment from his grandparents. Yes, they’re your parents, but you’re also a parent, and your kids come first. You wrote that “Keeping [your parents] out of [your] children’s lives seems cruel,” and I want to point out that is not what you’re doing—your two older children are now 16 and 18, old enough to make their own decisions about family relationships and who they want to be close to, and they’ve had enough. But your parents are the ones who really chose this outcome, by refusing—for years!—to fully accept and appreciate and love your son, despite the many explanations and warnings and chances they were given. They are now facing the unfortunate (overdue) consequences of their choices, which does not in any way make them victims.
You said that your son has now essentially given you “permission” to maintain a relationship with them, but apart from the fact that you are unsure whether he means it, I don’t think it’s realistic or fair to expect a child who’s been hurt to help define a boundary between you and the people who hurt him—it’s hard enough that he had to draw that line for himself. Absent some serious reflection, sincere remorse, and real atonement, I don’t think I could ever again trust or feel close to parents who treated my child this way. But you’re the only one who knows what it would cost you to remain in touch with yours, drift apart, or break ties. How you proceed is something you will eventually need to decide for yourself, obviously with your son’s well-being top of mind.
I understand that you’re not sure how to have a relationship with your parents, or what that relationship would even look like, given the pain they’ve caused your son and your entire family. But I would also argue that figuring out what you’re going to do about them doesn’t need to be a top priority at the moment. Your priority is your son: What does he want and need from you in terms of support? How is your parents’ behavior and the resulting rift in your family affecting your other children? You said your husband isn’t sure this situation can be repaired—how does he feel about maintaining a relationship with your parents, considering the ways in which they’ve hurt your children? Two of your kids are still dealing with the fallout, and have only recently made the decision to cut off their grandparents. I don’t think you need to rush into a firm decision about your relationship with your parents, or try to set parameters or conditions for remaining in touch with them, when you still aren’t sure what would be the best (or least harmful) choice for your family. If your parents ask what you’re going to do or when they’re going to see you, it’s okay to tell them the truth: You don’t know. You don’t know about future holidays. You don’t know about future visits. Right now, you are taking the time to focus on your son and your family, to listen and do what’s necessary where they are concerned, and to make sure that they are okay.
Catch Up on Care and Feeding
Dear Care and Feeding,
I have three kids, ages 6, 9, and 11. My husband started out with the idea that each kid should have at least two extracurricular activities, one creative (like piano or art class) and one physical (like soccer or ballet). The kids are required to have at least two activities, but they can choose what they want to do, within our budget. The older kids have more activities than that.
While this seems like a good idea on paper, it’s a lot of work to coordinate, and it’s started to feel like a lot for our family to handle. I’m trying to juggle three different schedules and drop-off/pick-up times. My husband and I used to take turns driving the kids to their activities, but lately he has been conveniently finding himself unable to drive. We split driving duty on the weekends, but on weekdays it’s all on me. We have tried carpooling with other families, which only really works for my oldest kid, whose best friend is our neighbor and signed up for most of his extracurricular activities. Our house is out of the way in a secluded neighborhood without that many families, and it’s been difficult to coordinate. We have also tried finding activities that are closer to our house, but the options are limited. One of the activities for the youngest requires parents to be there for the whole time—it’s only 30 minutes, but that’s time I could use to drive my oldest home from piano.
I want my kids to be able to participate in activities that they enjoy and activities which give them community and the ability to grow into well-rounded people, but I don’t want to be constantly stressed out and overwhelmed. My husband is not very understanding or supportive, and it feels like I’m the only one trying to make this work. I’m starting to resent him for not taking on more, and I don’t want our relationship to suffer. I’ve tried to talk to him about it and he shuts me down, telling me that after a long day of work with his 30-minute commute the last thing he wants to do is drive even more. He’s told me I can’t comment on this, because I’ve been primarily working from home since our oldest was 3.
— Overwhelmed Mom
I find your husband’s extracurricular-activity requirements kinda weird and controlling, but to focus on the problem you wrote in about: Of course you can’t get three kids off to (and home from) several activities each week all by yourself! Working from home does not give you the magical ability to be in three different places at once. Either your spouse (who, I have to be honest, sounds like he’s really earning that resentment of yours) needs to take on his share of the driving again, or your children need to do fewer activities—it’s his choice. But if he chooses the latter, he’s the one who should have to tell them why they can’t do all the activities they want to do.
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