This column is part of Advice Week, Slate’s celebration of all things advice.
Sometimes, all you need is a different perspective. This week, our columnists have swapped fields of expertise. In this edition, Jenée Desmond-Harris, our Dear Prudence columnist, handles your parenting questions.
Dear Care and Feeding,
It seems that my 6-year-old daughter is entering the age of mean girls and toxic female friendships, and I’m looking for advice that I can give her to avoid getting hurt (or advice to help me not worry about it). Pre-Covid/in nursery school most of my daughter’s friends were boys. She always seemed to have one best friend who was a boy.
After some periods of trying out a few friends, she seems to have now found a circle of friends, but it seems to be focused (or at least my daughter’s attention is focused) around one girl who strikes me as very fickle. I regularly hear that my daughter will be invited to play with this girl and her group of friends one day, but then this girl refuses to let my daughter play with that group of friends the next. It also seems like the girl does not always tell the truth (she says she plays Roblox; she doesn’t, etc.)
On one hand, I’m glad that my daughter has found a group of friends. On the other hand, I am concerned that she seems to have dived right into the first grade version of Mean Girls. So far, it doesn’t seem to upset my daughter, but I could see it going in that direction quickly. Do you have any advice I can give to my daughter about navigating the “girl world” and dealing with “friends” like this? Or should I just wait and see if it becomes a problem?
Dear Mean Girls,
Do you know what will definitely become a problem? If your daughter absorbs the message that there is something inherently wrong with women, that “female” friendships are uniquely difficult, and that girls are mean and impossible to get along with.
Can you step back for a moment and ask yourself why you’re framing it in this incredibly gendered—and yes, a bit misogynistic—way? Why is the question not “My daughter is having some problems with a friend, which is an almost universal childhood experience?” Why is this about “girl world” and not “school”?
Please, please, don’t use this opportunity to teach your daughter that people like her are impossible to get along with and that boys are somehow better, even if you have personally had life experiences that have made you feel that way. You don’t want to pass that on. It will keep her from forming meaningful relationships with other girls and women as she grows up, which will make her life so much harder and less rich.
You should talk to her in general terms about what friendship means, and push the idea that friends are people who make you feel good—and like your best self—when you’re around them. You can have that conversation without mentioning gender a single time.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
I share a son, “Carter” with my ex “Carla.” We broke up a couple years ago due to irreconcilable differences and have been co-parenting since then, although I can’t say it’s been a breeze. The recurring problem we have is that Carla has a tendency to act as though Carter is her responsibility alone, and I’m just the bio parent she has to deal with. This ranges from her trying to make unilateral decisions that I have to insert myself on (such as where Carter will go to school, whether he will go to a gathering for my family, and medical matters) or possessively refer to him as “her” son instead of “our” son. This was an issue we had when we were dating—she would try to run the show and control things to the point that it felt my opinion was irrelevant. I hate to say it, but I get the feeling that if it were up to Carla, I would be regulated to a mere sperm donor and she would be the sole parent.
Luckily for me, Carla’s family like me and have intervened at times when she tried to push me out. Still, it’s getting to a point where I’m honestly worried that we’ll have to go to court to settle custody matters. Right now we’ve left it up to ourselves to decide, which I understand is a mistake. Insanely enough, I’m scared that if I go that route, Carla will not be above badmouthing me or at least exaggerating to make me look incompetent. I trust that her family would back me up (Carla is a bit of a black sheep among them), but I feel guilty even considering having her ganged up on. Right now, she just seems moody with me at worst. I feel I might be throwing fuel on the fire by suggesting we settle matters legally. What should I do? How do you co-parent with someone who evidently prefers to be a single parent?
—Just Want to Peacefully Co-Parent
Dear Just Want to Peacefully Co-Parent,
You shouldn’t consider going to court to settle custody matters “a last resort” when your co-parent is treating you like a sperm donor and trying to exclude you completely. It’s a very normal thing to do, even if you don’t have significant issues. Honestly, two people who can’t get along well enough to stay together shouldn’t be expected to get along well enough to navigate division of responsibility, pick-ups and drop-offs, holidays, and decisions about education and medical care without some general guidelines. All of this stuff is very tough and emotionally loaded, and couples who split generally need some outsider input and some rules.
Look, I’m not naive—I know family courts aren’t perfect and their outcomes aren’t always fair. But I also think they understand that exes tend to badmouth each other and have family members who might say negative things because they’re biased. In other words, your situation doesn’t sound out of the ordinary, and there’s no reason to think you would be completely pushed aside by a judge. There’s also typically room for mediation, where the goal is to reach a mutually satisfactory agreement, not to destroy each other.
You know what I hate to hear? When a father says he isn’t in his kid’s life because the mom wouldn’t “let” him be. I always think, “It wasn’t up to her! You should have gone to court and worked harder!” If you want to be in your son’s life, you owe it to him to make sure you don’t become an estranged dad with a sob story. Tell Carla you think you’d both benefit from making your arrangement official.
Catch Up on Care and Feeding
Dear Care and Feeding,
My husband and I are happily married with two awesome kids (under 5). We both have siblings and our parents are all still living. We are incredibly close with my family. The kids see my parents regularly, as do both of us individually. His parents live within an hour, but we don’t see them often. We do our best to plan visits, invite them to activities, and FaceTime to check in but the visits either don’t get scheduled or canceled hours before. It’s gotten to the point where our oldest is noticing their absence and making comments, which is breaking my heart. This has continued since the kids were born, missing important events and holidays and canceling almost all events last minute but then expecting us to drop everything if they want to drive over (which we did for years until those plans got canceled too). We’ve tried scheduling alternate days but honestly we’re tired of it. We’ve tried communicating our feelings and the response is either denial or playing the victim. I know we can’t be responsible for others’ feelings, but I also don’t want to see my children or husband continually hurt. How do we move on without impacting our kids negatively? Is there a way to cushion the blow of their routine canceling? We don’t want to teach our kids that this is acceptable. When can you just bail on family?
Dear Missing In-Laws,
I’m not a tough love person at all, but I don’t think it’s the worst thing for children to learn that there are different kinds of people in the world, and one of those kinds is “flaky.” Protecting them from being hurt is a wonderful and relatable goal, but I don’t agree that it will “impact [your] kids negatively” if they become aware that your in-laws have canceled a plan from time to time. They’re surrounded by adults who love them and are reliable. They have you and your husband and their other grandparents, who always show up and can be counted on. That’s a wonderful foundation. These other two people, as a result of their own actions, are going to naturally get demoted to a less important role.
I can still see why you, as the plan-maker, would be annoyed, though. You’re raising two kids—you don’t have time to play social coordinator for people who aren’t pulling their weight. So forget about communicating your feelings (they obviously don’t get it) and just stop pushing. That doesn’t mean you bail on them or cut them off. It just means you say “Here’s the kids’ calendar for the next month. If there’s a time you’d like to see them, let us know the day before” and put the ball back in their court. They might find that after a few weeks of absence, they encounter grandchildren who aren’t’ that attached to them or excited to see them, but that’s not your problem.
Dear Care and Feeding,
My 5-year-old is incredibly shy and won’t advocate for herself at school. She won’t ask to go to the bathroom, or let a teacher know if something is wrong. She will not greet an adult at all, let alone by name. She basically doesn’t speak unless she is at home (where it’s nonstop). I am married to her father, she has a brother who is 16 months older, and we have a pretty peaceful and routine life. She does ski school, dance class, and other extracurriculars. Although she is happy to go, she will rarely talk to adults. She does okay with friends, but often prefers to play on her own at school. When we are around extended family it takes her almost a week to warm up. Mostly I want her to feel strong and capable enough to advocate for herself.
Dear Speak Up,
She’s 5! She was recently a toddler! She can barely make herself a sandwich or brush her own hair! She doesn’t need to advocate for herself! She needs a parent to advocate for her—which includes accepting her exactly the way she is. Let her know she doesn’t need to change anything about her personality (including being introverted and slow to get to know new people) in order to be loved. I guarantee that will do more for her self-confidence than being harangued into speaking up ever could.
More Advice From Slate
I’m recently engaged to the most honest, thoughtful, and loving man I’ve ever met. He has supported me through many hard times, including losing my job and being assaulted. Here’s the but about him: He makes no money. He has ambitions, and he’s smart, but will likely only bring a middle-class income at best. I have an OK job and I’m self-sufficient. Now here’s the but about me: I’m really, really pretty. My whole life people have told me I could get any man I want, meaning a rich man, and are shocked that I’m engaged to my fiancé, nice though he is. I’ve never dated a rich man, but it does make me curious. So part of me thinks I’m squandering my good looks on this poor man, and the other part of me thinks that I’m so shallow that I don’t even deserve him or anyone else. Am I a fool for thinking that a poor man can make me happy, or an idiot for believing a sexist fantasy?