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 ex-husband and I divorced more than four years ago. Both of us have remarried. My ex and I share two children. He also has two stepchildren, and I have a stepdaughter. My ex and I aren’t on the best terms—we’ve had major arguments in the past—but our kids are under the impression that we get along well enough. All the kids (my kids, my stepdaughter, and my ex’s stepchildren) are within the ages of 7 to 11. My stepdaughter hasn’t met my ex’s stepchildren, but our shared kids get along with both sets of stepsiblings very nicely.
My ex is planning on renting a cabin near a national park for a vacation over the summer. He’s found a great deal on a rental cabin if he could get more people to stay. I’m not entirely sure why, but he reached out to me and asked me if I would be willing to come. He also told the kids that he was asking me to do this. My kids genuinely love all four of their parents and have told the other kids about how amazing both their families are, and this has led to all five kids clamoring for us to vacation together.
I’ve already struggled with fielding questions from the kids about why we divorced. I usually say that “We weren’t compatible with each other, and we found that we became better parents to you when we lived apart.” This worked when they were younger, but not anymore; they keep trying to pry further. I’m not sure I can survive a five-day vacation living in a cabin with my ex-husband and the woman he cheated on me with. Even though I’ve moved on and remarried, the feelings of betrayal are still there. The last time we talked about it was a year ago (he brought it up), and he still blames me for him cheating on me. How can I explain to my kids why I’m not comfortable with this trip?
— Vacation Woes
Dear Vacation Woes,
I’m so sorry your husband put you in a position of you having to be the bad guy, disappointing all five kids. Though, from what you have said about the cheating, I’m willing to bet good money that this sort of thing is a pattern for him.
First things first: you should not feel obligated to go on this trip. It certainly won’t be any sort of vacation for you—and thus, not for your husband either. Life is too short to spend vacation days on a trip that will make you miserable. As much as I understand the kids’ enthusiasm for the idea, I think your gut is correct here.
How to break it to them? I don’t think there is anything wrong with being honest and saying that, although you’re very happy with your life now, and even though you and their dad are “friends,” you still have some hurt feelings that would make a weeklong vacation very hard for you. They aren’t entitled to your story—and you don’t want to drum up drama—but they are old enough to understand that you have pain you’re still working through. This would also provide them an opportunity to practice empathy, which has merits too.
I do want to acknowledge the very valid desires the kids all have to meet one another. I suspect that is their main motivation for trying to make the trip happen. It might help, when you break the news, to acknowledge that and offer an alternative way for all the kids to hang out. Maybe you and your husband can host a long backyard barbecue for the group, or a kid sleepover at your house. I’d hate to see the kids miss out on what could be a special friendship among the five of them because of adult drama. It’s great that they want to bring their families together, so think about how you can do that in a way that doesn’t compromise your own equilibrium.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
I have a 14-year-old son, “Charlie.” Charlie was recently asked to analyze an interactive piece of art for school. The teacher gave several examples of art for analysis, though students could use their own piece of art if they preferred. Charlie did not use any of the teacher’s examples, and instead wrote a paper about this old video game “StarCraft.” He did not reach out to me for support, and I simply found the paper while looking over his shoulder as he wrote.
I told him that video games are not art. Especially not violent video games like that one which do nothing but encourage school shootings. I deleted his file and told him he still had enough time to do one of the listed examples if he worked at it. I also got in touch with my ex (we have shared custody) to give him a piece of my mind about letting our son play that sort of filth. Now Charlie barely speaks to me, and he’s been rude and sullen almost all the time when at home. How do I get him to start taking things like this seriously and act his age, not his shoe size?
— Fallouts from Boundaries
It seems to me that you are the one that should be acting your age. Honestly, destroying something you don’t agree with without having a conversation is not adult behavior. You have a 14-year-old who apparently takes initiative, thinks outside the box, and felt capable of doing his work without you “supporting” him—and you punished him for it.
I could spend my time here discussing StarCraft’s impact on the video game industry, and how critics have called it one of the best and most important video games of all time. Or that modern video games weave storytelling, scripting, musical composition and graphic arts together—each one of those disciplines an art form itself.
None of that really matters, though. My concern is that you had an opportunity here to learn something about your child’s interests, point of view, and interpretation of art, and you instead chose to summarily dismiss it. I wonder how likely he will be to share something of himself with you the next time he has the opportunity. You’re right that there is a valid conversation to be had about what media your child consumes, but in this instance, given the way this has played out, I think the better course of action here is to apologize, take the time to really learn about him, and let him succeed or fail on his own terms, not by the standards or interests you set for him.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
My sister and I have different moms, but the same pushover dad. I’m 25, she’s 16. We talk a lot, but I wouldn’t say I’m a parent figure or anything. One of the things that’s different about our childhoods is that my mom was very open about answering uncomfortable questions—sometimes too open. Something she did right was give me a good sex education, because she had me as a teenager and didn’t want the cycle to keep going.
My sister’s mom is religious and brought our dad into her church too. She doesn’t believe in sex ed. She even complains to the school board about it at my sister’s school. My sister told me that her friends are starting to have sex. The way she talks about it makes it seem like she doesn’t really understand how biology or consent work. I’m worried but don’t know how I can help her. Our dad and I have a hard relationship. I don’t want the parents to be mad, but should I give her a book? A talk?
— Big Sister
Dear Big Sister,
Get thee a banana and a condom now! Joking aside, yes, I think you should make it very clear to your sister that you are ready and willing to provide whatever information she needs about sex. If you were another parent, I’d be singing a different tune, but big siblings have been teaching the littles about sex (intentionally or not) since the dawn of time. If not you, then who? Be bold, be brave, be the hero for her that your mom was for you.
But, do so knowing that you might indeed make the parents mad if they found out. Given that possibility, you might try to find source materials that at least somewhat align with their faith. This essay from Medium has a great perspective on how sex-positivity and Christianity can be compatible worldviews, as one example. Ultimately, I think them being mad at you is a small price to pay for your sister’s safety and self-actualization, and that’s really what we are talking about here. Good luck!
Dear Care and Feeding,
My older son and his family live in a state where the schools have a week-long February break. My son recently got married. His wife is a teacher, and she also has this week off. They never had a honeymoon, so they’re going on a romantic vacation this week. My grandson Mikey and grand-stepdaughter Alice, both in third grade, are currently staying with us for the whole week.
We’ve met Alice before, and she definitely likes my husband and me. However, this is her first time staying away from her parents. She spent most of the first night crying about how much she missed her mom, who unfortunately couldn’t answer any calls because she was on a plane. The next morning, we called my son and daughter-in-law, but they sounded impatient. They reassured Alice and hung up after five minutes. We took the kids skiing yesterday, they both had fun but while we were there Alice spent the whole time clinging to Mikey and teared up at times because she missed her parents. I texted my daughter-in-law that Alice is really upset and asked if they could have longer conversations or for anything we could do to make Alice feel better. My daughter-in-law said they could have a longer conversation today. We called this morning; there was another five-minute conversation before she said she had to go and hung up.
I’ve tried getting Alice to tell me what she misses most about home so we can help her feel more comfortable, and all she’ll say is that she misses her mother. Mikey told us about some food and activities that he knows she likes, and we’ve been trying to incorporate those into our day with limited results. Mikey’s been very patient and caring for his stepsister. They have a really cute relationship and both kids have said that they are one of each other’s best friends. How can we help Alice survive this week, and how can we ensure she isn’t miserable the whole time if we do this again?
This seems like one of those grin-and-bear-it situations. While it’s absolutely lovely that you and your husband planned a week of fun activities to do with the kids, a carefree week away might simply be beyond what Alice is capable of for now. The good news is that, as far as your son and daughter-in-law are concerned, keeping the kids alive and out of the ER was your primary job responsibility. So, mission accomplished!
Alice might be one of those kids who just has All the Feels. My advice is to roll with her moods and don’t mention their frequency/extremity to her parents. So long as she doesn’t show signs of self-harm or true depression, there’s nothing they can do with the information. All it would do is make them feel guilt over ruining your week or make them reticent to take a trip again. Emphasize that while she may have missed her mom, you delighted in having her and Mikey as guests and cannot wait to have them back again. And then the next time they stay with you, let both kids plan some of the activities you do together, and otherwise be chill. My guess is that Alice will come around, and you’ll get used to her as well.
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