Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here.
Dear Care and Feeding,
I have an 8-year-old son “Eric.” Eric is in his school’s magnet program, doing accelerated coursework. He also reads voraciously outside of his school materials, to the point where he’s on a first-name basis with all the regular employees at our local library, and they have semi-serious bets as to how long it will take him to read everything in their inventory. He doesn’t always have proper context for everything he comes across, but he’s picked up a staggering inventory of facts.
Yesterday, he came home from school crying. It took a while to get him to calm down and even find out what was wrong, and then once I did get an answer out of him, I wasn’t sure what to do.
He’s worried about the future. Specifically, going through puberty. He read in one of his biology articles that the normal range for boys in the U.S. was 9-to-14, so he “might only have a year.” He’s somehow convinced himself that once he goes through puberty, all the hormones will make him “stupid” and too concerned with sex and sexuality to think straight. To back this up, he brought up the plots of quite a few romantic comedies, as well as more highbrow works of literature, pretty much every “lovers do dumb things” plot he’s come across. Even when I pointed out that these were all fiction, he countered with the fact that they’re popular, well-regarded works of fiction and wouldn’t resonate if people didn’t see themselves in the characters.
I tried to console him. Pointing out that 9 was pretty early and chances are it would be a few years yet did something to help, but trying to convince him puberty wouldn’t be that bad when it does happen didn’t seem to get anywhere. I’m sure he’ll be fine, but short of just waiting and seeing what happens, I’m not sure how to convince him that extra testosterone won’t turn his brain off.
Remind your son that many of the most accomplished people in the world, including some who he must look up to, are men, and that they managed to survive the awkwardness of puberty and become highly functioning members of society. Point to examples of men in his life and ask him if they remind him of the sex-obsessed goofballs that he’s seen in films and on TV. You can also talk to him about the idea of tropes and why they are popular in media and literature; it sounds like he’s sophisticated enough to understand that concept. You also may want to consider engaging him with some content that is more designed for kids his age; he may be smart enough to understand what’s going on in these romantic comedies that he’s been watching, but that doesn’t mean that he has the maturity to process them.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
I’m a junior in high school. I’ve been in the high school orchestra since I enrolled, and while I’ve generally enjoyed the activity, I was mostly there for the music, and I hadn’t made any close friends. That changed this year when we had a new kid, “James,” join us. That was awkward. My mother and father don’t have so much a functional marriage as much as they have a wary truce, and James is the product of an affair my dad had a long time ago. I’m not privy to all the details, but my mother often complains about the amount of money that goes off to child support. Dad occasionally visits my half-brother, but I know he isn’t around him much.
I had seen James before he joined the orchestra a few times, enough to recognize him and know he was related, but I had never had a close relationship or really wanted one. But hanging out with him during practice showed me he was cool, and we kind of naturally fell into an older brother-younger brother sort of thing. Plus, he’s good with a viola, and playing together is really quite nice. We started hanging out more, even outside of practice, and it’s generally been great.
However, last week I made the mistake of mentioning who I was hanging out with to my mother. She hit the roof. Told me that being friends with “that little bastard” was taking Dad’s side over hers and sanctioning his cheating. There was a huge fight between them later that night. Things have been icy at home ever since then. I don’t know what to do, or even who to go to for help. I don’t want to give up this friendship. I don’t want to imply I approve of Dad’s affair. I don’t want to play some sort of referee in my parent’s wrangling, and I resent my mother for putting me in this position. But I do understand her feelings, or at least some of them. I just keep looping ‘round and ‘round this mess without coming to any sort of resolution.
— What’s Next?
Dear What’s Next,
This should go without saying, but: You, nor James, did anything wrong. You are brothers, and you deserve to have a relationship with each other if you both so choose. Wanting to spend time with James doesn’t mean you approve of your father’s cheating. It’s unfortunate that your mother is unwilling to see beyond her own feelings of betrayal to recognize that there are two innocent young people being impacted, and that your father hasn’t stepped up to be more of a father to James, or worked to develop a relationship between you.
You can confront your mother and let her know that while you would never want to appear as though you are approving of your father’s past choices, it means a lot to you to have a relationship with your sibling. However, considering what you’ve said thus far, I do not expect her to have a positive reaction or to make peace with your decision. You may be better off continuing to pursue a connection to James, but keeping it to yourself. I know that being dishonest with your parents is less than ideal, but it may be the only way for the two of you to get to know each other while you’re living under your parents’ roof. It’s truly disappointing that your parents cannot get it together to understand why you and James ought to have a connection, but your mother seems to have committed to closing her heart off to this young man. That doesn’t mean that you need to do the same thing. Be as discreet as possible and enjoy getting to know your brother.
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From this week’s letter, My Teen Just Revealed He’s Part of a Very Unusual Relationship: “Intellectually, I understand that people do all sorts of nontraditional relationships these days, but emotionally, I can’t wrap my guts around it.”
Dear Care and Feeding,
Everyone thinks that I am the “good kid.” Of course, this is not a problem by itself. Yes, I am a rule-follower. The problem is that I actually only obey the rules because I am very depressed, anxious, and socially behind. I want to argue, I want to prank others and get in trouble on occasion, but in some ways, I’m more like a fifth grader developmentally rather than an almost-adult. But since I am not a “problem child,” nobody thinks that I need help. Maybe if I get low grades in all of my classes someone would help me. I can’t live on my own; I would starve myself by not being able to decide what to eat. What do I do?
— A Child Teen
Dear Child Teen,
I’m sure that struggling with these feelings alone has been a lot for you to handle. It is important that you let your loved ones, and perhaps other trusted adults, know that you need help. Say it clearly: “I need help. I am not okay. I am anxious and depressed.” Tell your parents, and if you don’t feel comfortable talking to them, tell your grandparents, or one of your favorite teachers, or perhaps a guidance counselor. Let them know how you are feeling and how long it’s been going on. The only way that you are going to get the support that you need is to ask for it. Acknowledge the fact that you are a rule follower and that it may seem like there’s nothing wrong, but that you are very clear that you are battling with some things and that you truly need support. Don’t let anyone get away with telling you that this is normal and that everything will be fine. Push until they act.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
I am a married, cis woman in my late 20s living in the same city as my parents and a few hours from my older sister. We have always been a close family. We are also a family of foodies with a problematic relationship to diet culture. After over two decades struggling with negative self-talk, body image issues, and periods of what I now recognize as disordered eating, I have been working diligently over the past few years to overcome these issues with the help of my husband and a therapist and, more recently, the work of anti-fat-bias/fat activists like Aubrey Gordon and Virginia Sole Smith. While I haven’t overcome all my issues, I feel I’ve come a long way.
My struggle is how to relate to my family who have decidedly NOT been on this same journey. My parents were both fat when I was growing up. My mother refused to be in photographs for over a decade of my childhood with rare exceptions. Then, when I was in late high school and early college (over a decade ago) they did “the diet.” They both lost over 100 pounds and were so proud of how they looked and how healthy they felt they’d become. I supported them wholeheartedly in this effort. However, ever since “the diet,” they have adopted long-term “maintenance” food ideas that I initially subscribed to (and that ultimately informed my own disordered eating in college) and that I now find very triggering. They also cycle on and off “the diet” whenever they feel they’ve “let themselves slip” aka gained some amount of weight back.
In family therapy, my sister and I have already talked with them about how comments around food (some foods being “naughty” or “cheats”) has negatively impacted both of us, and we have seen some improvement. However, I still find myself struggling/resentful when they are in dieting phases because it influences how we spend time together. We are foodies, so we usually incorporate cooking together or going out to eat into our family time, but when they are dieting this involves me pre-scanning menus to see if there are things they are “allowed” to eat. My best friend is medically vegan, so I do this often for her, and I do not find that triggering, but knowing my parents are doing it for a diet, not for health reasons, can trigger thoughts in me around whether or not I also should be dieting and these are deeply unhelpful.
It’s been especially challenging recently. Last year, I got married (yay!) and just being a bride meant withstanding questions from friends, family, and strangers about what pre-wedding diets I was doing and ignoring wedding blogs/websites/podcasts’ constant suggestions to diet. I then was unexpectedly hospitalized for five days and had to have surgery (thankfully all is well now) and several people, including family, commented on how “lucky” it was that I got to lose weight “the easy way” after I lost 15 pounds from being in the hospital. My parents are now both dieting because they had “cheated too much” around my wedding and need to be “ready” for my sister’s wedding in a few months. My sister, who has also engaged in disordered eating in the past, is now on “the diet” to lose a significant amount of weight for her wedding to “recover” her pre-depression body. My parents are super supportive of her diet right now, as a “health issue.”
I struggle with bringing any of this up. Whenever I do, my parents are quick to say it’s absolutely not ever about body shaming, it’s all “about health.” My mom constantly says of course I don’t need to diet, but she does. I want to ban all mention of what they currently are or are not eating, but when I try to set boundaries about this, my mom says I am censoring her. I’d really like to be free of “the diet” for the rest of my life, and I definitely never want any of this talk to happen around my kids. We are planning to have kids in the next few years, and I do not want them to notice their grandparents constantly watching what they eat (and yes, I will be buying Virginia Sole-Smith’s new book to prepare myself as a parent to have these conversations with my kids!). I love my parents and sister and normally love being close to them, except for this issue. Is it my responsibility to figure out how to live with them as they are, or should I be trying to radicalize them to anti-diet culture? What is fair for me to ask of them?
— Down with “The Diet”
Dear Down With the Diet,
It’s great that you have taken action to have a healthier relationship with food and your body than you had when you are younger. I’ve also learned a lot from reading (and interviewing) Virginia Sole-Smith, and I’m sure her new book, Fat Talk: Parenting in the Age of Diet Culture will have a lot of insight that helps you discuss these issues with your children in the future (and perhaps on how to deal with your parents, too!) She has a great newsletter entry where she discusses navigating grandparents who are indoctrinated into diet culture, why it’s so prevalent among our elders, and how you can set boundaries for what is discussed among your own children.
I think Virginia would agree that it’s best that you avoid conversations about diet and eating with your parents and sister to the best of your ability. This may require some changes to your usual routine; you all may be foodies, but it might be healthier for you to find other things to bond over if their approach to food is so triggering to you. On some level, you’re going to have to accept that your loved ones have a very different take on eating and bodies than you do, and that they are battling the pervasive fatphobia in our culture without considering that there is another option. You can try to encourage them to see things differently, you can share articles and books that you read with them, and suggest that they do their own exploration. However, until each of them comes to the conclusion that they want to break up with dieting and disordered eating, you are going to find yourself listening to the same excuses and rationale that you’ve been hearing from them all these years. I think you would do better to try and focus on your own healing journey, which should also include trying to get to a place where you can observe other people being fatphobic or diet-obsessed without it feeling like a trigger or a referendum on your own choices.
Ask your parents and your sister to support you by limiting the diet talk in your presence. Explain that you can respect their decisions to do what they please with their own bodies, but that it is disturbing to you to hear that line of talk and that you’d rather they didn’t discuss those things with you. You may still have to deal with watching them obsess over menu options at dinner, but hopefully, they can at least keep most of the body issue chatter to themselves. Shut down conversations about diet, simply refuse to participate in them. If you set these boundaries now, it will be easier to navigate the subject when you have kids and you want to ensure that your parents and sister keep that talk away from them as well.
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