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 reached a parental impasse with my husband over raising our daughter “Caitlyn,” now 7 years old. It started a few years back, when we were teaching her to swim. Like a lot of small kids, she was a bit afraid of the water, and didn’t want to get in. My husband said he understood, and that it can be scary the first time, and allowed her to pull back and not go in the water. But then he told her that she had an hour to get herself composed, because then she was going in. He spent that time working on breathing and visualization exercises with her, and that time it worked out fine—only took maybe 10 minutes for her to get over her nervousness about the water. But he uses this technique for everything. Whenever Caitlyn is nervous, he pulls her back, has her visualize the “Volumetric Shit Compressor,” gives her some time to steel herself, often helps with that process, and then forces her to confront whatever is making her anxious head on. She threw up the first time she tried to rollerblade, and he still made her roll around the block a bit on the inlines.
I do not use such unbending methods. If Cait is nervous or doesn’t want to do something, I table the idea, sometimes temporarily, often permanently. I don’t think it does her any good to force her to do something unpleasant. And we’ve been arguing about this a lot, and ironically both of us have been accusing each other that the other’s techniques are going to give Caitlyn anxiety issues. I think forcing her to repeatedly endure things that make her uncomfortable will damage her, and he thinks I’m coddling and not giving her the tools to overcome difficulties. We still want to make this work, but the arguments are coming more and more frequently, and I really need an outside perspective.
— Managing Anxieties
Dear Managing Anxieties,
I’m all for encouraging kids to express their fears and face them when they’re ready, but compelling your daughter to rollerblade after she literally vomited from anxiety sounds extreme—and frankly messed up?—to me. Being forced to do something you’re afraid of against your will doesn’t mean that you’ve overcome your fear! It just means that you were forced.
If deep-breathing and visualization help Caitlyn enough and allow her to face her fears after all, that’s fine, but it’s still her choice—she needs to know that she can say no to things she really doesn’t want to do, instead of being pushed to the point where she throws up or has a breakdown. If I were you, I feel like I’d have real concerns about your husband’s apparent need to control these relatively low-stakes situations. The truth is, he’s not actually teaching Caitlyn bravery or independence; he’s teaching her to comply at all costs. He is showing her that she has neither the ability nor the right to control what happens to her, even when she isn’t ready to do something or it makes her feel bad. It could undermine her understanding of bodily autonomy and the boundaries she has every right to set.
Even if she ultimately goes ahead with the activity (again, because she is forced to) and seems “okay” at that moment, the overall lesson she’s getting is fundamentally anti-consent, and I think that is and will be damaging. If you haven’t framed your objections to your husband this way yet, I’d recommend you try—it’s possible his zeal for “courage” or whatever has prevented him from seeing just how troubling this is.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
At the beginning of the year, my husband and I started trying for our first child. This is something we’ve both wanted for years, but we have been very careful about the timing so my husband could switch to a profession with good pay and I could get through some of the more difficult parts of my doctoral program before getting pregnant. We’ve spoken to a few people in our lives—family members we trust and friends who’ve had children while getting a degree—and decided that the timing is as good as it will ever be. But I am still very anxious about having to eventually tell my parents whenever we succeed in getting pregnant. I still have four years of my program remaining, and I know they’ll think we’re incredibly irresponsible for having a child.
That being said, both my husband and my sister are convinced that my father will be upset whether I’m in school or not, and this will just be the most convenient excuse to tell us why we made a terrible decision. I’ve always known that my parents (my dad especially) would be upset whenever I decided to have kids, but now it’s feeling more real since we’re actively trying, and the thought of their reaction has made me even more anxious and sad.
My sister pointed out that since I might be more emotional and not feeling as well when I’m pregnant, it could be better for me to tell them in advance that we’re trying to get pregnant so they can be somewhat prepared and more sensitive when we tell them that it’s actually happened. My concern is that they’ll then spend every moment trying to dissuade me and make me doubt my judgment. Do you think it’s better to prepare them in advance, or wait until after the first trimester when I’m pregnant?
— Hopefully a Soon-to-be-Mom
While you don’t explain why your parents are so against your having kids (like … ever? I mean, they had you!), I’m sure it’ll be distressing to deal with their judgment or naysaying. That said, I suspect that if becoming a parent is important enough to you, you won’t be deterred by it. And if your parents are going to have a bad reaction, they’ll probably have it regardless of when you tell them—you’re not going to be able to prevent it via announcement timing alone. So the question really is: When would you like to tell them?
In my opinion, people choosing to be this judgmental don’t deserve advance warning or, for that matter, information as deeply personal as “We’ve started trying for a baby.” It also seems like borrowing trouble to tell them news that they’ll find upsetting before it’s official. So, in your shoes, I probably wouldn’t tell them until I had to. But I think you should do whatever is best for you. Take some time to think about how you’ll feel if they react badly, and how you would feel and react, and decide whether you want to try to deal with all of that before your pregnancy or during it. Whenever you tell them, make sure your husband—maybe also your sister?—is there, so you know you’ll have support. Know your boundaries and triggers and be ready to end the conversation the moment you need to. Good luck.
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From this week’s letter, My Daughter Just Totally Betrayed Our Family With Her New Life Plans: “I’m heartbroken that I’ve raised such a selfish kid, and that she would choose money over our family.”
Dear Care and Feeding,
My husband has severe ADD, and even though he’s on medication, if I don’t make sure to hand him our (6-year-old) daughter’s backpack and lunch on his way out the door to drive her to school, he won’t remember. He won’t remember appointments without me reminding him 10 minutes beforehand, he won’t even remember to brush his teeth without a reminder. He jokes about it in a self-deprecating manner. The emerging problem is that our daughter is starting to pick up on her dad’s issues and is becoming really disrespectful toward him. She rolls her eyes at him, will call him “dumb head” when she’s mad, and has stopped asking his permission to do anything because “Mom is in charge anyway.” I try very hard not to show any annoyance or exasperation at my husband’s scatteredness, and I constantly talk in front of our daughter about the wonderful qualities he has. We also give her consequences for talking to him like that (taking screen time away, etc.) but it’s getting worse. What do I do?
— Be Nice to Dad
Dear Be Nice,
I’d start by making sure your daughter knows that she shouldn’t call anyone dumb (there is always a better, more accurate, non-ableist word to use). If she’s disrespecting her father over this, is there a chance she might be doing the same to classmates or other peers with differences? Even if not, it’s really important to talk with her about difference and disability, and how important it is to respect people who aren’t exactly like her—at 6, I think it’s actually past time to start having those conversations.
I might try something like: “You know how we’re all different, and there are lots of different types of bodies? Everyone’s brain works differently, too. Your dad is more likely to forget things because his brain works differently from mine or yours. It doesn’t mean he’s not smart or that he doesn’t care.” You can tell her that we all have things we’re great at and things that are harder for us, and that’s okay. If your husband is alright with it, I don’t see a reason not to explicitly name his disability and give your daughter a definition she can understand (plenty of kids her age have been diagnosed with ADHD and have been given similar explanations).
She should know that this is one part of who her dad is—it’s not something he chose or something he can make go away—but it doesn’t define him; like all of us, he is who he is because of many different things. And that’s when you can mention some of those other qualities you talked about; the things you know he and your daughter love about each other; the things they enjoy doing together, etc. Yes, remembering her lunch is obviously very important (and I’m not dismissing the challenges of being the one who remembers all the things). But there’s so much more to their relationship as parent and child than the tasks your husband happens to really struggle with. Hopefully your daughter will see and better understand this about him, helped along by the age-appropriate discussions you both have with her about his attention issues over time.
I also just wanted to mention that while your daughter may never have any attention issues, they do tend to run in families and are also under-diagnosed in girls and women, so you and your husband—like all parents—should keep an eye out and seek an evaluation if you ever feel it’s warranted.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
My daughter (16) is on a four-season high school team with “Julia” (also 16). Julia has significant mental health issues. This is not speculation—apparently she talks about this a lot, including about her medications and therapy. My daughter has complained about Julia’s behavior quite a bit to me, and I have counseled her to be kind, not gossip, and create boundaries when she feels it’s necessary. The problem is that Julia’s behavior has escalated to the level that she is a constant topic among the team—a status that she seems to cultivate by texting/talking openly about it. Most recently this involves having sex with two boys from the boy’s team in one day, in a cubby by the workout room. (She has apparently had sex with all of the senior boys on the team except two.) She’s also bragged about shoplifting 17 bikinis from Target; these are the more extreme examples, but she regularly posts stuff that just makes her a fodder for gossip. (Yes, I’ve seen the texts.)
What, if anything, should I do with this information? It feels really wrong that all of the girls on the team are united against Julia, but I also can’t blame them, given the reports of her behavior. Her parents must be aware on some level of what’s going on, given that she’s getting treatment. Should I discuss with the coach? Can he really not know what’s going on? This can’t be good for the team, right?
— Deeply Disturbed
Dear Deeply Disturbed,
I doubt the coach has heard nothing about the things his entire team is gossiping about. But whether or not he’s been informed by others, no: I would not suggest that you call and tell him that he needs to do something about one of his athletes having sex, or struggling with their mental health, or becoming an object of team gossip, or even shoplifting (if that 17 bikinis story is really true). It just doesn’t seem like the high-school coach would be the go-to person to tackle any of those things?
As you say, Julia’s parents seem to be aware of what’s going on, since she is undergoing treatment and talking with a therapist. There’s a decent chance they are already in touch with the school, but in any case, let them be the ones to decide if and when to talk with the coach if they believe he should know more. Unless you’re legitimately concerned about someone’s safety, I think you can just continue to remind your own daughter to be kind and not feed the gossip machine—whatever is going on with Julia certainly isn’t going to be helped by her teammates’ contempt.
(My favorite response when someone tries to gossip in a way that feels like punching down: “Oh, wow! That doesn’t sound like any of my business!” Feel free to borrow it.)
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