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 daughter is in the third grade. Recently, she’s been going on and on about how she doesn’t fit in with other kids. I’m confused. She cites various reasons like having green eyes, and being short as why she’s different. None of these make sense—she’s far from the shortest in her class and I highly doubt that kids are walking around checking each other’s eye color.
There was apparently a kid in her class who would tell her she looks odd, but the teacher quickly put a stop to that. That was in September. My daughter has said that other than that, no one really tells her that she’s different or calls her weird. She just feels different. She likes many of the same things her peers do. She’s even managed to find friends who love her niche interests, like nature documentaries, despite our small school district. She loves mainstream things, too, like Lego, Star Wars, princesses, and animals. Also, she knows what not fitting really looks like—one of her cousins uses a wheelchair and my daughter has complained on family vacations when her cousin is left out or gets singled out because of her wheelchair. So, I really have no idea where all this is coming from. Talking about this with her directly isn’t fruitful, and I’m getting a bit worried that this could be a sign of something else.
I love that your daughter sticks up for her cousin and notices how people with disabilities get left out. However, I don’t love your implication that just because your daughter is disability-free she has no trouble fitting in. I’m sure she’s aware she has many things easier than her cousin, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t have hardships, doubts, pressures, etc. If you have pointed out this distinction to your daughter before (a la “Look at [cousin], it could be worse, you’re fine!”), I would lovingly ask you to pull back on that. I doubt your daughter or her cousin would appreciate that line of thinking.
Third grade is the age where social stratification and self-consciousness begin to appear. Most likely, your daughter is comparing herself not necessarily to just the other girls at school, but to all the images of girls and women she sees in her media. No amount of factual evidence is going to convince her of her “normalcy,” though it can take only one or two comments to plant a seed of insecurity and self-doubt. I would focus not on convincing her of anything, but on helping her articulate and process her feelings of not fitting in. Have you tried reading any books together and discussing them? The Girls’ Guide to Growing up Great by Elkin et al. might be a place to start. Or check out Being a Girl from Papersalt. I love (as does my colleague, Jamilah, who introduced first introduced me to them on Slate’s Mom and Dad are Fighting podcast) the Kid’s Book About series, so you might look into A Kids’ Book About Self-Love. I’ve also heard great things about American Girl’s Drama, Rumors and Secrets as a place to explore some of those interpersonal conflicts that are starting to crop up at this age. I know I just gave you a whole library to explore, but in my mind, reading a book together (whether aloud, or just on your own, concurrently) and discussing it is one of the best ways to explore tricky subjects and give kids the vocabulary about themselves that they might otherwise lack. Good luck.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
My daughter Addie is really sentimental. She’s 8 years old and has a mild interest in cooking, so she’s used our blender in the past (she loves to help us cook here and there). The blender broke, so we got a new one and threw the other one out. Except we couldn’t, because when Addie saw us throwing it out, she got really upset, and my wife said we could keep it. This is for a blender which she’s barely ever used. After a month, she got used to the presence of the new blender and was ready to let go of the old one.
This type of thing happens with many minor changes around the house. Her bedroom is full of old toys she hasn’t touched in ages, which we can never throw away. She’s had glasses since she was 5 years old, and we find old pairs in random corners of the house every once in a while. We’ve given away her baby clothes and her toddler clothes, but she won’t let us give away her stuff from first grade, which doesn’t fit her anymore. She’s not doing anything with any of this stuff, and it doesn’t matter to her unless she thinks we might take it away. I’m of the mind that we should just throw away stuff she doesn’t use anyways, because it’s clear that she can adjust after a little bit, but my wife thinks that’s cruel and will hear none of it. How can we get her to be less attached to random mundane objects so that we don’t go through this ritual every time?
There is an episode of the PBS Series Pete the Cat (based on the books of the same name by James Dean) called “Sally Comes Clean,” where Sally the Squirrel addresses a collecting habit that has gotten out of hand. In it, there is a song whose refrain, in part, goes, “If everything is special, then nothing really is.” That song plays in my head whenever I come face-to-face with People Keeping Stuff, and viewing the episode together might be a decent way to open a conversation with your daughter.
A number of things could be going on in Addie’s head when she clings to these old items. Maybe they feel tied to her memories/relationships, and so discarding them carries a heavier weight than it does for you. Maybe she doesn’t quite understand yet that possessions can be ephemeral. Maybe she doesn’t want to hurt the objects’ feelings (when I was her age, I thought my teeth would be sad if I didn’t brush them the same amount of time—even though I cognitively knew that was impossible). Kids are perplexing. But maybe you can ask her some pointed questions to get an idea of why she is so reticent to give up these items.
Going forward, you might try to give her an advanced warning of when things are going away so that she has time to say goodbye. She might also feel better if she says a thank you to the object before it gets tossed. Alternatively, she can take a photo of the items you get rid of so she can always have a record and a memory. Yes, this is overkill for a kitchen blender. But no one ever said parenting was a 100 percent logical endeavor. Mostly, though, I would take the time to talk through the process of deciding what to keep and not. She might just need a little more help understanding how to assign value to some things over others. Even if she keeps things you think are totally batty, you want her to at least have a reason for it.
If the habit persists or gets worse into adolescence, consider a consultation with a therapist who can make sure there isn’t something deeper going on. Hopefully, it is just a funny quirk that will make a great graduation speech in the future.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
My son has a friend from elementary school, Tim, who he would occasionally hang out with. Tim is on the autism spectrum so he would hyper-focus on certain things, but this didn’t bother my son too much as their interests were similar (astronomy, dinosaurs). I would occasionally get calls or texts from his mom, and we would set up times for them to play together.
My son has always been sensitive to the fact that Tim doesn’t make friends easily, so he was always happy to do stuff with him. My son also had his own friendship struggles through elementary school. Later, in middle school, my son told me he was fine to go for a bike ride with Tim, but he found quiet activities together frustrating because Tim’s interest shifted to politics and COVID. So we encouraged him to make decisions on how he wanted to spend his time with Tim, but also reminded him that Tim is Tim and will always be focused on specific things. So, we would pick activities and set time limits so he could be a good friend, like he wanted, but not get overwhelmed himself.
Now they are in high school and go to different schools. My son has established a nice group of friends and is doing well. I recently found out that his mother has been texting my son about setting up times when the boys could hang out. It seems clear to me that Tim is not social and his mom wants to encourage him to connect with kids his age, which I understand, and my heart breaks for her, but her contacting my son directly is not appropriate. Not to mention that it’s super awkward for my son; he doesn’t want to say no to a mom. So, I recently sent the other mom an email asking her not to email or text my son, as it makes him uncomfortable and I think it’s inappropriate. My son is 15 now. He does his own things with school, friends, Scouts, and babysitting. I have encouraged my son to still say hi and be friendly to Tim (not cross the street as some kids do) and this is a good lesson in setting boundaries. But we all feel really guilty. Have we done the wrong thing?
—Birds Leaving the Nest
Unless you left something out of the story, it sounds like you broke up with Tim on your son’s behalf for no reason and with no explanation. That’s not cool. I understand you not wanting Tim’s mom to contact your son directly, that’s a perfectly fine boundary to set. But did you offer her (and Tim) an alternative? Could she have texted you and your son as a group, so that there was no private messaging? Could she have communicated directly to you to arrange play dates? In most situations, I would feel weird about parents stepping in for teens when it comes to social engagements, but I am assuming Tim is unable to do the communicating himself, in which case he and Mom deserve a bit of grace.
Did your son want to end the friendship, and you used the texting situation as a way to get him out of it? No one is saying your son has to be friends with everyone he meets, nor does he have to maintain a friendship out of pity (no one wants that, disability or not), but friends deserve honesty and clarity. If your son didn’t want to hang out anymore, he owed it to Tim to be honest about that, and he could have cited their differing interests as the reason. Everyone makes mistakes, but the best among us own up to them. I think you know what you need to do.
Dear Care and Feeding,
I (17F) identify as a lesbian and have for a few years now. I have come out to my parents, younger sister, and one of my close friends. Coming out to my sister and friend went just about as well as it could have. They were both very supportive, non-judgmental, and kind.
My parents, however, were a slightly different story. I came out to them when I wasn’t exactly ready for it, due to a combination of factors. They were very skeptical about whether what I was saying was true, and there was a strong “it’s just a phase” mentality. They were also somewhat upset that I had been “wasting time” by watching videos and reading articles about something that they consider to be irrelevant. For the record, I was never concerned that my parents were intensely homophobic and would kick me out of the house, but I didn’t know how accepting they would be. I would rate them as a tolerance/acceptance on the Riddle scale.
Since I talked to them (about a year ago), we’ve never spoken about homosexuality pertaining to me personally, but I am very vocal about my support of social movements like Black Lives Matter and gay rights, and we’ve had non-confrontational discussions about it. It feels like my parents are willing to accept that other people can be gay, but not their own child. Coming from my parents, who have always been supportive of me, it hurts that they seemingly cannot come to terms with another part of my identity. My mom keeps comparing me to friends who have boyfriends and referencing a potential future husband, which is incredibly frustrating.
Other than this, I have a great relationship with my parents, and they fully support me in everything else. This is a few years down the line of course, but my relatively reserved, incredibly self-conscious self is terrified of introducing a future girlfriend to my parents. Is there anything I can do to make my parents a bit more accepting, or at least make me comfortable enough to stop referring to a future partner in gender-neutral pronouns?
—I Don’t Want a Husband!
Dear No Husband,
First off, props to you for coming out! I know it didn’t happen the way you would have wanted, but I hope you are proud of yourself for rolling with the circumstances and owning your identity. It is not always easy, though we hope it gets easier for the next kid, and the next.
I want to preface the rest of my response by saying that I haven’t been in your shoes, so I hope you have also floated this question toward LGBTQIA+ organizations or communities because coming out and confronting homophobia can be really individualized and traumatic experiences. PFLAG and Q Chat Space might be a couple of places to check out if you haven’t already.
How you move forward really depends on the goal. Do you just want to just extinguish the references to boyfriends, or do you want to start trying to move your parents along their journey toward supporting (and eventually celebrating) you?
If it’s just extinguishing the tactless remarks, I would keep a few one-liners in your back pocket and deploy them when needed—without turning the conversation into censure or debate. The one-liners could be subtle (“You mean wife”), earnest (“We’ve discussed this; I’m gay. Talking about boyfriends hurts my feelings.”), or humorous (“I’m not a polygamist, mom. I don’t think my future wife will want us to have a husband, too.”) You drop the remark and move on, hoping that after a few instances, your parents get the hint. I know you mentioned you’re not yet comfortable using words like wife and girlfriend around your parents. Maybe these one-off lines would help you dip your toes in. But in general, don’t feel bad about what vocabulary you are and aren’t using. You can use the terminology that is comfortable—and you can change it when you want. It doesn’t make you a less authentic lesbian, especially this early in your life.
If you want to try to confront your parents’ behavior, and you think they are capable of evolving their views on sexuality, then nothing beats a good old heart-to-heart chat. In a non-accusatory way, explain how their remarks make you feel and ask them why they make them. Articulate how you want to be treated. Stating how you would like to be treated is a surefire way to uncover their point of view, because either they’ll adapt…or they won’t. Again, the resources above can give you tips and inspiration for that conversation. Good luck!
Check out how another Care and Feeding columnist answered this question.
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