Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here.
Dear Care and Feeding,
Last week, I took a road trip with my sister “Lasey” and my nephew “Bill.” Bill is 8, and his father isn’t in the picture. When we made a rest stop on our trip, I took Bill to the bathroom. He peed on the floor, and this was no accident. He walked up to the urinal, turned around so his back was towards it, pulled down his fly, and just let loose on the tiles.
When we got out of the bathroom, I asked him what that was all about, only to be told “You’re not my dad.” Figuring this wasn’t going to get much further, I told Lasey when I got a moment, and her reaction was to simply shrug, and say “Kids, what can you do?”
Now I’ll admit I’m not a parent myself, and maybe I don’t know the most about kids, but this seems like a serious issue. But if the kid doesn’t want to change his behavior, and his only active parent doesn’t care, I’m not sure how to help. On the other hand, I am disturbed by this and would like to do something.
Have you witnessed other out-of-pocket behavior from Bill? Does he generally listen to his mom? If this was an isolated incident, you might want to give your sister a pass on giving it a pass; kids do weird things sometimes, and if he’s generally held accountable for his actions, it’s not a huge deal to let this slide.
However, if it seems that Bill is regularly misbehaving and getting away with it, you may want to have a talk with your sister. Let her know that you’re concerned about your nephew and that you want to be supportive. Hear her out; she’s likely struggling and could probably use someone to talk to about it. Be clear that you don’t wish to judge, but instead, to be as helpful as you possibly can be. If you aren’t regularly spending time with Bill, you may want to consider becoming a more regular preference in his life; he could benefit from having a male role model.
If he ever tries the “You aren’t my dad” bit again, let him know that while that may be true, you are his uncle, an adult, and he needs to respect you. When he makes mistakes in your presence, talk to him about what he’s done instead of waiting for his mother to do it; he should be hearing from the world around him that antics like peeing on the floor aren’t acceptable. It would also be good for you to get some one-on-one time with Bill. If you could stand in the gap left by his father, it may make a world of difference. Make sure that you’re also encouraging of his good behavior, and that you aren’t only paying him attention when he’s done something wrong.
Slate Plus Members Get More Advice From Jamilah Each Week
From this week’s letter, Our Grown Daughter’s Mean-Girl Behavior Is Tearing Our Family Apart, “She was a cheerleader in high school and has what I would call a “cheerleader attitude”: the stereotypical mean girl, cliquey, ‘I’m better than you’ type of personality. And as she has gotten older, it hasn’t changed.”
Dear Care and Feeding,
My almost-5-year-old daughter has always been very attached to me and very sensitive. She’s also highly verbally expressive. Recently, she’s begun spinning scenarios where she’ll extrapolate something I say into a totally unreasonable situation (e.g. when I tell her she can’t have a piece of chocolate because she’s literally eating a lollipop, she’ll wail “You won’t let me have ANY FOOD!”). She’s also ask for something she knows I don’t prefer and then, when I say sure, she can do it, she’ll sigh heavily and say “Okay, fine” in a very demoralized-sounding voice.
I’m really baffled by her desire to portray herself as put-upon and aggrieved, and I’m struggling with how to validate her emotions without acceding to things that are actually NOT true (and make me seem like a terrible parent!). How can I say “I understand you feel this way, but that’s not what’s going on” in a way she’ll understand? And what on earth is the
developmental/emotional need this is fulfilling?
—Is This Some Kind of Fort-Da Game?
Four and five-year-old kids have BIG feelings about many things, and to us fully formed adults, they don’t always sound rational or logical. This is completely normal. To your daughter, in the moment where you tell her she can’t have a piece of chocolate, she may genuinely feel that you are denying her food. She’s testing the boundaries of the world around her and trying to figure out how to think, feel, and react. You can validate her feelings without making the scenarios that she’s spinning sound as if they are real (“I know you’re disappointed because you want some chocolate, but that’s because you’re already eating candy. If you’re actually hungry, we can get you something to eat.”) Try to patiently explain to your daughter what is truly going on in these situations in a way that she can understand. And don’t get overly worked up about her dramatics or take her comments personally; this is age-appropriate stuff, truly par for the course. Soon enough, she’ll be able to articulate her feelings without such exaggeration.
Dear Care and Feeding,
My husband and I were born with the same surname, and in the beginning of our relationship it kept me from even wanting to date him. When things started to get serious and we were looking at marriage, he and his family assured me that we weren’t related—that they had looked back and we had no common ancestors on his father’s side. When we got married 10 years ago, I didn’t have to change my last name, or anything about my name at all. Our 8-year-old son has our shared surname. It was pretty simple.
When my son was young, I had a rocky relationship with my own complex, blended family, and I really turned more and more towards my husband’s family for support and love. My mother-in-law became like a mother to me. My father-in-law is one of the most peaceful, easy going people I have ever met. They became my primary family, and my son’s.
My husband and I had some rough patches in our relationship, and when my son was around 6, they got really bad. One night a message from an old man was left on our answering machine, and my husband heard it and flew into one of his rages. I called my mother-in-law to ask if she had any idea who the man was, and she said he was an old neighbor that was kind of weird.
Long story short, the rages kept happening. I came to realize that there was something off about my husband and his anger that was not normal. I called his mother many times, pleading with her to explain why he would get angry to the point of dissociating and threatening to kill himself. She told me that my husband had been referred to therapy as a child but that his father would not attend—his attendance was mandatory, so it never happened. She also revealed that my father-in-law had had an affair that spanned my husband’s entire childhood and only ended recently. She began to villainize him, and she convinced me that he was a bad person.
None of this did anything to fix the angry outbursts I kept seeing. I just felt that there was something more there, maybe something that happened to him when he was younger. I reached out to other members of the family, desperate for help, not wanting my son to grow up seeing and hearing the things I was seeing and hearing. Finally, I got my answer.
My father-in-law is not my husband’s biological father. My mother-in-law had an affair with that man who was “just a neighbor.” She has my father-in-law on my husband’s birth certificate, but they went through a court battle when my husband was 7 years old with the neighbor to terminate his parental rights. Everyone in the family knew this but me. I found out from my niece, who’s in college. I confirmed it by going to the courthouse and having the public record of the trial pulled. My husband says that he never told me because he blocked it out. I’m not sure if he’s telling the truth. I refuse to speak to my in-laws, but I will not cut them from my son’s life because of his primary attachment to them. However, one day, my son is going to need to know about this.
I feel incredibly violated. I was deprived of essential knowledge about my son’s genetic heritage. It was very relevant information, given that my maiden name and my husband’s surname were the same. My son’s biological grandfather is someone I do not know, and my husband refuses to deal with any of it. My therapist is not even sure where to start with this. I feel like I was denied the basic human right of knowing my son’s true genetic identity, and this will have many repercussions down the road. What do I call what has happened to me, and what should my priorities be moving forward? I hate my mother-in-law with a burning passion for lying to me, then trying to villainize my father-in-law. She’s an absolute narcissist who knows how to keep my son from turning against her. All I was owed was the truth, and she had many opportunities to tell me. I will never trust her again but how am I supposed to help my son moving forward? Please help.
—Name Literally Withheld
Your mother-in-law was wrong for sharing the story of her husband’s infidelities as if it were enough to explain her son’s issues, especially considering that her own indiscretions are the more likely source of his angst. However, instead of focusing on your feelings of betrayal and frustration, you should concentrate on getting your husband the help that he needs. I know that it’s frustrating not to know who your son’s biological grandfather is, but your husband’s mental health is the bigger concern right now. Talk to your therapist and see if she can refer someone that may be able to help him with his issues, and let him know that it’s urgent that he seeks professional care.
The story of his dad is painful, and it sounds like the entire family worked to put it behind them. It would have been ideal for your husband to share this with you, but he has seemingly worked to avoid dealing with the truth of his paternity. Your mother-in-law should have been truthful with you when you reached out to her, and you would be justified in confronting her about her refusal to do so. However, I don’t think you should consider this something that “happened to” you. It’s an unfortunate situation that has certainly caused your husband’s family a lot of pain.
I’m also sure your mother-in-law didn’t think about how her future grandchildren would be affected. I’m not saying that you need to forgive her, but consider that she and her family have tried to move on from this and have viewed your father-in-law as your husband’s “real” father for many years. She should have told you the truth when you reached out to her about your husband’s issues, but I can’t imagine any other scenario in which she should have told you. Your husband has seemingly tried to suppress the memory of how he was conceived, so it’s not terribly surprising that he didn’t share this information with you himself. He probably thinks of it as his deepest, most shameful secret (which is unfortunate, because he didn’t do anything wrong).
You and your son don’t know anything about his paternal grandfather. This is unfortunate, but it’s not uncommon. There are many children who don’t know all of their grandparents, sometimes because one of them was absent, or passed away before they were born. You will need to make peace with this and move on. Focus on helping your husband come to terms with the circumstances of his birth by getting the support of a therapist. Rage issues and talk of suicide are not to be taken lightly, and you have to protect your child. Try to stop taking this personally and help your husband get the care he needs.
More Advice From Care and Feeding
My 6-year-old has occasional sleepovers with her godmother, Linda, a childless friend of mine. Linda has been a habitual cannabis smoker for as long as I’ve known her. Over the years, Linda’s use has increased to the point where it appears that she can’t go more than a few hours without smoking. The last time we visited, over the course of about 3–4 hours, Linda went off into another part of the house, presumably to smoke (you could smell it in the air when she came back). Because of the frequency of Linda’s smoking, she doesn’t seem to be impaired or come across as high, but technically, she’s stoned all of the time. How can I raise this issue with Linda without coming across as critical of her lifestyle choices or a helicopter parent?
Correction, May 26, 2023: We updated this column to remove a letter targeting another publication. We’ve also updated headlines to reflect that change.