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,
I am a 29-year-old cis gay man (he/him) in a long-term partnership. While my partner and I talk about having kids in the future, I’m unsure if that’s what we want (plus, it’s hard and expensive, and won’t happen by accident!). When I think about having a kid, I’m not excited for the work or the hard parts of parenting, or of the concept of being primarily responsible for the development of another human (how does anyone not constantly panic when they think of this responsibility?).
That said: I love kids. It is so cool to me to see how they learn and adapt to situations, and some of the most rewarding experiences of my life have been the rare opportunities when I’ve been able to work with a child while they learn a new skill. To me, this suggests that I would probably find some satisfaction in volunteering with children, and I’ve been thinking about high school sports as a potential avenue. Here’s my question: Is it strange to be involved in this way but not have kids myself? In particular, I’m thinking about the optics of being a young childless gay man, and what parents may think. Is there maybe a type of volunteer work that I should be considering instead, or am I looking at this totally the wrong way?
Your letter made me chuckle, because I felt the exact same way you do before I became a dad. My primary thought when my first daughter was born was, “I’m responsible for keeping this child alive and safe, and I can barely keep myself alive and safe. There’s no way I can do this!” I seem to be getting by, though, and I can honestly say that the pros of parenting tiny humans far outweigh the cons. If they didn’t, the human race would’ve been extinct a long time ago. I’m here to say that you may want to reconsider your stance on parenting, because it will introduce you to the most powerful version of unconditional love that exists. At least it did for me.
Now, onto your issue. As a youth coach, I can tell you that some parents might look at you with side-eyed glances if you coach a team without having kids of your own. Should that stop you from trying? Hell no. Being a part of a marginalized group means that you have to be twice as good as a straight, mediocre white man in order to get recognition and opportunities—and even that may not be enough. As a Black man, I know this all too well. If I decided not to do things because they were difficult or because I was worried about what others thought of me, I’d probably be living under a bridge right now.
I think you should ask to volunteer at your local middle school or high school and understand that you may not be welcomed with open arms at first. Some administrators may even laugh you out of the building, and that’s part of the process. All you need is someone to say “yes” and then it will be up to you to go above and beyond the call of duty. Because as Steve Martin once said, “Be so good they can’t ignore you.”
I truly hope it works out for you, and I also hope that you have kids of your own someday.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
My 9-year-old daughter (Martha) has a close friend who is … if not a bully, then bully-adjacent? The friend (let’s call her Sara) has trouble keeping friends for obvious reasons, and is clinging to my daughter. Unfortunately, Sara routinely does things that I can only describe as testing the friendship by demanding that Martha do unpleasant things, like stand in one place during recess at school rather than playing. Every day for a week, under threat of the friendship ending, or some other unpalatable penalty.
I tell Martha we can’t know for sure why Sara acts this way, but that it’s not the way her friends should treat her. And that if the penalty for not obeying Sara’s demands is that she withdraws her friendship, then so be it. We’ve talked through what would happen if Sara didn’t want to be friends anymore. Martha has other friends. She would seek them out during lunch and recess at school. And we’ve talked about how Martha should not neglect her other friends even if Sara were a perfect angel! But we’ve had this conversation multiple times over the course of more than a year now, and Martha will not choose other friends over Sara during school because she fears losing Sara. I think Martha has a lot of insight into why Sara may be acting this way, and she understands that her passive response allows that behavior to continue, but she can’t summon the courage to make a change. Which I understand, because … she’s 9.
We’re on waiting lists for a therapist for this and other reasons, but it’s hard to get appointments right now. The school has a therapist, but that would mean being pulled out of class for appointments, and the prospect of having that happen terrifies Martha. What do I do? How do I teach Martha to stand up for herself? I can’t help but see this as an early lesson in how important it is to know your worth and to insist without fail that others treat us with a basic level of dignity and respect. What if years from now it’s a romantic partner who tries to trap her in this cycle?
—Making Mountains Out of Molehills
Dear Making Mountains,
My mom used to tell me this when I was Martha’s age, and I pass the same message on to my daughters today: “Anyone who consistently makes you feel unhappy isn’t a friend.” Of course you and I both get that, but it can be tricky to explain it to a kid as young as she is.
I’m not quite sure why leaving class to speak to a school therapist “terrifies” her. It’s a normal practice in most elementary schools in the COVID world we live in. My kiddos speak to a school therapist weekly (along with many of their classmates), and they love being able to talk to a professional about any issues they may have at school and beyond. Probably the best way to quell her fears around leaving class is to have her teacher pull Martha aside and give reassurance that it’s OK. If possible, I’d also suggest attending the first session with her to ensure she fully articulates her problems with Sara.
In the meantime, it may be a good idea to contact Sara’s parents to express your concerns. Yes, I know how uncomfortable it can be to do something like this, especially if you’re “accusing” Sara of bad behavior, but you may need to step in now to help Martha get through it. In a situation like this, I prefer the “both sides” approach. You can state that the girls are experiencing some dysfunction in their friendship; include an unhealthy behavior that Martha is displaying followed by what you’re hearing about Sara. Then you can ask her parents to work together on a unified front to ensure both girls are happy. We all know those parents who believe, “There’s no way my child could do something wrong. She’s perfect!” and if that’s the case, you may need to walk away.
Another approach is to host a play date between Martha and her other friends. In doing so, she’ll realize how fun it is to hang out with other kids without the stress and drama that comes with being around Sara. Then you can reiterate to Martha that friends are supposed to make her feel good and not threaten and control her.
Based on what you wrote here, it looks as if you know exactly what to do. With the help of therapy, supportive parents, and other allies, she should get through this bumpy road unscathed.
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From this week’s letter, My Cousin’s Insane Wedding Plan Is Splitting Everyone Apart: “Now no one is talking to each other, and it’s getting to where we’re talking of canceling upcoming family events.”
Dear Care and Feeding,
My wife is reluctant to teach our children anything about domestic abuse. As a child, she was led to believe that a relative was abusing his wife and children. She eventually confronted him about it, causing a serious family rift. She doubts that her actions did any good, and she wishes that this hadn’t been shared with her. She feels that children should understand that other people being abused is not their business, although she admits that that doesn’t sound right. Thus, she wants to avoid this subject for as long as possible, which could be a long time especially if we home-school. I don’t know what to think here. How can children be taught about abuse while still understanding that you shouldn’t cross such a boundary?
Dear Abuse Talk,
Obviously your wife is somewhat scarred by her past, but burying your children’s heads in the sand won’t protect them from society’s ills. I wish I could live in a world where I wouldn’t have to talk to my daughters about racism and sexual assault, but these conversations are unavoidable if I want to keep them safe. We have to be proactive, not reactive when it comes to these issues.
It sounds like your children are quite young, since you mention uncertainty about their education, so discussions about domestic abuse may be more appropriate for older children than toddlers. However, I’m of the belief that we should teach our children that if they see something that could endanger another person, they should say something—no matter how old they are. If they’re on the younger side, you could simply tell your kids to go to a trusted adult if they see someone being hurt physically or verbally. If they’re older, you can explain domestic abuse in more depth, and similarly inform them to seek help from an adult if they see something going wrong.
Bad things can—and do—happen in this world when good people do and say nothing to stop the bad things, whether it’s domestic abuse, child abuse, racism, or bullying. What kind of a message is being sent to your kids if they see a classmate getting bullied or teased and they’re like, “My mom says this stuff isn’t any of my business, so I’m going to just let it happen”? The reason your wife doesn’t think her reaction “sounds right” is because it’s not right.
I think you should push back on your wife’s beliefs and also suggest that she seek therapy to help her see the light on this. We don’t need any more passive bystanders in the fight against evil.
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