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,
In recent months, I’ve noticed what I think is a strange and dangerous behavior by some parents in the workplace. I work in state government in human services policy, which includes interaction with the fields of child protection and juvenile justice. A few months ago, I was sitting in a working group meeting related to juvenile justice and there was a presentation by an attorney who represents children. She does not work for my organization and is not someone I regularly interact with at work. I’m also not an active member of the work group I was attending that day. The attorney began her presentation with a slide containing a photo of her own child and mentioned that this child is on the autism spectrum. I think the presenter just wanted to share her motivation for working in the field, but what I heard was, “Here is my child and the specific ways they’re vulnerable.”
More recently, I was copied on an email chain with some internal staff who work on child protection issues when I noticed one of the respondents had her Outlook/Microsoft Teams profile picture set to an image of her two children. It seems wild to me that people who actively work in child safety would share images of their children at work or anywhere on the internet. The former is just unprofessional, which is none of my business, but the latter is a safety concern. Maybe my bias is showing here. I don’t think people should post images of children on the internet ever, full stop. Children can’t consent to this, and by the time they are old enough to truly understand the ramifications of it, there could be hundreds or thousands of images of them online. I also think a surprising amount of information about a child’s location can be gleaned from these images, and that can put kids at risk. At the same time, I’m aware that when kids are harmed, it is most often by people who already have access to them, so maybe I’m overreacting. I didn’t say anything to either individual because I don’t have a relationship with either of them, and the attorney doesn’t work for my organization. However, if this had been a teammate or someone I interact with regularly, I would absolutely have said something. I’m wondering if I should have said something to these people, too. Am I way off base?
—Tinfoil Hat Mom?
I think the ship you’re worrying about has long sailed. Social media is full of photographs of people’s children—so full that anyone who doesn’t post about their kids is sometimes treated like a weirdo Puritan. Whether it’s a good or bad idea to share photos of one’s kids, a gazillion people do. Your telling someone (whether it’s someone you “interact with regularly” or a complete stranger) that they shouldn’t do it is a waste of your breath. And they will not thank you for it. They will consider you a busybody; one of them might even write to me about it. Keep your own counsel. It’s not exactly as if what you want to tell them is top secret information they wouldn’t have come across and shrugged off—or made a considered decision to dismiss.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
How would you recommend (or would you recommend) talking to children about death? My own mother died when I was 3 years old, and she was rarely mentioned as I grew up. Now that I have my own child, I am terrified of dying and leaving him alone in the world. But of course, it’s possible that this could happen. My son is 12 now, and I wonder if I should talk to him about death—since it could happen suddenly, without his having had any preparation or discussion beforehand. But also: What could I possibly say to prepare him? And I don’t want to scare him! Because although it could happen, it’s unlikely he will lose me while he’s still a child. I write him letters, usually one a year, that I have put away for him to read after my death (whenever it occurs)—letters he can read to know how much I loved him, fun things we did during that year, milestones he reached, etc. I like to think that someday my letters to him will be comforting, as I wish more than anything that I had something—anything—from my mother so that I could know who she was and what our (brief) relationship was like. Do you think letters are enough to leave behind, or should I broach the subject with my son?
—Mom Who’s Thinking Ahead
I am so deeply sorry you lost your mother when you were so young. That’s a terrible loss that marks one for life. And so before we get to the question of how to prepare your son for the possibility of your death, I want to make sure you know of the work of Hope Edelman, whose support of motherless daughters, and especially motherless mothers, has been a lifeline for many women (and Hope, whom I have known for years, is awesome, all around—as a writer, a resource, and a human).
Now let’s talk about your son. Your own profound loss, of course, colors the way you think of him and no doubt always has. I think the annual letters are a lovely idea, and may indeed delight your son when he gets to read them (I hope, for both your sakes, that he’s elderly himself by then). But I also think it’s important for you to fully understand—I mean deep down, not just intellectually—that he is not you, and you are not your mother. So many of us try, when we have children, to “fix” what went wrong for us. That cannot be done. We can try to give our children what we didn’t have and yearned for (indeed, we should!), but being cognizant of them as distinct from our childhood selves is a crucial piece of good parenting. There are numerous ways this idea can play out here: Your son, for instance, will never be in the situation you were in. He already knows you and has his own lifetime (so far) of memories stored up. He has not had a motherless childhood. He has you.
Is it possible that you’ll die suddenly before he’s finished growing up? Yes. If that were to occur, would he suddenly become the 3-year-old you were when you suffered your catastrophic loss? Absolutely not. He would have his own experience, and no, it is not something you can prepare him for. Trying to prepare him for such an event would only serve to alarm and worry him (I can pretty much guarantee that if you open up the subject of your possible untimely death while he’s still a child, he’ll assume you’re keeping something from him, and no assurances on your part that you’re not terminally ill will convince him).
On the other hand, I assure you that the fact that people die—that everyone and everything living will eventually die—would not be news to him. He has heard of death. He has (I am 99 percent sure) heard of a parent’s death, thanks to The Lion King, The Land Before Time, and many other children’s stories that are rites of passage. I find myself wondering, though, if you’ve ever talked to him about your own mother’s death. I don’t mean “as an example for him to watch out for,” nor am I suggesting you set the burden of your grief on him; I just mean as a way of telling him the story of your life, connecting with him, and subtly offering him the opportunity to ask questions if he has them. When it comes to big subjects—sex and death among them—answering questions as they arise is the way to go. By 12, most children will have already asked some questions about death; if your son hasn’t, it may be because he sees it as a taboo subject for you. Talking to him honestly about your own life, which was so acutely affected by a death, would be a good start toward removing that taboo.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
I am a grandmother to a 3-year-old who is very verbal and very bossy. I spend about 20 hours a week with her (she also goes to preschool) while my daughter and her husband are at work. She will tell me to sit in a certain place, or not to look at my phone, and I am not sure how to respond to this. (My daughter says that if she were a boy, we would think nothing of it.) Of course, if I don’t want to follow her directions just then, I tell her I can’t or won’t. But, overall, I am not sure what the right approach is. It doesn’t seem appropriate to tell her not to be so bossy. I was kind of squashed as a child myself, so I know I don’t want to do that to her. Honestly, I am out of my depth, since her mother was a very quiet and compliant child. I’m also aware that my granddaughter will learn soon enough how the world works. But it doesn’t feel right to acquiesce to her demands while I wait for that to happen, either!
I don’t know if your daughter’s right (God, I hope not). I tend to think you wouldn’t be thrilled to be told what to do by any 3-year-old (but perhaps I am hopelessly idealistic; perhaps you’d chuckle and think of a bossy grandson as an adorable future CEO—only you would know the answer to that). Most people don’t enjoy being bossed around by anyone of any age. I think you’ve been handling this perfectly reasonably: If you don’t feel like doing what she tells you to do, you say no; if you don’t mind, you say yes. I think feeling uneasy about ever “acquiescing to her demands” is a bit of an overreaction. She’s not a terrorist, she’s just a toddler. And I can tell you that I have plenty of experience with super verbal, bossy toddlers. Two of them grew up to be theater people—stage directors, in fact (i.e., their talent for directing showed up early). Others outgrew the urge to be in charge. Most children do.
Either way, you needn’t do anything other than what you’re already doing. I promise you’re not causing any harm by sometimes doing as she says.
Dear Care and Feeding,
I’m a stay-at-home mom to an 8-year-old and 4-year-old twins. I’ve been at home full-time for four years. I didn’t get out much when the twins were babies, and just when I was starting to feel like I was ready to socialize again, the pandemic happened. Now, after spending nearly all my time with my immediate family for the last three years, I feel like I don’t know how to talk to people anymore. I’ve always been introverted and a little bit socially awkward, but I could make small talk and enjoy the conversation. Now I feel like I barely know how to respond to basic pleasantries. I also feel like I have nothing to say to people. My life is boring so I am too. I am at home or at the playground or pool every day, doing stuff with my kids, or else I’m listening to podcasts while I fold laundry. And nobody wants to hear about how my kid stepped on a bee at the pool or about that podcast I listened to about the history of ranch dressing. My husband is also an introvert and not super helpful in this area. I keep telling myself that I’ll get back to normal (for me) eventually, but the world has been pretty much normal for a while now and I’m still a weird hermit. Is this something a lot of people are going through? Or is it just me?
It is something a lot of people are going through. Scientific papers have been written on it. But I would urge you to rethink your conviction that you have nothing to say, or that anything you might offer up in conversation would bore people. If you and I were chatting casually and you told me about your son stepping on a bee, I’d be into it (if you gave me enough details to make the story vivid)—I like hearing about parents’ misadventures (and sure, adventures too) with their kids. I am not the only such person in the world. And while I wouldn’t be particularly interested in hearing about the history of ranch dressing, plenty of others would. So much conversation I hear around me or am a part of these days is about things people have learned while listening to podcasts. (Just the other day, I myself told such a story! I had listened to an old episode of You’re Wrong About—about the “wardrobe malfunction” at the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show—and learned that that was the televised event that led to the invention of YouTube, something I felt moved to share with a roomful of people waiting to take a ballet class.)
Talk to people when you see them. Talk to them about anything. Sure, sometimes they won’t have much to say in return—but sometimes they will. Even telling someone you like their shoes, their glasses, or their newly hot pink hair can lead to a conversation. They might say, “Thanks, I got them on a trip to Spain!” and then you can ask about their trip—or, “I actually got these glasses from Zenni—they were only $18, so I bought them in every color and now I have a prescription glasses wardrobe” (surely you could think of a follow-up question or comment to that!). Or maybe they dyed their hair for the Barbie movie (which you should definitely go see). Start anywhere. It won’t get better if you just wait for it to get better, but it will with practice, which you just happen to be out of. And by the way: No one has a good answer to basic pleasantries. They are the lowest form of conversation. Just say, “Fine, thanks” when you’re asked how you are and move on to something more promising. “How old’s your daughter? Really, 4? I’ve got two that age!”
More Advice From Slate
My 10-year-old daughter has a boyfriend. He is her age, and they are both sweet kids. They spend most of their time climbing trees, playing with friends, and doing other typical 10-year-old things. She’s very open to me, which is good. I think she’s a little young, but I also know kids this age “like” each other, and it’s no big deal. She sees him at school, and we occasionally do group things with his family. Tonight, she told me that they sometimes kiss.