October 25, 2021

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parenting advice from Care and Feeding.

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,

Help! My 15-year-old wants to go to camp this summer. It’s local, on a college campus, and she would be staying in a dorm. She keeps reminding me that “it’s only for two weeks,” and she’s been so bored, and the school year was so terrible—and it’s an arts camp, which is her thing. She desperately wants to go.

I know how disappointed she’ll be if I stick to my guns, but my every instinct is screaming at me that this is a bad idea. We live in an area where many people aren’t getting vaccinated—mostly by idiotic choice—and neither the camp nor the college is requiring proof of vaccination. Nor is there a mask mandate! My own kid is of course vaccinated (why would we not partake of this freaking medical miracle?) as is the rest of my family, but we are surrounded by people who aren’t. I have let her socialize with the few kids she knows whose parents have had them vaccinated, so I’m not keeping her locked up! It’s just that we are surrounded on all sides by anti-vax, science-denying conspiracy theorists. And while she would be much less at risk than the kids at camp who are not protected by the vaccine—she’s 95 percent protected, they are 0 percent protected—there is still a risk to her that doesn’t seem worth taking. Plus I don’t want to pretend I’m OK with the camp happening at all under these circumstances, and I think there’s a good chance somebody’s kid is going to get sick if 100 teenagers are socializing and living in close quarters. If I send mine, it feels like I’m giving tacit approval to whatever happens during those two weeks. Am I being ridiculous? My daughter insists I am. And because she is a dramatic teenager, she says she’ll never forgive me if I don’t let her go.

—Overprotective?

Dear Overprotective,

You are not being ridiculous. Teenagers are at greater risk than was previously thought, as this story in the New York Times and this one in the Washington Post make clear. If the camp is not requiring that all attendees be vaccinated—and, good lord, not requiring masks either—then you should not let her go.

If it makes you feel any better, I can tell you that I run a sort of summer camp—a creative writing program for teenagers, in which we house the kids in a dorm on the Ohio State campus—and I canceled it (again) this summer. (I had to make that call back in February, when I would have had to reserve dorm and classroom space and invite applications, and at that point it was an easy call, I admit: it didn’t look like there was any hope that everyone would have access to a vaccination by then. But there was a moment recently in which I questioned myself, when vaccines became available here to everyone over the age of 12. Only a moment, though, as it quickly became apparent that too many people are opting out, and opting out for their children: only 40 percent of Ohioans overall are fully vaccinated.)

As to forgiveness from your daughter, here’s an even more personal anecdote. Ten years ago last March, when my daughter was planning a summer trip to Japan after she graduated from high school—a trip she had been dreaming about and saving for for years—a huge earthquake and tsunami in Fukushima led to a nuclear disaster, and I made her cancel the trip. I think she’s finally forgiven me. But even if she hasn’t, I was right to make that call, too. Some things are more important than a teenager’s disappointment.

P.S. She got to spend a summer in Japan three years later, between her junior and senior years of college. And by then she was fluent in Japanese and also far better equipped in every way to travel on her own. Your daughter can go to camp next year—or, if the virus is still spreading where you live (as it may well be if people aren’t getting vaccinated and they’re also not wearing masks in public), in a few years she can leave home for college somewhere safer, take classes in her art form(s) of choice, and maybe even major in one of them, so that she’ll essentially be in arts camp for four whole years. Maybe by then she’ll forgive you.

• If you missed Friday’s Care and Feeding column, read it here.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My daughter is 15 and recently her dad got engaged. He and I have been divorced nearly ten years. They had been dating for roughly 5 years and my daughter seemed to really like her. Since their engagement was announced, though, she has been using demeaning language and ridiculing my daughter about her ADD diagnosis and the fact that she takes medication for it. She also has been trying to sway her from getting the COVID-19 vaccine by telling her that she will be unable to have kids later and that it will make her really sick. What’s puzzling about this is that both she and my kid’s dad have had their vaccines and have been now living like they did before the virus—but they also are dragging my kid with them to large indoor events where people aren’t wearing masks. As parents, my ex and I have been really cautious this past year, even to the point of keeping our kid learning virtually after her school reopened because her dad is a cancer survivor and was high-risk. I know that I can’t control what goes on in their household, but at what point do I step in with regard to the future stepmom’s judgmental input about health decisions that my daughter’s dad and I have already decided on? I have talked to my daughter about setting boundaries, especially when the language used hurts her feelings, but she hasn’t yet found the courage to stand up for herself.

—Where’s My Lane?

Dear WML,

I think you have two lanes. One is going to have to be with your ex—i.e., a frank conversation with him—but I would be careful about what you choose to talk to him about. I would stick to the health decisions the two of you have already made and are in agreement on, reminding him that these matters are between the two of you. His future wife, “as well intentioned as she may be” (throw him this bone! it may help!), should not get a vote on such decisions. I would be super-careful not to say anything that will inflame tension between the two of you; I would not criticize his fiancé or complain about her language (to him). And I’m afraid I don’t see the point in taking this up with your daughter’s future stepmother, either. I think if you were to confront her directly, it would lead to a blowup, and since (I’m assuming) you share custody with your ex, a blowup could only make things worse for your daughter when she is in her dad and stepmother’s care.

But I do think you have a lane with your daughter, too. In addition to helping her find the courage to speak up—which may take a while—it’s important for you to help her absorb the message that her soon-to-be stepmother is wrong, and that whether she can stand up for herself in the moment or not, she can develop an inner core of strength that will help her get through these challenging interactions. I think you might want to practice with her ways she can respond to these remarks—I’d roleplay with her, which will help to prepare her for them when they come.

My final thought about this painful situation is that you can encourage your daughter to speak to her father about her concerns, telling him how hurt and upset she is by the things his fiancé says. While that’s something you can’t (shouldn’t) do, it’s definitely something she can. It’s important that she’s able to be honest with her dad, and it’s important for him to stand up for her. I think she’s also old enough to say no when they offer to drag her somewhere that isn’t safe for her. “No, thanks, I’d rather not—that doesn’t feel safe for me. Maybe we can get together a different day instead this week” is a perfectly legitimate response to their suggestion that they go to a large indoor event!

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My husband and I are expecting our long-awaited first baby in November. Neither of us has family living in our state, but my parents plan to visit often. My husband’s family is more complicated. We haven’t been in contact with his parents for the past year or so since we determined it would be healthier for us and any future children of ours to be free from their manipulation, racism, classism, and lack of boundaries. We are comfortable with this decision and do not plan for my husband’s parents to have contact with our child. We have, however, maintained contact and occasional visits with my husband’s aunt and uncle. They are thrilled for the baby to arrive and are considering buying a home within a three-hour drive of us so they can be involved in our kid’s life. While they are generally kind people and much less bigoted than the rest of their family, they still use some problematic language that I know they think is normal. They also occasionally go on rants about how “the illegals” and “the homeless” are ruining their state, although when I ask follow-up questions and model inclusive language, they usually recant and admit that the real problem is that their state isn’t properly caring for these vulnerable populations. This leads me to believe that they’re not beyond reform.

Here is our dilemma: It is very important to us that our child be raised in an inclusive, antiracist environment. While we like these family members and it would be helpful to have them nearby to help with occasional babysitting, we worry that the more exposure our child has to these people, the more hate speech he will absorb. On the other hand, my husband would really like to keep a relationship with some small part of his family. Can we make them change their language, at least around our kid, or is our only option to encourage them to keep their distance?

—Deliberately Diplomatic

Dear Deliberately,

While I might have a different answer if his aunt and uncle were beyond reform, it sounds like they are actually reachable/teachable, so don’t give up on them! I’m much less concerned about the free babysitting than the possibility of your husband—and his children—being able to maintain a relationship with members of his family, if there is a chance that he can. You can’t “make” them change their language, just as you can’t make them change their thinking, but you can keep talking to them in the way you have already tried; you can educate them and help them move forward. This is likely to be a long-term project, but if you like them and they are your husband’s only link to family, I think it’s worth the effort.

But of course, all this effort is unlikely to fix everything. If you make the decision to keep them in your lives, you will also need to be prepared for talking to your children—the one that’s coming soon and any future others—about why the language Aunt and Uncle use is wrong and hurtful. Indeed, your kids may be the best messengers to these family members about this—or at least they may be the best people to drive the message home that you have already been delivering. I am sad to say that no matter how hard you try, your children are going to run into plenty of people who express their bigotry. I don’t believe your job is not to make sure they never encounter such people, but that they have the tools to deal with them.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I have two beautiful daughters, but ever since we moved, neither one of them wish to identify as such. The 13-year-old chooses the pronoun “it” and the 12-year-old has decided that she wants to be a boy and change her name; she gets offended if I call her by the name I gave her and usually scolds me for using “the wrong pronouns.” I want to be supportive but this has come completely out of the blue. When asked, my 12-year-old says, “I just want to be a boy.” I always thought transgender people were stuck in the wrong body and did not choose to be the way they are, but the only reasoning I’ve heard from my 12-year-old for her sudden change of self-identification is not wanting to have a period. Her “boy name” is something dreadfully common and dull and in no way befitting of the 12-year-old’s bright and artistic persona, but she is determined to be called by it anyway. I know I’m not as supportive as I want to be but I am of the opinion that this is not something you arbitrarily decide overnight when you’re 12, and I have told her that until she turns 18, she will remain a girl to me, but after 18 she can make these determinations (and take necessary steps to achieve them) for herself. I don’t know what happened, but before this sudden transformation, 12-year-old was always the kindest, sweetest little girl and she used to love all things “girly.” I know I am handling it wrong, but am I completely in the wrong?

—Uncertain Up North

Dear Uncertain,

I know you don’t want to hear it, but yes, I think you are completely in the wrong. What you have “always thought” about transgender people is beside the point. And I 100 percent guarantee that if you keep up this line of defense with your 12-year-old, you are going to lose that child. It doesn’t matter if you don’t like/believe the “reasoning” you’ve been offered. It doesn’t matter that you don’t like the name your bright, artistic child has chosen, or that the name you gave your kid is being rejected. You say very little about the 13-year-old who has announced a new pronoun of “it,” so I can’t tell if this child is being supportive of a younger sibling, has come into a new identity, is being provocative with you, or what—but since you mention this and then move on to all of your concerns about the younger child, I have some concerns about how your relationship to both children is playing out. So let me just say this: good parents support their children as long as they’re not doing anything to hurt anyone. What would it cost you to throw your support behind your kids? I guarantee that whatever that cost feels like to you, it’s less expensive than the cost of not supporting them.

—Michelle

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