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,
We had to suddenly put our sweet cat, “Kitty,” to sleep nearly two weeks ago. For our 5-year-old son, this was his first experience with death. My husband grew up with death as a taboo and we didn’t want to repeat that pattern. We read two books together with our son about it and used clear language that Kitty was dead and not coming back. I’ve been really upset and missing her because she was my kitten before I ever met my husband and present with me through many changes in my life. I miss her a lot.
Now that our son has learned about the concept of death he’s fascinated. He wants to talk about it and ask lots of questions (normal) and announces Kitty’s death to every person he runs into (less so?). His teacher says he’s been talking about death generally at school also. I know kids go through phases especially when they’re dealing with big topics, but I need space to be sad about this without him describing Kitty’s death in-depth to our neighbor when we go to get the mail. What can we do? I want to let my husband take the lead here because he’s sad but not as impacted by losing Kitty but neither of us know how to approach this with our son, or what to expect.
—I Thought He Would Be Sad
Let me first reassure you that even though your son is talking about death so matter-of-factly, it doesn’t mean he didn’t love Kitty. Some kids are profoundly affected by death, and others have a more pragmatic, detached reaction to it; most kids are probably somewhere in the middle. In my experience, none of these are better or worse than the others—it’s just one more example of how we are all wired differently. I also don’t find his frequent announcement of Kitty’s death to be that surprising; for him, Kitty being dead is on par with Kitty being orange (or whatever)—it’s simply a fact. Plus, it’s the news of the day; if your son is a conversationalist, then Kitty’s passing has provided a great gift: sharable content!
Even though this is all perfectly normal, there are still ways you can coach your son so that your feelings get spared. Explain that death makes some people feel very sad, makes others feel interested, and makes others feel nothing at all. Then you and he can make a plan for how and when he talks about Kitty. This also gives you an opening to say to him in the future, “Mommy feels sad about Kitty right now, can we talk about something else?” As you said, you don’t want to make death an off-limits topic, but you can start to finesse the when and how of it popping into conversation. And if your son is simply chatty, it might be time to plan a weekend adventure that will give him something new to tell the neighbors all about.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
I’m gearing up for a dicey holiday season. My husband’s family of origin is orthodox Jewish, and I was raised in a Christian home. My husband and I both do very little in terms of practicing religion, but we keep the holidays alive in our home for our young children. Christmas is the big one, with Santa and the Christmas tree, making cookies, and a big dinner we host for our friends and my family. As far as Hanukkah goes, I bought my husband a menorah a few years back, and most years he lights the candles if he remembers.
This year, I worry that our holiday season is at high risk for drama. My husband’s parents have recently drawn a line in the sand over their upset and disappointment that we’re not raising our children Jewish nor keeping up with most of the beliefs and practices my husband was raised with. We were always clear about our intentions for our home since before we were married, but for any number of reasons, this year the tensions are very, very heightened. We’re actually not seeing his parents for the holidays this year due to a combination of schedule mismatch and fresh wounds from this recent drama.
The question is this: My husband’s grandmother, who has always been very respectful of our own way of life, would often send our children a “Christmas/Hanukkah” gift or “holiday” gift (we don’t do presents on Hanukkah so all gifts just end up under the tree). This year, she sent an email specifying that she would like to send our children a “Hanukkah” gift, and I know she’s aware of the recent drama and our own family traditions. This seems like needling at an issue we’re trying to either settle or avoid; the thought of sending our children gifts is kind, of course, but this email makes it seem very loaded given the context. What should I respond, if at all? Part of me feels that this is one more time where my husband and I need to underscore that our family has our own set of traditions that we’d like respected, part of me wants to save my energy from these ongoing battles with them and just not respond at all, and part of me thinks I should just let it go and accept the gift gracefully—that’s what I would normally do if this wasn’t such a sticky topic this year and seemingly related to ongoing events.
For context, we’ve tried to be very inclusive of all our extended family members. When we were dating, I attended Hanukkah and several other Jewish holidays at their home, and we’ve invited them to Christmas every year but they decline because it upsets them. My husband was never allowed to celebrate Christmas growing up, and now that he does, it seems to be such a point of contention when everything should just be pleasant and fun like the holidays are meant to be. I’m sure this gift email won’t be the last of the drama this year, but starting here, what do we do?
—Just Want a Happy Holiday
Dear Happy Holiday,
You can respond any way that you want to, but if you want to maintain the moral high ground, I think your best choice is to just accept the gift (more on how to accept it later). Three reasons why: First, you’ve stated that this grandmother has consistently been respectful of your choices, and it doesn’t sound like she’s given you much reason to suspect that has changed. Two: No real harm can come from your kids opening a gift on Hanukkah. All you need to say is, “Grandma sent you a Hanukkah gift to open before Christmas.” It doesn’t have to turn into a tradition or change the decisions you and your partner made about holidays. Three: Even if she sends them a religious token, given the recent family hubbub, that doesn’t mean it has to be used or displayed. So, to me, the benefits of accepting the gift are that you look magnanimous and reasonable. (After all, you’re not saying no one can ever acknowledge the existence of Hanukkah. You just don’t observe it.) On the other hand, the cons of accepting the gift are close to zero, except for the question of whether it opens the floodgates to the rest of the family. That’s where the how comes in.
When you write back to Grandma, tell her you appreciate her thoughtfulness and have always appreciated how respectful she is of your family’s holiday traditions. Then say something like, “I’m happy to give the kids these gifts during Hanukkah, but since we both know there are a lot of hard feelings out there about our family and the holidays, I just want to be sure I’m not confusing anyone or appearing hypocritical. Are you asking this one time for a specific reason, or are you asking me whether you can give them Hanukkah gifts from now on?”
Final thought: You might want to consider whether this conversation is best coming from your husband rather than you. After all, he is the one “rejecting” his family’s faith, and if the conversation gets tense, better he, the home-grown family member, be the one to address it.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
My half-sister Kelly has a 16-year-old, Mia, who lives with her dad full-time. I only see Mia and Kelly a couple of times a year at most and do not speak with her dad. Mia has always felt a connection with me and sends me TikToks and memes, which are mostly silly and harmless. However, lately she is also sending me memes about “spicy” novels with consensual violence. No graphic images, and all stuff that is allowed on social media, but definitely things I would not discuss with her (or my adult friends, for that matter). I don’t want to shame her or disrupt the comfort she feels in talking to me, since I know there are serious problems in her home life and her parents are not reliable people. But I am concerned and uncomfortable. I don’t know if she’s just treating me as a peer even though I’m a 50-year-old relative or if she wants to talk to me seriously about these issues and doesn’t know how. Talking to her mom is pointless, since she is not an involved parent. Her dad would punish her and use it as a reason to keep her from family events I attend. What do I say to Mia?
You can say a version of what you wrote here. Next time she sends a saucy image, just come right out and say, “Sorry, awkward old person alert! Are you sending this because you think it’s funny or because you’re into this book? Just checking before I reply so that I keep up my texting cred with you!” It might be that she finds bodice-rippers hilarious (incidentally, those same memes are finding me in my own feeds, and I gotta say, it’s a whole new world out there in content creation and marketing, isn’t it?). But it might be that she’s into that content and thought you might be too, at which point you can just let her know that your literature tastes are more vanilla than that, but that you’re available if she ever needs an adult to talk to about stuff with. It doesn’t have to be awkward or parental—in fact, the more casual you are, the better I think it will land.
I wouldn’t necessarily worry about the consensual-violence aspect of the memes unless it’s a pattern that repeats, or you see other indicators that art is imitating her dating life, so to speak. Erotica is full of plot lines that folks enjoy reading but would never act out in reality, so unless you get another gut feeling, chalk this one up to normal teen exploration. And if you do find yourself with more questions about sexuality, boundaries, and the like, there’s always Slate’s How to Do It column! Good luck!
Dear Care and Feeding,
My wife and I are both Jews, but she was raised—and continues to be—more ritually observant than I am. I agreed to keep kosher (the dietary laws: e.g. no pork, no eating dairy with meat or poultry) at home, but would eat what I wanted out of the house, just not in front of our at-the-time hypothetical children. Now that we have young kids, I am uncomfortable with that arrangement. Since I don’t keep kosher out of the house, I don’t like telling them that they can’t eat something that I would have if they weren’t around. My wife says she understands it feels hard for me to lie, but counters that we don’t tell them the full truth about a lot of other things, and this isn’t different. How can we move past this impasse?
— Questioning Kosher
I think the challenge here is the assumption that telling your kids you don’t keep kosher is equivalent to them not keeping kosher themselves. I don’t think those two scenarios are linked. To me, it feels reasonable to let the kids know that you keep kosher in the house, but not outside of it, and that you and your wife made a mutual decision to raise the kids with kosher dietary habits. You can explain why you made that decision openly and honestly, and it can be as simple as saying, “It’s important to your mom, and so we are honoring her preferences and her faith.”
Plenty of similar decisions are made in households all the time. My vegetarian friend is raising her kids as vegetarians even though her husband eats meat; the kids know this and accept it. They also know that when they are older, they can make their own dietary choices. Similarly, I was raised by one Catholic and one agnostic/atheist parent; we went to church and I completed the sacraments through confirmation, but it was always clear to me that I could accept or reject Catholicism as a teen/adult however I choose. I think it’s that timeline for when they get to choose for themselves that’s your missing guidepost.
Right now you feel like you’re lying to them because you’re “fronting” (as the kids say) that kosher is the way your family rolls, when you are fully aware that it isn’t, exactly. At some point, your kids are going to choose to either keep kosher themselves, or sneak cheeseburgers at a friend’s house. And you can’t really hold them accountable for the latter if you aren’t being honest about your own choices. Plus, think about how much worse it will be if you aren’t honest and they find out.
Best to be upfront. Keep your original agreement of keeping kosher in the house and raising the kids kosher, with the addendums that A) you’re honest about your own choices and B) you empower them to make their own choices at an age that you parents are comfortable with, and C) you ask them to respect your wishes until then. Good luck!
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I am a stay-at-home mom of two girls, aged 4 and almost 2. My husband and I have radically different approaches to media use. If it were up to me, anything with a screen would be kept out of the house, but I realize that this is impossible and impractical. I try to have a screen on only when there’s a purpose for it, and to keep them mostly off around the kids. Sometimes, my oldest will get to play games on a tablet; we may also have a movie on while I work on the house or cook meals.