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,
My 13-year-old daughter came back from a sleepaway camp she was at for the past week. She’s always been a rule follower, a goody-two-shoes, shy, and a bookworm. The camp she was at was a nature exploration/science camp, so most of the other kids were also nature nerds. She’s also been having a lot of issues with her body image recently. She feels as if she’s really ugly. My wife and I are very worried and are waiting for her to be seen by a mental health professional.
My daughter and I have a very close relationship, in that she tells both me and my wife everything about her life. She told me she had her first kiss at camp. This boy lives about a 20-minute drive from us. Our daughter really wants to see him. Obviously, they have each other’s phone numbers, so they text all the time, but she wants to meet up with him too. My wife thinks it would be great if we could facilitate this. I’m not too sure it’s necessary. From what I remember of middle school, kids would start dating and break up after two weeks, so if we just wait a few days, the whole thing will blow over anyway. I’m also worried because this is a bit out of character for her, in that she is very worried about breaking rules, and kissing other kids is against the rules at this place. Given her recent mental health issues, I want to be very cautious. My wife is accusing me of wanting to coddle her, being an overprotective father, and projecting too much (I was also a shy, nerdy, goody-two-shoes sort of kid, and I didn’t have my first kiss until I was 24).
I don’t think I’m usually an overprotective dad. My 16-year-old daughter has a boyfriend whom I like quite a lot, so I’m not irrationally worried about my daughters dating. But am I being too protective in this scenario, or is it reasonable to say no to driving 20 minutes to let her meet her summer camp boyfriend?
—Not That Protective … Am I?
Look, I totally understand your caution here. Your daughter is in a vulnerable headspace right now, and 13 is on the young side of dating for a lot of parents’ comfort. But I am not sure I would put the kibosh on it. It would be one thing if you had a family agreement that nobody is allowed to date until they are 15 years old, or something similar; in that case, I would totally support sticking to your guns and not allowing them to meet. But it doesn’t sound as if that’s the case here.
This might not be fair, but your letter makes me feel like your daughter is moving into a new stage of life and you haven’t hopped on the proverbial train yet. You’re worried that your normally well-behaved daughter broke a rule in order to kiss a boy. To me, this is a perfectly natural motivation for breaking rules—so natural it’s a cliché. I’m not sure it’s indicative of anything beyond hormones and maturation. You also say that it’s not “necessary” for the kids to meet up because they’re going to break up anyway, which feels dismissive. The length of a relationship, especially at this age, doesn’t always correlate with how meaningful it is to the people involved. If this is a genuine and special first romance, I’d encourage you to respect it rather than blow it off.
I realize that you have concerns about your daughter’s mental health. I wish I had a clearer picture of her struggles, because if you told me that she was depressed, suicidal, or otherwise in a hyper-vulnerable state, I might reverse my advice and instead recommend keeping things status quo until she starts treatment. Absent those details, though, my advice is to let the relationship run its course, whatever that may be. Yes, this relationship may bring risks to her mental well-being if it goes sour. I’m just not sure those risks are greater than if you were to arbitrarily cut things off now; that would risk turning a sweet summer romance into a drawn-out longing. If you and your wife can put the appropriate guardrails in place (discussions about physical intimacy, time limits for texting, meeting the parents, etc.), then I’d vote for giving the kids their meet-up.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
I have a 4-year-old daughter who is my one and only child. Her birth was a harrowing experience, as she was born at 7 months through an emergency C-section because my blood pressure was very high; I ended up suffering multiple strokes and a heart attack. I was on life support for a week but ended up pulling through. We are both very lucky to be alive and are now healthy and thriving. However, my daughter absolutely refuses to eat regular food and meals. She eats only snacks such as chips, cookies, and gummies, and drinks protein milk. Sometimes she does eat plain bread and fruits.
I have tried everything possible to get her to eat a balanced diet. I’ve even tried to withhold food from her to get her hungry enough to accept what I try to feed her after her pediatrician suggested that I do so, but she won’t budge. The few rare times that I was able to persuade her to take a bite, she gagged and threw it right up. I’m very concerned about her health, especially her sugar intake, and don’t know what to do.
—Concerned in Brookhaven
I am so glad that you and your daughter pulled through what you rightfully describe as a harrowing experience. You must be one tough mom!
I do share your concern about your daughter’s eating habits, though. I am not a medical professional, but to me the behaviors you describe call for an occupational therapist evaluation. Has your pediatrician ever suggested that before? Refusing certain foods, or gagging on them, can be a sign of a sensory sensitivity or sensory processing disorder. Food aversion is different from being a picky eater. An OT can help you determine which category your daughter falls into and craft a therapy plan to help her move forward. Your pediatrician can provide a referral for an OT, or you can call a private practice directly. Your local hospital might also have a feeding clinic or similar service and allow you to schedule directly.
Not to be an alarmist, but if your pediatrician hasn’t suggested an OT evaluation (or early intervention services), I would consider shopping around for a new doctor. Yes, children are complex and don’t all follow one precise path as they grow, but you want to be sure you and your daughter are getting the full attention you deserve, and to me, this feels like something that should have been flagged. Good luck!
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Dear Care and Feeding,
I’m struggling with decisions regarding step-grandchildren. I have four children and seven grandchildren, who range in age from 8 to 16. We all have great relationships, and I adore the grandkids. My husband and I have set up 529b education savings for each of the grandkids, with the hope that we can cover half of their college educations. It is a gift for them and their parents.
Two of my children are in serious relationships with other parents. One parent is a widower with two children, age 13 and 15, and the other parent is divorced with three kids, 5, 7, and 10. They seem to be pretty nice kids, and we like their parents. What happens when/if marriages happen? Currently, the relationship between us and the (maybe) stepkids is like family friends. We’ll get token gifts for them if they are around for a gift-giving situation, but those are really few and far between. I would totally expect to purchase birthday and Christmas presents for these kids if they become family, at a price similar to what I get for my grandkids.
But what about college money? We committed to helping seven kids, not 12. Plus, all five of these other kids have other sets of grandparents, though I don’t know what their economic status is like. I’m under the impression that the widower’s kids have a trust with their mom’s insurance money, so they are probably set, but the divorced parent seems to be operating more on a shoestring budget. I certainly wouldn’t want to add strife to these (maybe) blended families, but don’t know what to do. My plan was to provide this gift to my grandchildren. What is my obligation to step-grandchildren? Do I divide the college money by 12? And when? My oldest grandchild is nearing needing her money and currently, there are only seven grandkids. It kind of seems unfair to my biological grandchildren to get less than was planned because of these extra kids, but I don’t want to be mean.
I have seen issues in advice columns where the new blended families want everything to be even between their kids, even though their kids have different relationships with the various families. I know that things aren’t even between cousins. (I think four of my grandkids will get some college money from their other grandparents as well.) Is it my job to even things out between stepsiblings? Or should I just go along with my current plans and let my children and their partners figure out their own family dynamics?
I replied to a similar (though much more fraught) letter a year ago about whether to include stepkids in one’s inheritance. Let’s first get the financial caveat out of the way: You can move money around among 529 plans, but there are specific rules about how you do it, so if you were to seriously consider this, I’d insist you consult a professional to be sure you know your options.
In general, no, I do not think you are obligated to provide equally to your kids and these potential stepkids. For one, as you mentioned, you have no idea if they will remain permanent members of the family. Additionally, given her age, your eldest grandkid needs to know her financial resources now so that she can effectively start the college selection process. What you tell her should, I think, be what the other kids can expect. So, go with your gut that now is the time to lock it in, so to speak. I suggest you have a candid conversation with your two dating children to inform them of (not ask them about) your plans so that they, too, know what’s coming.
That doesn’t mean you need to leave the stepkids high and dry. If you are still alive when they go to college, and you have the means, you can contribute out of pocket to their tuition. Or you can write them into your estate plans by leaving a specified amount to “any grandchildren and step-grandchildren” or portioning your estate to each of your kids based on the number of dependents in their households, etc. Your lawyer can help you think through your options. The bottom line is that you are not obligated now to account for all future possibilities. I think any reasonable person would understand and support your decision.
Dear Care and Feeding,
I met a man on a dating app over four years ago. We dated, and I fell in love with him. A few months in, I found out I was pregnant. He then told me that right before we met, he had been released from prison for attempted robbery and battery, and had been using meth at the time. He told me he was clean now and was excited to be a father to this child.
As the pregnancy progressed, he relapsed and began using again. He verbally and physically abused me while I was carrying his child. After I delivered my beautiful baby girl, he accused me of cheating on him and this not being his child—in the delivery room, in front of the nurses and doctors. He then took my keys and wallet and stole my car from the hospital. After the police recovered my car, he went to jail. Later, when he contacted me again, I told him she was not his so he would leave us alone. She is almost 3 years old now, and the guilt of lying to him weighs on me each day. What should I do?
—Guilty Single Mommy
You should absolutely not feel guilty for lying to him. He is an abuser and you do not owe him your compassion. Yes, redemption and recovery exist, but that is not of primary concern here. My priority would be keeping yourself safe and separate from this man that you cannot trust to have in your life.
However, my second concern is what would happen if he decided to reopen the question of paternity. I would consult an attorney right away to find out how you can protect yourself and your child if he ever came around seeking parental rights, since a DNA test would reveal that he is indeed the father. In my opinion, he has no ethical rights to you or the child after his repeated abuse. Unfortunately, it’s possible the law could disagree, so it’s best to be prepared.
If your guilt is more about your daughter not knowing her father, please let that go too. I know it’s easy to wish that your daughter had the two-parent experience we often imagine, but it is much more important to keep her safe than to deliver on that vision. Many children grow up with family trees we wouldn’t have chosen for them. But we have to let go of what would have been and instead focus on making what they do have meaningful, loving, and full.
More Advice From Slate
My mother-in-law and I don’t have a warm and fuzzy relationship, though I promise you that I am very accommodating and pleasant with her. My husband would describe her as a pretty difficult person who doesn’t have much ability to think of the world outside herself. My husband and I have been together for eight years and married for almost five. Despite having four bedrooms, being recently separated, and having only one of her children living at home, my mother-in-law does not have a guest bedroom.