Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here.
Dear Care and Feeding,
My 7-year-old son has long had an allergy to unbaked milk. We think he might be outgrowing it because he has accidentally eaten some things with trace amounts of raw milk recently and been OK (says my husband). His pediatrician had also mentioned at one point that he may outgrow it. However, my son is still very afraid of eating milk because he remembers how unpleasant it is; face swelling, swollen tongue, itchiness etc. He is vigilant about avoiding this experience.
My husband was researching how to reintroduce milk into a diet. He has the idea of sneaking uncooked milk into his food in little bits in order to acclimate him, then surprising him that he isn’t allergic anymore. I feel upset at the idea. What if it went wrong? We would lose trust with our son. I do not like the idea of sneaking anything into anyone’s food. I myself would feel quite violated if this were done to me. What do you think? More generally, should I be more worried about my husband’s values and general approach? His parents thought it was fine to lie to him. He is a good dad, but plans like this raise red flags for me.
— Muddled by Milk
I agree that lying to your kid carries more risks than living with a phantom allergy. Have you tried doing some advanced planning with your son about what it would look like to try the food? Of course, you should not proceed with any strategy until you’ve consulted with your child’s pediatrician and/or allergist. Maybe your son would agree to trying if you allowed him a say in how this all goes down—with a clear plan from a doctor. I think the more you can let him call the shots—while also explaining why this is an important exercise—the more amenable he may become.
I don’t think you need to worry about your husband’s broader moral code here. He’s justified in thinking that your son might be perseverating a bit, and he’s right that the most straightforward way to get an answer is to get the food into your son without all the rigmarole. But just because it is understandable doesn’t mean it’s right, and that’s what you need to work with him on. He needs to have patience and recognize that your son is an autonomous human being who deserves respect and dignity, and that includes a say in (if not full control over) what happens to his body. Would your husband think it was OK to lie to you about a medical procedure he thought you should have? If not, he shouldn’t advocate lying to your son about consuming a potential allergen. I’m sure once you frame the decision like that, he’ll come around.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
Our 21-year-old flunked out of college during the pandemic (they, like so many, struggled with the isolation and depression surrounding 2020). They’ve seen a therapist for two years and seem good now, emotionally. They claim to have applied for jobs, but they believe they need accommodations. Extensive evaluation when they were 13 determined their quirkiness did not rise to the level of a disability. They’ve never been diagnosed with the autism and ADHD they say they have. Our small town has some job opportunities. A bigger town close by has public transport, many jobs … and high rent.
We want to help them move forward. Goal-setting has gone nowhere without constant prompting. I know we need a plan and clear expectations, but how do we follow through on that in a practical sense?
—At Our Wits’ End
Dear Wits’ End,
Have you considered having your child evaluated now as an adult? Understand, though, that getting a diagnosis can be tricky for a variety of reasons. Kids and adults can be adept at masking and compensating for their symptoms, for one. For another, the diagnostic criteria are based on a very narrow segment of the population (white male children–who were most likely hetero and well-off) and thus provides an incomplete understanding of autism and the varied ways it presents in the population as a whole. For these and many other reasons, self-diagnosis is generally accepted among autistic adults.
You can read more about that here and here.
Given that background, what if you skipped the diagnosis altogether and started treating your child as if they definitively had autism and ADHD? How would it change the conversation if you took them at their word? You could find them a therapist who specializes in coping with ADHD and autism so that they start learning how to manage their neurodivergence—and make no mistake, they do need to manage it. Autism and ADHD can create significant barriers to a person trying to live an independent adult life. People who are neurodivergent have to create systems and habits that help them hack their brains or interrupt their instincts in order to work and participate in neurotypical society—and this is a long, hard process. It’s not something your child will likely be able to learn on their own.
Meanwhile, you and your partner can similarly seek out resources—books, support groups, etc.—where you can learn how to support your child and help push them forward. As the loved one of many neurodivergent individuals, I can tell you from experience that you also have to unlearn some of your own habits if you want to be truly helpful to your child. It takes practice and patience.
The challenges posed by autism and ADHD are real, but surmountable. As such, you are allowed to hold your child accountable for their progress. Believe your child when they tell you something deeper is going on, but push them to work through the resulting challenges rather than succumbing to them. And no matter what, do not let yourself turn into your child’s personal assistant in the name of “helping” them. You’ll find yourself no better off than you are now. Good luck!
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Dear Care and Feeding,
My son, whom I’ll call LG, started middle school two weeks ago. He has profound ADHD, which we treat both medically and behaviorally, and our school system has been fantastic about helping us find ways for him to be a successful learner. Ultimately, however, he is not a child who will ever sit still. We encourage him to confine his fidgeting to doodling and drawing, which he loves, and this is generally successful; he can still listen and not be such a distraction to other kids. Now that he has seven different teachers every day, I anticipated things might get harder, and they have. Every day he has come home telling me about one particular teacher. She constantly tells him to put his pencil down and sit up straight and keep his eyes on her, and he also feels like she’s singling him out.
The final straw was the other day when he was at home doing his homework—one of those beginning of the year, tell-me-about-yourself worksheets many teachers like to use (and by many, I mean five of his seven teachers had sent one home). When he got to the one from this teacher’s class, he started censoring his answers, refusing to put down his true opinions and hobbies because he thought she wouldn’t approve. This is not like him. He is a kid who embraces who he is and lets himself shine.
I emailed the teacher and described his reaction, without including any of the “he said” complaints of being singled out, and asked if she knew why he might feel that way. She called me back and informed me that the worksheet in question was NOT from her class; LG had gotten them mixed up. Since it wasn’t from her class, she didn’t see any problem, although I tried to point out that what mattered was LG’s perception of her opinion of him. It was not a successful tack. When I also suggested she’d have an easier time with him behaviorally if she’d let him draw, she said she didn’t want to make exceptions because then everybody would want to.
So, do I keep trying to push this, or just try to help LG accept that for one hour of the day being himself is not acceptable, which makes every mom instinct in my body upset?
—Make Her Grow or Him Shrink?
My first question is whether LG has an IEP, 504, or any other documentation that articulates the academic accommodations his is supposed to receive. If he does, I wonder if you could work with school personnel to get fidgets or doodling into his plan as an accommodation. You’d have something to hold this teacher to, and it would have nothing else to do with the other kids. (I suspect this teacher might have a rather “old school” approach to education and what it looks like to be paying attention, so I’m not sure how successful you’ll be without a mandate backing you up.)
Absent any documentation, you could talk to the school social worker or your son’s guidance counselor to get an idea of how you and he can advocate for his needs. Be aware, though, that while I’ve heard (and experienced) great things about guidance counselors getting involved on their students’ behalf, there are just as many stories of these professionals only taking a perfunctory approach to their duties, so your mileage may vary. LG might just need to muddle through as best he can, and you can re-engage the teacher at parent-teacher conference time. Maybe by asking her for ideas and help, rather than suggesting tactics, you’ll be more successful? Catch more flies with honey, and all that.
And yes, unfortunately this is probably an opportunity for that all-important life lesson: Not everyone will like us, and not everyone treats us with the kind of respect we hope for. I would encourage LG in these first few weeks to try to play by this teacher’s rules and take note of how it goes. What seems to energize the teacher—is it well-behaved kids, correct answers to questions, creativity from the students? He might need to think of this class as an opportunity to practice his adaptive skills and play to her preferences. The more he can understand his teacher’s high points and attempt the behavior, the more he’s training himself to be nimbler in a variety of social situations. It’s not ideal, but it’s another tool in his toolbox as he grows.
Dear Care and Feeding,
I’m looking for advice on how to deal with harassment from a neighbor. I live in an inner-city area with my husband and two kids. When my eldest was a baby, we were taking a walk. My eyes met a man and I gave him a weak smile out of politeness. He very loudly exclaimed how sorry he felt for my child having a mom like me who can’t properly smile. In the five years since, every time I see him, usually about once or twice a month, he loudly exclaims how sorry he feels for my children because they have me for a mom. He doesn’t stop, he clearly addresses me, but kind of talks to an invisible audience as he passes by. My daughters usually don’t respond at all and don’t seem to understand that it’s directed at me. And exception to this was when my eldest daughter and I were singing and he disparaged our singing abilities, so I said to her to ignore him, and he started yelling so we quickly left. This was highly upsetting to my daughter, especially as he has a big scary dog.
He also does this to my husband, and I’ve seen him act similarly to other parents, so he obviously has some serious personal issues. Up until now, this has mostly only been distressing to me and my husband. But my kids are getting older and more aware. There are always lots of people around, so I don’t feel physically unsafe, but he often seems drunk, and I do not think talking to him will help. It’s very upsetting, and I really want this to stop before it starts to affect my children. We’ve considered going to the police for harassment, but I’m not sure that will help as he never touched me or my kids. We live in the Netherlands and this man is white, so I do not fear he will be harmed. We know where he lives, and we could report the situation. But it probably won’t help and then he would probably know it’s us. He is a very big man with this scary dog, and I don’t want to do anything to make the situation worse. Thoughts?
— Scared Mom
Does your city have any kind of “beat officer” or community policing initiative? That might be a place to start, as those officers tend to be more hyper-local and more prone to non-punitive intervention. He may be known to these officers or they may be able to do some observations to see if he might benefit from services of some kind. I feel compelled to point out, however, that I’m not familiar with Dutch policing or police-community relations, so you might need to get some locals’ perspectives on all of this (I assume from your letter that you are an ex-pat and not Dutch yourself).
This man, unfortunately, does provide an opportunity to teach your kids some street smarts. He is not the only unstable individual they will likely encounter in their lives, and they are going to need to know how to handle themselves in all kinds of social situations. Modeling the behavior you want them to emulate, and having frank discussions about it afterwards, may actually provide them a sense of stability and empowerment because they will know what to do when they are older and have a bit more independence. Ignoring him as you walk by, or leaving the park if he shows up and starts loitering, are great examples of things you are doing and can continue to do to show them how to handle these situations. Yes, we would all like to live in an environment without conflict or erratic neighbors, but that’s not realistic.
And in the end, we cannot control other people, merely our reactions to them.
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Update, Aug. 28, 2023: This post was updated to clarify the proper protocol for dealing with allergens.