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Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My husband and I are vegetarian. He has been since birth, due to his family’s religion. I have dabbled over the years, but committed fully a while after we began dating. We now have a 2-year-old, and we are raising him vegetarian. We’ve talked a lot about how to handle this because my husband is not religious and really hated how oppressive his family was with their beliefs and rules for him in his youth. He rebelled in a great many ways over the years, but never was tempted to eat meat. Outside of his religion, he just feels very strongly about not eating meat/harming or killing animals. He feels strongly that we should teach our son to love animals as we do, but also that we can/should have a rule that he is not allowed to eat meat while living under our roof. I struggle with this, because I worry it will cause the same issues that he experienced with parental beliefs being forced on him. I imagine it could even easily backfire. Also, my family and many friends all eat meat.

My husband has no issue being at a table with folks eating meat, etc., and he never cared much about me eating meat until it came time for me to meet his family, and he didn’t want to deal with what would certainly be next-level drama over it (he ultimately lied to them about me being vegetarian until I decided to make it official because I generally never felt good about eating meat). I’m inclined to just say that we don’t buy or cook meat in our house, but that my son is free to eat what he wants outside the house. Is this the right approach? And if so, any advice for getting my husband on board?

The in-laws and his extended family will certainly have very strong, dramatic feelings if they find out my son ever ate meat. I don’t care much about that, but my husband is not good about confrontation with them (though better than when we first got together thanks to lots of therapy), so I worry he’ll just try to keep it a secret versus facing the music if we decide to let our son chose what he eats.

— Hemming and Hawing

Dear Hemming and Hawing,

You should remind your husband how restricted he felt by his own childhood as he seeks to create a rule that could have questionable consequences. What happens if your son eats a burger? Is he kicked out? Grounded? Will love be withheld because he chose to indulge in the flesh of an animal? Also, it’s a rule that is incredibly easy break—especially once he gets old enough to go to fast-food restaurants without any adults present—and raises the question about the difference between wanting our kids to have our values and forcing them upon them in a way that makes rebellion almost irresistible.

I think the best way to approach this is to say, “This household has a meat-free rule, we do not cook or eat meat; we expect you to abide by this when you’re not in our company and we hope that we have made it clear why.” (You know, the animal stuff.) You let his school and any adults whom will be minding him know that he doesn’t eat meat. Then you hope that your son and the other people around him will mind your wishes.

It actually may be worth having the consequences conversation with your husband now; you don’t want to be surprised when he freaks out because your son had pepperoni pizza at a buddy’s house when his parents weren’t looking. Let him know that the best way to raise a vegetarian is to make the vegetarian lifestyle appealing, and that he’d hate to make forbidden fruit all the more tempting by obsessing over how “bad” it is. As far as the grandparents are concerned, there is no need to notify them if Junior slips up and has some chicken nuggets. Sometimes household business is exactly that.

Slate Plus Members Get More Advice From Jamilah Each Week

From this week’s letter, I’m Being Haunted by the Child Playing in My Hallway: “These hallway hangs are not only disruptive because I work from home, but upsetting.”

Dear Care and Feeding,

My boyfriend and I are both 16. “Roy’s” mom is schizophrenic, and I think she has some other mental illnesses as well. The medication she’s on also seems to make her listless for large portions of the day; whenever I’m over she seems really zonked out. Roy’s essentially her warden and makes sure she takes her medications, makes sure she eats, cleans her and the house, and takes care of the bills. (To be clear, it’s not his money, it’s mostly coming out of child support from his father, but he’s the one handling all the paperwork.)

When discussing colleges, he just says he has to take care of his mother. He’s a bright, unbelievably good guy, and I can’t stand to see him throw away his life taking care of his mother until she dies, which is exactly what he’ll do if something doesn’t come along and change things. I can’t persuade him to just drop it, it’s his “duty,” and he gets all solemn and self-sacrificing about it. What should I do here?

— Not Sure

Dear Not Sure,

I am so sorry to hear that your boyfriend is caught in such a difficult situation. Of course you understand, at least to some extent, why he feels that he has no choice but to remain by the side of his mother—especially since it seems she doesn’t have other close family that is willing and/or able to do so. I think the best thing you can do is to help Roy devise a plan in which he can take care of Mom and work towards creating a life that he will be happy with. Not you, him. What does he want out of life? Does he draw and paint? Is he a numbers guy? Whatever it is he does well or wants to do, he’s only got a couple of years before he’s likely going to figure out how to earn a living wage (child support usually ends at 18).

College isn’t the only way towards a bright future, but it shouldn’t be entirely off the table for Roy either. What sort of 2-and 4-year-colleges are there in the area? There are grants, loans, scholarships, and work-study programs out there to help students in need figure out ways to fund both their education and support a household. The hard work is the research, and that’s where you can be most helpful. Let Roy know you’ll be by his side during this process, and if there are times in which you can look some stuff up for him because he’s too tied up with mom, that’s a great way to be supportive. Just make sure that you don’t get so caught up in what’s going on with Roy that you lose sight of your own college plans; if you plan to travel out of state, go. Few professional success stories begin with “I decided to stay local because that’s what my high school boyfriend was doing” (though of course there are some happy families that began exactly that way). Be mindful of what your priorities are and think of your long-term future as you make your own post-college plans. Best of luck to you and Roy.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My family has a history of eating disorders. Both of my sisters and three of my cousins have struggled with anorexia to varying degrees since middle school. Our grandmother was never diagnosed with anything, but I suspect that she might have been anorexic too, based on her extremely strict diet. I’ve been fortunate that disordered eating hasn’t been a problem for me personally.

I have three school-age daughters, and I want them to be aware of our family’s mental health history, but I feel uncomfortable talking to them, even in broad terms, about my sisters’ mental health. My sisters are both in a good place now, and they do bring up their eating disorders very rarely, but always on their own terms. I worry that I might trigger something if I bring it up at a bad time, but it also seems disrespectful not to tell them that I’m going to tell my kids something so personal about them. Do I need to talk to my sisters about what I’m going to share with my daughters when the time comes? And when do I need to tell my kids about this? My oldest daughter is 9, which seems so young, but it’s only a few years younger than my sisters and cousins were when they developed eating disorders.

— Not My Story

Dear Not My Story,

You can let your sisters know that you intend to speak to your daughters about eating disorders and ask if they are comfortable with you sharing their stories; if they are, do so and if not, you can instead cast classmates or neighbors when discussing your experiences having witnessed  E.D. firsthand. These disorders are not considered hereditary and are primarily understood to be the result of sociocultural influences (a.k.a. our ‘thin-is-forever in’ culture). In other words, your girls probably aren’t more likely to have eating disorders because your sisters and grandmother did; it’s the influence of media and people around them that finds them vulnerable.

Try to model healthy attitudes about eating and weight while also praising all sorts of bodies. Surround your daughters with diverse images of women and girls from all sides of the body spectrum (including disabled bodies; not just to teach empathy, but because today’s “able” person may have a very different life tomorrow) so that they come to understand beauty that expands beyond the narrow boxes that some people would rather limit it within.
And start these conversations now; your eldest is certainly old enough to be getting fatphobic messages at school, from TV, and beyond.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

Give it to me straight: Is it awkward, or worse, creepy, when a childless adult really likes your kid? I always wanted to be a mom, but because of some traumatic complications, my son was stillborn, and I’m now unable to have biological children (depressing, I know, but not the point of this letter, I promise). I feel like that “mom energy” has never gone anywhere—every little baby noise distracts me, I can feel the difference between what their cries mean, I get excited if they learn a new thing or remember me, etc.

I started a remote job a few months ago, so everyone’s on Zoom, which means people’s babies and toddlers are on screen a lot. I love engaging with the adorable kids, and because my intentions are pure, I never think that I might be coming across as too emotionally invested in other people’s children I’ve never even met, at least not until afterwards. Maybe it would be less weird if they weren’t my coworkers, or I’d played with them in person instead of waving to them and not knowing if they were smiling and waving because they can see me or if they’re just happy babies. I love hearing stories and seeing cute photos in the group chat! I’ve never really worried about being too into other people’s kids before, but the only kids I really knew before were family or friends’ kids, and I want to interact with every baby I see now. I never really got to be part of parent culture, so I’m wondering if this is one of those things that parents wish non-parents wouldn’t do, or something? Joy is an honest reaction when I see a child, but I don’t want to overstep.

— Baby Fever Too High?

Dear Baby Fever,

Before my older sister and I became mothers, my father would refer to us as “baby worshippers”—a very accurate term, as we were regularly brought to our knees by the presence of an adorable infant … or toddler, or charming 6-year-old. We’re a little less starry eyed at the latter group now, but our profound excitement at the presence of a sweet little child remains.
There’s nothing wrong with loving other people’s kids! Kids deserve as much love as they can get. The line between appropriate and not is a matter of how you interact with them, as well as the role they play in your life; you don’t kiss and cuddle other people’s kids, nor do you ever forget that they are someone else’s kids. You are a play-aunt, a community friend, “the cool lady from Mom’s job,” a beloved figure that absolutely matters and has value and brings delight to the munchkins around her. As long as you never step outside of your place, let love rule.

— Jamilah

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My husband is an incredible man, and has a huge heart. However, he has on several occasions picked up hitchhikers on the side of the road and given them rides to wherever they need to go. He thinks it it no big deal, and that it is, in fact, his duty to help people in need. This is my dilemma. I am much more wary of strangers and have heard countless horror stories over the years, which I feel back me up. He thinks I am being paranoid and cites that nothing bad has happened yet. I have forbidden him from doing this with our son in the car, but this has not stopped him from doing this with his young sister or his elderly grandmother with him. He even gave a ride to three men at once! Outnumbered! Maybe these travelers are harmless or in trouble, but what if they are armed or dangerous? I think he is too naïve, and he thinks I am cold-hearted. Who is right?

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