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 grandfather died this year. He and I were very close, and I am still grief-stricken. He took me in when my parents kicked me out—because I was gay—when I was teenager. I believe he saved my life, honestly. I am eternally grateful to him.
My wife and I moved him in with us a few years ago when he became too ill and frail to live alone, and I’m so glad we had that time with him. He adored my wife and was keen to help financially with our attempts at getting pregnant (plans that are currently on hold due to my state of mind). Indeed, finances are where the problem comes in. My grandpa was always very private, and he was also frugal—which I respected—so that while I knew he was well-off, I had no idea he was a millionaire. Now he has left everything to my wife and me. I am in shock, and so is the rest of my family (many members of which I saw for the first time in years at the funeral—where my parents and sister ignored me, and my cousins made polite small talk). Now they have learned about the inheritance and they are furious. He left them nothing. This was not unreasonable of him, honestly, considering that none of them ever contacted him except to ask for money. Even when he was hospitalized, my wife and I were the only ones who visited him.
My cousins see it differently. They keep phoning us and saying we were “vultures” who deliberately “buttered up” my grandpa to get his money. These comments have made me cry; they’ve led to my changing my phone number. But they keep managing to get in touch. My parents and sister, for their part, have gotten in touch for the first time since my teens and suddenly want to “make amends.” They claim to miss me and want us to “reconnect”… also, could I please give them money for my dad’s medical bills? My sister has messaged me on social media begging me to give her “her share” of the inheritance to help with the costs of raising her three kids. If she had simply asked me for money to help care for the nieces I have never met, I would have given it to her! I don’t hold her children accountable for her treatment of me. But what she actually said was, “Don’t you think I’m more entitled to this money than you are, given that I’m the only one who can give our parents grandkids, and you’re just going to spend it on cats and plants?”
I am so hurt and bewildered by everyone’s behavior that I don’t know what to do. If any of them had managed to be kind to me for the length of even a single conversation—or apologized for the way they’ve treated me in the past!—I would absolutely give them money to help with medical bills and raising children. I have the money now to do so, after all. But as it is, the ways they are treating me make me want to cut them off completely and spend the money I would have given them on a diamond-studded collar for my cat. Can you advise me on how I should behave moving forward? My wife wants to give them nothing, but a part of me aches thinking of my dad’s medical bills (he’s in a lot of debt, I know) and I keep thinking of my young nieces, for whom there is apparently no money for new shoes and clothes. Should I give my sister and parents each a set portion of money to alleviate my guilt, or will that just open the door to further requests, pain, and pressure (as my wife suspects)? What’s the moral thing to do here?
I am so sorry for your loss. Your grandfather sounds like a wonderful man and I am very glad you had him in your life. I’m also very sorry the rest of your family is being so awful—has always been so awful. I certainly understand where your wife is coming from.
But I also admire your empathy—your anguish—for your parents, despite their cruelty to you, despite how little they’ve given you. I admire your concern for your sister’s children even though her behavior toward you has been, and continues to be, unspeakably dreadful. You don’t need me or anyone else to tell you what the “moral” thing to do is. You seem to have a fine moral compass (I’ll venture a guess that your grandfather had something to do with this). I would say that you are fully justified in keeping your inheritance out of your family’s hands (your grandfather made this decision for a reason) but that your impulse to help your parents get out from under their crushing medical debt is a psychologically healthy one and a philosophically good one (and I mean Good with a capital G), as is your wish to clothe and shod your sister’s children (and perhaps help with the cost of their education).
I do not think it is mean of me to suggest that if you choose to do this, you ask your parents to send you those medical bills so that you can pay them directly and wipe the debt clean for them, rather than give them a gift of cash they neither deserve nor can be counted on to use for this purpose. Nor do I think it’s mean to suggest that if you decide to help the nieces you have never been allowed to meet, you send these gifts of clothes and shoes directly to the children, and/or set up trusts for them. I do not believe you are under an obligation to do either of these things—and you are absolutely not obliged to “reconnect” with family members who have shunned you simply for being you. But if you act with kindness and compassion—and even love—in the face of unkindness and hatred, you will be doing something remarkable, truly doing Good.
I know you’re joking about the diamond collar for your cat, but if you really do have more money now than you need to live on, whatever you decide to do about your family’s requests for financial help, if you would like to make this inheritance more meaningful, why not contribute generously to an organization that helps and supports LGBTQ teens, such as The Trevor Project, The Family Acceptance Project, or True Colors United?
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Dear Care and Feeding,
My niece is 26 and is very fashion forward. Her hair is always a different wild color, she wears tons of jewelry (when I see her, she’s always wearing at least 5 rings) and supercool clothes, and she has many tastefully done tattoos and piercings. And she looks awesome. She’s also smart, funny, and kind, and my 15-year-old daughter looks up to her. So every time we see her, my daughter starts badgering me for new clothes and jewelry and piercings and hair dye. She has apparently missed the fact that my niece worked very hard in school, has a master’s degree, and makes a six-figure salary to support her sense of style. I’m sick of my daughter whining about all this stuff she “needs” so she can look more like her cool cousin. Is there a polite way to ask my niece to tone it down a bit when we see each other? I love the way she looks but I don’t have the money for this sort of thing for my kid.
I think you may be asking the wrong question. There is no genuinely kind way, no loving way—hell, no acceptable way—to ask someone you love to be someone other than who they are. Your niece adorns herself in a way that expresses who she is (and my guess is that both her expressiveness and what it is she’s expressing are what’s so appealing to your 15-year-old). I’d go further than this, honestly (though I’m guessing it will not be a popular opinion): it seems to me that nobody ought to be telling anybody, loved one or not, how they should dress or bejewel themselves or wear their hair, etc.
If your objection to the way your niece looks really is only that it inspires your daughter to want expensive stuff, why not take or send your teenager to thrift stores, where she can load up on costume jewelry and wild scarves and belts and so on cheaply? If thrifting is above your means—and maybe even if it isn’t—why not suggest she earn the money for such shopping adventures on her own? For that matter, you can tell her that she’s responsible for buying her own temporary hair color and any piercings you’re amenable to. (In 1970, my parents probably could have afforded to buy me the pink suede platform shoes, floppy hats, halter tops, dangling earrings and other jewelry I so desperately “needed”—I might not have had a cool cousin for a role model, but I did have Laura Nyro, Janis Joplin, and Grace Slick—but they balked at paying for them. And this turned out to be very good for me. I remember how proud I was to have earned the money myself to buy all this stuff. And to this day, thanks to my after-school job at a hippie shirt factory, I am an expert shirt-folder.)
But also … if you’re not being entirely honest with yourself, and what troubles you more than—or as much as—money is the idea of your daughter dressing like her “fashion forward” cousin, maybe take a minute and ask yourself why. I know it’s sometimes hard to accept it when our kids start wanting to express themselves in ways that distinguish them from us, or that we fear may make other people judge them, or that will make them stand out in ways we’re not comfortable with … or that remind us that they’re growing up and making their own choices. If any of this rings true, see my possibly unpopular opinion, above.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
I have three kids who are 4, 7, and 10. My younger cousin lives in the same city we do and her apartment is right near my older kid’s school; she also works at a recording studio three blocks away from where we live. Thus we often bump into her when we’re out and about. I love her, and so do my kids, but here’s the thing: while she wears “kid-friendly” clothing for family events and when she comes over to our place specifically for a visit, sometimes when we see her in public, she’s wearing a t-shirt or hat that has something inappropriate written on it. We saw her last week while we were walking our dog, and her hat had the f word on it! My kids notice these things, and I can see them trying to read her clothes every time we run into her. The whole thing makes me very uncomfortable. Is there a way to explain this to kids? Is it something I can bring up with her?
—Cousin of A Clothing Curser
In this situation, too, the answer is no, it is not something you should bring up with her. I’ll offer this addition to what I just told Aunt: we don’t get to tell other people what to wear because what they’re wearing makes us uncomfortable. It’s not our comfort that matters, and it’s not our job to police the choices other people make about their bodies.
But of course there is a way to explain this to your kids—and that part is your job. Indeed, there are several ways to explain this, depending on how you feel about “inappropriate language” and what you want your children to understand about it. I’ve talked before about my own feelings about so-called bad words (ah, talk about an unpopular opinion!), so I won’t rehash them here except to say that even if one has no objection to curse words in principle, it’s possible to talk to one’s kids about context and point of view (so: Your darling cousin thinks it’s funny to have that word on her hat, and maybe it is to her, but it’s not my kind of joke! or It’s one thing for those words to be on your beloved cousin’s t-shirt—that’s her choice and she’s comfortable with it—but it’s another thing for you to say those words out loud, because many people will be offended by them). In any case, it’s pretty clear from your discomfort that you feel differently than I do, so the tack you might take could be more along the lines of That’s a grownup word—you’re not old enough yet to use it. Or, if it is your hope that your children never use such words—if you don’t ever use them yourself and feel strongly that no one ever should—how about I love our cousin very much, but that doesn’t mean I love everything she does! And one of things I don’t love is the way she wears the f word on her baseball cap! And then just tell the kids, clearly and honestly, why you feel that way—exactly what you believe is wrong with such language. Kids respond best when we’re honest with them. (But you’re not surprised to hear that, are you? Because it’s something else I’ve talked about before, ad infinitum.)
Dear Care and Feeding,
I am a single mom by choice, and my 11-year-old daughter has wanted to do ballet since she was 5, and up until now she went to a ballet program for elementary schoolers. But now she’s going into sixth grade and has “graduated” from her old ballet classes, and she wants to find a more advanced studio. I was a ballet dancer myself until my senior year of high school—I quit after I began to develop bulimia due to the fatphobic and diet-obsessed studio I went to (which was considered one of the best in my state). I am wary of enrolling my daughter in one of the advanced studios she wants to go to because I’m worried they will share the same views as my old studio (and many others). But whenever I suggest maybe enrolling her in a more recreational and less fast-paced/intensive class, she says that won’t help her become a professional ballerina (her dream). How can I screen the studios she wants to enroll in to find out if they’re fatphobic and support diet culture? Most of them are still remote or have very limited class sizes, so I can’t go in and ask questions, and I don’t know how to write an email about this without seeing rude.
—Concerned in Connecticut
I absolutely understand your anxiety about this. The professional ballet world still is rife with body-shaming and unrealistic standards of “perfection.” And while change seems to be coming to some extent, it is coming glacially slowly. But your daughter is right about recreational classes not being appropriate preparation for a possible career as a dancer. (If the classes are meant “just for fun,” she is not going to get the corrections she yearns for, and certainly the training won’t be rigorous—most likely, it won’t be “training” at all.) Whether she sticks with this dream or not, if she is serious about dance now, she will be broken-hearted not to have the chance to become as good at it as she has the potential to be.
I am all for letting our children pursue the things they love. But I also agree with you completely that any studio you’re considering should be vetted for its policies and attitudes. You’re right to avoid a studio that does not look critically at the (ugly) old ways of treating young dancers or question the impossibly cruel, unhealthy standards of the industry. It is perfectly reasonable for you to ask these questions, whether in person or in an email.
If the studio finds such questions rude, that tells you all you need to know. A studio that is making an active effort to do better—to find ways to do right by the gifted young people they’re training in this beautiful, difficult art form—will welcome these questions and the chance to talk about why and how they’re implementing change. Be direct. Talk frankly about your own experience and your concerns for your daughter. Ask if the teachers talk about weight. Ask if they acknowledge and provide support for young dancers at risk of eating disorders. If you cannot find a studio in your area that meets your conditions while providing the level of training your child desires, go ahead and enroll her somewhere that isn’t training potential future professional dancers, while supplementing this with virtual training at a more advanced studio elsewhere that offers it in a healthy, body-positive way.
And please be thoroughly honest with her about why you’re doing what you’re doing. This is an important conversation to have, and to keep having, if she continues with ballet. In fact, it will be important no matter where she ends up studying.
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