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 eldest child is in kindergarten. When she’s invited to a classmate’s birthday party, she helps to choose and wrap a present. I typically encourage her to pick gender neutral gifts, but she often wants to get a doll when the kid in question is a girl, ideally one that fits the party’s theme (like a mermaid doll for a mermaid party). My trouble is that we are white and most of my kid’s friends (and most of the children at her school) are black.
For a recent fairy party, my kid picked out the first fairy doll she saw at the store, and I steered her to choose a darker skinned version of that doll. My white kids have black dolls. If my kid chose a black doll for a white kid’s birthday gift, I wouldn’t object, but giving a white doll to a black child feels different. And yet, I don’t want my kids to think that children should only play with dolls that match their race or that black children specifically should only play with dolls that match their race. Am I overthinking? Should I just let my kid pick whatever gift she wants to give? Is it OK to give a black child a white doll? Should I encourage my kid to choose dark skinned toys for dark skinned friends? How should I explain it to my kids? Should I insist that we just stick with dinosaurs and science sets?
—Is It the Thought That Counts?
Honest moment, if I may. I chose this letter for two reasons. First, because it reminded me of one of my all-time favorite TV moments: When Larry David inexplicably purchased a biracial baby doll for a white couple’s baby shower (as well as a stuffed animal for the family’s surrogate, which led her to briefly flee after deciding that she wanted to keep the child … just watch it, it’s worth your time).
It also reminded me of the two times in my life that I was gifted white dolls. When I was about 5, my white grandmother gave me a clown that played “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” and I wept every time I looked at it because I was disappointed that she’d done that but also horribly guilty about not appreciating the gift (the song still makes me tear up, to be honest). The other one was a pre-Christmas grab bag at a friend’s church a few years later. I was basically dabbling with religion so I could do things like get free gifts at holiday parties—perhaps I’d be a Christian today if they’d just considered that all the kids at the event were Black so the dolls should have been as well.
See, there’s a big difference between a Black girl playing with a white doll and a white girl playing with a Black one. There’s no shortage of images in the media, from children’s TV shows and movies to literature, that affirm the value of white girlhood. It is improbable that even a white child who attends in a Black school and lives in a Black community would become convinced that her hair, her skin, her eyes are inherently deficient or, at the very least, somehow lesser than that of the darker-skinned kids around her. Conversely, even Black girls who function in exclusively Black spaces are subject to a Eurocentric standard that teaches that her beauty and worth are determined by her proximity to whiteness.
Black dolls are an important tool for teaching kids of all races that Black is beautiful and equal. They can also be more difficult to find in certain areas than they should be, and sadly, there are Black parents who either don’t understand the trouble with failing to build an exclusively or primarily Black doll collection for their children or lack the resources to make it a priority.
Please do not buy a Black child a doll unless it is a Black doll under any circumstances. One could make the argument for buying non-Black POC dolls for a Black child, but Black girls are subject to the notion that these groups, too, have “prettier” hair or are somehow more beautiful because they aren’t Black. If a kid’s family wants to diversify her collection, they can do that themselves. There are many Black fashion and baby dolls available online, they often come very cheap, and the gesture will mean more than you or the child receiving the gift may realize. Bonus points for finding one that is similar in complexion or appearance to the birthday girl (the Barbie Fashionistas line is amazing for this!).
Dear Care and Feeding,
My 11-year-old son is in fifth grade and in middle school. He is typically a well-behaved kid, save a few minor incidents over the years. This year he has been in detention three times already, twice for things he tells me he did not do. I believe him. But his principal does not, and according to him, has put words in his mouth in both of these “unfair” allegations; after being almost verbally bowled over by this woman twice now myself, I totally believe him.
I have not made a big deal at school about this and opted to instead focus on helping my son to recognize and avoid situations that could lead to trouble. After the third detention, I requested that he start seeing the guidance counselor. When my son told the counselor that Ms. Principal would not let him tell his side of the story on one occasion and that he did not bother to speak up on the second occasion (because “It didn’t seem worth it”), the counselor told my son that Ms. Principal does not have time to listen to children and, thus, sometimes has no choice but to dole out punishments quickly. She would go on to repeat the same sentiment with me in a phone conversation.
I am very perplexed. Is this a real thing? As in, do middle and high school principals typically take this unilateral approach, not bothering with niceties such as actually listening to their students? I am trying to teach my son how to advocate for himself, and this message that the principal doesn’t have time to listen seems antithetical to everything I understand about being a teacher and educator. The good news is that he is moving on to a new school next year (going into a more advanced program), but we need to get through this one first. Is this something we will have to deal with for the rest of his school career? Is this a situation I need to address, and how might I do that? Please advise!
I can’t rightly say that the vast majority of middle school and high school leaders are guilty of being so callous. But it sounds like your kid’s principal could be one of the countless authority figures in our schools who, despite choosing a vocation that demands that they respect the humanity of children, operate as if younger people are second-class citizens. There are a number of reasons why certain adults behave as such, ranging from being stretched thin by a lack of resources to simply believing that they do not owe kids the respect it takes to hear them out. But the throughline is that it is a truly unhealthy way to behave toward people whose futures are so deeply tied to how they fare in their care.
There’s also the possibility that your son is running that good game on you—or even that you’re overselling his conduct—but I’m going to respond as if that is not the case, because the behavior you described is very real and very dangerous, especially in an education system where “zero tolerance” policies are so common. And while there are those moms and dads who refuse to see even the most intolerable children as anything but angels, there are also those who seem to think that trusting kids is more often than not an act of parental neglect, denial, or indulgence.
Please carefully document everything that has happened to date. Keep all of your correspondence with the principal and guidance counselor, and write down everything that has been said via phone or in person. Do some digging and find out if other families are having the same issue. Request (another) meeting with the principal and politely share your concerns that your child hasn’t been heard. Ask if the guidance counselor’s take on her approach—punish now, listen never—is actually accurate and if so, why. Explain why it is important to you that your child, and any other child who has been accused of something that isn’t irrefutable, gets the chance to defend themselves fairly.
Give the principal one more chance to be reasonable, and if that doesn’t work, you have to answer an important question: Will escalating your concerns to her superiors make things worse for your child while he waits to complete his transfer? Is there any danger of him losing his place in this new school? You can answer that better than those of us outside of your community can, and if you feel like the answer to those questions is no, then take this up the ladder, ideally as part of a group of parents raising a shared concern. If you don’t think you could make it through such a process unscathed, then continue to document what happens and share your findings once your son is fully enrolled elsewhere.
As far as talking to him, make it clear that you can and will defend him when he deserves it, and that you only require that he is absolutely truthful with you about any situation that may put you in a position to do so. Let him know that adults are human and therefore fallible, that authority figures sometimes make the wrong call in these situations, and that this isn’t always a commentary on the kids involved. Model holding this person accountable, which he will come to understand as more than something parents have to do with children. Hear him out and let him know he’ll always have someone to do that as long as you’re around. Empower him to respectfully stand up for himself when needed, and talk about how that should look. Best of luck to you both.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
I’m currently pregnant with my first (and very likely only) child. My husband and I have been over the moon with excitement throughout this process, until the most recent appointment two weeks ago. We have both been hoping for a girl for years, but we just found out that we’re having a boy. After months of telling everyone we’d be happy no matter what, we’re just … not.
We’ve both tried to talk about it and rationalize why we feel this way (i.e., we both don’t really like little boys, but we’ll like ours; we know no actual girl would have lived up to the imagined one in our heads; those parental hormones will kick in and we’ll be fine, etc.), but we keep hitting a wall. This is just something we need to wait on, isn’t it? It’ll all be better once he’s in the world, right?
—Glum Boy Mum
It’s OK to be disappointed that you’d dreamed of a girl and that it’s most likely that you won’t have one. While it’s worth considering that you could be carrying a little trans princess, which would be a beautiful blessing that perhaps you didn’t fantasize about, the most reasonable thing to do now is accept that you’re probably going to be parents to a son and to start dreaming new dreams.
If what you’d dreamed of was a sweet, loving child who is nonviolent and hates bathroom jokes, then 1) you may need to spend a little more time observing little girls, and 2) focus on instilling some of those traits in the baby that you are going to be raising.
What is it that you so desired about a girl, and is there a vision of boy parenting that can include at least some of those fantasies? You said you don’t like little boys. Why? What have you determined to be true of them that you find unappealing? And does your child have to embody those characteristics? Break free from the gender constructs and raise a child who is encouraged to explore both traditionally “feminine” and “masculine” objects and attitudes alike.
Make a list of the fantasies you’d had about your child before you knew what his likely gender was and identify those to which you should hold tight, and write down some new ideas for experiences that you may like to have together. It could be as simple as going to your favorite childhood restaurant for the first time, or showing him family pictures. You just need some material for daydreaming and to make time to do so with this updated version of your family in mind.
I actually cried my eyes out when I found out I wasn’t having a boy. I’m pretty sure I was still pouting two weeks later, but the sadness definitely didn’t survive the entire pregnancy. Most parents don’t stay in this stage of disenchantment for very long. If you find that you or your partner are unable to forge an emotional connection with your baby or to move past your initial reaction to the gender news, you should speak to a professional and work on addressing any underlying issues. Sending you love and light as you begin to embrace a beautiful new vision for your future.
Dear Care and Feeding,
My brother has been dating a woman for the last six years—almost the entirety of our oldest child’s life. They recently broke up, and this woman who has been a beloved aunt to my kids (ages 7 and 3) is suddenly gone from their lives, never to be heard from again. I’m wondering how to talk to them about this in age-appropriate ways. I’m sad for them that they won’t have any closure, but obviously I want to be respectful of my brother.
—Help Me Say the Right Thing
This is definitely a sad situation, and something many parents don’t consider when it comes to introducing our loved ones’ partners to our young children, even if we may know to pause before introducing our own new romantic relationships.
The circumstances of the breakup are important here, and I’m inferring that things are likely pretty chilly between this woman and your brother. “Never to be heard of again,” but why? Has she relocated with a vow never return to the area? Or is it merely a (likely wise, if not deeply difficult) decision not to attempt any sort of efforts at sustaining a relationship between her and the family? Speak to your brother and determine what you each are comfortable with the children knowing about the terms of the uncoupling (which needn’t be much).
A small bright side here is that this is an opportunity for you to disabuse your kids of the notion that romances are forever. Baring any sort of dramatic situation that the children are or should be made aware of, such as public blowout shortly before the breakup, the easiest way to describe the separation would be as a mutual decision between two people who respect each other that they are no longer happy as a couple and will no longer exist as one. Make it clear that you don’t have to be a “bad” person or do something bad for a relationship to run its course, and that there are times in which there’s nothing left to say but “goodbye.” Explain that while it may hurt for this person to cease to be around, that when we separate from someone, that means removing those bonds that connected us throughout our day, our communities, and our travels to our new exes.
Finally, emphasize that, barring some sort of abhorrent behavior, neither their uncle, nor their own parents, will ever decide to “breakup” with them as family members.
More Advice From Slate
My husband and I have been together for more than 10 years, and he is a great husband. He dotes on me and is kind and considerate. However, much to my disappointment, he is not a great a father to our children, ages 3 and 5. We both work full-time and split child care duties, but he seems to take little enjoyment in parenting. He’s often irritable and cranky in their presence, and loses his temper with both kids on a regular basis. What worries me the most is that he can be physically rough with them. He’s never hit them outright, but he will grab and handle them in a rough way—a few times there have been marks afterward. We have talked about this, many, many times but nothing changes. Do I drag him to anger management counseling? Get his mother involved? Try to find a part-time job and just wait it out until they’re older and less frustrating to parent? I desperately need some objectivity, please!