June 16, 2021


We know our pets

parenting advice from Care and Feeding.

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 younger sister and her partner have been fostering dogs for a couple of years. They recently adopted a young pit bull, which my sister told me had been at the shelter for several months and was considered “un-adoptable.” When I asked why, she said his former family gave him up after he bit their daughter, and she thinks that, combined with the bad rap that pit bulls get, contributed to keeping him at the shelter. But now, they were rehabilitating him, he was making big improvements, and she was sure he could meet my son “in no time,” hopefully at our next family gathering. I refused. My son is 3 years old, and while we do try and model good “dog behavior” whenever he wants to meet one, he still sometimes gets in their faces or pets them wrong. My husband and I still supervise him vigilantly around his grandparents’ elderly terrier, and I don’t feel comfortable having him around a dog with a history of biting children.

My sister has taken this as a personal insult to her and her partner’s training skills, and complains that I’ve bought into myths about the breed. She says the only way she wants to see us is if the dog can come too; she has already asked our mom if she can bring the dog to her outdoor birthday party (which will be the first time I’ll get to see my mom in months), and she agreed. I let them know I won’t be bringing my son now, and now my mom is begging me to give in and come, saying that I shouldn’t let my sister and her partner’s efforts to save a “poor dog,” in her words, “break up the family.” Am I wrong or biased against pit bulls because I do not want my son around this dog? My sister is taking this really personally, and I don’t know how to get through to her, or my mom. What should I do?

—Dog Days in Oakland

Dear Dog Days,

Perhaps you have bought into some of the myths about pit bulls, but that doesn’t make it OK for your sister to act like an immature jerk, which is what it sounds like she’s doing with your mother’s co-sign. Dogs are not people, and what your sister fails to grasp is that while her new pit bull may become a part of her family (as in her household), that does not make him a part of your family. You aren’t simply reacting to media propaganda about pits; this particular dog has bitten a child in the past, and either way, you have every right to keep your little one away from any animal you see fit.

What your sister and far too many other “dog people” fail to realize is that there are a whole lot of humans out here who do not have the same love-bordering-on-obsession relationship to their beloved animals, and it is totally OK to opt out of relationships with your loved ones’ dogs. If she thinks that bringing a brand-new ass dog to a family gathering—one that sounds like it may be the first one in quite some time—is more important than having her nephew there, I wonder if her selfishness is only relegated to matters of her furry friends or if it’s a more consistent problem. Either way, she and your mom are tripping, and I hope they come to their senses soon. You don’t owe that dog a damn thing, let alone the opportunity to bite your kid.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I was sexually abused by my grandfather when I was 7. I have not disclosed my abuse to my parents, but I have told my siblings and husband. I have previously worked through my trauma in therapy and am generally in a good place. I now have a 9-month-old daughter who is lucky to have four living grandparents. I am grateful for these familial relationships and the time she gets to spend with her grandparents, but also find myself feeling anxious when we are together. I am particularly uncomfortable with the idea of either of her grandfathers seeing her naked (during diaper changes or bath time) and, even more so, with either of them being alone with her—a feeling which I believe will intensify as she grows. Neither grandfather has given me reason for concern, but neither did my own grandfather to my parents. Thus, my gut instinct is to protect her by eliminating the opportunity for abuse by ensuring she is not alone with adult men. At this age, it is relatively easy to manage these boundaries, as neither grandfather has any desire to provide infant care, but I worry it will become more difficult as she gets older, and they seek to share bonding experiences with her.

I respect and care for my father and father-in-law and don’t want to hurt them, but my priority is protecting my child from circumstances that could result in her having to endure the kind of abuse I did. Are these reasonable boundaries? Is there a way I can communicate these boundaries without hurting feelings or making people feel personally attacked or judged? Can I avoid having to disclose my own abuse when doing so?

—Protective Parent

Dear P.P.,

First, I am so sorry that you had those experiences, and I’m so glad that you were able to get some support in the past to help you cope. I don’t think your boundaries are unreasonable, and there are plenty of people who have similar rules for their own children regardless of their past experiences. I also think there are ways to communicate about them effectively to loved ones; this may not mitigate all confusion or sensitivity, but it’s certainly feasible.

However, what concerns me most here is how triggering this issue may be for you. Consider that it seems to have taken up a good amount of space in your brain despite the unlikelihood that either of your child’s grandfathers might be present for a bath in the first place. Also, consider that you have been keeping a devastating secret from your own parents for a very long time and how that may weigh differently on you now that you have a small child of your own. You may find yourself revisiting that decision, or wondering how you can continue to maintain your silence with these current thoughts weighing on you.

With that in mind, I strongly urge you to revisit therapy. It’s one thing to find personal peace with what happened to you in the past; it’s another to be confronted with it via the birth of your own child and anxiety over bathing time outside of your care. I would never feel right suggesting that you do, or don’t, tell your parents what happened in the context of explaining your aversion to child care in certain scenarios, but I believe that with the support of a professional, you can make a thoughtful decision about what, if anything, to open up about and how you can set the boundaries you need to feel comfortable.

There will continue to be situations in which your level of comfort with your child interacting with other adults will be tested, such as sleepovers, extracurricular activities, and team sports. You’ll need to have healthy ways to address the anxiety that the mere proposition of these scenarios may provoke, as well as language for talking to your child about how to engage with adults outside of your care. I urge you, lovingly, not to go at this without the support of a therapist. Wishing you the best of luck.

• If you missed Thursday’s Care and Feeding column, read it here.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I’ve been married a little over two years. My husband shares custody of his 14-year-old son and soon-to-be 16-year-old daughter with their mother, 50/50. My two are young adults in college. My husband and I have very similar parenting philosophies, and I get along great with the kids. Their mother’s parenting practices are rather opposite of ours. We are pretty easygoing: “This is your one and only childhood. Take care of your schoolwork, do your best, learn who you are, what is your passion, enjoy your friends, go ride your bike!” On the other hand, at their mom’s house, they have only been left at home alone a handful of times. The daughter just started being able to use the oven on her own at 15. They’ve never been able to have friends from school over to her home, and the kids have finally stopped asking and say there isn’t enough room anyway, and they have just one family that the whole family is friends with. On the other hand, the kids have sleepovers and other friend visits at our home. We have tried to work through these differences and encourage the kids to be honest with all of their parents about how they are feeling.

Here’s the latest deal that we just think is beyond weird and we don’t know what to do, if anything: On a number of occasions over the last two years, I’ve noticed that the son would be on the video chat with his mom, but not talking to her. I’d nudge him to talk to his mom while they are on the phone, thinking he’s just being rude. Tonight, his mother couldn’t use her phone and they had to use a video chat app instead, and they are worried it would cut down on the time he has available on his phone to use his other apps. At his mother’s insistence, the custody agreement says we have to have monitoring software on their phones since we provide them. Turns out that they will often spend HOURS on video chat (on weekends, during holidays, and over the summer) while barely talking. Like, he’s just building with Legos or playing video games while she works. My husband and I talked to him tonight and asked if he enjoys this. We would totally find a way to shut it down if he didn’t like it; I’ve had to run interference for the daughter because her mom calls her so often. He said yes, he likes video chatting without talking, and his mom is just there while he does his thing. This seems beyond weird to my husband and me. Is this OK? What should we say or do?

—Kinda Weirded Out

Dear K.W.O.,

I’m curious as to why you refer to your stepchildren as “the son” and “the daughter,” but perhaps that’s just how you choose to communicate in writing. I am also a little curious about how you describe the difference between the parenting styles in your home and in your husband’s ex’s household, primarily because they don’t seem relevant to this inquiry at all. You guys are more easygoing, whereas Mom is a bit more uptight. OK, and? Plus, the bit about the sleepovers feels petty; you mention something about space being a possible issue at this woman’s place, so why even bring the topic up as if she’s simply holding out on letting the kids have a good time?

As far as the video chatting, it sounds like “the son” and his mother enjoy spending some quiet time “together” much as they might if he lived with her full time. If this isn’t cost or time prohibitive somehow, it doesn’t seem like there’s anything wrong happening here. It may seem a bit odd, but I don’t think it’s much a matter for your concern. Let him have his mommy time and leave him be.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I’m a stepmom to a 17-year-old boy; I married his father when the kid was 4. My husband has joint custody, but the parenting time is scheduled based on my husband’s work. We’ve had him and his older sis (who chose to stop living with us two years ago) every single weekend for the past 12 years. It was very hard for me since I don’t have kids of my own, and I always felt that rarely having a weekend free was unjust. I tried to modify it to no avail, so I gave up resentfully.

Fast forward to March 2019, and my husband decided without consulting me that my stepson would live with us almost full time. I am having a really hard time with this due to the fact that I believe he should spend equal time with his mother, especially since he now has a job and a car. He has a phone addiction and ignores the handful of chores we give him. My husband and I are in couples therapy, and we tried coming to an agreement regarding him visiting his mother. I am pushing for 50/50 (e.g., two weeks with mom; two weeks with us). My husband will not bend because according to him, he wants “to help guide him to adulthood.”

We agreed that he’d do 7-to-10 days a month with his mother, but most of the time he only stays there a week before begging his dad to come home. I just need a break from this kid. He’s pessimistic; his aura/vibe is very negative; and he’s selfish, lazy, and ungrateful. I’m also extremely afraid that his dad will want and let him continue living with us after he turns of age. Am I being unreasonable? How do I tell my husband, in a nice way, “I cannot stand your teen son anymore!?! I want him out! I’ll even help pay for him to leave!” Help.

—In a Knot in AZ

Dear In a Knot,

It sounds to me like you married a man with a very young child yet somehow believed you’d be off the hook for caring for that child. Thirteen years later, the resentment you felt for him from Day One has bubbled up. Sure, it might have something to do with what an unpleasant kid he has come to be, though I am inclined to question your assessment, as I do not know that you have the compassion for this child to see him through clear eyes. You’ve been in his life a very long time, yet you describe him as if he’s a neighbor’s naughty child, not a family member and certainly nothing resembling a child you’ve cared for. Was his aura negative when he was 4? Did he have a bad vibe when you met him, or has he grown unpleasant over time? How on earth does he regard you?

“I always felt that rarely having a weekend free was unjust” is quite a statement for someone who married a man with a 4-year-old child and an older sibling. How many free weekends might you have had if their mother had died when they were young? Do you know how parenting works?

A 50/50 custody arrangement might be “fair,” if we are talking about the division of time and labor devoted to keeping a child alive. But it can be an incredibly difficult schedule for all parties and is not one that should be entered into just because a stepmom wishes for less time with a kid she never wanted around in the first place. Your husband and his ex have a responsibility to choose a schedule based on the best needs of their child, not you. Your husband has a responsibility to “guide” his son into adulthood (that is literally his job as a parent), and there is something really uncomfortable about you suggesting that he’s doing too much simply because he’s the primary parent.

I’m glad that you and your husband are in couples counseling, but I think you may also want to talk to someone on your own and really do some soul-searching with regards to how you have engaged with this kid (and his sister) over the course of your relationship with his father. You should truly consider if you are capable of maintaining a relationship with someone who prioritizes the life of his son, which seems to be little more than an inconvenience to you. Good luck to the kids.


More Advice From Slate

We live out in the country and have always had a problem with people abandoning their dogs and them turning feral. We raise goats and chickens and have lost livestock to them. The problem has gotten worse as city folk move in and proceed to do nothing but bitch about country life. Our new neighbor down the road lets his kids and dogs roam over everything without a care. Last week, my husband shot and killed two dogs that got into our chicken coop. Yesterday I saw the missing pet posters on a tree by the turn off. It matched. My husband doesn’t think anything good could come from telling the owner, considering how little care he gives to his kids and animals. He thinks we should lie and say we haven’t have seen the dogs—only coyotes. Animal control is a joke, and going to the sheriff is bound to kick this up to a feud—I don’t know what to do.