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,

I live in L.A. and have two lovely teenage daughters. They are obligated to wear uniforms for school but when not in school they like to dress in short shorts and halter tops, as do their friends. My husband disapproves of the way our children dress and believes I should be responsible for policing it. But I am not comfortable with the implied slut-shaming of criticizing their clothing as “too sexy.” I try to keep them dressed appropriately for where they are going and make sure they are safe (I have taught them to always have a sweatshirt to cover themselves with if they get skeeved out by someone), but otherwise I trust them to do their thing.

I’m not very good at articulating why I feel this way to their dad. Am I wrong to let them dress as they want even if they have cleavage or their shorts are quite short?

—Trying to Raise Confident Women in L.A.

Dear Trying,

It’s not women’s—or girls’—clothes that make them unsafe; it’s men’s behavior toward them.

I’m amazed that your teenage daughters are going along with your efforts to “keep them dressed appropriately” and that they obediently carry sweatshirts wherever they go. I feel honor-bound to tell you this is unlikely to last much longer: Policing a teenager’s dress is a hopeless undertaking.

But even if it weren’t—and even if you carried out your husband’s instructions to the letter, or he took charge of this task himself instead of leaving you to do his dirty work, and the girls remained sufficiently obedient while (as the saying goes) still under your roof—your unease about his implied slut-shaming is completely justified. Your daughters’ bodies belong to no one but themselves, and they are entitled to clothe those bodies as they choose. So not only are you not wrong, you’re also not required to justify this to your husband.

Instead of trying to articulate for him your instinctive understanding of this principle (because I’m guessing he will push back against the very idea that the bodies of these young women are not his to control), I would suggest that you tell him that the problem is not what women wear. The problem is men who don’t mind their own business about it. Let’s all say this together now, over and over again until everyone understands it: It’s not women’s—or girls’—clothes that make them unsafe; it’s men’s behavior toward them.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My 4-year-old daughter is an adorable little liar. She makes up stories and tells them, very convincingly, all the time. A sampling from the last month: She is allergic to cucumbers, her teacher sleeps in the classroom over the weekend, her father drove her to another state on the way back from school, a friend climbed onto the roof of the school. I can tell that at least sometimes she knows the difference between what’s real and what’s not (if I tell her that I’m going to call her friend’s parents and check, she tells me not to). Other times, she seems to have genuinely convinced herself that the story she’s made up is true.

Today, when I picked her up from preschool, she told me her teacher had hit her. I know this is a lie because (a) as I said, she lies; (b) I know the teacher; and (c) I know the layout and schedule of the school—I don’t see how a teacher could hit a student without other people seeing it. (But really, the main reason I don’t believe her is because this is the kind of lie she often tells.)

How should I respond when she says something I don’t believe, but that would require serious attention if it were true? If I tell her I don’t believe her, what are the chances she’ll come to me with something like this if/when it is true? But If I pretend I believe her, that would mean I knew that something terrible had happened and I didn’t do anything about it.

In the moment, because I wasn’t sure what to do, I avoided making a decision by changing the subject. But what do I do the next time it happens?

—Liar’s Mom

Dear LM,

I have a special place in my heart for a child with an extra-lively verbal imagination (I was one myself and so was my daughter). But there’s a difference between lying and making things up, and this is less a matter of degree than of intention (and consequence) and it’s not too soon for your daughter to learn this. Once she does, it will be much easier for you to respond to the things she tells you.

You seem completely convinced that the story of the teacher’s hitting her was an outright lie, so I’m not going to suggest otherwise. But here’s the thing: Your daughter doesn’t seem to know the difference (yet) between pretending and lying, and given her proclivities, it would be a good idea—for a lot of reasons, not only the one you mention—to get to work now on teaching her that difference. But don’t beat yourself up for not having done this sooner. Parenting, I’ve decided, is a lot like ballet dancing, which I’ve been taking classes in for the past few years: There are a million things to think about simultaneously and every one of them seems equally important. (Plus, it’s so easy to feel like a failure—when really you are doing something beautiful, even if you’re doing it imperfectly.)

I would advise that you start with a couple of basic precepts: First, at the most fundamental level, make sure your daughter knows the difference between what’s true and what’s made up. Don’t continue to rely on her fear of being caught as your only indication of how much she understands about this. Talk to her about the things she knows to be true—things she can see for herself or that you have taught her—as opposed to what has taken place only in the world of her wild imagination. Provide lots of examples of both.

Second, and harder (but definitely still within reach of your 4-year-old), is helping her to recognize the difference between the joys of storytelling (an activity that doesn’t hurt anyone) and the dangers of telling lies (that might). “Did you know that I used to be a fairy princess? I was 3 inches tall and lived in that flower over there!” is a fun story to tell, and so is (ah, memories of my daughter at age 3) the whispered secret that one is “really an apatosaurus in disguise as a human child.” Trips out of state during the short drive home from school with Dad falls into the category of let’s pretend. Declaring that one has been hit by the teacher when one has not falls into the danger zone. If your daughter wants to know why this made-up tale is dangerous, not fun, you can tell her about consequences—which it’s time she learned about anyway.

Are there made-up stories that will less clearly fall into one category or the other? Sure. And you’ll have to decide where the line is. I myself would give a pass to the invented allergy to cucumbers, which allows her to avoid a food I’m guessing she dislikes without stirring up the trouble that such an admission might (grown-ups so often dislike it when children express their preferences, as if they’re not supposed to have them). But you might feel that this counts as a bald-faced lie, and that’s your prerogative (and it may well not be cool, especially in today’s preschool classroom, to invoke the word “allergy” unless it’s true, because it could undermine the legitimacy of other children’s real, life-threatening allergies).

I want to acknowledge that, in some families, there is no distinction to be made between pretending and lying, and that I’m assuming you want to encourage your daughter’s extravagant imagination. (Honestly, a kid with the kind of mind you describe stands a decent chance of growing up to be a fiction writer, a stand-up comic, or the next Shonda Rhimes.) But even if do you want to encourage her creativity and ingenuity, I’d be wary of calling her an “adorable little liar,” which puts the emphasis on the lies and makes it sound like you think

they’re mostly cute. (You don’t want her to grow up to be a criminal—or a politician—do you?)

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

• Discuss this column in the Slate Parenting Facebook group!

Dear Care and Feeding,

How do I keep interactions with other parents normal when my son is very precocious? Making small talk with other parents about baby milestones seems to be the primary way parents converse while their kids play, but since my 17-month-old son is ridiculously far ahead in every area, my wife and I find we can hardly tell anyone anything without it going badly. For example, yesterday a mom of a 14-month-old at the library asked my wife when our son started walking, and after hearing that he’d walked at 8 months (her baby had started last week) the other mother took her baby to play on the other side of the library.

For my part, I try to give the vaguest answers possible to such questions (“Oh, he was an early walker,” “Oh, he loves to talk”) and then turn the conversation back to the other parent’s kid, but these one-sided conversations are tiresome (why should I not be celebrating my son the way other moms do?). And even if I don’t “brag,” my son often does something far beyond what other babies his age can do and then the other parents are alienated anyway. A couple of months ago it was him pointing out every object and color in visual range and naming it correctly; this month it’s him pointing out every letter of the alphabet on signs, etc., and identifying them—and now that he’s learning some sight words and starting to try sounding out words, I’m sure in the next few months it will be him reading out loud. Parents who see him excitedly sharing like this don’t know how to react and generally go silent and/or frosty.

Is it possible to salvage some conversational normalcy after other parents know what my son can do? I care for their sake—I hate seeing parents hurting when they’re worrying about their own child’s milestones—but I mainly care for the sake of my son, who as a very perceptive kid will soon start sensing that things get weird shortly after he does certain things. Other parents are already often a bit weird or on edge around us when we’re out as a family because my wife is visibly trans, and I don’t want our son to have to cope with additional isolation. He loves meeting new people so much and loves letting them know about the things that excite him. I desperately want him to be proud of himself, and I dread when he’ll start to realize that people avoid him because he is different. What can I do?

—Tired of Scaring Away Playmates

Dear Tired,

I don’t think your son is going to scare away potential playmates by being smart unless he brags about how smart he is. And I think you and your wife should enjoy your child and not worry about what other parents think of what he can or can’t do (and what their own kids can and can’t do). What’s tiresome is the endless competition, which isn’t really about the kids at all: It’s about the parents’ insecurities, which are both natural and exhausting. We all want to know if we’re doing a good job, we all blame ourselves for things we have no business blaming ourselves for, and we’re all too eager to take credit for what we have no right to take credit for, hoping that whatever we’re bragging about means we must be doing a good job after all. If only we could stop the madness!

Guidelines for hanging out with other parents: Don’t compare kids. If asked a question directly, be honest but don’t make a big deal out of it (“Eight months—who the hell knows why?”). Do not brag (and be honest with yourself about when you are bragging). And keep in mind that things may not continue apace. I mean, they may—sure, your baby may be a genius—but they may also level off, and if you’re disappointed by this, your child will surely know it.

Overall, I’d say: Don’t be so dramatic about this whole thing. It’s possible you’re overreacting to other people’s reactions (silent and frosty because a baby names colors? What kind of people hang around your playground, anyway?). Find some other topics of conversation with those other parents. Surely there must be something to talk about other than whose child is doing what when. You can find other ways to “celebrate” your son (and, as I say, I don’t know that what those other moms are up to is celebration so much as it is anxious reports from the field).

Also remember that before too long your child will be in school, he’ll be making his own friends, and you’ll just be along for the ride, friends-wise. Make sure you don’t neglect your real friends—the ones you had before the kid entered the picture, and any new ones you make through shared interests and activities and affinities. They’re the ones who’ll be around for the long haul.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I am a first-time mom to a 7-week-old. I’ve always had anxiety and insomnia, but everything is now exacerbated by the fact that this wonderful little human (not sarcasm!) wakes up every 3–4 hours to eat. She’ll only nurse if I use a nipple shield, and sometimes it’s a real struggle to get her to eat. She’ll only sleep during the day if she’s on me, so I can’t nap, and when I get up in the middle of the night to feed her, I can’t get back to sleep. This makes me more anxious, and less likely to sleep the next night. It’s a vicious cycle. On top of all of this, I’m just not making enough milk, so after I spend 30 minutes trying to breastfeed her, I have to give her 3–5 ounces of formula, too. I’m trying a bunch of different things (probably all old wives’ tales) to raise milk production, but so far it’s a no-go.

My question is if it’s OK to just formula feed her at this point. I know “breast is best,” but I also know that happy moms are better moms. Am I being selfish? My husband wants me to try to breastfeed for two more weeks, but I can’t go two more weeks with three hours of sleep per night, and I don’t want to continue feeling like a failure if I still can’t produce enough milk. My husband is less worried about my state of mind than he is about our daughter’s immune system development (which is valid, I know!). But at no point in the last seven weeks has breastfeeding felt natural or easy to me. Am I horrible for thinking of myself?

—Selfish Mom?

Dear SM,

You’re not selfish. You’re not a failure. And right now it looks like if you don’t think of yourself, no one will.

Start bottle-feeding formula to your baby and get some rest. And I say this sincerely as a devoted cheerleader for breastfeeding if and when it works well for a mother and her child.

If you need support for this decision when you break the news to your husband, you might want to share this with him. But whether that article persuades him or not, unless your husband is capable of nursing your child himself, my ruling is that he should lay off you about this. And I hope you can lay off yourself, too. Being a good mother does not mean sacrificing your own well-being. (Maybe that’s something we should all repeat aloud together, too.)


More Advice From Slate

I have an amazing 6½-year-old boy. His biological dad was in the picture for a couple of years, but for the past few years, I’ve been married to a man who treats my son as if he was his own. My son only knows my husband as his dad, and he does not remember his biological father. How do I tell him my husband is not his biological father?

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