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,

When is an appropriate age to teach your kids about puberty, sex, etc? I have a set of 2-year-old triplets (two girls and one boy) and no other kids. I have suggested telling them about puberty sometime soon and then teaching them about sex when they’re five or six, but my husband thinks we should wait until they’re 12 before we even tell them about puberty, because according to him that’s the age when kids start puberty. That’s not accurate at all. I started puberty when I was eight, and most people I know had FINISHED puberty by the time they were nearly 13. This is causing a huge rift between me and my husband, and I’m not sure how to fix it. What age worked for you to tell your kids about this stuff?

— When Sex Meets Confused First-Time Parents

Dear WSMCFP,

Since my son is 11, we’re deep in the throes of the puberty and sex conversations—feel free to send gift cards and flowers as I travail questions like, “What does semen look like?”

I just grabbed the first puberty book I saw off our shelves, “The ‘What’s Happening to My Body?’ Book for Boys” to double-check that puberty on average begins between the ages of 9 and 14 for boys. It’s even earlier (between 8 and 13) for girls. But it’s a good idea to get out ahead of these conversations, before discomfort and self-consciousness make it harder for kids to engage with you on these topics. Plus, if children aren’t prepared for their body’s changes before they start, those changes can be confusing or even alarming.

Rather than a single “talk,” this should occur in an ongoing series of conversations as kids grow, starting with teaching the proper names of body parts to preschool-age children, and leading into discussions about sexual orientation and gender identity. Conversation about consent and body autonomy should also be happening early and often. Planned Parenthood has a good resource guide for parents on talking to kids about bodies and puberty at various ages.

This way by the time they approach puberty, kids know they can come to you with their questions and get open, honest answers. Because kids will seek out this information no matter what, and I’d rather my son come to me for accurate information that reflects my values than get sketchy deets from the internet or his dumb friends. I try to keep these conversations neutral in tone, so my kid knows that sex isn’t inherently shameful.

I’m curious what is behind your husband’s hesitation. If it’s simple embarrassment, it’s OK to admit to kids that some topics make you feel uncomfortable, but that you will always do your best to find answers. If it’s out of fear that informing your kids about their bodies and sex while they’re young will make more likely to be sexual earlier, research shows that “when a responsible adult communicates about sexual topics with adolescents, there is evidence of delayed sexual initiation and increased birth control and condom use.”

Ultimately, this is a safety issue – most kids are most likely going to experiment with sex eventually, and you want them armed with the information they need to protect themselves physically and emotionally.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My husband of 17 years passed away unexpectedly a few months before the pandemic started, when our daughters were 3 and 8. My kids’ preschool and elementary school made announcements to their respective communities, and we received a lot of support at the time.

Fast forward three years, and while my older kid’s friends and their parents (who are also some of my closest friends) know about our family tragedy, none of my younger kid’s friends do. We spent the first year of the pandemic living out of state with my parents, and while we did move back to our old neighborhood last summer, the younger one started elementary school last year with a whole new group of kids.

In our school, almost every kid has two married parents, and I’m sure many people are curious about the one single mother in their class. I know I don’t have to tell anyone I’m a widow, but I want to—my husband was a wonderful person who we all miss terribly, and his loss still affects our lives. But I’m not sure how to bring it up, especially with these younger parents who are still full of hope and life. It sure was easier when the principal just went ahead and told the whole grade. Advice?

— Wary Widow

Dear Wary Widow,

First off, I’m so sorry for your loss. And make no mistake: The fact that you’ve gotten yourself and your kids through the past three years is some superhero shit.

It sounds like you’re missing the outpouring of care you received immediately after your husband’s death, when everyone knew what your family was experiencing. Both your family’s grief and the resulting circumstances of your situation have extended far beyond the initial tragedy, and while the casserole-and-condolence-card set have likely moved on, you still need people in your life who understand and support you. But now it’s up to you to find those people.

You should absolutely tell your story to those who have become or are becoming important to your family—the parents of your children’s close friends, the moms you’ve traded jokes with at PTA meetings, and any teachers or administrators. In the case of the former, it doesn’t have to be a big dramatic confession—you can just mention your late husband casually or refer to yourself as a widow. That is the reality of your life, and you don’t have to sugarcoat it for anyone.

I am also a single mom, although I have the privilege of a co-parent, and even then I have learned that the only way to manage the role is with a lot of help. But you don’t get the help without asking for it, and your needs don’t get met unless you tell people what they are. So now is the time to be intentional in building the support system your family needs and deserves.

Catch Up on Care and Feeding

• If you missed Monday’s column, read it here.
• Discuss this column in the Slate Parenting Facebook group!

Dear Care and Feeding,

I have three kids aged 13, 10, and 8. The 8-year-old has struggled mightily the last 3 years, a stubborn soul in a world that has demanded maximum adaptability. Recently he has come to view food as a comfort item, and has started asking for snacks any time he is bored or unhappy.

When this happens, we redirect him… we will ask him to help us cook dinner (see—it’s being made *right now*!), or whether it’s his feelings asking to eat versus his belly asking to eat. If it’s his feelings, well, let’s play cards or bear hug or whatnot.

The trouble comes at school. I am a 100 percent supporter of free food for all kids, and in our state since the start of Covid every school kid gets free breakfast and lunch. I never want this to end, the research is dead clear about all the benefits. My kids don’t prefer the school food, so I still pack them a boxed lunch every single day, and the kids choose what goes in their lunches from a hefty list of healthy snacks/sides plus a treat.

He gets up with plenty of time for a healthy breakfast, but when he gets to school, my adorable, stubborn hobbit child gets a second breakfast, because it’s free for everyone and no one checks account balances any longer. They sometimes give him seconds to his seconds!

When I ask him why he does this, he says it’s because he wants the free food when he sees it. His older brother narcs him out and tells us he gets cinnamon rolls, banana bread, and chocolate puff cereal. We don’t forbid any foods but try to teach moderation and choosing foods that will build you up first… every Sunday we have a big carbo-bomb breakfast to show that it’s okay once in a while.

I attempted a compromise and told my son he could pick two days a week where he has a piece of fruit or a yogurt at home, and then can indulge in the free sugar fest that the school offers, but if he has a full breakfast at home he’s not to have a second breakfast at school unless it’s just fruit. His brother told us this morning that pretty much every day, Hobbit is still having second breakfast.

I don’t want to get into a power struggle that I can’t enforce. What 8-year-old is going to say no to free junk food? Should I call the school and tell them not to feed my kid? They don’t know him from anyone else since they don’t check IDs or meal accounts. I just don’t see any other way around this.

— Please Do Not Feed the Hobbits

Dear PDNFtH,

OK, but who among us has not fallen prey to the sweet siren song of the second breakfast??

But seriously. This isn’t the most egregious kids-and-food question I’ve answered yet. I’m just so tired of the endless moralizing over what goes into our kids’ mouths, all in the service of “health.” In addition to the fact that, as I’ve pointed out before, all this emphasis on sorting foods into good and bad columns lays the groundwork for disordered eating, micromanaging your child’s diet when he’s not with you seems guaranteed to turn food into a loaded issue. This is not how you create healthy attitudes toward food and eating.

You’re on the right track in teaching your son to listen to and honor his appetite. But telling the school to cut him off on Cocoa Puffs is not in service of that goal.  If he’s genuinely self-soothing with food, the more important issue is what is causing him to need to do so? Focusing on the problem will get you farther than focusing on the symptom.

Oh, and I know the “hobbit” thing is a joke and I am sure you don’t mean it to be hurtful, but it’s giving me flashbacks to the oh-so-funny-and-not-at-all-traumatic little nicknames my Dad used to give me growing up like “Hippo Hips.” So maybe lose the nickname in the service of his future therapy bills?

Want Advice From Care and Feeding?

Submit your questions about parenting and family life here. It’s anonymous! (Questions may be edited for publication.)

Dear Care and Feeding,

I can’t get my kids out of my room at night. They are in fourth grade and kindergarten. I will put them in bed in their own room and then they wake up a few hours later and sneak into my room.  I don’t think this is an anxiety thing. We have screened that. They say they just want to be close to me and my husband, their dad. There were phases for both of them from age 1-3 where they co-slept with us, and I think they both just got used to it. I need alone grownup time with my husband. I need time by myself where I can just be alone without them waking me up. I feel like I’m being mean to them when I tell them no. It got to the point there truly was not enough room in our bed so now the kids sleep in sleeping bags on the floor in our bedroom. Please help.

— Haven’t Had a Good Night’s Sleep in 10 Years

Dear HHaGNSi10Y,

Full disclosure: As a single mom with a lot of empty bed-space, I have let my son sleep with me more often than not over the years. But I can vaguely remember the exponential nightmare of having a little bag of knees and elbows tossing between two people all night. How are they sooooo pointy?

Since you know you want the kiddos out of your bed, I won’t get too deep into the pros and cons of co-sleeping, except to say that when I asked my therapist once if there was a psychological reason my son needed to sleep in his own bed, she said he needed to learn to self-soothe. So if nothing else, you can tell yourself you are not being mean when you bar your children from your bed, you are teaching them valuable coping mechanisms.

My son’s Dad and I eventually settled on a compromise at both houses where my son was allowed to give us a “special treat” and sleep in bed with us on the weekends but on the weeknights he had to stay in his own bed. It wasn’t an easy transition, but we got there with firm consistency.

Explain the new rules about who sleeps where to your kids and start reminding them well ahead of bedtime, and when they inevitably try to creep their little behinds in between you and hubs around midnight, they get walked back to their bedrooms, tucked in soundly and left without so much as an extra lullaby. As many times as necessary. Experts say to stay “neutral and free of emotions” when you do this, because kids will “feed off a reaction from you.”

It may take a few nights (or weeks, sorry) but keep your eye on the prize: the “special treat” you’re planning to have with Daddy when you finally get the damn bed to yourself, and the full night of sleep that’s going to help you be the best mom you can be.

—Emily

More Advice From Slate

My son “Michael” is 15 and may or may not be exploring his gender and sexual identity; the majority of his friends are LGBTQ+ but he has not yet self-identified as anything other than straight and male. He has a “best friend” who is a straight girl, and I am beginning to suspect she may be wanting something more from this relationship and that he may be cluelessly or unintentionally leading her on. What should I do?


https://slate.com/human-interest/2022/11/puberty-sex-talk-kids.html