A 8-year old boy with headphones looking at a blurred out laptop screen.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Maria Symchych-Navrotska/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

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 8-year-old attends virtual school every day via Zoom, using a school-issued Chromebook. I am a teacher as well, and I teach virtually from my empty classroom while my husband stays home with our two kids. We recently discovered that our dear child is spending the entire (I mean ENTIRE) time on YouTube while his Zoom screen is minimized. We have never let him go on YouTube without supervision. He has become skilled at toggling between the windows so that his dad will see the class or a Zoom assignment whenever he comes near. And that’s only the beginning. YouTube has led him to very sexually suggestive content that got past the content filters, leading him to search Google and YouTube for more sexy content.

I don’t know what or how much he’s seen, but I do know that some of what he watched was wildly inappropriate and could be described as soft porn. We’ve set some new ground rules, and I made sure to reassure him being curious is natural, the human body is beautiful, but that looking for that on the internet is not good for his brain. I explained to him that he saw grown-ups playing pretend and that it is never OK to look at someone else’s private parts or touch someone’s private parts, that they are called “private” for a reason. I asked him if there was anything he saw that made him upset, or that he had questions about. He said no, but I don’t know if that’s true. We’ve restricted his computer/screen time to only schoolwork and FaceTime with friends or family; no video games or the internet at all until we figure something out. Now I’m worried that he needs therapy (What did he see?!?), that he will turn into a sexual predator toward his toddler sister, and that his childhood is ruined. Do you have any advice?

—Sad Mom in California

Dear S.M.C.,

Considering that Al Gore invented the internet multiple decades ago, and that it was almost immediately turned into a hub for flin’ flarn’ filth, it stands to reason that a large percentage of the millennial population was exposed to just as much sexually explicit content as your son (likely much, much more) during childhood, and we have somehow managed to be a generation of moderately functional adults.

Seriously. It’s fine. It’s not great. It’s not ideal. But it’s fine. What matters most is how you all continue to respond to this series of events. It sounds like you’ve had some great conversations with him thus far. I’m curious to know how much sex talk took place before the big discovery; if you’d said very little, this moment is probably a bit more awkward than it would be if you’d already established a tone of sex positivity with your son. Now is an excellent time to do that. Be very careful about assigning any negative value to sex or even pornography: It may be your instinct to draw a distinction between sex between two real life partners and the sort of sex seen on film, but you don’t want to imply that the latter is inherently bad, nor do you need to do anything to make it seem more exciting or tempting than it already is to him.

Sex is one of the things we have to teach our kids about, and we often wait until it has landed in their line of sight (in this case, perhaps literally) before we want to have those conversations. Plural. Many of them. You have to teach him about sexual autonomy, consent, the social constructs that create different expectations for boys than girls, the importance of safety, the need for communication around sex and sexuality, etc., ET CETERA. Maybe you thought you had more time. You don’t, so get to talking. It’s fine, he’ll be fine. Just start answering the questions you think he might have and the ones you wish the boys in your class growing up knew to ask. You got this!

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My 10-year-old son still sincerely and earnestly believes in Santa Claus. This is somewhat surprising to me, but he is an only child, has been remote online schooling since last March, and hasn’t been around other kids who would let the cat out of the bag. He is a sweet, smart child who has struggled with anxiety, social anxiety, and selective mutism since preschool. I worry about this sweet, smart child going into sixth grade and being laughed at by his classmates for this next year. Is this common at this age? Should parents spill the beans? He hasn’t asked me directly if Santa was real, but I did hear him say rhetorically that Santa has to be real, because otherwise that means parents lie to their kids, and parents don’t lie to their children. Do we tell him or just let truth come out on its own?

—Santa’s Still a Secret

Dear S.S.S.,

The past year has taken so much away from our children. Let your son enjoy this last Christmas with Santa, and at some point during the off-season (say, July), let him in on the big secret. You can use this to frame a conversation about why it is appropriate, kind even, to be untruthful under certain circumstances: childhood mythologies, planning someone’s secret birthday party, kindly fibbing to avoid hurting someone’s feelings. I don’t know how common it is to hold out as long as your kid has, but I think there’s something incredibly sweet about wanting to believe in a concept as pure as Santa, and you have to do what you can to make sure that sweet, gentle heart is protected when it heads into middle school. Maybe move the chat up to March just to be safe.

• Read other recent Care and Feeding columns.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I am a 15-year-old guy, and before I was born, my parents had several early miscarriages. I was their “miracle rainbow baby,” and they have always made sure we spend lots of family time together, more than my friends with siblings spend with their families. They also are very big on being open about the miscarriages they had before me. This is definitely not a bad thing, but my mom will mention who my siblings would be like and what we would do at least once or twice a day. If I ask to go shoot hoops while socially distanced with some friends, my mom will say that if I had living brothers, we could play in the yard. When I asked if I could use her card to shop for Christmas presents, she said that if I had more siblings, it would make the holiday season much more fun. Even when I came out as gay, they were super accepting and wonderful, but also started wondering if any of my siblings would be LGBTQ+ as well.

They have a memorial at a nearby cemetery for their miscarriages and make me go there on what would be each of my siblings’ birthdays, even though I really don’t feel any connection toward them—they were fetuses way before I was born! I love my parents a lot, and I don’t want to seem like an insensitive jerk, but how do I have a conversation with them about how off-putting (and kinda annoying) it is to hear them always talk about my miscarried siblings, and is there a script or something I could use to ask them to not go to their memorials without sounding rude?

—Not Really an Only Child

Dear N.R.O.C.,

I’m so sorry that the coping mechanisms that your parents have adopted to help them get through their grief over their pregnancy losses have led them to create such an uncomfortable environment for you. I’d be willing to bet they have not considered how some of their comments and rituals make you feel, how it appears that they are centering their children who are not living at the expense of their son who is, and how you stand to benefit nothing from pondering how different your life might be had they survived.

Pick a time that is as low-stress as possible, ask them to sit with you, and explain that you are made uncomfortable by some of the ways in which they choose to discuss and honor the children that they have lost. Give clear examples: the pondering they did when you came out, the comments about you not having siblings to shoot hoops with you. I’d suggest leaving the memorials out of this; when you are older, you can choose not to attend, but unless these trips to the cemetery are causing you great emotional distress, it may just be the kind thing to do for you to go along.

Be clear that you care about your parents’ pain, that you are sorry for their losses and that you are grateful that they kept trying until they had you, and that you do not want to cause them any additional sadness. However, you don’t feel the same connection that they do and the constant reminders of what you maybe could have had as a larger family do not make you feel good. Hopefully, they will understand. Good luck to you.

For more of Slate’s parenting coverage, listen to Mom and Dad Are Fighting.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I adore my two nieces. When they were born, I vowed to be the best aunt I could be. They spent at least one weekend a month at my house from the age of six months through high school, and even when I moved 2½ hours away, I never missed a band concert or play. I took them on trips, sent them to summer camp, even to Europe when each turned 16. We experienced Shakespeare, musicals, concerts. I showed them the world and expanded their horizons, and they loved it. I was supportive, a role model, and completely devoted. They’re now 26 and 24, and all they want from me is money.

I recently sent them each some money for Christmas, and while I could see the checks were cashed, I heard nothing. At this point, I don’t expect a letter but at least a text? Do I just give up? Do I cherish the memories of all those trips and concerts and weeks at the beach and how I was their bonus mom and just move on? Do I use the script of “When I tell you I love you and send you a gift and you say nothing, it makes me feel like you don’t want a relationship?” Something else? I feel such grief for the little girls who used to adore me back. I was “Auntie Mame,” and now I’m nothing.

—Auntie Nothing

Dear Auntie,

I am so sorry you are hurting. I’m curious to know what kind of contact you had with the girls after they moved out of their parents’ home. Have you all ever had the sort of relationship where you talked on the phone, or exchanged texts and emails? I wonder if, once the magical play dates and trips were no longer on the table, once they were no longer little girls, if there was a proper foundation for you all to remain connected as adults.

Did you introduce them to experiences they might not have otherwise had because you wanted them to have them, or because these experiences had particular interest to these girls? If it was the case that much of what you did together were things that you’d have enjoyed more than they did, then perhaps that could be part of the issue here. You say they used to “adore you back,” so perhaps that isn’t the case, but I do think it’s worth considering if you became, say, “the fancy auntie who only likes to do fancy stuff.” Is it possible that they have had some drastic changes to their tastes and values? Something about the phrases “role model” and “expanded their horizons” in your letter makes me feel like you may be much better off, financially speaking, then their parents. Do you think it’s possible that there may be something off-putting or intimidating about someone who saw their function in their lives in such a way? And why finance may be greatly connected to how they see you?

How do you get along with their parents? The one who is your sibling? Do you talk regularly? I’m not saying that their parents have necessarily said or done anything to color the relationship, but if they haven’t seen you guys maintain a great bond, that could be a very good clue as to why you might not be so tight with their kids.

Do you feel like you got to know who these two young women are like as people? Were there maybe things that they kept from you, or interests that consume their lives that are quite different than your own? Also, a lot of young folks that age fail to communicate with their parents, so while I am not defending them, it is not terribly surprising that they have not maintained contact with an aunt, even a beloved one. Not saying thank you for your generosity is in incredibly poor form, however.

I think it’s worth reaching out to these young women with an open heart and mind and asking for the sort of relationship you’d like to have with them, while being prepared for the possibility that it may not happen. Pour your heart out, let them know how much you treasured your time together in the past, that you are equally committed to supporting them and being present for them as adults, and that you hope they have room in their hearts for a real connection with their once-beloved auntie, not simply an annual financial transaction. Good luck to you.

— Jamilah

More Advice From Slate

My husband and I frequently disagree about treating our daughter’s various childhood ailments. He immediately rushes to our pediatrician for antibiotics and sees nothing wrong with daily over-the-counter allergy medicine as a preventative, even when she’s not symptomatic. I tend towards a wait-and-see approach with minimal medical intervention. While I am not into the essential oil craze of my peers, I prefer healthy foods, saline nose sprays, teas, and other methods of easing common ear/nose/throat symptoms, with a doctor called in only for severe or prolonged symptoms. The kicker is that my husband is the stay-at-home parent and usually makes the medical decisions. I would prefer our daughter not become antibiotic-resistant because of overuse. How can we resolve our different approaches to our child’s health?

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