The Other Parents on the Playground Whisper About My Son—and Think I Can’t Hear Them

Young boy running toward a stroller.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by 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,

I have three very kind and (mostly) thoughtful kids ages 7, 6, and 4. My 6-year-old son has autism. He is very different than what people think of autism. He is very touchy with people, loves hugs, and he LOVES babies. If we are at the park, he will take off at the speed of lightning if he sees a stroller and yells with his hands on his cheeks, “OMG they are soooooo cute.” It tends to make parents nervous because he’s huge for his age. I apologize and try to change directions, but I am so tired of saying, “Sorry, he is autistic and loves little ones.” People have left the playground we are at because he’s playing too close to their kids. I’ve heard too many whispered conversations about us letting him play with kids (even ones his own age) because of his size. He is not aggressive or mean. My other two kids tell everyone around them, “This is my brother, he’s funny but his brain is different than ours.”

Is it fair to ask the other kids to stick up for him? Should I address the parents talking in earshot about him? What can I do differently so I’m not constantly feeling the need to apologize and explain? I am not confrontational but it is breaking my heart to have him hear me say, “Sorry, he is autistic,“ instead of all the other wonderful attributes he has.

—Exhausted of Explaining

Dear Exhausted,

I hope you know you aren’t alone in feeling like you have to constantly apologize and being exhausted by it. This can be a fairly common phenomenon among parents of autistic children.

The first thing I would tell you is that you do not have to apologize that your son has autism. Like you, I resent the implication that the way someone’s brain is wired necessitates an apology. You can, however, succinctly apologize for any extreme or unwanted behavior he exhibits. This has the added benefit of reinforcing the coaching that you are likely doing, should he overhear you. I also think it’s OK to not apologize at all in some circumstances, letting your parenting in that moment speak for itself. While we still have a long way to go toward an inclusive society, awareness and acceptance of autism are growing, and hopefully, people’s comfort and competence in interacting with neurodivergent individuals will follow.

But, like I said, we aren’t there yet. Could you try positioning yourself closer to the playground parents next time you see them whispering? This would make it impossible for them to gossip, and hard for them to intervene in the kids’ play. If they try, you can simply turn to them and say, with a smile, “I know he looks big/is loud/etc., but he’s a really gentle 6-year-old.” My guess is that this will subtly call out the parents with bad attitudes (who deserve to be on notice if they’re being exclusionary) and could potentially open conversation with others who are open to growing more comfortable.

As for your kids, it sounds like they’ve elected to speak up for their brother and are holding their own so far. I don’t think you need to ask them to do anything more or different. You might ask the eldest what it’s like explaining their brother to others. See if you can find out whether they consider this an important sibling duty or a burden to avoid embarrassment. From there, you can thank them for those actions or help them chart a path forward that is still respectful but less onerous. Take your kids’ leads and check in as they grow and enter new social situations. From what I’ve seen as an educator, kids today are much more go-with-the-flow about this stuff than us adults, and hopefully, your kids’ peers are no exception.

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

Dear Care and Feeding,

About five years ago, my wife and I took in her sister and two children (then 12 and 1 years old) after it became clear that her sister’s partner (the 1-year-old’s father) was abusive and unwilling to do what was needed to keep her alive. (No joke, she was under 100 pounds and at death’s door when we took them in, due to post-natal complications for which her jobless anti-vax/anti-big pharma partner refused to let her see a real doctor.) It took a lot of healing to bring her back from the brink, but she got there, and I give her all the credit for finding the strength to do it. Today, my sister-in-law is working again, my niece is thriving in university, and little “Kevin” is a bright, beaming 6-year-old who my own three kids love like a little brother.

The problem, as you can guess, is Kevin’s dad, “Dan.” He’s never forgiven my wife and me for “destroying” his family, nor my SIL for leaving. He doesn’t work, but uses his inheritance to buy Kevin’s affection with toys while trying to drive my SIL into bankruptcy with legal fees over every little thing. He’s also accused me in legal documents of being a violent threat to Kevin and my children of being potential sexual offenders who would hurt Kevin if they had access to him. I could go on, but you get the idea, and I would not shed one tear if he disappeared from our lives. At the same time, we’re careful not to bad-mouth Dan in front of Kevin because the poor kid has enough to deal with, and it’s not like Dan needs another excuse to go to court and claim parental alienation if he gets a whiff of us saying anything bad about him. The problem is that Dan has no compunctions about doing it himself; Kevin is starting to tell his mother things like how his dad says she’s the reason they’re not together, my family and I aren’t part of his “real” family like Dan’s siblings and nieces/nephews are, and he shouldn’t call me “Uncle” because I’m not his “real” uncle.

I’m confident Kevin will someday see his dad for what he is, but in the meantime, we have to deal with the fact that this is his father, and it’s hard for kids to understand that parents can be broken, too. So how do we navigate this time when Kevin is becoming aware of the strained relations between the grown-ups in his life? What can we say to help him understand the situation without bad-mouthing his father, especially when his father feels no shame in bad-mouthing my SIL and the rest of us?

—Not About to Cry Uncle for This Guy

Dear Cry Uncle,

I’m not a lawyer, so the first thing I will advise you is that you should verify anything I say here with one. It’s well worth paying for a few billable hours to know you’re handling yourselves in the best way. Check with your sister-in-law and her attorney, as they may be the best person to advise you, given their familiarity with the case.

Dan sounds like a real piece of work—but for better or worse, he isn’t your problem. I know you are stressed for yourself and your SIL, and I know you are frustrated and sad that a child you love is being used like a pawn in this way. But you have no real agency to make changes here.

The next time Kevin repeats something outlandish, like you not being his real family, ask him, “Well, what do you think?” or “Does that feel true to you?” Let Kevin process it using his own logic, with you jumping in to guide him occasionally. Focus any statements you make on yourself, not Dan or his actions. You can also help simply by supporting your sister and committing to maintaining a warm, loving, and stable extended family dynamic. All of this can help Kevin develop his critical thinking and give him a sharp contrast to the reality his dad is offering him. I think if you do that, chances are good that, as he grows, he will indeed be able to draw his own conclusions about his dad. But, be on the lookout for any changes in Kevin’s behavior or mood, or increased parroting of Dan’s comments, which could be indicators that Kevin might need some kind of counseling or legal intervention on your SIL’s side. Good luck.

Catch Up on Care and Feeding

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

Dear Care and Feeding,

We made a small move (one town over) last year to accommodate a job shift, which came with an insurance change that meant we had to switch a lot of healthcare providers. My 7-year-old daughter has dentist appointments every six months. Since she’s started seeing the new dentist, she’s been dreading every single appointment. She recently found out she has a dentist appointment in a month, and she’s been working herself up near tears almost daily over it. She keeps asking if she needs to see a dentist, or saying she doesn’t want to go to the dentist. I’ve asked why she’s scared, and she says she doesn’t know. She wasn’t this scared of the previous dentist. I’ve asked if some procedure in the appointment made her uncomfortable (I know when I was a kid, I hated the toothpaste the dentists used for cleaning teeth) or if she wanted to see a different dentist, but she’s said that nothing’s really uncomfortable and she likes the dentist.

She sees an optometrist every four months, and, unlike the dentist, she has expressed her discomfort with some specific aspects of the visits, and though she still talks about her old optometrist, she’s been fine with transitioning to the new practitioner. So far, the only thing I’ve thought of is planning something fun after the dentist appointment, but since I’m a single dad with a demanding job those kinds of rewards aren’t always possible. How can I help her get more comfortable going to the dentist, or at least stop worrying about it so far in advance?

—Tooth Terror

Dear Tooth Terror,

Instead of asking her what she doesn’t like about the new practice, have you tried asking her what she imagines, or what goes through her mind, when she thinks about an upcoming appointment? Maybe she’d be able to articulate sensations, sounds, or specific memories that will give you a clue about what’s going on. As smart as they are, 7-year-olds aren’t always able to equate a bad experience with being the cause of an emotion, but asking different kinds of questions might uncover some answers. Asking, “What would make you hate going to the dentist less?” might also yield some insight.

Do you go back into the exam room with her? If not, I’d start. Maybe you can agree on a cue she can give you when she’s uncomfortable—just agree also on what will happen once she gives you the cue (15-second break, logging the “trigger” on a list of what she doesn’t like, whatever). I’d also carve out some time directly after her next appointment where you can go out to lunch or a park and debrief the appointment.

While I do think she’s old enough to respond well to delayed gratification rewards—like extra screen time later that night or weekend—I don’t know if that would work here. I’d say you could give it a try if the problem was her conduct at the dentist, but it’s not so helpful if what you’re trying to fix is her anxiety about the whole concept; bottling up one’s fear isn’t necessarily what you want to reinforce. If you keep coming up empty on answers, consider talking to her pediatrician about a possible psychological consult to see if occupational therapy or some other intervention might help. It’s possible that the move and the new provider are just red herrings, and something more innate might be at play. Good luck!

Dear Care and Feeding,

I’m a first-time mom of a 3-and-a-half-year-old old son and…wow. I knew toddlers were supposed to be mercurial and stubborn, but this is beyond what I could have ever imagined. The simplest things set him off, like handing him his blanket to carry, filling his water bottle after he asks me to, offering to make him food, etc. The tiniest little things lead to full-blown meltdowns—sobbing, screaming, gut-wrenching howls like I’ve told him his dog died. We made is through the “terrible twos” reasonably easy and I expected a degree of this, but it’s daily for utterly no reason. Should I be worried or is this just a phase?

—Please Say It’s a Phase

Dear It’s a Phase,

Toddlers can have meltdowns for all kinds of reasons, some of which are understandable to us adults and some of which are totally baffling. On a good day, we can find humor in these meltdowns, but when they are as intense and as frequent as you mention, laughing is pretty much impossible.

It could be a phase, it could be that there is some underlying cause, and it could be both! If you do some Googling, you’ll find that most experts say it’s time to talk to your pediatrician or a child psychologist if you’re experiencing tantrums that last longer than 15 minutes, occur daily or multiple times most days, or cause injury or property damage. I thought this article did a nice job summing up the possibilities that could be at play. Concrete though those guidelines might sound, there is a lot of nuance to toddler behavior. If it were me, and I was at my wits’ end—which you seem to be—I’d cut to the chase and make a call to the pediatrician. He or she can make a more personalized recommendation based on what you describe. If a more formal psychological assessment is recommended, try not to panic; see it for what it is—an opportunity to get more information about your child and add tools to your toolbox.

In the meantime, be sure you aren’t “feeding” the tantrums at all. Do you fully ignore them, or do you accidentally reinforce them by caving in or trying to comfort your son (thus giving him attention)? Keep a log of not only what sets him off but how you reacted and see if you can spot any patterns that might be contributing to this behavior.

Above all, even though it is hard (really hard!), try to reframe the behavior in your mind. Instead of thinking your toddler is giving you a hard time, remember he is having a hard time. It’s not that your child won’t cooperate—it’s that, for some reason, he can’t. The moms in my circle who have struggled with their kids’ tantrums have recommended these two books to me, which might be worth checking out.


My husband and I are in our late 20s and have been married for three years. I know this is an advice column cliché, but he really is perfect in every way but one: He doesn’t want kids*, and I do. Specifically, I want to have kids with him. He may change his mind (but he most likely won’t). I am not going to leave him over this, so my question is how do I come to terms with missing a Large Life Experience?