My Son Is a Catastrophe. Now He Wants to Drive.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I have a 15-year-old son, “Clyde.” His birthday is in a few months, and he’s very much looking forward to getting his learner’s permit and starting to drive. I have serious safety concerns about this, and not just normal “teen learning to drive for the first time” concerns. Clyde is the most accident-prone person I know and shows a shocking degree of carelessness that makes me fear for the safety of everyone around should he get behind the wheel.

Clyde has, for years, tried to catch birds on the wing by simply leaping at a bird flying overhead or passing by and grabbing. It has never worked, although he has managed some nasty falls from the practice. He has been taken out of his school’s woodshop program after repeated incidents involving saws and he has quite a few scars on his hands and wrists from them. They can’t take him out of his science courses, so he partners with his teacher’s assistant for all lab work that involves open flames.  He has started four kitchen fires in the last year alone. He can remember that he shouldn’t put metal in the microwave or plastic in the toaster oven, but somehow which one was which managed to elude him even after my wife put up notices on each. On the last one, he tried to retrieve his pop-tart from the toaster oven, still encased in its plastic wrapping, by simply reaching in and grabbing for it, setting his shirt and himself on fire and netting him a trip to the emergency room when we managed to douse him.

We have checked him repeatedly for learning disabilities, other structural issues, or neurodivergence. He does have ADHD, which he takes medication for, but in the words of his lead doctor “Concerning behavior referenced is not consistent with symptomology of his diagnosis” and that he was probably just like this. We’ve tried to be supportive of him, but often time support involves keeping him away from things that can burn, cut, or break, because he will find some way to hurt himself on it if left to his own devices.

Which brings us back to the automobile. Putting him behind tons of rapidly moving metal is too easy to imagine ending in disaster. But he really does want to drive, all of his friends either have learner’s permits or are looking forward to getting them, it is developmentally appropriate. And of course, if he can’t actually drive a car in the U.S., he’s severely disabled in his ability to move around independently. At the same time, I can’t shake the conviction that he’ll kill himself and/or others within an hour of getting behind the wheel. What can I do here?

—Reluctant Bubble Wrapper

Dear Bubble,

You have to be firm and not allow him to drive—at least not yet. I’m sorry, I know that is going to be devastating to him, and difficult for you in a number of ways, but you have serious concerns about his safety behind the wheel. I have to imagine that it won’t come as a total surprise, and as disappointing as it might be for him, it’s nothing compared to the consequences of hurting himself or others if he were to get behind the wheel (if his absentmindedness is truly as significant as you describe).

Driving is not a right, it is a privilege, but it is also an activity that is not available to all people, including folks with visual disabilities, seizures, etc. As he grows up, the right choice of college (if he goes that route) and city to live in can make his lack of driver’s license almost completely moot.

I don’t know whether the doctors are just missing something in Clyde, or if he is truly just an absent-minded sort; perhaps as he enters adulthood, something will click into place and he’ll be better able to live independently around dangerous objects (and one day, maybe, drive). Or perhaps he’ll meet the right doctor who will identify something others did not. I don’t know. But I think, for now, your responsibility seems pretty clear.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I have a question that has been nagging me for a while: How much socialization should kids have outside of their main household? I ask this because, for years, both my in-laws and parents have told me, quite judgmentally, that I don’t socialize my kids enough. They parented in the 80s. I believe that my kids will be just fine. They are at school all day and have swimming and gym lessons during the week for parts of the year. Other times, we just like being together as a family, playing games, visiting museums and places of interest on the weekends. They’re both thriving. During the summer, we like to go somewhere as a family and they do camps as well. One of my sons really struggles with friendships (think low-level autism) and wants to be home with us rather than out at camps or anything organized—they believe he needs MORE encounters with kids to counter his tone-deaf tendencies. I desperately need quiet and solitude during my evenings to protect my mental health. I hate the idea of being involved in any more activities and I want some months that have nothing going on. My husband, kids and I are very close as a family and I think this also puzzles our families. Am I not socializing my children enough? I think school is enough.

—Don’t Want to Drive More

Dear Drive,

It sounds like you are giving your kids a stable, loving home and family life. Hopefully, that cohesion and genuine enjoyment of each other’s company persists into the teen and adult years, because it really is a special thing.

I don’t think you necessarily need to be looking at other structured activities, clubs, teams, etc. Do your kids have playdates with other kids, either meeting up at a local playground or inviting a friend over after school? I understand your desire not to overschedule yourself or your kid, but just hanging out and playing is a really important and valuable part of childhood that can sometimes get overlooked in our hectic calendars. When I think of my ‘80s childhood, it’s that casual afterschool playtime that I remember most—and was absolutely where I learned who I was, what I stood for, and what kinds of friends and activities I most enjoyed. If I were you, this is what I would try to cultivate for my kids.

The other thing worth pointing out is that swimming and gymnastics are inherently skill-building activities, and don’t necessarily allow for much peer-to-peer interaction. Activities like Scouts and student councils (yes, even some elementary students have these) emphasize collaboration, goal setting, citizenship, and other qualities that help kids navigate social relationships and personal development. Are these activities a necessary element of childhood? No, but they can be enjoyable and valuable ones. And, many times, these clubs happen directly after school or are drop-offs, so your evenings would remain free.

As a parent, I think of the elementary school years as a time where I try to give my kids lots of different “ingredients” (skills, experiences, exposure to new places and ideas, etc.) so that they can assemble them later on in their own way. Even things that aren’t necessarily their favorite activities still teach valuable things about themselves and are worth trying out. That’s the lens I would apply if I were in your shoes. You’re definitely giving your kids a ton of love and a ton of great experiences as a family, and you should be really proud of that. Just check yourself and your own preferences to see if there are other “ingredients” your kids could benefit from as they’re developing. You sound like a homebody, and there is nothing wrong with that. You just want to be sure your kids can explore and decide for themselves whether their tendencies will follow suit.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My 8-year-old daughter is very clumsy and disorganized, and stubborn about it too—more than the average 8-year-old. By the time she comes home from school every day, half of her paperwork is crushed because she refuses to use her folder. Half the time she can’t find her homework anywhere. Her new glasses were held together by tape not even 24 hours after she got them (and she’s had glasses since she was 2, so it’s not like her clumsiness is because she needs glasses). She’s also very particular and anxious.

I am looking into pursuing an ADHD diagnosis for her at the suggestion of her doctor. My ex-wife said she isn’t going to do anything to try and stop me but has also derided the possibility of our kid having ADHD. She’s starting to discipline our daughter when she does something clumsy and disorganized, when she can’t really help. She is genuinely trying her best—it’s not like she wants to lose everything or break everything—and punishing her isn’t going to make her better at keeping track of her stuff, just make her feel awful for something she can’t control. Plus, she’s already dealing with the natural consequences of her actions (iPad broke? You’ll have to do without one until you can save up your pocket money to buy a new one. Glasses with tape are uncomfortable? It’ll take a week or two for the new ones to arrive); additional consequences are unnecessary. But my ex is insistent on her punishment system and it’s already starting to leave my daughter afraid of going to her mother’s house (our kids switch off every two weeks at each house).

—Co-Parent Conflict

Dear Conflict,

I’m glad you’re pursuing an evaluation for possible ADHD, as that’s where my mind went when you were describing the situation. And ADHD looks different in girls, which means it can be harder to spot. Your story also made me think of dyspraxia, which is a coordination disorder that can accompany or exist independently from ADHD. I agree with you that punishments aren’t likely to do much to address the problem—and if it is indeed ADHD, they might only serve to deflate your daughter’s self-esteem, which is already a risk for kids with the diagnosis.

My general ADHD philosophy is that if you suspect a child has it, but you don’t have a diagnosis, just start adopting ADHD “lifehacks” anyway. Many of them are great tricks for any type of brain and can help a person regain a sense of control over their daily habits. In your daughter’s case, this might be a matter of posting lists, setting rigid (not punitive) routines of where homework goes—both in the backpack and in the home—or creating mnemonic devices and songs to remember steps she needs to follow. If you find that any of these are successful, then you’d have a constructive alternative to share with your ex, which could open up a conversation about more positive ways to redirect your daughter. I’d also set up a conference for the two of you with her teacher to discuss your suspicion and ask for help. The teacher likely has experience delivering accommodations for kids with ADHD and, if they’re the good kind of teacher, would probably be game for trying a few out with your kid even without the diagnosis and 504 plan.

Keep working on an open dialog with your ex. Make it clear that you want to work together with her on behalf of your daughter and not get into a battle of the households. Not only would that be completely disruptive to all parties, but it could exacerbate your daughter’s challenges. Maybe you can find a compromise between your two approaches. If she feels that strongly about consequences, you might try the argument that ADHD and other neurodivergences are like having poor vision. You wouldn’t tell someone who couldn’t see to just squint more or risk being grounded; you’d get them glasses. Neurodivergence isn’t a lack of interest or desire to do well, and it won’t be solved by trying harder. It’s about hacking your brain, your habits, and your environment so they work better together. Maybe some of that language can help you all get on the same page. Good luck!

Dear Care and Feeding,

I need to know if I handled a situation involving a friend’s child properly, and how to handle some fall out from it. My friend “Cassidy” is married to “Marcus,” and they have a six-year-old son, “Patrick.” For Christmas, Cassidy and Marcus have an open house all day, and I went over in the afternoon. While there, I encountered Patrick coming out of the basement, and he asked me if I knew where his parents were. He looked very upset, so I asked him what was wrong. He said that his pop-pop, who is Marcus’s father, yelled at him for wearing a dress and told Marcus that, “Boys don’t wear dresses, take it off.” (I later learned that Marcus was playing dress up with his cousins and their princess dresses.) I told him that sometimes grown-ups can be wrong, and that it was perfectly OK for him to wear a dress. His grandfather happened to be coming out of the basement at the time and heard me say this, and said, “This is not for you to get involved in.” I just ignored him and took Patrick to find his parents.

I found Cassidy first, and Patrick told her why he was upset. Cassidy told him she was sorry pop-pop yelled at him, that wasn’t very nice, and that Patrick didn’t do anything wrong and they would talk about it later when the guests left. I didn’t tell her what I said, and how her FIL heard, because in the moment it just didn’t seem necessary.

The next day, Cassidy called me and asked what happened between me and her FIL, because later that night when Cassidy and Marcus had a conversation with the grandfather about the incident, he made a comment about how he doesn’t appreciate “your rude friend getting involved in family business.” I told her exactly what I said to Patrick. She responded, “Yeah I didn’t think it was nearly as dramatic as [FIL] was making it out to be,” then moved on. I’ve seen and spoken to Cassidy numerous times since then, and it hasn’t come up again.

Fast forward to present day, when Cassidy calls me to say that FIL is making a huge deal about Marcus’s upcoming milestone birthday celebration, saying that I shouldn’t be allowed to attend unless I apologize [to FIL], and that if I don’t, FIL isn’t coming. Cassidy then asks me if I could apologize just to “keep the peace” so that Marcus isn’t stressed out and can enjoy his birthday. I was floored. I asked her if she thought I was wrong. She hesitated and said, “Well maybe it wasn’t your place to say anything,” to which I responded that I didn’t say anything disparaging to Patrick about his grandfather, and that I was standing up for son! I pressed, asking her if she was upset that I told Patrick it’s OK for boys to wear dresses. She said of course not, she just feels like she’s in a bad spot. I said I’d think about it. The idea of apologizing to that man when he was the one who was clearly in the wrong for being such a bigot and making a little boy cry is appalling to me; frankly, I’m also upset with Cassidy for not standing up to FIL, not for my sake, but for her son’s! What do I do now?

—Standing My Ground

Dear Standing,

Write an apology email. So what if an old man had his feelings hurt and is making a stink about it? It will take you five minutes to appease his ego, and in exchange for your good deed, you ensure that Marcus has a good birthday celebration and that Cassidy doesn’t have to play referee the whole time. You’re not apologizing for pop-pop’s sake, but for theirs, and it costs you very little to do so.

Are you correct in your principles? Yes. Are we allowed to provide parental-like guidance to the other kiddos in our lives? Yes, if that’s the understanding between friends (and let’s raise a glass to those friends who we do trust to guide our children alongside us—they’re real ones). Was it kind of you to offer validation and love to Marcus in that moment? Yes. Could you have done it in a way that didn’t so directly undercut pop-pop? Probably. Live and learn.

—Allison

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I gave birth to our second child six months ago. It was a rough pregnancy physically and an equally rough postpartum period. I am 100 percent done having kids. My husband is also 100 percent done (and would have actually been fine stopping with one). For a variety of reasons, I can’t do hormonal birth control and IUDs freak me out, so our current method of prevention is mostly abstinence (hello, two small kids during a pandemic!), otherwise condoms.