parenting advice from Care and Feeding.

Our advice columnists have heard it all over the years. In this special edition, we dive into the Care and Feeding archives to share some of the best letters we’ve received about our furry friends. Join Slate Plus for even more advice columns—your first month is only $1.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My 5-year-old daughter, “Maya,” loves rabbits. She loves books about rabbits. She loves movies about rabbits. When she sees an actual rabbit in the wild, it’s the highlight of her week. She desperately wants a pet rabbit, but our apartment building doesn’t allow any pets other than fish. So this Christmas, my in-laws (who can best be described as “eccentric but well-meaning”) gave Maya a stuffed rabbit. I don’t mean “stuffed” rabbit as in a plush toy. I mean “stuffed” as in THE TAXIDERMIED CORPSE OF AN ACTUAL DEAD RABBIT. Maya adores it. She talks to it, sings to it, reads to it, sleeps with it, and carries it with her everywhere.

Words cannot express how much I hate this thing. I don’t want to stare into the glassy eyes of a rabbit corpse while I’m eating my dinner. I don’t want a dead rabbit snuggled on the bed with us while I read my daughter a bedtime story. But I know that Maya would be heartbroken and confused if I took it away from her. She views it as a super-realistic toy and doesn’t understand that it’s something that used to be alive and is now dead (she also doesn’t quite grasp the “meat is dead animals” thing). I have tried switching it out with toy rabbits, which she has about 50 of, but she always demands her precious taxidermied monstrosity.

Complicating things is the fact that her school has been 100 percent remote since the start of the school year, but they will reassess whether they will resume in-person school after spring break (mid-March). Right now, the stuffed rabbit is by her side the entire time she’s in Zoom class, and I know that if she starts in-person school, she will want to take it to school with her. Her school is K–8, so if she gets labeled as “the weirdo with the taxidermy rabbit” now, that could follow her all the way until she’s in high school. I want to wean her off of the rabbit before then, but I have no idea how when it’s the only toy she ever wants to play with and she has a meltdown if she doesn’t have it with her. I know eventually she will move on to something else of her own accord, but the looming start of in-person school means this should ideally occur within the next two months. Do you have any suggestions on how to help this happen?

You have my sympathy. I would not enjoy snuggling with a dead rabbit either. But I really don’t think you have to worry about Maya getting labeled as the taxidermy girl if she starts kindergarten in person with the rabbit along for the ride. (For one thing, she’s unlikely to be allowed to bring it with her to school except on special occasions. But even on “stuffed animal day,” the other 5-year-olds won’t know the difference between taxidermy-stuffed and toy-stuffed any more than Maya does; they won’t think she’s weird, even if her teacher does.) This is a problem that is entirely about your discomfort, not hers (not even future hers). And let me repeat that I feel for you. But she will move on to something else of her own accord. If I were you, I’d try to get used to this passing fancy, just because it’s way easier for an adult (even a seriously grossed-out one) to do that than it is for a child—especially a child right now, when everything is so weird—to adjust to giving up a particularly beloved toy.

If you are determined to try to nudge things along, I suppose you might see if a really big stuffed rabbit or one that moves or is creepily realistic (but was never alive) would entice her away from the stuffed dead one. But there’s no guarantee that any of these will entice your daughter to abandon her beloved dead creature.

Let me add one additional note of advice, while I’m here. Since most kids that age cycle through obsessions, it’s possible your daughter will move on not just from this particular “toy” but from rabbits to, say, owls. Or, you know, horses. So you might want to have a little chat with her eccentric grandparents about future gifts, just to make sure there’s no more taxidermy in your future. —Michelle Herman

From: “My In-Laws Gifted My Daughter a Stuffed Dead Rabbit. She Loves It.” (Jan. 17, 2021)

Dear Care and Feeding,

My Aunt Mildred has just passed. She was in her late 80s, it was in her sleep, we’re all at peace about it.

Here’s the problem: In her will, she left my 14-year-old daughter her horrible bird. I am biased, because I grew up in New York and see all birds as rats with wings, but I never imagined one would wind up living and pooping in my house.

It’s a monk parakeet, which the internet tells me can live from 15 to 20 years (“Hawk” is, as far as we can tell, about 5 years old.) I don’t want it in my house, and I really don’t want to inherit it when my daughter leaves for college. What do I do?

As someone else who would never allow a bird to live in her home, I understand your aversion. Nor am I overly hung up on Aunt Mildred’s wishes here, as she is dead. She shouldn’t have bought a bird that lives for 20 years in her 80s if she wanted to control all possible outcomes.

Does your daughter want the bird? If—after she has been brought up to speed on the amount of care she will have to provide the bird, minus any parental assistance, financial or otherwise—she still wants the bird, then I think you have a bird now. I’m very sorry.

If your daughter does not want the bird or the responsibilities that come with it, take it to a bird sanctuary, where it can live with many, many other exotic birds that old people have willed to their squeamish children and grandchildren. Don’t sell it to a pet store.

Please keep me posted. Please do not send me the bird. I do not want it. —Nicole Cliffe

From: “I Don’t Want Dead Aunt Mildred’s Pet Parakeet.” (Sept. 13, 2019)

Dear Care and Feeding,

My smart, fun, 3-year-old daughter loves her grandparents, my father, and my stepmother. (My mother died over a decade ago.) My stepmother’s two adult children both have dogs they dote on, and their mother showers the dogs with affection and loves to talk about her grandpups. Nothing wrong with that! However, since my daughter was born, my stepmother has frequently made comparisons between my daughter and these dogs. For example, when my daughter jumps up for an offered cookie, she’ll say, “Oh, that’s just like [dog’s name]!” I have tended to grin and bear this, though it drives my daughter’s father a little crazy.

But my daughter’s getting older. The last time we visited, she was playing with something she shouldn’t have been playing with, and I told her to stop, which she did. My stepmother then said, “Good girl, [name]” in a voice I can only describe as the sort of voice you use for a puppy. And then she confirmed this by turning to me and saying, “That’s what I say to [dog’s name].” I responded: “Yes, I know. But I don’t say that to her. Maybe we could just say ‘thank you’ instead?”

We moved past it, but it ruffled my feathers because I could tell it ruffled hers. Was I too sensitive about this? And if not, at what point should I draw a line like the one I did, and what is the best way to do that? Let me say I understand completely that people love their dogs. And I know it’s not intentionally demeaning when she talks to my daughter this way, but I confess that I don’t want anyone talking to her the way they talk to a dog, however loved that dog is. I don’t think it’s insulting to dogs to say that people and dogs require different forms of communication.

I don’t think it’s insulting to dogs either. But I also don’t think this eccentricity on her part is what’s really bothering you. It’s bizarre for sure, but so what? As your daughter gets older, she’ll find it puzzling and probably also funny (or else your stepmother will quit talking to her as if she were a dog, which I think is likely once the two of them begin to have actual conversations). I think what’s really ruffling your feathers is that your stepmother seems to love her grandpuppies more than she loves her stepgranddaughter. And who can blame you? It’s only human to be hurt by this. But there’s not a damn thing you can do about it. And I think that unless her stepgrandma is commanding that she sit and stay—or hitting her with a rolled-up newspaper—I’d let the puppy talk go. It’s harmless. —M.H.

From: “My Stepmother Talks to My Daughter Like She’s a Pet.” (Dec. 6, 2020)

Dear Care and Feeding,

My partner’s 4-year-old really loves my pet rabbit … and I’m worried he might, literally, love him to death. We have tried explaining that he needs to be gentle with the rabbit: Stroking is OK, but grabbing is not. Neither is chasing the rabbit around the house. And picking him up by the ears, which we found him doing again yesterday, is completely forbidden. I have tried explaining all this calmly. I have told him the rabbit will get scared and hurt. I have showed him how to stroke gently, and congratulated him for doing it properly. I have even tried making a song out of it. But he finds the rabbit so incredibly exciting that all the rules are soon forgotten.

After we found him holding the poor dangling rabbit by the ears, we got angry and my partner tried to put him in timeout. This just resulted in a lot of very loud screaming. I do not know what else we can do to protect the poor rabbit. I am seriously considering finding him a new home, but I was hoping perhaps you might have some alternative suggestions. How can you teach a small, boisterous child to be gentle with pets?

Aww, jeez, it’s so easy to hurt a bunny. Grown adults have seriously injured them by improper handling. You deserve an award for not actually screaming when you found him holding the bunny by his ears.

My recommendation is that you need to make the bunny’s cage kid-proof (get a padlock, whatever it takes!) and decree that henceforth, all bunny interaction will be completely supervised. He has lost his bunny privileges until he is older and more responsible.

Some little kids just lose their whole dang minds around pets, and it’s a lot easier to limit his access than to try to reason him into getting his act together.

Protect the bun! —N.C.

From: “I Am Worried My Pet Rabbit Is Going to Be Killed by an Enthusiastic 4-Year-Old” (April 5, 2019)

Dear Care and Feeding,

Let me start by saying I think it’s great that other people have pets. I just don’t want one in my house. I’ve frankly never understood the appeal of having an animal who needs daily care throughout its life, especially if that care is going to involve shedding, excrement, and a smelly house. I’ve always wanted children, but part of what excited me about them was that they grow, learn, and slowly begin to take care of themselves more and more. Now I have a child (a toddler), and I adore him. My husband seems to be of the opinion that every child needs a pet. I don’t agree with that sentiment and have explained why. He seems mostly contented with that for now. But what’s really bothering me is my husband’s seeming insistence on the inevitability that our child will someday wear us (me) down on the issue. Is it really so unreasonable to maintain that we are going to have a pet-free household? Is it possible that this is just a version of people continually telling women that they’re going to change their minds about having kids?

I chuckled when you said you don’t want the responsibility of picking up an animal’s poop and dealing with a smelly house when that is literally what raising a tiny human is like. Sure, tiny humans grow into not-so-tiny humans eventually, but it certainly isn’t clear sailing from that point. Also, people have been trying to convince other people to do things they aren’t interested in since the beginning of time. Hell, I think I received five calls in the past week from salespeople trying to get me to extend my car’s warranty. It’s nothing new, really.

Not that this matters to you, but I also share the same belief that your husband has about pets, in that every child should grow up with one. There are plenty of animals that don’t shed and make the house smell (my dog is one of them), and if pets were such horrifically annoying creatures, then 70 percent of Americans wouldn’t own them as they currently do now. That’s because the pros far outweigh the cons in terms of pet ownership, and one of the pros is what pets can teach our children. Responsibility and empathy are two of the biggest ones.

In your defense, my wife was very similar to you and offered the same concerns that you had. I kept pushing because I knew my kids wanted a puppy (especially during the pandemic when we were all stuck at home), and I knew it would benefit them. Then I finally struck a deal with her. I said that the kids and I would handle 100 percent of the walks, feedings, vet bills, poop cleanup, etc., and she could just enjoy the fun parts of dog ownership — namely the snuggles and belly rubs. She ended up taking us up on it, and she completely loves our puppy and couldn’t imagine her life without him in it.

You may believe that you’ll never do what my wife did, and that’s fine—but what will happen when your kid gets older, and he wants to have a dog or cat? It will be two votes against one— so consider the feelings of everyone in your household. Like I said earlier, I think a fair deal would be to have your husband and son handle everything pet-related. The healthiest families I know are the ones who believe in compromise. —Doyin Richards

From: “I Think My Husband’s Constant Demand to Get a Dog is Sexist” (Dec. 22, 2021)

More Advice From Care and Feeding

For my youngest daughter’s 10th birthday, my husband and I finally caved and allowed her to get a cat. She did background research, found a reputable breeder, and then used five years’ worth of saved-up money from birthdays, Hanukkahs, and allowances (totaling $900) to get a very cute Persian kitten, whom she named Klaus. She absolutely adores him. But Klaus ended up preferring her 13-year-old sister. He sits only in the older sister’s lap, wants to sleep in her bed, and hates it when he’s taken out of her sight.

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