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Don’t Ask Kids to Keep Dark Family Secrets (Especially About Infidelity)

In which a father is asked to come clean about his cheating ways to avoid putting his 8-year-old son in an impossible position.

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“Fatherly Advice” is a weekly advice column in which Fatherly’s Parenting Editor Patrick Coleman provides frank answers to reader questions. Want evidence-based answers and some common sense morality? Email advice@fatherly.com. We got you. Want a justification for some parenting decision you already made? Ask someone else. Patrick is busy.

 

Fatherly,

My 8-year-old son walked in on me having sex the other day but I wasn’t with my wife. I was with another mom from the neighborhood. I’m a stay at home dad and my kid is in 3rd grade. I do freelance programming work during the school year when my kid is in school. My wife is kind of a bitch and wants me to get a real job and thinks I’m just slacking off during the day. She’s always on my ass so we fight a lot. Over the last couple of months, I started hanging out with this mom in the neighborhood. We have a lot in common because her husband is a real dick to her too so we started seeing each other during the day and one thing led to another so we started having sex. Last week she was over at my house and we were having sex but we lost track of time and I didn’t hear my kid come in after getting off the bus. He looked for me in my room and caught us.

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He scared the shit out of me, and I yelled at him. I don’t think he saw much because we were under the covers and I told him to get the hell out. I had to get dressed quick and talk to him and she had to get home before her own kid got off the bus so she left fast.

Anyway, I told my son that the neighbor lady was just helping me do housework and make the bed and that he couldn’t tell anyone, especially his mom. He hasn’t but he’s also been acting weird and I’m freaked out. Is there something I can do to make him help me keep this secret so our family doesn’t break apart?

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Screwed,
New Jersey

*

You really should have thought about your family breaking up before you slept with the neighbor-mom. And, frankly, it seems more than a little disingenuous for you to want to save a marriage that you were seemingly willing to scuttle in the first place. As much as I’d like to tell you your on your own, there is a kid involved and I owe it to him, at least, to give you some advice on how to mitigate some of the emotional trauma he’s clearly already feeling.

To start with, you’re going to stop trying to get him to keep your secret. You’ve already asked him to, which was dumb. But you’re not going to ask him to do it again or remind him that he’s supposed to keep the secret or play mind games with him of any sort in order to save your own ass. The burden you placed on him is far too much to bear. That’s why he’s “acting weird.” He is attempting to reconcile what he saw and your reaction with your contention it was all innocent. You’ve also asked him to cut himself off from his mom who would otherwise be a source of comfort and answers. He already knows he won’t get those answers from you.

But I hear you asking: “What if he tells his mom?” And you know what? He might. But you can get ahead of it, which is what I strongly urge you to do here.

You have injected a toxic cocktail of infidelity into your marriage. Your marriage has already started dying. And the only possible antidote is the truth. Will that save your marriage? That depends on many factors I’m not privy to, but if you tell the truth without excuses you may be able to stave off disaster. This is going to suck, but nobody else can fix this for you. So after you break it off with neighbor-mom, you’re going to hire a babysitter or send your child to his grandparents or trusted relative for a few hours and you’re going to talk to your wife.

As you go into this, I want you to really consider whether or not you want the marriage to continue. Are you willing to do the hard work? Do you think the relationship is worth it? Do you think it’s worth it to create a much more stable home for your son? The answer to these questions will determine if the conversation you’re going to have with your wife is about trying to amicably dissolve your marriage or fight like hell to keep it.

Know that this will likely be the first of many conversations and I strongly urge you to suggest to your wife that you seek marriage counseling. A third party will be crucial as things progress and a counselor can help you both decide whether the marriage is over, or whether it can be salvaged.

Once everything is out in the open with your wife, it’s time to talk to your son and release him from the secret. This is best done simply. Admit to him that you made a mistake in asking him to keep a secret from his mother, remind him that he can always talk to her about anything, tell him you will never ask him to keep a secret again and then tell him you love him. If he has any questions, answer them as simply and as age appropriately as you can. That might mean telling him that you and neighbor-mom were breaking the rules. It might mean even mean explaining that you were treating neighbor-mom the way you should only treat your wife and you were wrong to do so and you are trying to make it right. There is no need to go into sexual details or even mention sex. The important part is to let him know you made a mistake that you regret and you’re trying to fix it.

Finally, you’re going to have to be true to your word and fix it. Whether the marriage is saved or not, your new focus should be on learning how to be more honest and communicative. At best, you’ll be able to salvage your relationship. But if that’s not possible then you at least need to work on ensuring you and your wife can be effective co-parents. You son deserves nothing less for his future.

 

Hey Fatherly,

For some reason, my 3-year old can’t stop calling out black and brown people when she sees them. It’s crazy embarrassing and I don’t know how to react. Is she going to be a racist?

Whiteboy
Milwaukee, Wisconsin

*

Guess what? Your kid sees color. And that great! Because trying to say a person’s skin color doesn’t matter is a dirty lie that allows racism to thrive. Skin color absolutely changes a person’s experience in life. The question is not about shutting your kid down, it’s about guiding her recognition of race in a healthy way. And right now, your embarrassment at the situation is not helpful. What you’re doing is modeling that race and its recognition is something to be embarrassed about rather than respected. Your kid won’t become a racist if you can manage to change the way you speak with her about race.

If she calls out black or brown people, which she will if they are foreign to her daily experience, your answer should be along the lines of: “Yes, and friends can have all sorts of skin colors.” Easy. With that phrase, you are telling her it’s okay to recognize race and people of different races can have good and fruitful human relationships.

Considering that race is a curiosity to your daughter, it may indicate that you are a bit cloistered. You might want to start taking field trips that introduce her to different cultures and ways of life. I’m almost certain that Milwaukee has festivals related to ethnicity. Find one. Go there. Make friends.

Talking about race does not have to be complicated as long as we are honest and straightforward with our children. And believe me when I tell you that the only way your daughter could truly become a racist is if you refuse to acknowledge and speak about race and model your own racist behaviors.

So talk about race. Set a good example. And take a deep breath.