Dear Other Dad —
My husband and I are in a fight. I told my 13-year-old son he could choose whether or not to get vaccinated. He chose not to. (We’re both vaccinated, so this is not an anti-vax thing.) I let him choose because it’s not 100% safe for him to have the shot, with all the heart stuff, and I don’t want to be responsible for putting him at risk. My husband is furious because he thinks we should have made the decision. I get why he’s mad but we’ve been trying to let our son make good choices and have independence, so why should this be different? Who’s right?
Let me ask a question: Do you make your son wear a seatbelt?
That seems an easy barometer of how truly wed you are to the he-gets-to-make-his-own-choices principle. Seatbelts, too, were created to save lives but at first faced serious resistance, before becoming near-universally accepted. If you now let your son choose whether or not to wear a seatbelt, you are being consistent here in applying the logic that the high value is trusting his 13-year-old sense of what is safest.
I suspect, however, that you do no such thing; I imagine your son buckles in every time and, when he does not, you or your husband nag him. That’s because you’re the parents and necessarily make all kind of choices for him. You are right that beginning to loosen the parental reins in some regards will help him with independence, but common sense should tell you that he doesn’t get to make all his own rules around health and safety. If he wanted to hike Mt. Washington solo, convinced it was ok because he has never known anyone who got lost, you’d likely intervene, knowing better than he does what the risks are.
As you can tell already, I am skeptical of the wisdom of your current plan. Yes, there are unknowns to contend with and I have read the news about the potential for heart inflammation. But if risk is the driving factor in your hesitation to require him to vaccinate, you should focus on Covid, which is 26 times more likely to affect your child than the pair of heart conditions (myocarditis and pericarditis) you reference. Those conditions (with or without hospitalization) have occurred at a rate of 12 cases per million for ages 12–39, while hospitalizations for COVID for that same age group in the US currently stands at 320 per million (based on 32 per hundred thousand, the latest average). Hundreds of kids are being hospitalized every single day. The CDC has noted that 1/3 of the hospitalized youth are admitted to the ICU and 5% end up ventilated. (If you’re keeping count, that means that, on average, three times as many youth are being intubated for COVID than being diagnosed with heart symptoms.) Thankfully, deaths are rare but they do happen.
If this doesn’t concern you for your own son, you might consider his friends and others who come in contact with him. Young people are getting and spreading the Delta variant faster and more easily than either the original strain or the alpha variant. Most who get it will not become very ill, but they are very likely to infect others (often without knowing); for those who do get ill or die as a result, it’s not much comfort that whoever passed the virus to them (your son, for instance) felt just fine as they did.
Clearly, on some level, you know this: you and your husband are both vaccinated. It is not as if you are part of the delusional camp arguing that a virus which has led to worldwide containment efforts is somehow a liberal ploy to take away their rights. Since you have protected yourself from the fate that has befallen more than 4.3 million people (over 600,000 just here in the US), I find it curious that you feel this is optional for your son.
If you want to encourage your son’s emotional and social independence, consider facets of life such as choices around meals, bedtime, chores, friendships, and use of free time. Instead of buying his clothes and giving him spending money, reframe his allowance as a monthly budget and let him start learning how to stretch a dollar by making his own purchases. Seek his inpout on family activities and allow him to opt out from time to time. There are myriad ways to foster these valuable skills without risking his health or the health of others.
I’d also encourage you not to announce family policy unilaterally in the future. Your husband may be upset with you not just because of the specific choice but because it wasn’t something you two agreed upon first. You took away your husband’s ability to contribute to a major health decision. That’s a bad call on its face, but it’s worse if you did so because you knew he would disapprove. Perhaps you thought of it as conflict avoidance but it was just conflict delay, and even conflict expansion, as your son now faces the potential of losing a privilege already granted.
My recommendation is that you end this family drama the way you should have begun: you and your husband should together make a decision and, once you have reached an agreement, enforce it. You will have plenty of opportunities to validate your child later, but right now he needs you to be the parent looking out for his safety.
This post was previously published on A Parent Is Born.
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