Care and Feeding

Know Thyself, but Tone It Down

Can I ask my newly out son to be less flamboyant at school so his little brother won’t get bullied?

Two brothers.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Email or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My 13-year-old son recently came out as gay. There have been some ups and downs, but generally he’s confident and enthusiastic in his identity and has good, supportive friends at his all-boys school and in the wider community. All good, except …

1) His 11-year-old brother is in the intermediate school attached to the secondary school, sharing the same grounds and buses, and he’s getting bullied. It’s likely he’d be bullied anyway (he’s the youngest and smallest at the school and tends to big reactions when things go wrong, which we’re working with him on), but having an openly gay brother is just one more thing to throw on the fire. The school is aware of the bullying and so far has been dealing with it to our satisfaction, but sometimes I can’t help wishing the 13-year-old would just dial it down for his brother’s sake.

2) The 13-year-old has set up an Instagram account where he posts gay memes specifically to get into fights with fundamentalist Christians. He’s convinced of his own righteousness in this and won’t listen when we explain all the reasons this is a bad idea. It’s bad enough that he’s doing this, but also his schoolwork is suffering. He literally told me he didn’t have enough time to do his homework because his evenings are busy with Instagram. We’ve talked to his teachers and he knows there are school trips he won’t be able to go on if he doesn’t pull his socks up, but he doesn’t care. Dealing with this has also meant I feel like I haven’t been able to support the 11-year-old to the extent he needs.

—Brother Troubles

Dear BT,

I was immediately struck by one sentence in this letter the first time I read it and I can’t stop thinking about it. You say you wish your 13-year-old would “dial it down.” What does that mean? Are you suggesting he be, somehow, less … gay? I truly don’t get it, but I can’t help thinking that a large part of the trouble you’re personally experiencing lies in that sentence. If you think on any level that your one son can and should do something about his orientation that would make things easier on your other son, then the support you are currently giving to your eldest may not in any way be as much as he needs.

It is terrible and unfair that your youngest is experiencing bullying. It is also terrible and unfair that you are suggesting that it may in any way be his fault. There is not quite enough information in your letter to understand precisely what you mean by “he’d be bullied anyway” because he “tends to big reactions when things go wrong,” but that framing does raise some flags for me. Here’s a general guideline: If other kids are hurting your kid and you suspect it’s because your kid is hurting them first, you tell your kid he needs to change his behavior. If other kids are hurting your kid and you suspect it’s because your kid is just being himself, you DO NOT tell him he needs to change his behavior. You support him without blame, let him process his grief and sadness about the fact that cruelty exists, and help him figure out what he wants to do about the fact that cruelty exists. The good news here is that you are happy with the way the school is dealing with it, so were I in your shoes, I would probably continue to operate in the role of emotional support for my son, remaining always ready to step in if I lose confidence in the school’s handling.

As for your older son: I see two distinct layers to this issue, but the clearest aspect has less to do with him being gay and more to do with him, like many kids, poorly managing the competing drives of internet and schoolwork. And this is easy enough to address, though of course there are no guarantees. You need to place and enforce rules around internet usage, period. I assume you are the one paying for Wi-Fi, phones, and computers, and so you enjoy dictatorial discretion to take these things away or limit them as you see fit. Try cutting off the internet after a certain hour. Try removing his phone after a certain point of the night. Try keeping his phone until he can show you that all of his homework is done. These are all tried-and-true methods and are all entirely within your jurisdiction as a parent.

However, your letter also makes me wonder if he has enough support overall. I don’t just mean at home, but in his community. Is he a member of an LGBTQ group for young people? Does he have older people to look up to who can help him understand how to navigate the challenges unique to his situation? Is your family a member of any support groups for families with LGBTQ children? There are aspects of his experience that, if you are straight, you will never be able to quite understand, and it’s entirely possible that his pugnacious online behavior (which also strikes me as fairly age-appropriate) has to do with the fact that he doesn’t have an offline place to get the courage, strength, and emotional sustenance he needs in order to feel protected and safe. It is your job to help him find what he cannot find himself, and it is a job you should take seriously. Good luck!

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Dear Care and Feeding,

Are sports and music lessons necessary for a good childhood? Are they essential for building character? My kids, ages 6 and 9, are not interested, although they have been introduced to team sports and piano lessons. They are really content playing together at home (with interludes of arguing), but I see their friends with busy activity schedules and wonder if they are missing out. Will they get interested in sports or music later and feel way behind their peers? Or should I just respect that they like imaginative play at home right now and not push them into activities?

—Spectator Sports

Dear SS,

It is our job as parents to connect kids to positive things they would not otherwise be connected to, and to give them every opportunity to build a relationship with those things even over a little resistance. I don’t think it’s a crime not to be interested in music or sports or any other activity when you are a child, but I do think it can be a problem never to be exposed to those things at all. So I tend to think that you should find things that your child has even a passing interest in and, if you have the time and money, get them signed up to explore them further. And that’s all it is: exploration. They may find that their interest increases. They may find that they hate it, in which case you should set out a specific time period to see it through, after which they are free to leave.

The goal here isn’t for you to feel you’re matching other parents in scheduling your kids to high heaven, but rather for them to learn more about who they are, what they like (and don’t like), and what is in the world for them. I would also caution that the only time someone that young should be in multiple extracurriculars simultaneously is if they have begged you to make it so, and even then, I’d be careful. Otherwise, one scheduled activity per week is plenty. Let them spend the rest of their free time hanging out, making up games, and generally being kids. There is absolutely no need to rush it.

Dear Care and Feeding,

Every once in a while, my 4-year-old son brings up “the black sun with teeth.” This is usually at bedtime when he gets spooked out about something. We’ve had no idea what he was talking about. He told us it was from a movie, but every movie he’s ever watched has been with us, so we still couldn’t figure it out.

Last night he brought it up again, and he mentioned a “green monster.” Then it hit me: Monsters, Inc. The green monster is Mike Wazowski. A couple of years ago we tried to watch the movie, thinking he would love it, but he got freaked out and we had to shut it off after an early scene when he saw Randall, in silhouette, with that big, scary, toothy grin. This clearly traumatized him. Should I show it to him again, talking it out and trying to dispel the emotions he’s attached to the “black sun”? Or will I just make it worse?

—Primal Fear

Dear PF,

Sorry it took me so long to get to this letter; I had to listen to Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun” 30 times in a row. (R.I.P. Chris Cornell.) The only way to know if your son is ready to face down the terrifying-sounding Black Sun With Teeth is to ask him. You can explain that you remembered that it’s from a very funny kids’ movie, and that if he watches it again he might not be scared this time. And that if he wants to do that, you’ll be right beside him. Then you can let him decide when he’s ready.

Kids want to get over their fears, and one of the key components for them to do that is having a sense of agency. They are not just passive actors, simply hoping that monsters don’t show up; they have some choice. Seeing a scary thing is traumatizing. It can be very helpful for older versions of ourselves to replay traumas in a healthy way, a way in which we have control. But such a task should not be undertaken without his consent, because otherwise you do run the risk of deepening the wound. There’s no need to rush him. He’ll be over this soon enough. Continue to support, continue to provide options, and let him lead the way.