Care and Feeding

Our Babysitter Has Given My Daughter a Super-Racist Nickname

How do I tell her to knock it off?

A young woman with her hands over her mouth, looking shocked.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by metamorworks/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

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

Dear Care and Feeding,

I love our babysitter but not the nickname she’s given my daughter. My child is 2 and doesn’t speak in clear sentences yet. (It’s fine! Our pediatrician isn’t worried, and I’m not either.) My babysitter passingly joked that she calls my daughter “the Chinaman” because of how she speaks. I don’t think it’s a hostile comment, just an ignorant one.

I’m multiracial Asian. I can pass as white, but I’ve referenced visiting family in our country of origin. For obvious reasons I am really upset by this nickname. When it happened the first time, I just let it go. Now it’s happened several times, and I haven’t been able to speak up about it because I’m so shocked every time. How do I tell her to knock it off?

—Silent Rage

Dear SR,

Oh, this one is easy.

“You know, I find it really offensive when you call my daughter a racial slur because of how she speaks. I know you probably don’t feel like you meant it in a hostile way, but I’m sure you can understand that in a country that has a long history of violence and exclusion against Chinese people, that word should never be said. I would have said something earlier, but to be honest, the first few times you said it I was so shocked that someone as kind as you seem to be would ever say something like that that I was honestly at a loss for words. I would love to continue to work with you, but I need to make sure I never hear that word coming out of your mouth again. Is that understood?”

If it’s not, then maybe she’s not as good a babysitter for your family as you think. I’m sorry you had to deal with that.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My 13-year-old daughter is a delight. She’s a good student, a black belt in karate, and a generally kind, sweet kid. She’s beautiful, she has a lot of friends who are also delightful kids, and everyone loves her. She participates in the church youth group, takes dance classes several days a week, and teaches younger karate students in addition to her own training sessions. She’s very busy and active, and we are very proud of her.

My concern is her relationship with food. It has been evident from toddlerhood that she has inherited my and my partner’s tendency toward compulsive overeating. She is approximately 20 pounds overweight for her height and age, but I’ve always tried to treat her weight as a symptom rather than the problem. It’s not about her appearance at all, but the extra weight she carries has impacted her ability to progress through the ranks in karate because she lacks the stamina to pass the various fitness challenges required to move ahead. We have caught her many times in the past hiding food, stealing money from us to buy food, and bingeing on food when she is alone at home after school.

We have talked to her over and over, tried to model good habits, taken her to a behavioral nutritionist, gotten help from her pediatrician—and everything else we can think of. Her behavior improves for a short time, but then starts up again. When we talk to her and ask her questions (What were you feeling when you ate six slices of pizza? Why do you feel like you need to hide food in your room?), she doesn’t have any answers, and she is no more forthcoming with professionals we have taken her to. Her weight has recently spiked again, and after a long time of just standing back watching and monitoring, I feel that I need to step in again, but I don’t know how. I don’t want to damage her self-esteem or my relationship with her at this important age, but I am very concerned and feel compelled to do something to help her.

—Collapsing Under the Weight

Dear CUtW,

My clearest impulse in reading this letter is that your daughter could probably benefit from you backing up off of her just a little bit. I’m not suggesting that she doesn’t have a problem, but what I am suggesting is that I don’t think your current approach is helping a great deal with it.

I wonder what would happen if, as a thought exercise, you imagined the letter she might write to an advice column about her relationship with you. Would she say you were blowing things out of proportion? Projecting some of your own stuff onto her? Treating things as emergencies that are not quite emergencies? There is always a temptation to bring our own issues into our parenting, especially of teens. It’s tempting to graft our own worst-case scenarios onto their experiences, especially when our kids’ experiences echo our own. So I think we have to be doubly vigilant not to do that.

I couldn’t help noticing that, at least according to what you wrote, your daughter isn’t experiencing depression or anxiety, isn’t planning or contemplating suicide or self-harm, and isn’t facing medical problems related to her binge-eating disorder. You describe her as a happy, busy, involved, kind, pleasant, socially active, and highly functional person. This indicates to me that you don’t need to engage in the most urgent of interventions. You can be more supportive than prescriptive. You can make yourself available for her to talk but hold back from pressuring her to open up to you. You can avoid nagging her, lecturing her, or making her feel like she’s failing you. You can instead focus on talking with her in a patient, kind, loving, respectful way. You can respect that her experience may be different than yours, and that even though you may not understand it, it can be totally valid.

As a family, you can make sure—as I’m sure you already are—that you have plenty of family activities that don’t center on food. Things like family walks, board games, Frisbee, etc. You can make sure that you don’t comment on other people’s weight and eating habits. Most of all, you can make sure that you don’t think of yourself as having to execute a direct and simplistic plan to fix her. Whatever your daughter is going through is complex and layered and clearly does not respond predictably to the interventions you’ve come to believe in.

Your daughter needs an ally. If she’s struggling with food, she knows it. She doesn’t need you to tell her. You may also need to accept that you can’t, through some magical combination of interventions, make it go away on your timeline. It’s bigger than you, and you are not in charge. Love her, support her, and be a friend to her. Put away your judgment and quiet the voice of fear. She is lucky to have you.

Good luck.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I am single and live close to my sister and brother-in-law and sometimes babysit their children. I am generally more online than both of them, and so I think that I am more aware of not wanting to do things like gender-stereotyping either of the children. So far, they seem to be going down quite a typical route—my 3-year-old nephew plays with dinosaurs and robots and toy tools, for example. Anyway, I really don’t get involved with how they want to parent their children, but my brother-in-law does one thing that really breaks my heart. The other day, they were at my house, and my nephew somehow broke a glass bauble from my Christmas tree. He got upset and cried, and we were all comforting him and saying it was OK. My brother-in-law said, “Come on, be a big brave boy.” I know he has said this before. The child is 3! And it just upsets me that this stereotype of “boys don’t cry” is already being fed. Is it ever my place to say anything, perhaps to my sister? I feel like it’s not, but it just pains me so much, and I would love some advice.

—Separating the Men From the Boys

Dear StMFtB,

I believe it is absolutely your place to say something to your sister. You cannot expect her to genuflect and change her and her husband’s ways outright and immediately, but that shouldn’t be the reason you are doing it. You should be doing it because you feel it’s important to disrupt the legacy of toxic masculinity, or to at least try. The implications of this kind of stuff range far more widely than your little nephew, whom I’m sure you love. It is, of course, about the world we are creating and the world we are forcing our children into. And when that is what’s at stake—not just parenting philosophy—then I think it becomes easier to speak up on issues like this.

The key, of course, is to do so without turning it into the Woke Olympics and giving yourself a gold medal. First of all, don’t come in all judgey. Your brother-in-law is just doing what he believes is good parenting. He no doubt loves his li’l guy and is trying to prepare him for the world the best way he knows how. That’s not a crime, and that’s not the toxic part, so don’t start treating people like they are the enemy just because they don’t know about some shit you learned on Twitter a month ago.

(Forgive me, I may be going off on a tangent meant for the whole world here.)

Secondly, keep the focus on helping the kid, not on being right. Talk to your sister about how this language could be harmful for her son. Tell her about how boys suffer from depression, violence, self-harm, and more when they feel that certain feelings—like grief or sadness or vulnerability—aren’t safe. Make it a conversation, not a lecture. Listen to her questions, doubts, thoughts about the topic. Don’t make yourself the expert. Let yourself be someone who genuinely cares.

—Carvell