Care and Feeding

“The Brown Guy”

My white sons keep complaining about “the brown guy” in their day care. How should I proceed?

Three white kids seated a ways off from a black kid by himself.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by monkeybusinessimages/iStock/Getty Images Plus and Comstock.

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,

My sons (one is almost 6, starting kindergarten in the fall; the youngest turned 3 in February) just started going to a day care center for two days a week (Monday and Friday). We were previously using a private babysitter, but she has had two kids of her own since starting with our boys, and it was getting to be too much for all involved.

My boys seem to like the center so far. The only hiccup has been “the brown guy” that is in their classroom (their words for him … I’ll call him “T”). Let me state that we live in a predominantly white area, and this is my boys’ first exposure to anyone looking different than them. Also, I am assuming that we are one of the few families paying full tuition (or, as the center says, we are “over income”). We are not wealthy by any stretch, but we get by. I’m treading very carefully here and trying not to sound like a pretentious, entitled white lady. I’m working through some guilty feelings on both fronts there, but I know I am no better than anyone and I’m trying to teach my boys the same thing.

Both of my sons have complained that T has hit them and generally makes a lot of noise in class. I mentioned this to an employee in their classroom (not the teacher herself, who was tied up at the moment), who told me that T has “boundary issues” and promised to make sure the teacher knows what has been going on.

Is there anything else I should be doing here? I don’t love the hitting part, and I would be just as upset if it were any other kid in the room doing it. However, I feel concerned that it’s T that my sons have zeroed in on because he is the only “brown guy” in the room. When they refer to him that way, I correct them with his name. I try not to dwell on differences, and I certainly don’t want to instill biases on them that they may not even have yet. I also don’t want to encourage them to be friends or interact with him if he really is just a jerk.

For now, I think it’s a case of them not liking the loud kid that occasionally may be in their personal space bubble, and they just aren’t sure how to advocate for themselves. Any thoughts or insights would be helpful.

—Don’t Want to Be a Snoot

Dear DWtBaS,

I appreciate that you want to be sensitive to issues of race or class that may be arising in the dynamic between T and your kids (or is it T versus everybody?), though I should remind you that for people of color, they are one and the same. T’s family could outearn yours, and he could still be faced with significant social challenges. For example, Black boys from well-to-do families are more likely to grow up to be poor than they are to match their parents’ success.

I had to Google the word snoot. Contextual clues proved correct, and it is, as I suspected, the root word of snooty—someone snobbish or classist—but I’ve never heard anyone use it before. It may be common among your social circle or folks in your hometown, but it’s brand new to me. Why does that matter? Well, as a “brown girl”—of the Black variety, to be exact—I am keenly aware that there are some significant differences in how you and I may communicate, and in how our respective children may communicate, and (you see where I’m going here) in how T may communicate in comparison to your sons or other children in the classroom.

It’s worth considering what T may have been trying to communicate with these alleged hitting incidents. Your little ones have made it a habit of calling him “the brown guy.” How might their understanding of him as an “other” or as different translate into how they treat him?

I’m not clear on what T’s ethnic background actually is, but the fact that he is a brown-skinned child in a class full of white kids leaves him vulnerable in many ways, especially if the staff hasn’t taken any measures to ensure his safety and comfort as well as their own ability to treat him fairly. I wonder what his alleged boundary issues might be, as behaviors that may be identified as disruptive, mischievous, or inappropriate in “brown” children are sometimes labeled as free-spirited, easily excited, or tenacious when exhibited by white ones.

The pathway to prison often begins for rambunctious Black and Latinx children at this very stage of their lives. Teachers often carry the same preconceived notions about people based on race that we see on tragic display with each viral video of a violent police encounter (ironically, the most recent clip to garner nationwide attention featured a little girl who could be your children’s classmate), and the result is often punitive. According to data from the National Women’s Law Center, some 50,000 children are suspended from public preschools each year. Though Black boys like T make up just 19 percent of the preschool population, they account for 45 percent of the males suspended. The stats aren’t any less grim for Black girls, who make up 20 percent of the preschool population but represent 54 percent of the suspensions for their gender.

T has been identified by your children as a noisemaker and by at least one staff member as having “boundary issues” in a class full of kids who don’t look like him, which leaves me to wonder if he’s simply That One Kid Who Can’t Keep It Together, or if he’s simply reacting to his environment. He gets reprimanded often for making noise, but does that mean he’s actually the loudest child, or the one most likely to be called out when he’s loud? Also, if your instincts are correct and T is receiving free or discounted tuition, his enrollment may be jeopardized by repeated concerns from (white) parents about his behavior.

So, DWtBaS, if this situation weren’t bothersome enough … now you have to think about this child’s future being threatened if he gets suspended from school and how his family might be impacted if they were to lose their child care. That’s a huge burden to hold, right? Well, imagine living with it your entire life. Welcome to the magic of racism, where there’s a completely different set of standards for your behavior than with white folks and you can almost never prove that you’re being treated unfairly unless you’re in conversation with other people of color. It’s a constant source of anxiety and T isn’t too young to have begun recognizing that 1) he’s “different” and 2) it may impact how he’s treated in that classroom.

Finally, about the hitting. Far be it from me to suggest that your sons are straight-up lying, but “the brown guy did it” is a time-honored refrain in this country, a veritable get-out-of-whatever-trouble-looms card for white folks. Is it possible that the boys were also involved in the hitting? Or that T struck them because they treat him like “the brown guy”?

I’m not simply advocating for T; I’m giving you a tremendous amount of context in hopes that you take it all in and consider what this child’s place in the classroom (and world) may be as you decide how to best handle this situation. As you said, it is entirely possible that he’s just a little rough-ass kid and doesn’t know how to socialize well. But it’s also possible that he could socialize just fine in a space where no one would label him “the brown guy.”

You need to spend some time exposing your kids to people of different backgrounds and talking to them about bias. Before you take any more steps to address what is happening in class with teachers or T’s parents, take efforts to understand just how your sons have treated him, what being “the brown guy” represents to them, and what you can do to ensure that they don’t associate his racial difference with negativity of any sort. Being a “snoot” is unkind; being a racist can have lethal consequences. Your heart seems to be in the right place; now you’ve got to make sure your kids are able to conjure the same empathy and understanding.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I am a divorced, single mom with two boys, 9 and 12. I need a lot of sleep, and my kids are classic bedtime resisters. I took a new job, and my day needs to start much earlier than in the past (my alarm is going off at 5:30 a.m., and I am out the door at 6:30). Meanwhile, my kids can sleep until about 8.

The result of this is that I really want to be heading to bed by 9:30, and my kids aren’t ready or willing to sleep until closer to 10. I have recently started making sure they’re “ready” for bed (brushed, washed, in PJs), and then I read to them and I go upstairs. I leave them downstairs playing with three rules: head up at 10 on the dot, turn all the lights off, and no screens in bed. I have a nagging suspicion that they are using screens and are not going up right at 10, but it’s difficult to prove without staying up, which is very difficult for me to do.

Does this routine sound OK? My concerns are, first, that they are going to bed at midnight after two hours of inappropriate and excessive screen watching. And second, that it makes me a terrible mother. Changing my workday isn’t an option, and I don’t think making them go to bed earlier and getting them up earlier is either.

—Mom Needs Sleep

Dear MNS,

Is there an adult who can comment on how well rested the kids seem in the morning? At the end of the week? Exhaustion is pretty hard to hide, and these boys aren’t gonna be using concealer or eye cream to distract from it. If you have reason to believe that they are violating your trust and this important rule, you can collect the screens before you head to bed and leave them in the kitchen on your way to work in the morning. You can also use the Screen Time parental control app to see just what, if anything, they are up to after 10 p.m. for a few weeks (don’t tell them!) and then use the app to set limits accordingly.

Also, you are NOT a terrible mother. You read nightly to boys who are damn near in middle school. You may be some sort of magical being from a planet of mothers that we haven’t colonized and ruined yet. You also have the good sense to prioritize your rest without disrupting a routine that seems to be working for your sons.
Don’t you dare shortchange yourself—you’re doing great!

• If you missed Monday’s Care and Feeding column, read it here.

• Discuss this column in the Slate Parenting Facebook group!

Dear Care and Feeding,

We have the same fight with our 3-year-old on the way out of the house every morning. She asks, “Where are we going?” If we answer, “To day care,” she screams and cries—sometimes just a little bit, but in the worst cases, she gets so hysterical that she hyperventilates. I try to ignore her fussing, but it makes getting ready such a struggle. On days that she truly “doesn’t want to go,” she will refuse to get dressed, and I have to forcibly dress her. Sometimes I have to use a little bribe to get her in the car, like a small cookie or some other form of treat. Yet she’s always happy by the time we drop her off and is playing contently when we go to pick her up.

Should I just not answer her when she asks where we’re going? Any other tips for avoiding the daily tantrum? She’ll be leaving her small, cozy home day care center for a more traditional preschool in the fall, and I’m worried she’ll behave the same way when the setting changes. Help!

—Tired of Tantrums

Dear ToT,

It sounds like your little one is dealing with separation anxiety, which is very common in babies and toddlers. The idea of leaving the comfort of her home and/or her parents makes her uneasy and perhaps a bit scared, even though she may love her day care and feel totally comfortable spending her day there. When I was in preschool, I went through a period where I cried my eyes out every single day when it was time for my mother to depart. Like your pumpkin, I was happily living my best life by the time she came to pick me up.

This very dramatic stage should end soon; however, you are right to be concerned about how the new school may impact her morning moods, as a change in environment is likely to trigger those anxious feelings. Now is a good time to get rigid about rituals: establish set times for tucking her in, waking her up, serving breakfast, and getting dressed. Make the morning as consistent as possible; if you typically eat before bathing, changing that up can make your daughter feel even more worried and frustrated than the looming separation from her parents. Incorporate a cuddle session and perhaps even a little play or screen time into her routine.

If you find yourself facing the same irate child each day after the first two months of the new school, it may be time to bring in some professional help. She could be dealing with separation anxiety disorder, which is a bit more serious and can be managed with the help of a therapist or counselor.

This is surely nerve-wracking, but the fact that she enjoys her time at day care should give you some relief. She’s not panicking because you’re sending her into an unsafe situation; she’s just really comfortable and content in your presence. Hopefully, she’ll soon make peace with the unfortunate reality that we have to leave our homes each day and face a world that isn’t as comfortable as the loving embrace of our parents. In the meantime, do what generations of adults have done before us and pretend that outside is a great place to be.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My son is turning 4, and we’ll be celebrating with a birthday party. He has a ridiculous number of toys already, so I don’t want people bringing gifts. However, I’ve noticed at other folks’ events that even when the invite clearly states, “No gifts!” people still bring them. Would it be tacky to say something like, “Please no presents! Instead, bring $5 to donate to [local animal foster group we like].” I know people don’t like showing up empty-handed, so my goal is to give them something to bring that won’t get shoved in the back of a closet. Help!

—Your Presence Is a Present

Dear YPIaP,

How does your child react to seeing other kids get birthday presents at their parties? It may be difficult for a 4-year-old to have such a mature perspective on having “enough” possessions that he’s fine not receiving any gifts during an event where he may be used to seeing them presented. He’s so widdle! Now, if he’s getting goodies from his parents and extended family members before or after the party, then perhaps the bounty from his classmates may be a little gratuitous. But if he’s unlikely to get many gifts otherwise, this ritual that will only last a few more years isn’t the worst indulgence.

Either way, consider asking attendees to bring gifts for a child his age that will be donated to a local shelter. That way, even folks who bring something with your kid in mind because they “forgot” or didn’t read the instructions will be contributing to what can be a great teachable moment for your son and a blessing for other families that aren’t as fortunate.

You can also spend time with your little one sorting through his existing toys and identifying things that he is ready to part ways with and include them in your donation. That way, if there’s something undeniably cool that is gifted to him during the party, he’ll have already made room for it in his expansive collection of toys.

Another great option: gift cards! I have offered them as a suggestion for my little one’s last few b-days and more than half the guests have complied, which has cut down on the excess toys in our home. We use them throughout the year for special items, and they’ve been good for helping her understand how to spend a certain dollar amount without going over budget.

Be sure to balance your concerns over raising a greedy child with the reality that kids like gifts, and it would suck to be the only one who doesn’t get any on his birthday, especially if he’s had to accompany you to shop for his little buddies. Adulthood and the end of everyone caring enough about his birthday to buy him anything will be here to steal his joy soon enough.

—Jamilah

More Advice From Slate

My parents had an acrimonious divorce when I was a baby, and my dad kidnapped me for a period of three months. I don’t remember any of it, or the immediate aftermath. Since then, my dad has been an incredibly loving and supportive parent to me. My mom still hates my dad, and I don’t blame her for that, but she expects me to hate him too. How can I tell my mom I understand her feelings about my dad but ask her to stop taking them out on me?