Care and Feeding

My Teen Son Made Anti-Semitic Comments to a Classmate

How can I address this without making him shut down?

Teen with his head in his hands.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Nadezhda1906/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

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

Dear Care and Feeding,

Is my son an anti-Semite? My 14-year-old son got in an altercation in gym class that ended up with him getting hit in the face by another kid. He claimed the other kid called him names and hit him and that he didn’t know why. According to the school, based on information from the other boy and witnesses, my son called the kid chunky and commented on his big nose and Jewish ancestry. The other kid called my son a Nazi and smacked him. The school is giving my son detention and going to do “mediation” with him and the other kid. I’m horrified and have no idea where this is coming from.

My son is pretty heavily into video games and anime and does use Discord but claims he stays strictly within game- or show-related chat. He’s an OK student, with some struggles, but is overall a pretty decent kid, or seemed to be. How can I approach this with him in a way that won’t just make him shut down?

—Upset and Uncertain

Dear Upset and Uncertain,

Well, this is very bad. I am quite confident he is not using Discord for exclusively the purposes he claims, and he has lost the privilege of your trust. You are also very, very fortunate that the school is reacting to this in the manner it is and not booting him out.

He needs therapy. If he won’t open up to the first therapist, you’re going to have to keep looking for one that he feels able to talk to. He’s 14, not a 6-year-old, and I don’t want the moodiness and melancholy of puberty to jell with Extremely Online Edgelord Discourse and spit out an older teen you no longer recognize and now have no meaningful control over.

If he has a phone (of course he has a phone), you gotta take it. He can use a family computer in the living room for schoolwork, and you can give back video games in return for good-faith participation in the mediation and in therapy.

While all this is happening, please let him know he is still greatly loved and cared for, that you are worried about him, and that you know he is a good person who has made a mistake. I want him to remain confident in your love and his place in your family, especially as he experiences the consequences of his actions. The last thing you want is for him to be like “life was great until that Jewish kid punched me and my family blamed me for it,” which is probably going to be his initial reaction regardless.

I do not want you to overcompensate by making him watch all nine hours of Claude Lanzmann’s (brilliant) Shoah, but you also need to talk about anti-Semitism and the dangers of getting sucked into the eternal scapegoating of the Jewish people for the ills of the world. I am sure you had not planned on needing to explicitly talk about this with your young teen, but, well, here we are.

Please write a fulsome letter of apology to the other young man on your own. Hopefully your son will eventually do so as well. Please update us.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My niece and nephew (3 and 5, respectively) have to be more or less herded to the sink to wash their hands after going to the bathroom. They’ll do it (eventually), but you have to insist multiple times and watch them like a hawk to make sure that they actually do it as opposed to going “OK!” and then running off to play.

To complicate things further, while my sister and her husband are pretty consistent about asking their kids to wash their hands, they’re not as good about watching them to make sure it gets done.

—What’s an Aunt to Do?

Dear WaAtD,

You have to make 3- and 5-year-olds do pretty much everything that isn’t eating candy. That’s just reality. What happens when they’re at home is their parents’ business. When they’re with you, you make them wash their hands after they use the bathroom, before they eat, and when they’ve been out in public.

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

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I stay home with our two children, ages 2 and 5, while my wife works. I want to learn some strategies to encourage self-play on the part of my older one, “Gabriel.” He is highly adverse to playing alone, especially in his room. He doesn’t just want to do a puzzle; he wants me to do a puzzle with him. He doesn’t (usually) want to read; he wants me to read to him or to read to me. Part of this is jealousy of his younger sister. Sometimes I’m reluctant to even sit down, lest my lap becomes a site of their rivalry. But the fact is that she does take more of my attention, especially since potty training is ongoing. It’s nice when they play together, but it would be very helpful if he could turn more to self-reliant play.

Gabriel has personalized his room in lots of ways, including filling it with his drawings. He has books, toys, and musical instruments he likes to play. But he rarely chooses to play there on his own and treats the suggestion that he do so like it would be a banishment (though we rarely punish him by sending him to his room—when we do, he fights tooth and nail against it). He will sometimes play on his own in the backyard.

Gabriel is very willful and certainly cannot be made to play on his own, in his room or elsewhere. He needs to be brought around to wanting to do it. Any ideas?

—Please Entertain Yourself

Dear PEY,

He’s 5. Interactive play is really important as a developmental step (from first solo play, then parallel play), and he’s, well, right on time.

I understand that it’s hard to make that time when you’ve got a toddler trying to put her eye out on the coffee table, and it can be crushingly boring (it’s true!) to play games with a 5-year-old, but he’s not being unreasonable, he’s developing an incredibly vital skill, and he needs someone to do it with him. He just does.

This means you need to find a way to meet his need that isn’t “just … go hang out in your room.” But it doesn’t mean you have to be this person 24/7. Find this child some play dates! I know that many of us are now looking at public spaces like they’re horror movies, but I am confident that other parents are also looking for alternatives to the hideous germy ball pit at McDonald’s and that you can find some kids to come play with Gabriel in his toy-filled room or in the backyard.

Establish some good quality time you can spend playing with him, get him some peer interaction, and I suspect you’ll see less “willfulness” and more “happy, tired 5-year-old.” He sounds very normal to me.

Are You Ready to Be With Your Kids All Day, Every Day?

Dan Kois and Jamilah Lemieux are joined by Carvell Wallace on this week’s episode of Slate’s parenting podcast, Mom and Dad Are Fighting.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My parents are in their early 70s in reasonably good health, well-off financially, and have always made prudent financial decisions, except for one thing: my brother. He is 32 and a complete disaster. He’s also married to a narcissist who lies and takes advantage of everyone, especially my parents. She is chronically on social media trying to elicit support and sympathy for made-up ailments and situations and posting lies. My brother has committed a felony, which has propelled my parents to bankroll his entire life, including paying for the legal fees, and he’s never kept a job. Most recently my parents bought him (another) house. I know they are also taking advantage of her parents as well, and then lying to each set of parents that the other set refuses to help them.

They are so horribly mean to my parents and constantly pick fights with my mom and insult her, her home, etc. I know it is my parents’ responsibility to set boundaries, and they are making the choice to refuse! My brother and SIL continually provoke fights with me as well. My parents are completely in denial and expect me to go along with this delusion.

My husband insists I draw boundaries with them, such as refusing to discuss my brother, and I have, but I am so bitter! My children are also missing out on a relationship with their grandparents. We have not visited for over a year because last time my SIL called me a bad mother in front of my son and got into a screaming fight with my mother. I yelled back at my SIL, but my father blamed me for stirring up trouble. My 8-year-old son witnessed the entire thing and was very upset and stressed, which brought up the memories from my own childhood. What can I do? Is my husband correct that I need to just completely separate from my family dysfunction?

—Daughter of Dysfunction

Dear Daughter of Dysfunction,

I am afraid your husband is correct. Your parents, as you have said, are of sound mind and body and are just continuing to make the terrible choices they have been making all along. If they complain to you, you can reiterate, “Yes, they are using you, and you are enabling them.” You can’t make them do anything. You can only be the voice of reality if they reach out.

Your son will be better off not being exposed to a minute more of this. Not everyone gets grandparents, and not everyone gets good grandparents. They are not befuddled—they’re 100 percent all-in with your unpleasant brother and SIL.

I wish you had something you could do, but they’re just being ridiculous and will have to deal with the consequences of their actions and inactions. The only things you can do are to focus on your nuclear family life and relentlessly detach from throwing more good energy after bad. Also, I think you would benefit from therapy at this point. It’s very hard to break lifelong patterns. Eventually, when one or both of your parents pass, this will all become a legal nightmare, and you will want to communicate only via a lawyer. In the meantime, lock down your social media so you do not see your SIL’s posts. That’s just guaranteeing you a headache.

I’m very sorry.

—Nicole

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