Care and Feeding

Is My Kindergartner’s Make-Believe Game Racist?

A white boy and a Black boy standing back to back with their arms crossed, smiling
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by 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,

My kindergartner, “James,” has gotten off to a wonderful start at his new school. His teachers have praised his academic work and said he’s a good friend. He tells my husband and I every day that he plays with “Sam” and “Ben,” two other boys in his class. When I started asking him about what they play, he described a pirate game. I was not delighted when he told me that in the game, he and Sam are the pirates and Ben, the only Black student in their class, is their dog—named Oreo! Eek! I didn’t want to make a big deal of it, so I just asked if Ben was OK with his role in the game and moved on. But I can’t stop wondering if I should have said or done something more. I’m sure this game is completely innocent and there isn’t any racial motivation behind Ben’s role and name, but I can’t stop questioning if I need to intervene, or at least suggest they pick a new name for their pirate dog.

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—Is My Kid’s Game Racist?

Dear IMKGR,

Sure, these are kindergartners, and I bet a lot of people would write this off as “kids being kids.” I don’t share that view. Let me be very clear—you aren’t being overly sensitive in your concern that the only Black kid in class is being assigned the role of a dog named Oreo in a make-believe game.

Look, the kid probably can’t tie his shoes without help, so it’s not likely that at his age Ben is thinking deeply about the nuances of racism. He probably just wants to play with his friends and be accepted in an environment where nobody else looks like him. What I can’t say for sure is that Sam and/or James don’t have racist motivations here, because anti-Black racism is about as American as apple pie and baseball. It’s very possible they have unconscious biases that make them believe the “different kid” isn’t on their level.

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You’ve gotta do a little more detective work here, and you should start by getting to the bottom of the “Oreo” thing. For those who don’t know: Being called an Oreo means you’re Black on the outside and white on the inside. I was called that quite often in school because I got good grades and was “articulate and well-spoken,” and I had no idea that it was an insult until I was a teenager. If the boys are calling Ben that, I would bet a steak dinner that it’s not a compliment—but you still need to find out why they decided on that name so that you can correct the behavior immediately.

Additionally, do the roles change in this game? Has your son or Sam played the role of the dog before, or is it always Ben? If it’s the latter, then you need to tell your kid to switch it up or he can’t play the game anymore. I’d also alert the teacher that you’re concerned by what’s happening, along with the parents of Sam and Ben.

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Being anti-racist means to take action against racism, and that’s exactly what needs to be done here. Even if this game was innocent on its face, you can take solace knowing you did your part to ensure it didn’t escalate into something more nefarious.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I have two sons, ages 5 and 6. The 5-year-old is learning about rhymes in pre-kindergarten, and the 6-year-old is focusing on rhymes as part of his IEP, so we talk about rhymes all day every day. My 5-year-old LOVES to make up his own words and definitions. Until recently I’ve enjoyed his creativity very much. However, last week he invented a “new word” that rhymes with a cartoon character he likes named Buck and went around the house using the new word again and again. Even though listening to my beautiful boy drop the F-bomb like a sailor made me sweat, I kept a straight face. After a few minutes he stopped and hasn’t said the word again. So my question is: Should I have taken this opportunity to explain what curse words are, what they mean, and why we don’t say them? I’m also terrified he will discover a word way worse than the F word. If the word was bad enough, I don’t think I would be able to stay calm and wait for him to stop, but it seems inappropriate to snap at him, “Never say that word again,” without explanation.

—My Kid Loves Tigger

Dear MKLT,

I see what you did there with your pen name. Very clever.

I think this all depends on what type of parent you are. Do you think it’s cute when kids blurt out curse words? If so, there are a lot of parents who agree with you (I’m not one of them). However, if you think it’s a problem, then you need to curb the behavior right away.

Curse words aren’t a one-size-fits-all thing, so you could go about it in a couple of ways.

I would advise proactively telling him what some of them are—words that rhyme with buck and pit—in case he wants to start conjuring up words that could get him in trouble. You can talk to him about how they are “adult” words that aren’t suitable for kids to say in public (at school, the playground, music lessons, etc.). Personally, I’d tell him that those words most likely won’t hurt anyone’s feelings, but they could still get him in trouble with other adults. Or you could go with what my parents told me: “You can’t use those words because I said so.” Your choice.

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Regarding “Tigger”: Racial slurs are in a different category altogether. I find it hard to believe he’s going to end up randomly landing on a word that rhymes with “Tigger,” but if your son loves Tigger and rhyming as much as you say he does, then it’s worthwhile to talk to him about what not to say, if you know what I mean. I know that some kids are wired to hear what they shouldn’t say and end up repeating it out loud to get a rise out of their parents. But I would still talk to him about racial slurs. Talk to him about how hateful those words are and how they’ve been used to dehumanize BIPOC for centuries—and even use the opportunity to educate him on Black history in America (slavery, Jim Crow laws, etc.). The goal is to stress that it isn’t remotely funny to say a word that is so awful.

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I promise you that if he says something offensive to a teacher or another kid, they won’t brush it off.

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

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My husband I are both (I like to think) decent parents, and we do a pretty good job of raising well-rounded kids. We are both, however, really poor athletes. We exercise and are active with our kids, but we both lack basic eye-hand coordination skills that make team sports fun and not terrifying. My heart starts to race whenever someone says they’re going to toss something to me. I grew up without sports in my life, and while I didn’t mind as a kid, as an adult I wish that I had more exposure early on so that now I wouldn’t cringe whenever something like the idea of a softball team comes up. I would love some ideas on how to work on those fundamentals with your kids, especially when you struggle yourself. We had our kids enrolled in sports, but the pandemic has ruled that out, of course. In addition, we live in an apartment but have lots of parks nearby. Any advice would be much appreciated.

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—Still Scared of the Ball

Dear Still Scared,

Don’t be so hard on yourself. Learning new skills of any kind can be difficult, and I’ve seen this play out firsthand with sports. I coach my daughter’s second grade girls basketball team, and while the pandemic has put a damper on our practice, we constantly work on fundamentals because some of my players harbor a similar fear of the ball. I’m not sure what sports your children are into, but making sure your kids learn these basics is the way to limit the chance of them getting injured or hurt. For example, in basketball I teach my players to make a target using both hands by their chest when they’re getting ready to receive a pass. Even if they don’t catch it, the ball will usually hit their hands before hitting their bodies or their noses.

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Keep in mind that even if the ball hits them (or you!) in the nose, they’ll cry for a while, but in the end they’ll realize that it’s not that bad. I was in Little League when a ground ball took an odd bounce and whacked me in the face for the first time. I cried like crazy, but my coach told me, “If you squared up and kept your eye on the ball like I taught you, it wouldn’t have hit you.” He was right, but I also came to the conclusion that it didn’t hurt that badly.

So how should you go about teaching your kids these fundamentals? When this pandemic is over, youth sports will be a great training ground. But if you do the teaching, YouTube is a gold mine for fundamental tips and drills for beginners for all kinds of sports. Review some of the videos with your kids and head over to a nearby park to work with them. Not only will it serve as a great bonding experience, but you may end up getting over some of your fears as well.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I know everyone is trying their best to adjust to online teaching and learning, and I’m wondering what expectations are reasonable when your professor is a parent of young children. One of my instructors of a 300-level foreign language class has at least two young kids who seem to be between 3 and 6 (these are my best guesses). The class requires a lot of listening and speaking and is entirely taught in the foreign language. My professor doesn’t have a great microphone, and her teaching room is all hardwood floors and hard surfaces, so the acoustics are terrible and she can be difficult to understand, but to make it worse, her children play loudly in a nearby room for the entire class. So far, when the children get particularly loud, some students (not me) have made polite remarks (think “Sounds like they’re having fun!”), and the instructor has briefly left, presumably to ask the kids to quiet down. They do for a few minutes, but, being little kids, they quickly get lost in their play and become loud again. I’m not sure if our instructor realizes just how loud they are. They make it near impossible to hear her at times, and they’re very distracting. I mean it when I say they play for the entire duration of the class. I don’t know her child care situation, their ages, if they have special needs, etc., so I don’t want to be insensitive and make her feel bad if this is truly the best she can do while working from home. I love kids, and I’m happy they’re having so much fun, but is it unreasonable for me to email my professor and let her know how well we can hear them?

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—Class, Interrupted

Dear Class, Interrupted,

No, it’s not unreasonable to complain about her “loud kids” if you’re cool with coming off as really insensitive.

I’m sorry that you feel inconvenienced by her noisy children, but we’re in a freaking pandemic. Without even speaking to your professor, I can guarantee that she’s aware of how wild her children are and that she feels awful about it. I’d also go out on a limb and say she knows how distracting they are, but she doesn’t have any other options—just like millions of other working parents in America right now. As a keynote speaker and workshop facilitator, I can’t count the amount of times my kids have barged into my home office like the little kids in the viral BBC dad video from a while back. It comes with the territory these days.

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So, sure, you can tell the professor about how you feel—but the only thing you’re going to accomplish is making her feel bad, rather than raising awareness or solving the problem. What I think is a better option is to instead try thinking about things from another angle. Use a language app to supplement your learning, and if there are areas you are struggling in, ask to speak to her during office hours. She may be able to find a calmer environment to talk to you when she’s one-on-one with you.

Empathy is a superpower, and we need it now more than ever for working parents with kids at home.

—Doyin

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I’m a single mother, sole parent to a 6-year-old son. Next month I will be starting a new job, working 12-hour night shifts in a hospital two hours away from our home. He seems prepared for me not being with him overnight sometimes, but he recently asked for a phone of his own so we could exchange messages. I think it could be good for us. Is it a crazy idea?

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