Care and Feeding

Sure, My Second Grader Teases His Classmates

Why does that make him a bully?

A kid making fists, looking menacing
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by max-kegfire/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,

My second grade son has been called a bully by two classmates and their parents. Yet nobody, including his teacher, says that he has ever laid a hand on anyone, because we don’t condone violence in our household. My son is known to tease other kids, but that’s what every second grader does! Have we become so sensitive as a society that kids can’t poke fun at each other without being labeled bullies? If these kids can’t handle that, then the real world will eat them alive. How can I tell these parents that their kids need to toughen up?

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—Soft Parents Equals Soft Kids

Dear Soft Parents Equals Soft Kids,

I can’t believe I have to say this to you, but just because your son is not physically violent doesn’t mean he’s not hurting kids. And I beg to differ, too—teasing other kids is not what every second grader does. I have a second grade daughter, and I’d be mortified if she or her big sister were accused of bullying their classmates—as would almost every parent I know.

I was bullied mercilessly in school by other kids who never laid a hand on me. I was called “crowbar” because I was Black and painfully thin. I had a severe speech impediment that made me stutter uncontrollably when I was nervous—and other kids had a field day with me because of it. As I sit here now, I’m an athletically built, 6-foot-2, 215-pound man who uses my voice for a living as a keynote speaker and corporate anti-racism facilitator, so I was able to overcome those two issues. But I wasn’t able to overcome the clinical depression that I still suffer from today, which was affected by the bullying I experienced. Does that make me “soft”? Probably to you it does.

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Here’s the thing: I’m cool with good-natured ribbing among friends. Because friends understand boundaries, keep us humble, and there’s no malicious intent. I dish it out and I can take it—but if a line is crossed, I’ll let my friends know and I expect them to do the same for me.

If multiple kids and their parents are accusing your son of bullying, you should assume that’s what happening. Your reaction should be “I need to discuss this with him so he doesn’t do it again,” instead of “My kid isn’t the problem. These kids are soft.” What’s next? Will he start making fun of Black people and you’ll make excuses for his behavior by saying, “Meh, it’s just Black people playing the race card again”? Teasing is often the gateway to racism, misogyny, and other forms of marginalization.

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Get your head out of your rear end and do your part to raise a kind kid, for crying out loud. If he’s constantly making other kids feel bad, then that’s on him and you—not his classmates and their parents. Do better.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I have to share something that really bothers me. My husband and I have two wonderful daughters ages 3 and 6, and we both handle our share of the child care duties. The problem is that whenever he does anything for our daughters, he gets praised for it as if he’s God’s gift to parenting. He puts our daughters in messy braids? He gets complimented for being an amazing dad. Pushes one of our daughters on a swing at the playground? He gets complimented for being an amazing dad. The worst part is that all of the people complimenting him are women I’m friends with! Meanwhile, I bust my rear end as a mom and nobody gives me a pat on the back for any of it. Should I feel resentful about this or am I just being too sensitive?

—Angry and Tired Mom

Dear Angry and Tired Mom,

I’m a dad, and I agree that you have every right to be upset. A few years ago, a photo of me holding my baby in a baby carrier while I brush my older daughter’s hair went viral, and I know the same wouldn’t have happened if a mom was in my place (see photo). Sadly, even in 2021, basic parenting tasks are viewed by many as something moms are “supposed” to do, while dudes can swoop in whenever they feel like it to create messy braids and be viewed as heroes.

The author wearing his baby in a chest carrier while he brushes his older daughter’s hair
Doyin Richards
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To be clear, I’m not a fan of moms who micromanage how dads do their jobs as parents, but I have a bigger issue with people who praise dads for doing things that dads should always be doing. From my personal experience, the people who compliment me for being a good dad for doing the bare minimum are usually moms with husbands/boyfriends who do absolutely nothing for their kids. They offer praise as a way of wishing their men would step up in a similar way. The problem with that is it makes the ordinary extraordinary for dads, which leads to the same fatigue and resentment that you’re experiencing.

Here’s one simple thing you can do: Whenever your husband receives praise from your friends for handling a simple task, ask them, “Would you give props to a mom for doing the exact same thing?” If the answer is yes, then all is well. If the answer is no, then they should keep their kudos to themselves.

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Last but not least, your husband needs to be on board with this too. Instead of taking every compliment as a stroke to his ego, he should reply as I did whenever I was praised for pushing my daughters in a stroller down the street. “I appreciate the kind words, but I’m doing what I should be doing as a dad. This isn’t special, and I’m sure you did the same for your kids.”

In order to level the parenting playing field, dads need less credit for showing up, and moms need more recognition for the thankless work they do on a daily basis.

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

• Discuss this column in the Slate Parenting Facebook group!

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My son is 17, and he’s a happy, well-adjusted, hardworking kid. I am a very affectionate and communicative father. I am deeply committed to his care and well-being, and I try to be supportive in every way I can. When he was very young, from 3 to 5 years old, I was the stay-at-home parent, and I had a very hard time controlling him. When he had tantrums, he would freak out and bite, try to stick his fingers in my mouth and eyes, and hit me in the face or wherever he could. I responded by pinching him once every time he hit me until he stopped. I never left a mark, but I did it to make him uncomfortable. It worked when nothing else that I tried did. But after reading another letter about corporal punishment and abuse, I feel terrible. If my pinching was abuse, I would like my son to know that I mistreated him, and I would like him to know that I’m available in any way to help him deal with any effects that my behavior had on him. He seems fine, and I don’t want to create a problem if one doesn’t already exist. My main concern is doing right by him. Do you have any thoughts or suggestions?

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—Corporal Regret

Dear CR,

It’s tough to know exactly how to advise you without knowing more about it all. But I’ll start by saying I appreciate the fact that you describe yourself as a supportive and loving dad to your 17-year-old. Assuming your son would agree with that statement, why do you want to dig up something that occurred over a decade ago? Is it to make yourself feel better, or is it about your kid? If your son is happy now, you don’t see any signs of emotional trauma, and you know that the nature of the pinching was not harmful or fear-inducing, then you probably would be better served to let it go. If you went through with the conversation, I can picture it going down something like this:

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“Hey, son. I just want you to know that when you were a toddler, I used to pinch you when you got out of line. I know it’s 12 years later, but I wanted to say that I’m really sorry for doing that to you.”

“Sure. Whatever, Dad. What’s for dinner?”

In other words, he’ll brush it off because he probably doesn’t remember it.

But if we’re talking about emotional and/or physical abuse (from what you describe, I don’t think occasional light pinching qualifies, but again, it’s tough to know without more details—see how federal law defines abuse here), where you created a culture of fear and you caused him serious harm, then you absolutely should have a talk with him and offer up as many sincere apologies as you’d like. I’d even suggest going to therapy together to work out any residual issues. None of that seems to apply here.

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When his time comes to be a dad, you can tell him about the pinching to discourage him from trying that with his kids. Until then, I’d let it slide and continue to work on being, as you say, “a very communicative and affectionate father.”

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My husband and I have a 14-year-old daughter who loves rock music. It’s something she shares with her dad. Obviously, a lot of the artists she listens to are white, but there are a surprising number of bands who are Black or who have Black members (we’re Black) and she listens to a lot of Black rock artists. She has a group of white friends at school who like this music as well. I have a few Black “mom friends” with kids her age who we’ve known since we moved here 10 years ago and who we saw a few times a month before the pandemic. Since we’re not meeting up in person, the kids (and moms!) meet on Zoom sometimes. The other day, I heard those kids making fun of my daughter for liking “white people music.” She tried to defend it, but they were pretty ruthless. I suspect these kids’ behavior comes from their parents—one of the other moms joked that my husband was a “race traitor” when she saw him in the background of our Zoom happy hour wearing a Rolling Stones shirt. Yesterday I was playing one of her favorite bands while we were making dinner and she asked me to “shut that drivel off.” She didn’t say it was because the other kids were teasing her, but I saw today she was listening to rap and hip-hop. I really don’t care what music she listens to, but I want to make sure it’s because she likes it and not because she feels like she has to since she’s a Black girl. When I was young, I had the opposite problem, with my white classmates teasing me for liking Black artists, so I’m not really sure how to handle this. Any idea how to broach this conversation?

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—Music Mom

Dear Music Mom,

I know this is beside the point, but what teenager says “drivel” nowadays? That’s a new one—er, old one.

Quite frankly, as a Black man, I’m upset by this story. We’re fighting in an enormous war against racism in America, a war that affects the mental health, physical health, and lives of Black people—but some of us are out here shaming Black people for liking rock music made by white people? Is this what they want to put their energy into? It’s shameful.

I’m mostly a ’90s hip-hop guy, but I also have rock music in my rotation. And guess what? I don’t give a damn about what anyone thinks about the music I enjoy. Sadly, impressionable teenagers are a different animal altogether, and very few of them have the self-confidence to say “I’m going to listen to whatever I want, regardless of what others say.” Fitting in is one of the things that adolescents value most.

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I’d start with the parents and tell them that their kids should stop teasing your daughter. No matter how you slice it, they need to be put on notice about their behavior immediately. Additionally, I think your husband needs to have a heart-to-heart with your daughter (since they share the same musical tastes, and she obviously looks up to him). He should tell her that if her friends don’t accept her for who she is, musical preferences and all, then they aren’t real friends to begin with. She should be willing and able to listen to rock music by white artists and know that the people in her life who matter will always be there for her. If she complains about the rock “drivel” again, ask her why she liked it so much recently and now feels differently (we both know the reason). It would also be a good time to remind her that few people make a sizable impact in life by being followers.

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Another thing you can do is to empower her to be her unique, amazing self. Maybe she snorts when she laughs, has funky dance moves, likes different types of music, but that’s what makes her special. Call it out and celebrate it.

What also concerns me is that your daughter can be swayed so easily. Today she could be convinced to listen to rap music instead of rock, and tomorrow she could be encouraged to try drugs. I’m not trying to scare you here—but you should do whatever it takes to help her to stay true to her convictions now before she does something later that she may regret.

Don’t get me wrong—I think Black people (and everyone else) should support Black businesses, Black artists, and others who don’t receive the same opportunities and privileges of their counterparts. I just don’t think it should be all that they support or all that they enjoy. Part of the reason we find ourselves in this racist dumpster fire is because we’re too busy despising our differences and ignoring our similarities.

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Tell your girl to rock on, and let the haters kick rocks.

—Doyin

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