Care and Feeding

My Son Is Bullying His Asian Classmate About the Pandemic

He’s already suspended, but how else should we punish his racism?

Close-up of a white boy yelling with his hands around his mouth
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by AlexSava/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 9-year-old son was recently suspended, and may be expelled, for “teasing” (bullying) an Asian American student. My son harassed the other student and regularly insinuated that he caused the pandemic and got his classmates to join in. I’m appalled. I have no idea where he heard these types of messages, because neither my husband nor I have ever even come close to suggesting anything like that. He only goes to school and comes home, so it’s not like there are other adults in his life he could have heard this from. I’ve never heard any report of him bullying others—he was actually the one being bullied last year! He’s grounded from all electronics for six months, but that doesn’t feel like enough. What is the appropriate punishment for racism?

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—Mortified in Maryland

Dear Mortified,

Our kids live in the same country we do. As Beverly Daniel Tatum wrote in her book Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria, “Prejudice is one of the inescapable consequences of living in a racist society. Cultural racism … is like smog in the air. Sometimes it is so thick it is visible, other times it is less apparent, but always, day in and day out, we are breathing it in.” Even if your son didn’t hear this garbage at home, the former president spent months shouting about the “China Virus” and the “Kung Flu,” and there are still all the other kids and adults in your son’s life—plus a whole internet out there.

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Resisting racist scapegoating of the type we’ve seen directed at Asians since the pandemic started requires more than the passive hope or assumption that your kid won’t hear such hateful things or believe them if he does. Given the society we live in and the narratives we’re all being exposed to whether we like it or not, helping our kids first recognize and then reject racist lies like this requires our active, ongoing work. There’s no neutral choice or position here: If we’re not challenging and educating our kids about racism, we leave them at risk of perpetuating it—or enabling it, standing by and silently watching while others are harmed. This, also from Tatum’s book, is something I think about a lot, because I know that I also have and will always have work to do in this area:

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Each of us needs to look at our own behavior. Am I perpetuating and reinforcing the negative messages so pervasive in our culture, or am I seeking to challenge them? If I have not been exposed to positive images of marginalized groups, am I seeking them out, expanding my own knowledge base for myself and my children? Am I acknowledging and examining my own prejudices, my own rigid categorizations of others, thereby minimizing the adverse impact they might have on my interactions with those I have categorized? Unless we engage in these and other conscious acts of reflection and reeducation, we easily repeat the process with our children. We teach what we were taught. [emphasis mine]

You wrote asking what the “appropriate punishment” is for racism. It’s not that I think there shouldn’t be consequences for bullying, but your child has already been suspended and may be expelled. If I were you, I don’t think I’d want to get too mired in the task of meting out just the “right” punishment. All the punishment in the world isn’t going to make someone less prejudiced. Even if your kid no longer says racist things because he doesn’t want to get in trouble at home or at school, it’s his thinking you want to change—it would not be great, I’m sure you’ll agree, if he went through the world believing awful things about his fellow human beings and just not voicing them. (And let’s be real: He would probably voice them! At least, he would if the only thing currently keeping him in check is that you’ve taken his iPad.) The question is not so much “How exactly should you punish your son for the one racist thing he’s said that you’ve actually heard about?” but “How are you going to talk with him about the racist thing he did and the other racist beliefs he might be harboring?”

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The good news is that you can try to teach him and redirect his thinking. He did a terrible thing, but at 9, he’s probably still reachable. (I do want to warn you that you may have only so long to intervene before he finds his way to a scary part of Reddit or a far-right site focused on recruiting.) Since the example you have is his anti-Asian racism, you can start with that: He should receive the immediate, unequivocal message that racially targeting and blaming Asian Americans for the coronavirus is wrong. He should hear this from you, and you should help him understand why. It sounds like maybe you assumed he would know better just because you never personally encouraged him to be suspicious of or hateful toward Asians. But he clearly needs more than merely the absence of conscious, stated racism—he needs you and others to have real conversations with him about this, to challenge him on his lack of compassion for his classmate as well as his biased thinking, to point out how today’s pandemic scapegoating and attacks are part of this country’s long history of anti-Asian prejudice (which, in turn, can’t be considered without confronting anti-Blackness and the violence and harm done to other communities). You can make it clear that behavior like his could feed hatred and incite violence, that that is the legacy he’s part of when he targets his Asian classmate and gets others to join in.

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It’s not too harsh to tell him this—he needs you to give him the truth and to make the implicit explicit. It will take more than one conversation, and that’s OK. These discussions with our kids are meant to be frequent and ongoing, and should increase in nuance and complexity as they are able to understand more. In the end, your son may not actually change his thinking based on what you say, but he should still be told that what he did was racist, that continuing to say and believe such things is racist, and that racist statements and behavior won’t be tolerated at school or in your home.

As a kid, I too was “teased” for being Asian. It started when I was younger than your son. A particular bully lived near me, and after a typical day of having him yell slurs at me during recess (which I think I still might prefer to being accused of causing a pandemic that’s killed millions), sometimes I’d see him around the neighborhood. One afternoon I tried to call him out, albeit feebly, in his mother’s earshot—it was the only time I told an adult what was happening, even in a roundabout way, and I couldn’t tell you what got into me, unless maybe I thought his mom was the one person who’d care about his behavior. She heard me saying he was racist for making fun of my eyes and calling me “names” (I didn’t know to call them slurs). She turned to her son and said, “If this is true, I don’t know where you learned it. I thought you knew better.”

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Can you understand when I tell you that, to me, it’s never really mattered where he learned it, or whether he had his Game Boy taken away, or whether his parents punished him at all? What matters is that his mother had a chance to do something that day, with the new information she had. She could have decided to take necessary, ongoing action—perhaps uncomfortable for her and her son, but morally right and potentially life-changing for a lot of people, including him. She could have followed up with meaningful questions, reached out to my parents and our teachers, and, above all, started seriously, intentionally talking with and educating her son about the humanity of all his classmates and why he shouldn’t say or believe racist things. I suspect she did none of this, though I have no proof beyond the fact that he continued being a racist and a bully. The point is, as his parent, she had an opportunity then, just like you have an opportunity now. I hope, for the sake of your kid and countless others, that you take it.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

Two months ago, my 4-year-old daughter witnessed a very serious bike accident. An elderly male fell off his bike and broke his leg badly. I and two other passersby rushed to his aid, called 911, stayed until the paramedics arrived, etc.

My daughter was badly shaken—by the gory physical injury as well as the general fear/panic of the situation. I’ve talked to her about it a few times since then. I’ve tried to help her process exactly what happened and how it’s important to step up if someone needs help. We even met up with the man after he left the hospital so she could wish him well and see that he was, indeed, OK. Despite this, my daughter has become anxious and clingy. She’s terrified to ride her bike (understandable) but also to do much more mundane things: go for a walk, play outside, or anything that takes her out of the safety of our home. I thought this would fade with time, but it hasn’t. Is it ridiculous to take her to a therapist? Is this a normal reaction to a traumatic situation? Is there anything else we can do as parents to reassure her that she’s safe, and that staying in the house 24/7 is not a feasible solution to fear? I’m sure the pandemic is also contributing to this anxiety.

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—Post-Traumatic Parent

Dear PTP,

I’m sorry your child is going through this. I’m sure it must also be hard for you to see her so anxious and worried. I don’t think you’ll be able to help get her to “I’m safe and have to leave the house eventually” until she’s found space and expression for her fears and emotions, and even then, it may take some more time. When I consulted psychologist Juli Fraga, she told me that the most important thing is to validate your daughter’s feelings: “She probably can’t fully understand or process some of what she saw, given her age and development, so what you’re primarily witnessing are her feelings.” With anxiety, Fraga added, a key question is: How much of an impact is it having on daily life? If your daughter is refusing to go outside at all, it’s clearly affecting her deeply and preventing her from things she’d like to be doing. It’s entirely appropriate and not overreacting at all to have her talk with a therapist—Fraga says you might start by reaching out to your family pediatrician, who should also be able to share the names of therapists and counselors who work with children.

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She also said that it could be useful to pay attention when engaging your daughter in play or art, as these mediums can often give kids space to ask questions and share what they’re feeling or worrying about, and added that you could try searching for age-appropriate books or even television shows dealing with similar situations (if done well, these could provide other starting points to talk with your child and let her know that what she’s feeling is understandable and OK). “Anxiety often manifests physically,” Fraga noted, “so it might also help to give her some coping strategies—deep breathing/belly breaths, maybe even a book or some kind of mindfulness app for kids.” A friend told me that when they’re really anxious about something and feeling that fight-or-flight response, they sometimes find it helpful to make a short list of reasons why they are safe, right then, in that moment—perhaps this is another exercise you could try with your daughter.

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It makes sense that witnessing the accident shook your daughter’s sense of safety in the world, especially at a time when we’re all already feeling anxious and missing steadying routines, and she may well benefit from professional support in addition to the validation and conversation space you’re offering. I think the most important thing is to be patient and give your child all the time and room she needs to express her feelings any way she’s able to.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I live a mile away from my in-laws, and my husband is very close to his parents and his sister. Our 2-year-old son goes to my in-laws’ a few times a week for child care. I recently found out my sister-in-law was upset with us because we declined an invitation for a brunch she recently hosted. Our thinking was simple: It’s a pandemic, this is the type of behavior that is discouraged by public health officials because it’s driving the pandemic, and even though my SIL assured us all her co-workers (the other people she invited to the brunch) were being safe, it made me and my husband uncomfortable and we didn’t want to expose ourselves or our son. (My husband and I are also public defenders, and even though we are working remotely as much as possible, we still have to meet clients in person and appear in court occasionally, so we’re strict about social distancing—for our health and the health of our clients, who are already a vulnerable population.)

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Not only was my SIL upset with us, she didn’t bother to speak to my husband or me. Instead, she complained to my mother-in-law, who, in turn, complained to my husband. I was absolutely livid when I found out, because not only did my SIL not respect our choices and boundaries, she used her mother to guilt-trip my husband. I am also livid with my MIL for speaking to my husband, because it shows her lack of respect for our boundaries and choices, and I think it’s wrong to fight your grown child’s battles (this is part of a pattern in my husband’s family, where they cater to and coddle his sister even though she’s over 40).

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When I spoke to my husband, he told me he doesn’t want to upset his mom because she’s the only babysitter we have. I don’t want my son going there anymore, and would rather pay our nanny (who is just as strict about social distancing as us) more money or give up the afternoon child care. My husband is against this because he doesn’t want to upset his parents and he wants to keep the child care. But this is part of the larger issue I have had with his family’s lack of boundaries. I could handle it pre-pandemic because this unhealthy behavior didn’t affect our health and safety, but now it does. My husband refuses to talk to his parents or sister about this because he doesn’t want to cause a fight, but I refuse to continue this pattern. I’m also worried that my son will turn out like my SIL, and I don’t want him spending time with someone who is, honestly, an entitled, spoiled trust fund kid. What do I do? I don’t want to cause problems for my husband with his family, but his family is causing problems for my marriage.

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—Desperate in Detroit

Dear Desperate,

Are your husband’s family members really the ones causing problems in your marriage, or is it your husband’s way of dealing with them (or not dealing with them, as the case may be)?

I get that it might be easier to be “livid” with your in-laws than your spouse, to focus on your resentment of them rather than disappointment in his choices. But I think the main issue is not actually his family’s lack of respect for your boundaries; it’s that you’re having trouble even setting or enforcing any boundaries because you and he aren’t in full agreement over them. So your first step has to be to get on the same page with your husband, if at all possible. You say the two of you are both being careful about social distancing due to your jobs, so perhaps he can be brought around to acknowledge the importance of not regularly leaving your kid in the care of people who are going to crowded indoor brunches. You aren’t the only couple with some space between you on what’s an acceptable risk—but as your child’s parents, you both have to be able to feel reasonably OK about the safety of your child care situation and the choices you’ve made to try to keep your family safe.

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Beyond the pandemic/child care question, I think the two of you are going to have to keep talking about your family boundaries. Counseling could be helpful if you hit a wall when discussing this on your own. You probably aren’t going to be able to fundamentally change your in-laws or their behavior. But you and your husband do get to decide, together, what your boundaries are and how you’re going to communicate those to his family. It’s possible their behavior may affect you less if you and he can actually be a united front on this.

—Nicole

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