Care and Feeding

My Teen Is About to Fall Down the Male-Power Incel Rabbit Hole

How do I help him through this crisis of masculinity?

Teen boy looking frustrated nearby two teen girls.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Valeriy_G/iStock/Getty Images Plus and DGLimages/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 son is 14, and he’s coping with identity issues that I could really use some advice about. Last night, he was complaining about English class. “All we talk about is stuff like, I dunno. How women are so great and can defend themselves and shit.” Alarm bells, right? I probed a little, and he started getting upset. He talked about the girls in his class being aggressive towards the boys, accusing them of … he wasn’t sure what. Mumbled a few things about sexism, the patriarchy. “You know, this whole ‘kill all men’ thing.’” And with that, he burst into tears. “I’m white—I’m male—and I’m probably straight!” he sobbed (at 14, he maintains that the jury is still out on that last one). “It’s like, I can’t say anything! And the girls, they can say anything they like!” Of course, we talked about those girls being out of line, but also about how real sexism is—that he can be proud of who he is and support feminism (and Black Lives Matter, and LGBTQ rights, etc.) at the same time. And ignore purposefully provocative stuff like #killallmen.

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Still, I’m concerned. My feeling is that he’s pretty well inoculated against racist and homophobic propaganda. But clearly, he’s struggling with his masculinity. I really worry that he might stumble across a few clever Jordan Peterson videos and end up falling down some nasty male-power incel rabbit hole … Do you have any advice as to how to deal with this? In particular, do you know of any good age-appropriate books or podcasts or shows or whatever that deal with these topics—especially the “crisis of masculinity”—in a sensitive way? A way that’s in sync with feminist values?

—Feminist Mom in Need of Advice!

Dear F.M.i.N.A.,

Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be red-pilled! I think you’re on the right track here, and while I’m not super worried about your son falling down an incel rabbit hole, I do understand and sympathize with your concerns. The girls in his English class are experimenting with an extreme version of their authentic selves, and that’s super normal at their age, if also super annoying. If your son does end up dabbling in the dark web, I think as long as he’s communicating with you this openly you don’t have to fear that he’ll be permanently radicalized.

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I have an idea (besides: keep talking!) that is a little bit out of left field, and will only work if your son is open to it, but might be worth a shot. I recently watched all three seasons of Cobra Kai on Netflix, because it’s a pandemic and I ran out of TV. Have you seen it, or the original Karate Kid movie that it’s based on? It’s kind of brilliant and also very dumb, in a great way. It’s about two warring martial arts dojos, both helmed by middle-aged guys whose teenage kids are rival champions, just as they were when they were in high school. Daniel is “nice” and teaches nonviolence and self-defense, but he’s shortsighted and often lashes out in ways that he winds up regretting. Johnny is “mean” and teaches his students no mercy and “strike first,” has no idea the last 30 years of political discourse have occurred, calls his students “pussies,” but also is a much better teacher in many ways. I might be reading too much into it, and in fact almost certainly am, but I think the show is valuable because of the way it approaches the culture of masculinity directly. You and your son could watch it together and talk about it, if he doesn’t hate this idea immediately. And then maybe you guys could make a podcast about doing that, because there should definitely be more feminist cultural content that’s aimed at boys, not just their concerned moms.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

Our 16-year-old daughter is in 10th grade, attending a high school that has a religious affiliation. She has a religion and history teacher (male) who occasionally makes flirtatious comments during class instruction (“please turn on your monitor so we can see your cute little face”) or seems to bring in sexual themes when it does not necessarily align with the coursework. She has brought this up from time to time this year, noting that other students (both male and female) feel weird about his comments. Due to remote learning, they have recordings of all the classes, complete with a few of these awkward references. They wonder if they should say something to the administration. To date, neither she nor we have approached him or the school leadership, and she is not aware that any students have moved forward either.

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Today, he assigned John Donne’s poem, “Batter my heart, three-person’d God.” This poem’s last three lines are highly sexualized—and her analysis of the meaning led to a discussion with us about sexual violence, eroticism, etc. We all felt uncomfortable that he had assigned the poem, but we didn’t know if we were justified in feeling that way. She wrote an empowered, forceful response to the material, and sent her submission with a personal note telling him that she was uncomfortable with his assignment. We were very proud of her self-advocacy and professionalism. He sent back a long response about why this was a significant poem of the time, doubling down on themes of submission, ravishing, etc. As she read it to me, my candid response was, “Ew, now I’m creeped out.” We are sure she will share her point of view in class if this continues, and we don’t worry for her physical safety, or reprisal for speaking her mind.

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Here is our quandary: She wonders what her responsibility is. Should she say something to the administration? Does she encourage her classmates to say something? Should we approach the administration? We do not want to escalate this to something beyond what it is. At the same time, it just feels … off. Does this set off alarm bells? Is there a way to say “you may want to check this out” to the administration without it becoming a huge thing? We don’t want to harm his career unnecessarily, and we also want to defend safe spaces for our daughter and classmates.

—Would You Escalate This?

Dear W.Y.E.T.,

Yeah, actually I think it’s OK if this guy’s career suffers, and I wouldn’t say it’s “unnecessarily.” There’s no circumstance in which it’s OK for a teacher to flirt with a 10th grader. Worrying about the consequences of his inappropriate behavior is his problem, not yours. You don’t have an obligation to protect the career of someone who has behaved inappropriately to kids, especially since he has responded to being called out by doubling down.

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You and any fellow parents who share your concerns should meet to discuss how you will raise your concerns with the administration, and then do so. Since the classes were recorded and he’s been corresponding with your daughter via email, you can easily demonstrate exactly what your concerns are. After that, it’s up to them to decide what to do.

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Your daughter sounds like a mature person with a strong sense of her own self-worth and healthy boundaries, and she also has parents who trust her and will back her up. Not all the kids this creepy teacher will encounter are going to be as lucky and self-possessed as your daughter. For their sake, don’t be afraid to listen to your gut. Where there’s smoke, unfortunately, your school’s investigation may find that there’s fire.

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

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I’m a 29-year-old adult living with my parents, and I assist them in running a small business. We get along well for the most part, have similar interests, we love and support each other, what have you. But recently I have been having increased relationship stress with my mother. A few years ago, I came out to family and friends as nonbinary (for the purposes of this letter, I was assigned female at birth but am decidedly masculine leaning). I have since had my name legally changed, begun using they/them pronouns, and have received a lot of positive feedback and support from friends and family. Recently, I also began gender-affirming hormone therapy, and am now planning on undergoing top surgery. This has seemingly caused a lot of concern for my mother.

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I was never what you would call a rebellious child. I’m a quiet and introverted, straight-edge, shy person to this day. But on the day I came out, I went out without telling her and got a pixie-style haircut. Up until that point, through childhood to adulthood, she had not permit me to cut my hair past my shoulders, seeming to imply the rule as part of my conditions for living at home. Looking in the mirror that day and feeling like I could finally look like myself, it felt like my very first act of bodily autonomy. My mother embraced my declaration of identity wholeheartedly when we talked later that day, but still seemed to dislike my choice in hairstyle. It took her months to finally admit that she thought short hair suited me better. She also had a similarly implied rule banning me from tattoos. I have three now. She still doesn’t like them, persistently saying I will come to regret them, but has given up on trying to convince me to remove them or not get any more. Now that I have begun hormone therapy, I experience further bodily changes from week to week. I’m very excited about growing facial hair, dropping in vocal register, buying a new wardrobe, and becoming that much closer to the version of myself that exists internally. But my mother only seems to emphasize the downsides to these changes—losing my soprano range, having oilier skin, increased health risks that come with hormone therapy, the cost of elective surgery, volatile emotions, inability to have children (I have never wanted and will never want kids of my own).

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When I ask her why these things bother her, she seems only to repeat the same thing she said when I cut my hair or got a tattoo—“You were born perfect, I love you just the way you are, and I want you to see how beautiful you are the way I see you.” More or less, she fears that I will be making a permanent change that I won’t be able to undo. I love my mother, and I don’t want our personal or professional relationship to lose meaning. But these persistent doubts and microaggressions make it harder than ever to feel like I can be myself with her. What can I do to help put her worries to rest for good?

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—Hormonal in Heyward

Dear Hormonal,

Your mom is responsible for doing the work that she needs to do in order to love and accept you as you are, and not as she once wanted you to be. You can’t help her get there. In fact, anything you do that is aimed at reassuring her or assuaging her doubts about your choices is likely to become fodder for her criticisms, which will push you further away.

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Rather than continuing to be an unwilling participant in this cycle, I suggest you break out of it by getting some distance from your parents. You are so enmeshed with them—you not only live together, but work together. It’s hard to imagine how you are going to be able to live your own life to the fullest as long as you’re living it alongside your mother constantly saying things that cause you distress. Even though this might seem too radical and very hard in the moment, I wonder whether it would be possible for you to experiment with working and living somewhere else, even just temporarily. Even if you mostly love living with your parents and working at their business, or in the long term need to work and live with them for reasons not mentioned in your letter, it seems reasonable and potentially doable to take a short break of maybe three months or so.

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If you decide to take this step, make sure your mother knows you are doing it to explore your own life and options, not to punish her. You might discover that it’s easier to have the meaningful personal and professional relationship with her that you crave when you’re not dealing with her in almost every sphere of your life. In an ideal world, this break might even give her a chance to reevaluate the way she’s been treating you, and to grapple with the reasons she’s been unable or unwilling to see you for who you are.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

We live in a small (about 30 houses), quiet neighborhood. Because there is no thru-traffic, the neighborhood children are able to run around outside, making forts in the common areas, playing tag between the hedges that divide the yards and having enormous squirt gun battles. This would all be wonderfully idyllic if it wasn’t for “Regina” and “Gretchen.” These two 6-year-olds seem to have put a bull’s-eye on my daughter, “Caroline,” who is a year younger. Their behavior ranges from ignoring her when she says hello, to telling her that they don’t like her, that she has no friends, or saying that she can’t play near them and needs to go home. According to them, whatever she is doing (swinging, playing with dolls, drawing with sidewalk chalk, etc.) is stupid and “babyish.” They make fun of her name and prank her about her walnut allergy. One time I witnessed Gretchen handing out drink boxes, only to refuse to give one to Caroline. When pressed by her mother, she threw all the remaining drinks in the trash so that she couldn’t be made to share with Caroline (her mother looked embarrassed and made sure Caroline got a drink, but Gretchen didn’t seem to have any other consequences).

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Yesterday, Caroline picked dandelions and placed them among rocks to create a little “garden,” only to have Regina and Gretchen smash her work and run away laughing. This exemplifies almost every interaction Caroline has with these girls. This has been going on for nearly a year. I have tried several courses of action to rectify this problem. The first thing I did was talk to the parents of both Regina and Gretchen about how Caroline was being treated, both in person and via text. I know Regina’s mother relatively well and, while friendly, she seems unwilling or unable to put restrictions on her children’s behavior in any category, not limited to this one. Her response was something along the lines of, “Sorry to hear that. Regina can be a stinker. I’ll talk to her but she’s not very patient with younger kids.” I am even better friends with Gretchen’s parents, but their response was only slightly better. They said they’ve spoken sternly to Gretchen about being kind, but if they have, I haven’t noticed a difference in her behavior. I have mostly given up on getting any sort of real action out of these girls’ parents.

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I have instructed Caroline to avoid Regina and Gretchen as much as possible, but in a neighborhood this small, that’s pretty difficult. I’ve begun to only let Caroline play outside if she is accompanied by me (which isn’t always possible because I also have a 1-year-old) or by her older brother, John, who is 10. Sometimes, if I look out the window and see that Regina and Gretchen are already out in the common area, I keep Caroline inside. I know that Caroline feels that being kept inside is a punishment so I try to make up fun things for us to do together, but that’s not always enough to distract her from watching and listening to the other kids from our deck. I have struggled to find other playmate options for her, as most things are still closed around our house due to the pandemic. There are no other girls her age in our neighborhood. I intercede whenever I witness this type of behavior directly. When they knock on the door and ask “if only John can play, but not Caroline,” I inform them that they are being rude and that they shouldn’t knock on our door unless they can be polite to everyone who lives here. Sometimes they look chastened. Other times they huff at me and stomp off.

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My son, John, does his best to stand up for Caroline. Regina and Gretchen seem to greatly admire John and always want to be part of his games, so I had hoped that his insistence that Caroline be treated nicely might change their behavior. It has not. Now I wonder if being mean to his little sister has also become a way to get John’s attention, although I am certain that it did not start out as such. I also know that John cannot do the job of their parents and, while I’m glad he stands up for his little sister, I also wonder if it is unfair to ask him to take that role all the time. Caroline and I also practice what she should say if Regina and Gretchen are mean to her.
Sometimes it works (“You can’t play here,” they said. “I told them ‘You’re not the boss of me,’ ” she proudly reported later), but more often, she freezes up or curries their favor (i.e., she’ll agree that her toys are babyish and immediately put them down). She is only 5, after all, and I realize that learning how to stand up for oneself is a project that often takes years, if not a lifetime.

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Caroline is a sunny, happy, somewhat guileless girl who, prior to this, thought everyone was her friend. Now she tells me that no one likes her, that she’s a baby, and that she has no friends. It breaks my heart. I am especially concerned about next year, when she will start kindergarten and spend a 45-minute bus ride in close proximity to these two girls. I have experienced “mean girl” behavior myself, but that was high school/college. I am appalled that my daughter is dealing with this before she even enters kindergarten. Recently Gretchen’s parents invited us on a joint vacation (and even suggested inviting Regina’s family as well!), but my husband and I are going to decline. Although the rest of our families get along well (Regina and Gretchen have older siblings close to John’s age), I am certain it would be no vacation for Caroline. We do not want to put her in a horrible situation from which she cannot escape. I am out of ideas and uncertain what I should do to properly guide and support my daughter. How do I mitigate the impact on Caroline’s self-esteem? Am I right to try to teach her to speak up for herself, or might she blame herself if she isn’t able to stop the bullying? Is keeping her inside sending the wrong message to her? To what extent is it OK to enlist John’s help? Is there anything else I can do to get through to the other parents?

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—Hamstrung by Mean Girls

Dear Hamstrung,

I’d like this to be mandatory reading for every wannabe momfluencer who posts a photo of their child with a caption like “this magical creature is made of stardust and moonbeams, and I’m so grateful she chose me to be her mama.” Lol, sorry, kids are actually horrible little monsters!

These girls might be going through some kind of COVID-sparked phase where their extreme boredom has turned into petty bullying and spiraled out of control. Or they might just be jerks. But let’s use our last ounce of goodwill to give them the benefit of the doubt and pretend it’s the former.

I think unless you’re planning to move away from this idyllic neighborhood sooner rather than later, you should take the bold, counterintuitive approach of going on vacation with your neighbors and their demon spawn. I know, it’s wild. But think about it: Forced into even closer proximity with their target, Gretchen and Regina will either double down, which means that everyone will be forced to confront how awful they’re being, or cool it and probably even start playing with Caroline. I think it will also help you to get a better sense of what these kids’ parents are like, the kind of behavior they model, what they’re dealing with at home, and how you might figure out how to parent your kids together going forward.

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The social machinations of 5- and 6-year-olds can be stunningly cruel, and I feel sad and frustrated on your behalf that your sweet kid has had to learn these lessons at such a young age. But the thing to remember about these kinds of messed up friend/bully/rival dynamics is that they turn on a dime. In another three or six or eight months, Caroline and Regina might be banding together to make Gretchen’s life hell, or all of them will have moved on to some other behavior that annoys you. That’s not to say the situation is not serious—it hurts a lot to hear your little kid say she “has no friends.” But like many of the bitterest moments of childhood, what’s going on right now is fleeting. Caroline has a loving family and a nice big brother and with any luck this early hazing will make her more empathetic to other kids down the line, or at least create fodder for a bestselling series of early reader novels.

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—Emily

More Advice From Slate

I’m a bisexual man in a happy, monogamous relationship. My wife is fine with my sexuality but does not want me to talk about it with other people. She especially does not want me talking about it around her friends, many of whom are gay men, for fear that they would start hitting on me. (I think maybe she also worries that they would make fun of me—although we all get along great.) She also does not want me to contact an ex-lover, who was also my best friend for a long time (although admittedly this was years ago). I’m not particularly bothered by these “conditions,” but I would like to speak to this guy at least once again in my life, and it might be nice to have people with whom I could openly discuss my sexuality.

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