Care and Feeding

My Child’s Playtime With His Aunt Has Taken a Creepy Turn

Do I need to intervene?

A woman on a phone screen looks horrified while a child's finger touches the screen.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My almost 5-year-old FaceTimes with their retired aunt every day. They have a very close relationship, but don’t live close enough for frequent visits. Their aunt LOVES these daily calls. They play imaginary games and listen to music and generally my child leads the conversation and directs the play. My concern is the things my child says: I know they are just testing boundaries, seeing what will happen. But they say things like: “I hate you” (very jovially! It’s basically a game), they tell their aunt to be quiet or that she can’t say anything. During whatever pretend game is being played, my child will declare that their aunt has died, or that they have died, and insist that the game stay that route. My child also makes up stories, tells lies about their day, and generally just says really crazy stuff. Their aunt seems completely unfazed by this type of play. She gives a little pushback about the dying aspects, but completely plays along and is even outwardly submissive and apologetic when my child is being super bossy or mean—playing along to the n-th degree, if you will.

On the one hand, I feel like this is a safe person for my child to work through these boundaries and this type of play with. On the other hand, WTF is my child doing? I have talked to my child about how words can hurt people’s feelings, we have wondered together how saying “I hate you” makes their aunt feel, even when they are joking. I am not sure what I should be doing or saying. This has been going on for a long time. I listen from the other room, but almost never interject. Their aunt and I have never talked about the content of their FaceTime chats. When they play with friends their own age, they only present a small fraction of this type of behavior; they like to lead the play, but I have never heard them being mean or saying “I hate you” or making them pretend someone is dead. I generally don’t like to interfere in my child’s play unless someone is getting hurt, but I am not sure what to do in this situation. Do I leave this alone? Talk to their aunt? Talk to my child and forbid this type of play? I don’t want them to become secretive.

—Am I Raising a Jerk?

Dear Raising a Jerk,

You (probably!) aren’t raising a jerk, (most likely) just a kid who is experimenting with the world around them and, as you said, testing boundaries. You, as their parent, have a responsibility to create and enforce boundaries that reflect how you feel they should best engage with other people (such as adults, loved ones, and people who are both or neither alike), as well as that reflect the sort of values, ideals, and outlook you want to impress upon them. That said, it is not merely your right to say “It’s not cool to play a game where your aunt dies, stop otherwise (insert your personal way of dealing with the refusal of your child to abide by your rules), and I mean that”—it is basically your job.

Meanwhile, is there perhaps some curiosity around death and dying that is worth acknowledging? Questions they may need to ask? Or a need for a conversation (or series thereof) that begins building the sort of relationship to death that you want them to have: Ostensibly, one in which it is not fodder for Fun Auntie Time?

Mind the line between weird kid play and “things we need to talk about,” and empower this aunt to both address unseemly or difficult topics as you feel most comfortable. You aren’t disrupting a relationship, you are the one in charge of raising your child and, thus, have oversight over their affairs and assertions. Parent it up, it’s fine; the aunt and the kid will understand.

—Jamilah

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