Dear Care and Feeding,
My 13-year-old son is, for lack of a better term, “extremely online.” He has a few social media accounts that I have the password to, but have never really looked into his behavior on those because we never had a reason to (my husband and I believe that once our children have earned our trust, there needs to be a specific reason in order for us to check up on them). Well, the reason has arrived. It appears he’s been bullying another boy at school via one of the social media apps, calling him “retarded” and making jokes about the other boy’s mother. I am, of course, horrified. I checked his other accounts and it turns out my kid is pretty much a massive troll. He constantly posts “edgy” content to get a rise out of people and seems to be amused when he provokes an emotional response. There are a few other boys in his class who egg him on—I haven’t reached out to their parents yet.
On one hand, I think this is probably something a lot of 13-year-old boys do, but on the other hand, I find it completely unacceptable. I can’t square this 13-year-old “edgelord” with the sweet, good-natured kid I see in front of me. I also have no idea how to proceed here. What do I do with his technology? How can I punish him without driving him further away? What do I do about the parents of the other trolls, and the parents of the boy my son bullied? I never thought we’d be in this position so I have truly never given thought to what I’d do in this situation. Please help us.
—Aghast in Arizona
Whether this is “something a lot of boys do” or not is irrelevant; your son is the one deliberately, methodically choosing to target and harm others. At 13, one likes to hope there’s still time to course-correct—I’d definitely take his devices and disable those social media accounts for a period of time, because he’s proven he cannot be trusted with them. But keep in mind that no one punishment is going to make a person less of a bully or toxic troll if they’re really determined to be one. Your son can still target other kids in person, at school. He can influence other kids to be bullies, too. And even if his bullying stops for the moment, you don’t want him to just grudgingly toe the line until you give his phone back, or until he’s out of your house, for that matter—you’re not always going to be able to prevent him from saying or doing terrible things. Unless you help him change his thinking in some fundamental way, he will revert to this behavior as soon as you are no longer controlling his online time.
He needs to understand that what he’s done is wrong, and then choose to change. Beyond punishment, then, you need to be considering how to actually talk with him about all of this. He should immediately be told that you have zero tolerance for bullying (and so does his school, I’d hope/assume). You need to try to get him to explain why he’s doing this—does he actually enjoy hurting other people? Is he showing off, trying to get attention? Does he think lashing out is a defense against being bullied himself? Whatever the case may be, he needs you to have real conversations with him about how his behavior harms and could also endanger other kids. If I were in your place, I wouldn’t shy away from talking frankly with him about the many kids who’ve been bullied to the point of breakdown, or worse. If you’re feeling hesitant about being this direct with your son, I encourage you to try to put yourself in the place of the kid whose life he’s probably made a living hell, and imagine how he must be feeling—I know you don’t want your kid to be the one to cause lasting trauma to a classmate or drive them to something awful.
This will take more than one conversation. You might need to involve a professional therapist. I’d certainly let your son’s school know what’s going on: They need to be aware, so they can keep an eye out for any bullying at school and try to support the kids already harmed by your son’s behavior. You or the school should inform the other bullies’ parents, so they can try to intervene with and correct their own kids. Perhaps the school counselor can speak with your son and others involved as well. I would reach out to the parents of the bullied child, too, if they are willing to speak with you, in case there’s anything your son could do that would help his victim now. It could be that the other kid is so upset or traumatized that hearing from your son would do more harm than good. But if anything you or your son can offer would be remotely helpful to him, he deserves it—certainly the very least he deserves is a sincere apology, whether he accepts it or not.
I think it can be really hard to foster true compassion and empathy in a kid who’s decided he doesn’t care about others’ feelings, or is OK with hurting them for his own amusement. In the end, no matter what you say or do, he might not actually change his thinking or behavior. But then again, he might: He’s 13. Remember, as you try to talk and work with him on this, that you’re doing it for his sake as much as anyone else’s. He needs to know and internalize that what he did and said and wrote was wrong, that this harmful behavior won’t be tolerated in your home or at his school. And he needs active, ongoing help and support to reverse course now so that this doesn’t lead to a lifetime of hurting or abusing others.
Dear Care and Feeding,
My husband is Asian, and I am white. We have three young daughters, two that look 100 percent Asian, and one that looks 100 percent white. Our 5-year-old, the one who looks more white, is planning to be Mulan for Halloween. We have taught all of our children to be proud of their Asian heritage, but I find myself worried about possible pushback from other parents and children, who will certainly think she is a white child wearing an elaborate Asian costume. I am mainly worried about when she wears the costume to school. (We are pretty new in the area, and honestly, I think most people think we are in a stepparent situation because of our children’s stark differences.) I hope I’m right in thinking that it’s totally OK for her to wear this costume. My bigger concern is whether I should prepare her for possible outside reactions, and if so, how exactly should she respond? She understands that she is as Asian as her sisters, but that she doesn’t look like them. I guess this question doesn’t just apply to Halloween, but also how she responds to the inevitable questions about her heritage going forward.
I kind of doubt that anyone at your new school is going to ask a 5-year-old whether she thinks she’s engaging in cultural appropriation. I’ve been to enough school Halloween events to have seen a whole lot of kids wearing costumes gesturing to a culture they do not share, and no one really seems to care. (I also think that the people who might care most about potential appropriation, in this case, are Asian, and in my experience a lot of us can honestly tell when kids are of Asian descent even if one parent isn’t.) In terms of the costume, I think that, at most, someone at school might come out and ask your 5-year-old why she chose to be Mulan, and/or if she’s Asian or Chinese. She doesn’t have to respond, but if she wants to, she can just tell the truth (“I like Mulan, and she’s Asian like me”) and go on about her Halloween.
As for your second question, I know from personal experience that plenty of people do ask little kids nosy and inappropriate questions about their racial identities all the time, especially when they can’t immediately file them in a monoracial category, which is most unfortunate. (I’d be curious to know what your husband thinks about these issues, by the way, if you haven’t already discussed it at length, as he’s the Asian parent?) When you talk about all this with your kids, I think it’s important to let them know that it is always their choice how much to engage in these conversations with anyone, friends or strangers—if they engage at all. Whether they’re being asked about their appearance or their heritage, no one is entitled to an explanation or justification on demand. Your daughters’ background and family history is no one’s business, unless they decide to share it.
• If you missed Tuesday’s Care and Feeding column, read it here.
• Discuss this column in the Slate Parenting Facebook group!
Dear Care and Feeding,
I had a fight with my mother, and I want to know who is wrong. (Good and petty opener, right?) My partner and I have a wonderful, spunky 19-month-old son. Last weekend, we invited my parents up to spend the day with him, as we had lots of errands to run and are trying to avoid taking him to public spaces that aren’t day care while the delta variant is raging all around us. His grandparents live about an hour and a half away and, although we try to see them at least twice a month, they don’t get a ton of alone time with their grandson as the logistics can get pretty hairy (car rides and nap times and snack times, oh my). Before leaving the house, I had given pretty clear instructions on what his daily schedule looks like—when he should eat, when he should go down for a nap, etc. He has a rigid schedule, but he needs one. It helps him feel secure during the day and cues him to what’s next. This is something I just really, really KNOW about my child. I am aware that it sounds like first-time-parent, uptight nonsense, but all our lives are better when we follow the routine.
When we got home from our errands, it was half an hour past his naptime and my son was totally wiped out. My mother was holding him, obviously enjoying his exhausted cuddliness, and he was pale, relieved to see me, and a complete shell of himself. I whisked him upstairs to bed, and he screamed and cried for a bit in his crib before collapsing into sleep. I watched his monitor for a good while to make sure he wasn’t going to catapult himself out of his crib. In the meantime, while I focused on the task at hand, my mother decided I was violently angry with her, started yelling at me about how she had tried to put him to sleep but “he didn’t want to go,” and then stormed out of my house to drive home with my dad.
Later, knowing she was upset, I sent her a text to smooth things out. I said I was sorry I hadn’t given her more detailed instructions, and I would plan better next time. She texted back that I am a total control freak who needs to let go of my grip on my son, that I was wrathful and cruel, that I drove her out of the house that afternoon. Honestly, I was shocked. I had barely said anything before she screamed at ME and stormed out of MY HOUSE! So, I told her I wasn’t going to discuss this matter with her any further as it obviously wasn’t going anywhere. I haven’t heard from her since.
What. The. Fuck. Happened.
Is my mom getting old? Was she embarrassed? Am I really expected to “loosen my grip” on my 1-YEAR-OLD? (By the way, he was a total mess for the next two days! That’s why the schedule is important!) I think she’s maybe trying to manipulate me into admitting fault (she’s been doing that to me my whole life, I think), but I badly do not want to be bullied into taking full blame for a conflict for which I strongly feel she is at fault. I am the one calling the shots for my family. Not her. What am I supposed to do here?
Dear Control Freak,
No one—least of all grandparents eager to spend time with their grandkids—will ever be nearly as invested in your kid’s routine as you are. That doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t generally listen and try to go along with your rules and routine when watching your kid. I’m also frustrated when my rules are blatantly ignored by other caregivers. It’s totally reasonable to expect that when you tell a grandparent or any caregiver, “Put him down for a nap at 1 p.m.,” they’ll respect that and do their best.
To be fair, though, your mom told you that she did try to get your son to nap—your child is used to either parents or day care providers putting him down for a nap, not his grandparents, right? So might that change in his usual routine, plus the excitement of being with his grandparents, have been enough to throw him off the nap that day, for the half-hour until you got home? I’m sure you remember from the time when you were attempting to establish a regular naptime just how tough it can be to force a kid to fall asleep when they are really fighting it. Maybe your mom should have tried harder, I don’t know, but it’s not as though she ignored your directive altogether.
As for who’s wrong here—since that was your question—I think a lot hinges on exactly what your reaction was when you got home. You said that you didn’t say much to your mother when you got home and “whisked” your kid upstairs, but sometimes looks, sighs, body language, and silence can be quite eloquent. If you were perfectly calm when you got home and later when you reached out via text, I truly don’t understand her reaction at all, and I think it was wrong and unnecessarily defensive to first storm out and then blow up at you. If you were somehow short-tempered or rude, especially after your parents drove all that way to do you the favor of babysitting, then I kind of understand her reaction (not that I think it’s a great way to communicate, regardless), and I think maybe you do bear some responsibility for the fallout. But in any case, I think you probably already know that whose fault it is isn’t so much the point now. The important thing is to talk with her, when you’re both ready and able, about how to make sure your parents’ next visit goes better.
Dear Care and Feeding,
My daughter is 6 and recently learned that meat comes from animals. When she learned this, she said that she didn’t want to eat animals because it was sad for the animals. Although my husband and I aren’t vegetarians, we try to eat only ethically sourced meat and to eat it pretty infrequently. I’m perfectly happy for my daughter to be vegetarian, and have almost exclusively cooked vegetarian in the week since her announcement, but the issue is that she’s pretty hazy on what foods actually are meat, and I’m not sure how or whether to correct her. For instance, she refused to eat chicken nuggets when her brother had some the other day, but she was happy to eat her grandmother’s chicken curry over the weekend, when I wasn’t there. So, when my daughter expresses interest in a food with meat in it, should I tell her that it has meat? My hesitation is that if being vegetarian isn’t something she really feels strongly about, she’ll feel like I’m policing her food, which I never want to be doing! I struggled with parents who restricted my diet, and am proud of where I’ve come with my eating habits, so it’s on my mind.
—Mom to a Maybe Vegetarian
Dear Maybe Vegetarian,
It’s fine to tell her what’s meat and what isn’t. That is not food policing, that is just information shared—you’ve left the choice of how and what to eat up to her. She’ll learn quickly enough which foods are meat and which animals they come from, and soon you won’t have to explain anymore. I wouldn’t worry too much about how strongly she feels about being vegetarian, or whether or not she remains one. For now, she’s said she doesn’t want to eat meat, and I think it’s good of you to listen and respect her expressed wish for a vegetarian diet. You can also let her grandmother and anyone else who cooks for her know, so they can get onboard and not give her meat in the first place.
More Advice From Slate
My husband is in education, so during the summer he is a full-time stay at home dad to our children, ages 4 and 18 months. During the school year, he cares for them several days a week. I’ve long had a hunch that he was letting a screen do the child care for him. And now, after my first week working from home full-time, the facts can’t be ignored: They watch TV all day, every day. If they start to get restless he’ll put on something else, or they’ll come bother me. Also, every day since I have been working from home, while the little one is napping, my husband will set up my older child with a movie and take a nap himself. I really do not want this kind of care to continue, but I am very hesitant to say anything because I know if the shoe were on the other foot and I were a stay-at-home mother, I would bristle at my husband waltzing in and telling me that I’m parenting badly and need to change things. What say you?