Care and Feeding

I Found a Creepy List on My Son’s Laptop

A teenage boy looks at his phone.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by amazingmikael/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, “Jack,” 14, has been maintaining a spreadsheet that tracks all of his classmate’s problematic actions. Jack has always had difficulty fitting in, but he is a compassionate and intelligent boy. We do not allow our children to have their own computers to prevent the risk of them being radicalized by alt-right websites, so our kids share a laptop that we monitor and control access to. We found an excel spreadsheet in Jack’s folder that listed the names of all of his classmates, as well as dates and descriptions of their problematic behavior. Some of the descriptions I saw include “has a mom who is a cop,” “no pronouns in insta bio,” “laughed at a fat joke,” “lists problematic show as one of their favorites,” “mimicked a foreign accent,” and “used cis-normative language.”

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While I am pleased to see Jack taking an interest in his peers, I get a weird feeling about his spreadsheet. As much as I don’t condone the behaviors mentioned, it seems a bit creepy for him to be monitoring his classmates. I also wonder what he is trying to do with the document. Another concern is that we are white and some of the kids on the list are Black. Given the long history of white people policing Black existence, I question whether Jack is the right person to be taking on this task and whether it would be more appropriate coming from a BIPOC person.

We have asked Jack about the spreadsheet and he denies involvement, but we know that it couldn’t be anyone else. Am I right to be concerned about Jack’s list? I don’t know that it is the best way for him to engage with his peers and promote social justice. On the other hand, I am proud of how committed he is to this cause and I don’t want to stop him from bearing witness to injustices within his own community.

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—Problematic or Productive?

Dear PoP,

Based on what you’ve mentioned here, his list does seem a little creepy. Kids at that age should be having fun, not documenting every transgression his peers are making. Also, the fact that he’s blatantly lying about his involvement in creating this list should be a huge red flag. If everything is on the up and up, then what does he have to hide? I would personally call his bluff and say, “OK, if this spreadsheet has nothing to do with you, then let’s delete it.” If he raises a stink, then you know that something bigger is at play here.

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I respect your viewpoint about being uncomfortable with Jack policing the behavior of his Black peers, but as a Black man, that should be the least of your concerns. Your main objective is to find out why he wants to monitor his classmates in the first place. Is he trying to be a social justice vigilante in an effort to be viewed as cool? Does he want his classmates to be “cancelled” for doing things that he considers to be wrong as a form of payback for not being accepted by them? The possibilities are endless. If you don’t feel equipped to get to the bottom of it, then I highly recommend getting a therapist involved because his behavior is not typical for a 14-year-old.

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On a positive note, there are far worse things Jack could be doing than this—and it seems as if his heart is in the right place by being in the corner of marginalized groups. He could use his energy to volunteer as a Big Brother, write for the school newspaper (if they have one), or look for other opportunities at school to make everyone feel included.

I just think the spreadsheet is something that could end up being bad news for him, and I hope you enroll him in therapy so an unbiased mental health professional can tell him the same thing.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I am a single African-American man with an 8-year-old daughter and a 6-year-old son. Our neighborhood is mostly African-American, but a white family moved in about two years ago. They’ve been friendly, open, and pleasant people, and after a short period of getting to know them, they’ve been arranging time for their kids to play with other kids in the neighborhood. This slowed down when Covid hit, and even then it never fully stopped.

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About a week ago, my daughter Danielle came back from a playdate with one of their girls and said, “Daddy, the [neighbors name] is the only family I know of where the parents don’t hit each other? Is it because they’re white?” I know what I should have said. I should have told her that there are good people and bad people no matter what their race is, and that no group of people is more inclined to hit each other than any other, and that they’re just good people.

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That is not what I did. Instead, I broke down crying. The reason I did so is I’m a single father, and my children’s mother is in prison for assaulting me with a deadly weapon. She is currently serving a 16-year prison sentence. I don’t think they fully realize that (Danielle was three and Levon was 1 when she was arrested), but they do know that Mommy did something bad and had to go away. I’m not even sure how to articulate everything that’s swirling around inside me. I don’t know why there is so much domestic abuse in our neighborhood. I don’t know how to raise my children in a way that not only avoids repeating the pattern but teaches them that it is WRONG to attack your family. I don’t know how to teach them how to avoid an abusive partner in a way that I didn’t fully know how to do myself. And most of all, I don’t know how to deal with this racist bias Danielle has already absorbed and Levon is probably absorbing that the other is better than we are. I know I have to do something. And that sooner is better than later. But I don’t know what to do or even who to turn to for help. Please help me.

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—Frozen Father

Dear Frozen Father,

As a Black man reading this, I’m completely heartbroken for you and your kids. The first thing I would tell you to do is find a good therapist—and not just any therapist. I believe a therapist of color would be best-equipped to discuss the issues you’re dealing with in a way that could lead to lasting change. I’m not saying that a white therapist couldn’t help you, but I’ve burned through my share of therapists throughout the years, and I’ve found that the ones who shared the same lived experiences in terms of being Black in America have been the most effective for me. If you’re looking for a virtual option, I highly recommend Talkspace.

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I also know that therapy isn’t something that many Black men are interested in, but I truly hope you take my advice on this. It’s not hyperbole to say that I’d probably be in a very bad place (potentially even dead) without my regular therapy visits. If you don’t do it for yourself, please do it for your kids—they need you.

Speaking of your kids, part of the way to combat the implicit bias Danielle’s experiencing is to model the correct behavior at home at all times. Show her that Black men are more than capable of being amazing fathers. As a matter of fact, a CDC study said that Black dads are more involved in their kids’ lives than their counterparts of other races, and I’m confident that you’re one of those dads.

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In the event she’s still struggling to believe that Black families can be non-violent, I’d also suggest she (and her brother, if needed) visit with a therapist as well. Even though it happened when Danielle was very young, it’s evident that losing her mom to prison impacted her in a negative way, so you may want to be proactive on that front.

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In the meantime, keep introducing your kids to Black people who are doing great things in this world. You can do this through books, documentaries, your friends and relatives, and more. It’s a myth to believe that good Black men are unicorns, because we are everywhere.

Please don’t beat yourself up too much. The fact that you showed such vulnerability by writing in is all of the proof I need that you’re doing a great job.

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From this week’s letter, “Our Nanny Keeps Judging Our Choices and It’s Driving Me Crazy”: “We were clear early on that consent is a two-way street, and that we would always tell her what we are doing if she did the same.”

Dear Care and Feeding,

Last week, my 13-year-old daughter’s school notified me of an extremely serious incident, and we are still reeling. It seems that my daughter sent nude pictures of herself to a boy in her class—she said they aren’t “dating” but that he asked for pictures, so she said yes. Two days later, the boy asked her to perform a sexual act on him. She refused. He threatened to send the nude pictures to others if she didn’t comply. She freaked out and told one of her teachers, who told an administrator, who told me. The boy has been expelled from the school.

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According to my daughter, “everyone” knows what happened. (I’m not sure if this is factually true, or if it’s just her perception, but either way she’s in great distress.) I am beyond horrified at pretty much every detail of this incident. I’m shocked my daughter sent nude pictures, and of course disgusted that this boy used them to blackmail her. I’m glad he doesn’t go to her school anymore. But the damage has still been done. I put her on the waiting list for a therapist but in the meantime, what in the world should I do? Take her phone away? Connect her with some sort of sexual violence support group? Punish her for sending the pictures? Pull her out of the school and send her somewhere where she can get a fresh start? I am completely out of my element here and didn’t anticipate dealing with anything like this for at least 2-3 more years so I’ve been blindsided. Please help.

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—Out of My Depth

Dear Out of My Depth,

Yikes, this indeed is an extremely serious incident. As a dad with two daughters, I would make a beeline to his house and demand that his parents make him delete the photos and inform me who else has copies of the photos. In a perfect world, I would assume that the boy’s parents would be mortified by their son’s behavior, but you should also prepare yourself to have them pass along the blame to your daughter for sending the photos to him. Either way, you should take whatever action possible—even legal action, if need be—to ensure your daughters’ photos are not circulated widely.

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Next, I would tread very carefully with your daughter’s emotions because she’s clearly dealing with intense pain and embarrassment. She obviously made a grave error, but punishing her heavily only will serve to pour salt in an open wound. I’m thankful that you’re taking her to therapy, but I also think your suggestion of taking her to a sexual violence support group could potentially be helpful. As you know, sometimes kids are more apt to listen to a message by someone other than their parents. Your daughter’s school counselor may be an excellent resource as well.

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If there are shreds of good news here, they’re twofold: first, your daughter had her “hot stove” learning experience, and I doubt she’ll do something like this again due to the pain she’s experiencing. Secondly, in today’s hyper speed social media world, people (especially kids) have a short memory. Eventually they’ll move on to the next shiny object and it will be old news—but it certainly could be rough for her until it gets to that point.

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Based on what you’ve told me here, moving to a new school seems extreme to me—she must have friends who love and support her, right? If so, she needs them now more than ever to show her that she still belongs there. That said, it’s worth monitoring her emotions closely, because only you can evaluate whether that’s an option you need to consider. Also, I’d keep a very watchful eye on her to ensure she’s not a suicide risk. This website is a helpful resource if you’re unfamiliar with the signs.

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Last but not least, you don’t have to take her phone away, but you should monitor her social media usage to ensure she’s staying safe. I highly recommend Bark for that.

Hopefully these suggestions will help you, but I also think you should hug her and tell her how much you love her. Being a kid in today’s world isn’t easy and she needs all of the support she can get as she navigates through it.

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

• Discuss this column in the Slate Parenting Facebook group!

Dear Care and Feeding,

I have a 16-year-old daughter. We live in a fairly progressive community, and everyone we socialize with got their Covid vaccine except one of my daughter’s friends. Since getting their vaccines, my daughter and her friends have been getting together, but they’ve excluded their unvaccinated friend.

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About two weeks ago, I received a phone call from the kid’s mother, accusing my daughter and her friends group of bullying. I told the mother that while normally I would consider this bullying, I do not believe that forcing my teen to share unmasked space with somebody who is not vaccinated is a good idea. The conversation did not end on good terms. I talked to my daughter the day of the call and checked her social media accounts to see that no actual bullying was going on. There was none. She also assured me that as soon as the teen in question is vaccinated, they will be welcome to hang out with everyone else again.

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Today, I found out that the same phone call was made to a parent or stepparent of every single kid in the group, and, apparently, the mom received the same response: all the parents agree our kids are wise to distance themselves right now from the unvaccinated friend.

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But are we wrong? I would never normally be OK with excluding a friend from activities and refusing to sit with them at lunch, and would even consider it bullying. But COVID hit our community and family hard. We lost two family members to it and two close friends, and my sister-in-law has been left permanently disabled. The families of my daughter’s friends have suffered similar losses—deaths of grandparents, neighbors, and family friends, disabilities, long-hauler COVID symptoms that wouldn’t go away month after month. A 14-year-old boy in the neighborhood also died from COVID—one of those rare child deaths. And my youngest child is not even old enough to be vaccinated yet. We also know that although fully vaccinated people generally do not develop symptoms if they are exposed to COVID, they are not fully immune either. Do I convince my daughter to discuss with her friends the possibility of letting the unvaccinated friend join the group again? Or do I back her up in her decision not to?

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—Conflicted in the Inland Empire

Dear Conflicted,

I would 100 percent side with your daughter on this. First of all, bullying is loosely defined as behavior seeking to harm, intimidate, or coerce someone viewed as vulnerable. I don’t think that’s what going on here. COVID is extremely serious and it’s pretty obvious to me that getting vaccinated is the most effective way to protect yourself from this virus. If her unvaccinated friend chooses not to get the shot, then she has to live with the consequences that she can’t sit with her friends at lunch. Now, if your daughter and her friends were making fun of this kid, then that would be a problem—but you’ve assured me that isn’t the case. I applaud your daughter and her friends for taking the proper precautions. It’s not a bullying thing, it’s a public safety thing.

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The same noise is happening on a larger scale with vaccine mandates becoming more prevalent across America. Unvaccinated people are complaining that they’re getting “bullied,” but that isn’t the case. The choice to vaccinate is always in the hands of the individual, but every choice has consequences—you may lose your job, you may not be allowed to eat at restaurants, attend sporting events, and more.

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I wouldn’t worry about the mom because she’s just trying to protect her kid’s feelings. Instead, I would advise your daughter and her friends to make the unvaccinated kid feel more welcomed in situations where everyone is masked and participates in social distancing. At that point, this kid will understand that the only issue is her vaccination status, not her personality.

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October is bullying prevention month. As someone who was bullied all throughout my childhood, I take this very seriously. I also take precautions against COVID very seriously and I’m glad your daughter does too. I would be extremely proud of your daughter for taking a mature stance on this topic.

—Doyin

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