Care and Feeding

I’m Worried My Son’s Summer Squirt Gun Squad Is Turning Into a Gang

A fun summer activity has turned into a vigilante movement at school.

A boy shoots a water gun.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by pkruger/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, “David,” is 10 years old. This summer was hard for me and a lot of other parents. It looked like the COVID front was finally getting better, and then delta came in and meant that everyone was back to masking and distancing, and all the socializing that he had been looking forward to getting back to was out the window. Some of us neighborhood parents decided to get squirt guns and encourage our kids to water fight as a relatively COVID-safe activity. It was a blisteringly hot summer, and it helped them stay cool outdoors and do something fun together at 20 or so feet away. David threw himself into the new “sport” enthusiastically, and organized four other kids from nearby houses into what they call “the squad.” Originally, it just meant that if any other kid shot water at any of them, the five of them would all turn their water guns on that person and blast him or her. Then it grew into carrying spare water with them so they wouldn’t have to run to someone’s home if they ran out during a squirt fight. Then it became doing exercises so they could carry increasing loads of water while still being able to run around. Toward the end of the summer, David asked me if he could use the printer: He wanted to print out an old World War II army manual he found somewhere on how to move while minimizing the chance of taking fire (a request I denied).

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I thought perhaps all this would end with the summer and going back to school, but David and his new group of friends are as tightknit as ever, and have even started expanding the squad. I was contacted by two separate teachers about the situation; they’re not exactly worried, but they have noticed. David’s new group is one of the few activities in the school that aren’t mandatory but manage to include people of different racial backgrounds. They also tend to shadow some of the more notorious bullies in the school. They haven’t gotten into any fights yet (or at least, none have been reported), and David claims they’re looking out for the rest of the student body in a way that the teachers can’t or won’t. My husband is extremely proud and amazed at David’s leadership and organizational skills. I’ll admit to being quite impressed with them too, but I’m also worried. There’s a very thin line between being some kind of anti-bullying volunteer force and bullying themselves. And … this is just weird. I’ve never heard of any child his age being so focused, for lack of a better word. Is this a problem? And if so, what should I be doing about it?

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—Worried Mom

Dear Worried Mom,

This could be the beginning of a lifelong career as an organizer or some other such gatherer of people, or the start of a terrifying new gang. I’m mostly kidding about the last part, but I strongly encourage you and your husband to monitor as much of this group activity as you possibly can. As you recognize, the line between standing up for the downtrodden and becoming a force for bullying is a thin one, and though it sounds like your son might have really great intentions (or just a lot of creativity!), even if something were to happen with one of the other members of “the squad,” he could be on the hook for it. Many school districts have rules around so-called gang activity that could land them—and especially him, as the “organizer”—in a world of trouble.

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Talk to your son about the difference between good groups and bad groups, how important it is that they aren’t ostracizing classmates or making people feel small by leaving them out, and discourage any and everything that sounds like military-style organizing. Help him to identify some good, aspirational goals for this group (“Helping classmates feel comfortable speaking up in class”) and some reasonable, safe ways they can work toward it (“Booing when a bully makes a joke about someone”) without ending up on some list in the principal’s office.
All the best to you.

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From this week’s letter, My Sister Won’t Tell Anyone the Truth About Her Daughter’s Death: “My sister doesn’t want to dredge up a whole new set of problems or guilt for everyone else.”

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My daughter, Carla, attends our lovely neighborhood school, and is in the fifth grade. The school has a high percentage of children who are of Latinx heritage. There is a girl in her class, Bee, who has expressed an interest in being friends with my daughter, but another girl’s mother with whom I am friendly has expressed to me some misgivings about Bee’s mother, who has apparently made some overtly racist comments to her about the “little brown kids” at the school. I don’t want to alienate Bee, who may be a lovely girl and deserves a chance to grow up with nonracist perspectives in her life. I don’t want to preemptively deprive Carla of friends. I have not heard any of these comments from Bee’s mother directly.

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What is the best course of action? Let Carla play with Bee, try to chat with Bee’s mom, until I hear something from her and then try to engage with her directly? I am reluctant to send Carla over to play dates at Bee’s house, since I don’t know what sort of stuff Carla might hear while she is there. Carla is very aware that some people have racist beliefs, and that we as a family (and as humans) disagree with them, and she has been vocal about things she has seen and heard in other environments. How to proceed?

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—Don’t Want to Send My Daughter to a Klan Meeting

Dear Don’t Want to Send,

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The price for racism needs to be paid by the people who traffic in it; sometimes, their loved ones will suffer as a result, and that’s unavoidable. Your daughter is old enough to hear what you’ve heard about Bee’s mother, and for you to explain to her both that she should give Bee a chance to prove that she’s different from what she may be hearing at home and that you have some misgivings about her spending much time in that home. Most of us grew up having class friends whom we never saw outside of the school grounds, that may end up being the case here.

Empower her to treat Bee normally, but convey that if she (or any other classmate) ever starts to say something hateful about her Latinx peers or any other group of people, she should speak out against it. Guide her to make decisions about who she wants to be friends with based not merely on how they treat her, but how they treat others who are different from them. If Bee’s mother makes a comment about “the brown kids” to you, certainly you know where to tell her to go with that, and don’t hide it from your daughter either. Best of luck to you.

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

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I’m the mother of a 2-year-old, and I know that she’s approaching the age where I need to start to talk about important topics (consent, death, systemic racism, body image, etc.). I grew up in a household where we didn’t talk about much of this, so I’m unsure where to start. I know that the idea is to talk about these topics in an age-appropriate way that evolves as they get older, but what does that mean practically? I know you often recommend resources in the course of your answers, but are there a few go-to resources you’d recommend? A book for every important topic feels very daunting.

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—In Need of a Reading List

Dear Reading List,

There is an excellent series of books dedicated to taking on some of the truly difficult subjects that we must explain and unpack for our children. The A Kids Book About collection includes easy-to-read volumes about death, racism, and body image specifically, as well as topics like climate change, school shootings, and divorce. New books are published regularly, sold in bundles, and are even bookended by podcasts and online courses for kids ages 10-to-15.
I give them my highest recommendation. Happy reading!

For more of Slate’s parenting coverage, listen to Mom and Dad Are Fighting

Dear Care and Feeding,

On social media, I saw an old acquaintance remark on a mutual friend’s “pretty” young granddaughters. These comments would not have been too alarming, except that I’ve been told that this man molested his own daughter for years. I don’t know for sure that this actually happened, but the girl’s mother divorced him because of it, so it’s difficult to doubt. I’m pretty sure he was never prosecuted, and I have no idea whether these grandparents or their children ever knew about the allegations. These two families were very close at one point, and I’m sure they would have wondered about the divorce, so it may well have been mentioned. The ex-wife is also Facebook friends with these people, but I would not be surprised if she has her ex blocked, in which case she wouldn’t have seen his comments. I could message these people and say “I saw his comments about your granddaughters. Are you aware of what his daughter reported?” But that would feel very awkward, and honestly, I almost have to think that they know. I have no idea whether or how often he has been around the girls in question. I’m more worried about this man’s own grandchildren, via other children who have apparently stayed in contact with him. But they surely know, so I assume they won’t allow their children to be alone with him. As for the other family, I will only consider telling them if you strongly encourage me to do so.

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—What to Do

Dear What to Do,

I’m not someone who is quick to spread rumors, but it sounds like you have good reason to believe that this man was divorced for abusing his children. While it would be wise to consult a lawyer in your state about any potential defamation liability in this case, I doubt there’s anything wrong with you discreetly checking in with these specific folks. Though it sounds unclear that these kids would even be in this man’s presence unsupervised, if at all, there is no reason to leave that to chance. Furthermore, there is something contemptible about a man who has been accused of molesting his own having the freedom to comment on other children being attractive in public; even if he’s denied the allegations, the lack of self-awareness around the optics of making such a comment is concerning.

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See what your friend already knows, and if they need to know more, tell them. Perhaps, for some reason, they didn’t hear the rumors, or maybe they didn’t want to believe them, or maybe they are struggling with their feelings about his remark and are waiting for someone to pour a bucket of water over their heads and say, “Yo, the guy accused of molesting his daughter should not be calling your grandbaby ‘pretty’; he should not be looking at them at all, it’s time for a delete-block combo!”

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—Jamilah

More Advice From Slate

I have two daughters, 27-year-old “Lilah” and 20-year-old “Lisa.” Lilah dated “Andrew,” 29, for four years. She was gutted when he broke up with her last year. Lisa recently confessed that she ran into Andrew at a bar, they reconnected, and they’re falling in love. Lisa wants help telling Lilah about their romance. She thinks there’s a chance that Lilah could be happy for them. I’ve tried to explain to Lisa how and why Lilah will be deeply hurt by this, but Lisa (in part due to immaturity) thinks love “should be given a chance.” I don’t know what to do. Lisa has always looked up to Lilah, and maybe this is her trying to emulate her older sister? I am pretty grossed out by Andrew, and I worry about the fallout to my family.

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