Care and Feeding

I Made a Terrible Discovery When I Checked My Daughter’s Phone

What should I do?

A mother checks her daughter's phone.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by 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,

A few days ago, I was looking through my 14-year-old daughter’s phone. I do this once a week, just to check she’s not being rude or anything (there was once an issue at her school where several unnamed children were being very rude online). Everything seemed okay, but then I suddenly decided I should probably look through her messages, too. I found a WhatsApp chat called “Wonderful People Only.” On the group there was about 60-70 children, all of them about her age. I think they are all from her school, but I’m not sure.

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I’d never seen this WhatsApp on her phone before, so I scrolled to the top. The chat was created in December, and she was one of the original 20 people to be added. To start with, the group seemed to revolve around those 20 people (including my daughter) saying extremely rude things about another girl, “Millie.” I wasn’t happy about this. But then, in January, Millie was added to the chat so she could see what horrible things were being said. They called her a spoiled brat, a b***h, a freak, and more. And my daughter was the ringleader. After reading this I immediately sat my daughter down and asked her what the heck was she doing. My daughter replied that Millie had been being “extremely rude” to her and the other people in the group since Millie joined the school in November. So these people got together and made a WhatsApp group so they could rant about their frustrations. Apparently it was never intended for Millie to be added.

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I asked my daughter to give examples, and my daughter replied that Millie had refused to download social media, didn’t wear trendy clothes and barely used her mobile phone. I explained to my daughter that doing these things was not being “extremely rude” and Millie simply had different interests to her peers. My daughter said that it was wrong for Millie to not be like anyone else. I tried to talk to her, showing her videos about diversity, etc., but they didn’t work. And then I found out that Millie had been invited to our house the following Saturday. I told my daughter that Millie could still come round, but if I heard any rude comments she would be leaving. When Millie came round, I found out that she is Black, bisexual, and transgender. I don’t have a problem with any of those things but apparently my daughter does. I immediately took Millie home. I’ve confiscated my daughter’s phone but she still makes random comments to me about how “stupid” Millie is. How can I explain to my daughter that this isn’t okay?

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—Not So Wonderful People Only

Dear NSWPO, 

I’m not sure that you’re going to like what I have to say here. Your daughter was part of what sounds like a significant cyberbullying incident targeting a girl of marginalized identities. She and the other kids ought to be held accountable for what they did to Millie, and I think you should inform the school of what took place and who was involved. There have been too many tragic stories of children taking their own lives after being targeted in such a way for this to be taken lightly. Your daughter still clearly doesn’t understand the potential dangers of what she has gotten herself involved with, as made evident by her willingness to make fun of this girl in front of you.

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The school may see fit to punish your daughter and the other bad actors in this situation, and I think that would be appropriate. I also wonder if you have given any thought at all to how you might enforce consequences yourself. Does your daughter still have access to the phone she used to harass her classmate? Perhaps there should be some limitations on her phone communications until she can prove capable of conducting herself responsibly. If social media use and trendy clothes are the metric by which she feels empowered to judge other kids, perhaps she should experience a period of time without access to either of those things. I personally can’t fathom the idea of allowing my child to engage in such cruel behavior without making it very clear that it would not be tolerated and that she can expect to be punished if ever she’s caught doing such a thing again.

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Furthermore, you need to talk to your daughter about Millie’s humanity. She is a person with thoughts and feelings, and there’s nothing she could have done to warrant being singled out for abuse. It must be incredibly difficult for her to exist in a space where most of the kids aren’t Black or LGBT, and she deserves to be protected, not picked on. Your conversations about how to treat people who are different will need to be frequent and serious. Did she tell you straight out that she has a problem with Millie’s identity? (I’m so curious as to why this child ended up in your house, and what led to you taking her home.)

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Also, let your daughter know that while Millie’s identity makes her more likely to be targeted, that the same kids who were happy to bully Millie with her could easily turn on her in the future. Talk to her about what cyberbullying is and why it is so dangerous. Keep that phone largely away from her for the foreseeable future and make it so she can’t download any chat apps at all. Make it clear that bigotry and hatred will not be tolerated and that she is expected to treat everyone with respect. And, again, I think you should report what happened to Millie to the school. Her parents need to know what she’s endured, and she deserves whatever sort of support mechanisms that may be available to her. This will likely upset your daughter, but it will also help her to understand the gravity of what she has done–and, hopefully, prevent her from behaving the same way in the future.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I’m twelve, and at my secondary school the boys get to do Gigajam (which is when you play an instrument that is connected to a computer) while us girls have to dance. This is the same every year, in every class. Our schedules are kept for the entire school year. I would not feel comfortable approaching the head teacher about this as he told off my 42-year-old dad for not using a cross walk! Is there a way I can fix this?

—Sexist School

Dear SS, 

I am so sorry that your school has such an outdated, sexist tradition. I don’t know how possible it is to change things, but I think that you should talk to some of your classmates to see how they are feeling about the gender division and perhaps you all can rally together to challenge it. You can start a petition calling for a change, ask parents and students to sign on and deliver the collected names to school leadership. You can also assemble a group of fellow concerned students and parents and attempt to schedule a meeting with the head teacher and other officials to discuss your feelings. Traditions like this one only change when the people impacted by them come together and demand something different. I doubt you are the only one who feels as you do, though there may be some kids who are totally fine with their assigned activity and, thus, likely won’t be compelled to support any effort to change it. But if a significant number of parents and students have a problem with dividing boys and girls up this way, I think you may have a good chance at seeing the practice change in the future. I urge you to rally up some supporters and to challenge your school to do a better job at serving the needs of a modern student body. Wishing you lots of luck!

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Catch Up on Care and Feeding

If you missed Monday’s column, read it here.
Discuss this column in the Slate Parenting Facebook group!

Dear Care and Feeding,

I’m a lucky mom of 5 adult children, all in the early stages of adulthood. I gave birth to the first four kids and we adopted our youngest from China as a toddler. My kids are super close to each other and to my husband and me. They have been delightful, truly, throughout their childhoods and I have always managed to figure out how to help them best when they had challenges. I know I’m lucky and I feel bad even asking for help about something that I think might be petty, but I can’t tell for sure.

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My youngest daughter is 19 and a freshman in college. She lives at home, but has her car and gets herself to school and does her thing with minimal involvement from me. There’s just one way that I feel like I’ve failed her. Her hygiene is poor. Her breath is awful. We’ve talked to the dentist, but he finds nothing wrong. She just doesn’t regularly brush her teeth and admits this. She only showers every other day and can smell bad. Her hair and skin are very greasy if she doesn’t wash every day, and I cannot convince her of the importance of daily bathing for her body’s needs. Part of the problem is that the four biological kids inherited my skin, which tends towards eczema and psoriasis, so, on the advice of the pediatrician, we never bathed them daily when they were kids, but when they would start to stink or if they were dirty. But my younger kid has the opposite issue in that her hair and skin are very oily.

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It’s hard. She tells me she’s just not in the habit of brushing her teeth (which we were consistent with when she was growing up) and showering. The other day, she had massive flakes of dandruff on her head. I picked them out for her and asked her if the dandruff was a “me problem” or a “her problem” and she very clearly told me told me that she didn’t care if she had dandruff. I’m beginning to wonder if it’s a mental health concern, but she seems happy and content otherwise. And she’s 18, so should have total bodily autonomy. I wonder if there’s some early trauma that happened before we adopted her that might be causing her to care for her body so poorly. It makes me feel like I’ve failed her. She thinks I’m overreacting, and I’m worried that I will cause a rift between us if I hound her too much. I would love to know if I’m overreacting or if I should talk to her about therapy.

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—Still the Luckiest Mom Ever

Dear StLME, 

This isn’t petty at all, this is a very major concern. Hygiene is incredibly important, for our health, for maintaining our relationships with other people, and you’re right that failing to attend to it can be a sign of a mental health issue. I think that you, along with some of her siblings and your partner (if applicable), should stage an intervention of sorts with her daughter. She should hear from all of you that you are deeply concerned about the way she is caring for herself. Talk about the unpleasant scents, as well as how other people outside of the family are likely to react to a person who smells and looks unkempt. Explain that it will invariably have an impact on both her professional and personal life. Let her know that you don’t wish to hurt or embarrass her, only to figure out just what is keeping her from taking proper care of herself. Identify local therapists whom she can speak to and encourage her to consider visiting with one.

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You may have to have this dialogue again and again with your youngest before it takes hold, but you mustn’t give up. There’s a reason for this neglect, and you want to get to the bottom of it so that your daughter can live a happier, healthier life. Wishing you and her all the best.

Want Advice From Care and Feeding?

Submit your questions about parenting and family life here. It’s anonymous! (Questions may be edited for publication.)

Dear Care and Feeding,

I’m the parent of a tween and am wondering the best/easiest way to help my daughter discover and listen to music. I was about her age when I got my first CD player and CDs by mail. I’m confused about what the modern-day equivalent might be. I’m not ready to give her a smart phone and “all of the internet all of the time” just so she can listen to music, but I also think that having access to music is important for kids this age. Got any suggestions? Should I just bust out an old boom box? FWIW my husband and I already own a turntable and records on vinyl.

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–Where Are the Tunes

Dear WAtT,

Though they have been largely rendered extinct by smart phones, MP3 players still exist, and they are more affordable than ever. There are models perfect for kids at Amazon and Best Buy, many well under fifty bucks. You can sit at the computer with your daughter and select music for her to enjoy together without leaving the entire internet at her disposal. You can also purchase her a boom box for CDs and allow her to experience the old school thrill of purchasing physical copies of her favorite tunes. Happy listening!

—Jamilah

More Advice From Slate

I need to discuss WAP. Yes, that WAP. My 11-year-old daughter asked if we could have WAP for breakfast the other day. I asked her what she thought that meant, and she said a girl from her softball team had told her it meant “waffles and pancakes” (information that came from her parents). Fast forward a week, and my daughter came home from school asking if WAP also means “worship and prayer,” because that’s what her friend’s grandma had told her. What should I say?

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