Care and Feeding

My Very Good Teen Just Made a Very Bad Joke at School

What’s the appropriate punishment?

Someone's hand places a smartphone into a box of electronics.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by vejaa/iStock/Getty Images Plus. 

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My wonderful, bright, and silly 14-year-old (they/them) just made a very racist joke at school. It was completely out of the blue. In fact, despite having been at that school since kindergarten (they are in eighth grade) and nearly everyone knowing them, I still thought that the restorative justice coach had the wrong kid.

The good news? My kid admitted to doing it, apologized, and was willing to accept whatever punishment was handed down. They also said they understand why the joke was inappropriate. They have already apologized to the people who the joke was made to. They admitted that they don’t know why they made the joke (my kid does have ADHD). Their friends were also pretty shocked at the joke.

I struggled a lot with the punishment…

First, I was punished a lot as a kid often disproportionately to the crime, and I struggled with learning disabilities and ADHD as well. Second, my kid splits time between my house and my elderly parents’ house because I work overnights. Third, my kid takes public transportation to and from school (our city only buses kids with physical disabilities).

My initial plan was to take away electronics though the weekend (this happened on a Wednesday). However, it was pointed out by my parents that my kid needed the phone for travel. My kid came home Thursday saying that they had homework and without getting into the weeds, they’ve never been able to log into their school account from my parents’ old computer. So the computer went back. I did remove their favorite game from the phone and restricted access to games on the computer. However, my parents admit they didn’t monitor and my kid was home with me Saturday … while I was sleeping coming off shift.

Did I do the right thing? What would be a good punishment given the circumstances? We also had a number of conversations about why what they did was wrong was hurtful and they completely understood, yet how do I stop this from happening again?

— How to Punish?

Dear How to Punish,

My first thought is to wonder: What sort of education about race and racism have you exposed your child to? Many white parents don’t talk about race with their kids, or take a “colorblind” approach, which can lead to kids who don’t have an understanding of the very real impacts of race and racism in society. Black kids and other kids of color are forced to learn about racism at young ages because they experience it, so white parents must also teach their kids about the uncomfortable topics. Awareness of racial differences starts very young, so if you aren’t having these conversations with your kids, they will fill in the gaps with pop culture, social media, and what they hear from other kids. How to Raise an Anti-Racist by Ibram X. Kendi is one good resource to start with on how to approach race education with kids.

Rather than focusing on punishment, I’d want to find out where they even heard this joke, and where they are getting their information about race in general. Alt-right extremists are known to target young people on social media, for instance. This joke is likely something your teen heard elsewhere and repeated, so get to the bottom of the source as a first step.

And while I understand what you are getting at regarding the impulsivity and “blurting” we ADHD-ers are known for (and that I struggle with myself), racism is not in fact a symptom of ADHD. And as the parent of a Black kid who regularly deals with racism and racial bullying at school, I think it’s extremely important that kids are held accountable when their actions are harmful to others.

I’d venture every white person to ever exist has said or done something racist out of ignorance that they regret at some point. But while a teenage kid is likely to be simply parroting something they heard without malicious intent, the effect is still that kids like mine get hurt again and again. Taking away a few video games is not going to challenge the effects of white supremacy in our culture. The only way to stop this from happening is by regularly having explicit conversations about race that impart actively anti-racist values.


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