Care and Feeding

We Monitor All Our Teen’s Online Activities. We Just Found Something We’re Not Sure How to Handle.

What’s the appropriate action here?

A mother looks worried by what she's seeing on a phone.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by AntonioGuillem/iStock/Getty Images Plus. 

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I am a parent who monitors their teen’s phone/online activities. We do this because so many innocent-seeming activities are not innocent, and we want to make sure we help her navigate that. We have also talked to her for years about respecting the chosen pronouns of her friends and peers. In a recent check of her activity, we saw that her chosen pronouns as told to a new friend are she/they. She has not expressed this to us directly, though she does know we regularly check activity, and we’ve had many open conversations about the activity we’ve seen. How do we approach her in a supportive way to encourage opening up to us about her preferred pronouns? We want to honor the pronouns she feels comfortable with without forcing her to “come out” in any uncomfortable manner.

— Supportive but Cautious

Dear Supportive,

Your child will come out to you when they’re ready, if they feel there’s any coming out to do. There’s no upside, and plenty of potential harm, in forcing the issue. Teenagers are not going to “open up” about everything to their parents (or they will do so in their own way, not in the way their parents would prefer). But it may be useful to start practicing “they” in your minds and with each other, so that it feels as natural as possible should your child indeed ask for it.

For what it’s worth, I myself have been making an effort to default to “they/them” when there’s any uncertainty about the pronouns anyone uses, no matter what their presentation is. That is: Even if someone is not in any way defying traditional cultural expectations about gender expression, if they haven’t explicitly told me otherwise, I use they/them. (Which, as it happens, is not linguistically uncommon anyway: “What did the doctor say?” “Oh, they said…”). Then the person can correct me if they choose to. I hasten to say that this is my own choice, not a prescriptive declaration for others. As I’ve begun to reckon with the absurdity of the way gender has been addressed, or not addressed, all my life, I’m understanding and approaching it differently than I used to. I don’t think I’m alone in this.


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