I am the mother of an introverted 11-year-old girl. She is smart, kind, beautiful, hard-working, and empathetic. This year, she started at a school in a new part of town for 5th grade and made a couple of friends from different cultural backgrounds—cultures that highly value education and academic achievement. I love that she has found friends with these values and has acclimated to her new school.
However, she started a group chat on her phone that got all the girls in trouble. They were having conversations that included words about private parts of the body and topics about sexuality. The conversations were clearly juvenile and did not indicate anything scary; it looked like natural curiosity from hitting puberty. They were also cussing, especially my kid—again, in a very juvenile way. I normally check her phone, though not as regularly as I should have been. I have time limits on use, she can’t use it past 9 p.m., and it has restricted access to the internet and apps. I thought I was doing well. But I received an uncomfortable phone call from one of the other moms with screenshots showing parts of the group chat I missed. The other families took it as my daughter influencing their daughters in immoral ways. They have banned their daughters from playing with mine, and they are not allowed to see her outside of school.
Of course, I talked to my daughter about internet safety and her digital footprint, and we are having ongoing conversations about sexuality so that she can ask me questions and I can explain things to her without any shameful stigma. She has also been putting a lot more effort into a group project they have all been working on at school to try to make amends because they made it known they don’t like their daughters interacting with her anymore. To me, that is evidence of her good heart. But she has already been stigmatized. I think part of it is cultural because they are both immigrant families from more conservative cultures. I honestly had never interacted with anyone from these cultures before moving here, but I am trying to be open-minded, learn as much as I can, and be culturally sensitive in navigating this. I just can’t tell if this is cultural, or if this is just stuck-up rich people being jerks to my not-rich daughter and me, a single mom.
I have apologized and tried to show empathy. I have not argued or placed blame. I have tried to listen to their concerns. I have asked how I can make amends to their families and make them feel comfortable. But the reaction has mostly been anger toward my daughter and the implication that I’m a bad mother over the technology part. I would expect the other families to understand kids just say stupid things and as parents, we correct behavior as it arises. I could see one conversation, but this has been excessive. I feel ashamed and humiliated, and I don’t know what to do. I feel ostracized in our new community. If it’s cultural, there are key things I do not understand. If it’s the wealth gap, I don’t even know how to move forward. My daughter is a good kid and I am not a bad mom.
—My Kid Said What?
I’m going to zoom out for you. You’re trying to make sense of these other moms’ reactions and taking on a sizable amount of introspection and self-doubt as a result. But it really doesn’t matter whether their reactions have anything to do with their cultural heritage or socioeconomics. Their actions have told you everything you need to know. Instead of assuming the best intent of you and your child, they have assumed malfeasance. Instead of addressing the concerns and moving on, they have chosen not to drop the issue. You are acknowledging that they might have a family culture that is different, but not less valid, than yours; they are not offering you the same courtesy.
I’m not saying they are necessarily bad people. If I were raising my kid in an unfamiliar space, I might also be protective and overly vigilant. But I am saying that you don’t need to spend any other energy on them or their opinions. If it comes up again, tell them firmly that you have apologized, that your daughter is a good kid who is worthy of respect, and that you are done discussing this any further. If that doesn’t shut it down, block their numbers. Either way, go find other moms—maybe some whose kids swear a little. I promise they are out there. You will not be able to change these moms’ minds, and I don’t think it’s worth your energy to try.
As for your daughter, I wouldn’t be surprised if the girls decide to still be friends, despite the parents’ opinions. But if they are cold-shouldering your daughter, then the advice I’m giving you goes double for her. If you and your daughter don’t know how to find your people, maybe ask a trusted teacher for some help. They see everything and might know of some kids or parents who have a similar vibe or who are social connectors of the community. In the meantime, go easy on yourself. You and your daughter didn’t do anything wrong. Don’t let this one blip make you question yourself anymore.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
My mom remarried a wonderful man when I was 17. He came with two sons, my stepbrothers. The younger stepbrother (“Steve”) and my sister are only a few months apart in age, and the three of us have developed a tight relationship. (The other stepbrother is much older, so we are friendly but not close.) Over a decade ago, Steve married “Renee.” Renee grew up in Florida and frequently visited Disney World. She loves everything Disney. This year, as a holiday gift, she took me, my sister, and our children to Magic Kingdom before we all boarded a Disney cruise for a planned vacation. We had never been to the parks as kids, partly because of my dad’s money management.
Since we announced the cruise, my mom has spent the last six months making fun of us, asking if we really wanted to go, talking about how stupid it was (she has only done adult-only cruises) and how loud it was going to be “with so many children running around.” She also spoiled the surprise for my child and didn’t even care. Before you say, “Oh she just wanted to join you,” she had the chance. The whole family was invited on the cruise! She thought it was dumb and declined! Well, all of us had a blast. We are already talking about the next one. Renee is considering paying for our parents to come along to celebrate my brother’s 40th birthday, thinking that if it is already paid, they’ll agree. I don’t think my mom ever will. As we plan for the next one is there a script or something to shut my mom’s comments down? Do you think this might be misplaced anger from not being able to take us when we were younger? And do you think there is any chance of getting her on a boat for a man who really sees her as his own mother?
—It’s Supposed to Be a Happy Place!
Dear Happy Place,
I wouldn’t be at all surprised if this is misplaced resentment and regret for what she couldn’t provide you and your sister growing up. But it’s also possible that she simply finds the Disney vibe childish and uninteresting—even while accompanying her grandkids. Disney isn’t for everyone. (To be clear, it’s definitely for me.) But above all, Disney is definitely not for people who will poo-poo someone else’s idea of fun while there. If nothing else, it’s too expensive for that kind of vibe.
It doesn’t sound like this vacation is something your mom would be interested in. If I were you, I’d just plan the trip, not bring her into the mix, and not attach this to Steve’s birthday (though I recognize that may not be up to you)—there’s too much that can go awry before and during the vacation. But since the family is considering it, and since you asked for a script, how about this:
If she says yes: “OK great, but here’s what I’m going to ask of you. We are going to be participating in activities and shows and character meetups because they’re fun for us and for the kids. You are welcome to opt in or out of any activity the whole time we are there; if you want to spend most of the cruise at the adult-only pool, and just meet us for dinner, that’s fine, this is your vacation too. But I’m going to ask that you not turn your nose down at any of the choices that the rest of us make. That was really hurtful last time around, and we aren’t going to do that this time. Everyone should be able to have fun on their vacation without judgment. Can you agree to that?”
If she says no: “No problem. But just because you don’t want to go on this trip doesn’t mean you get to badmouth it or make fun of it to us. You really hurt our feelings with all your negative comments last time we did this trip. I need you to cool it. If you can’t, then I might need to take some space apart, because I can’t do that again.”
An irreverent “Stop yucking someone else’s yum” or a warning-toned “Back off, mom…” can also help with any one-off comments that sneak out of her. But I also recommend confronting her remarks head-on. “Why would you say that?” “That hurt my feelings. Was that your intention?” Or, simply, “Why does this make you so upset?” It’s easy to make digs and pretend you’re “above” an activity; it’s another thing to answer for your behavior. Calm, constructive candor will be your best chance at diffusing her patterns, here. Good luck; have a magical time!
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Dear Care and Feeding,
My two boys (11 and 13) are excellent skiers. We have a vacation house near a ski mountain, so they have skied 30-40 days a year since they were very little. That means that when friends and relatives come to visit, typically the kids aren’t as experienced as mine. My boys will happily leave off from pursuing insane back-country antics with their local friends and accompany visitors on slopes of whatever level suits them.
Recently, a problem arose with their cousin (also 11, my nephew on my wife’s side). He’s a good kid, but like all kids, he has foibles: In his case, a certain amount of insecurity, perhaps especially related to his cousins, which can turn into boastfulness. He kept going on about how great a skier he was and complaining to my boys that they wouldn’t take him on “double-black” diamond terrain. (I’ve seen this pattern with other things, from chess to video games.) My oldest finally got exasperated and took him up to a lift that led to a terrifying-looking descent—though unbeknownst to my nephew, there was a somewhat hidden, easy way down. As soon as they got off the lift and my nephew got a look at the hard descent, he freaked out and began to bawl. My son let him go on for a few minutes before revealing that if this looked like it was beyond his “double-black” abilities, there was an easier way down.
My wife was annoyed with our son for playing this trick on his cousin. I disagree. They were gracious and patient with their cousin for a couple of days, putting up with his boasting and constant claims of wanting to hit harder terrain, until they tried the understandable and expedient tactic of calling his bluff. In response to my wife’s scolding, both my sons say that they don’t want to ski with their cousin the next time he comes. I think we should let this one slide if they agree to give their cousin another chance. What say you?
—That Went Downhill Fast
I tend to agree with you. Your sons displayed patience until it became untenable, at which point, your oldest found a creative way to solve the issue. Is your wife upset at your son for scaring his cousin, or for putting the cousin in a situation where he might have skied down dangerous terrain? I think either of those are fair points to discuss—and a discussion, not any kind of punishment, is what’s called for here. Can his methods be improved? Sure, and your wife is free to suggest as much; on the other hand, he solved the problem for himself and without cruelty, from what it sounds like, which deserves acknowledgment as well.
And much like your son deserves the benefit of the doubt, your nephew deserves a second chance. Youth is the time for making mistakes and learning from them. Hopefully, everyone can let each other off the hook a bit, here.
Dear Care and Feeding,
I’m a proud aunt to two babies born in the past year and am lucky to get regular photo updates of my wonderful niece and nephew. I absolutely love these photos with one exception: Sometimes the photos are of clothes-less kiddos. I know from the parents’ perspective these are adorable shots (bath time! Learning to crawl!) but I feel so uncomfortable having these photos on my phone (I personally never take photos of my child unless she is fully clothed). My feelings stem from the horror stories I have heard about unsuspecting parents’ Gmail accounts being revoked because of innocent baby photos like this, let alone the far darker and more nefarious consequences of the wrong person getting access. How do I tell my siblings, kindly, to please not share photos like this without sounding crazy (or creepy myself)?!
—Weirded Out in Washington
Dear Weirded Out,
Keep the conversation on the legal grey area. “Hey, I love the weekly photo dump, please keep it coming, but can I make one request not to include the naked baby pics? I’m just paranoid after all these instances of algorithms flagging innocent photos as problematic, and I’d hate for any of us to get caught up in that—the articles I’ve read sound truly horrific.” If they ask questions, you can send an article or two, or suggest they Google it. But keep the conversation away from your personal preferences—it’s too easy to misconstrue one’s meaning.
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