Care and Feeding
It wasn’t cute in high school, and it’s completely destructive now.
Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here.
Dear Care and Feeding,
My wife and I have three kids, and we are at a complete loss about what to do with our youngest, now 21. She was a cheerleader in high school and has what I would call a “cheerleader attitude”: the stereotypical mean girl, cliquey, “I’m better than you” type of personality. And as she has gotten older, it hasn’t changed.
For example, my oldest daughter has been dating Stuart for several years and my youngest makes a play on his first and last name by calling him “Stool Pigeon.” He doesn’t like it and has asked her to stop but she says it’s funny and “just joking.” In addition, he has a special needs brother and once when Stu made a not-so-smart move during a card game, my youngest stated, “I guess your family genetics really came through on that play.” Stu got up and left immediately and my daughter once again said “Just joking, can’t Stool take a joke?”
Several months ago, my son began dating Ellie, a girl my youngest graduated with. My youngest stated right away that she “hates” Ellie and demanded my son stop seeing her. We have told her to knock it off and treat her well, but she maintains that she hates Ellie because she “ruined her life” and continues to make negative comments about her both when she is and isn’t around.
We knew our daughter had rude terms for certain groups of kids in high school:“hicks,” “skanks,” etc. No matter how much we scolded her, pleaded with her, and punished her, she would still use these terms with her friends. Even when we were together out in public, she would see somebody from her class and announce “Oh that’s Isaac, he’s a hick.” We found out (through our son) that Ellie was a “skid” and when she was younger and going through puberty, she had B.O and my daughter and her friends would call her “smelly Ellie.” There was an issue their senior year where my daughter and her fellow cheerleaders were picking on Ellie and the group she was friends with. When videos of the bullying were posted on social media, the school took swift action and the offenders were placed on in-school suspension for five weeks and weren’t eligible for competition in cheerleading. We did not know this at the time, and when we asked our daughter about the state cheerleading competition, she simply told us they didn’t qualify. This is how Ellie “ruined” my daughter’s life and she still holds her accountable for missing that contest.
My oldest two have gone out on double dates and other activities without their sister because they don’t like the way she treats their partners. Now my youngest is upset that our Sunday family dinner is now Sunday family supper eaten while she is at work because my son and daughter refuse to bring their partners over while she is there. We have said if she knocked off the attitude, we will return to having Sunday dinners but she maintains that she “isn’t doing anything wrong,” because, again, she is “just joking” and that Ellie is dating her brother just to “get back” at her for what happened in high school.”
Due to some health issues when I was younger, I was occasionally picked on/bullied in school, so I feel for both Stu and Ellie. My wife and I have no idea where our youngest got her attitude from. I am also afraid her attitude will carry over when she is done with college and tries to find a career. What can we say, or do to/with her, to make her “see the light” that she is in the wrong and risks alienating her siblings (and their partners) for the rest of her life?
—Youngest Daughter’s Cheerleader Attitude
Dear Cheerleader Attitude,
It sounds as though you and your wife, and likely your other children, have devoted a significant amount of time towards trying to correct your daughter’s behavior and help her to see the err of her ways. Surely, you’ve confronted her about how cruel it was for she and her friends to bully Ellie, and have explained to her that this girl didn’t “ruin her life,” and that it’s ridiculous to suggest that her relationship with her brother is an act of revenge. You’ve pointed out that it’s unkind to mock Stuart’s name, and cruel to joke about his brother’s disability. You’ve lectured her about reducing other people to “hicks” and “skanks.” Still, nothing has changed.
I’m of the mind that your daughter may need some professional help. Something isn’t right. She is cruel and expects to face no ramifications for the way she treats people.
I think you and your wife should try to get your daughter to speak to a therapist. This may be difficult considering that she’s convinced that she’s done nothing wrong to speak of, but perhaps getting her to reflect on how she truly feels about herself might help. Is she generally happy? It’s hard to imagine that she is with such a nasty disposition. That may be where you want to start a conversation with her: “Are you happy? Do you feel good about yourself? What makes you want to treat others the way that you do?” People who are mean and nasty are often deeply unsatisfied with themselves. The fact that your 21-year-old daughter still has an ax to grind over missing a cheerleading competition in high school (because of her own actions!) suggests that she’s likely feeling less than good about her own life.
If you haven’t already, you should let your daughter know on a regular basis that the way she treats people is completely unacceptable, and that she can count on having conflicts with others as long as she continues to behave as she does. Don’t let her nasty comments slide, ever.
Show her who she has been, to her siblings and classmates, and ask her if this is how she truly wants to live. Hold her accountable for her behavior; if you guys are still taking care of her, consider what privileges can be withdrawn based on how she acts. Let her know that her actions are unacceptable and show her that they are. Encourage her to get some help while she’s young enough to make some changes. Otherwise, she has a miserable future ahead of her.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
My son had a Mother’s Day class at his martial arts school today. It was an opportunity for children at all belt levels to get to share a class with their mom and teach us mothers what they do each week, and my son has been looking forward to it for weeks. The class was very large and my son (who just turned 5) and I had a wonderful time up until the end. After we all practiced our kicks and punches, the children (ages 4 to middle school) went to the front of the room for a little ceremony to honor mothers. All of a sudden, a boy standing next to my son started hitting and punching him very roughly. My son is very big for his age and looks like a 7 or 8-year-old and is quite stocky, but despite his intimidating size, he’s very gentle. My son asked repeatedly for this boy to stop hurting him but the child just said “I can’t stop.” This went on for several minutes and ended in my son bursting into tears while getting kicked over and over again. He never once hit back and instead showed incredible restraint for a 5-year-old, trying to deescalate by stepping away and asking politely. I was trying to make my way to them when finally, the master noticed and ran over and separated them.
My husband was in the audience and caught this all on video. After the children were dismissed, the mother of the boy who was hitting and kicking my son grabbed her child and walked off while I was left with my son in tears. It ruined an event. This other child has special needs; he has acted out in the past and has had to be chased through school because of his behavior, but I never saw him physically attack another child before. I am so angry and I appreciate the master stepping in, but am I crazy to have expected an apology from the mother? I know that the boy may not have been able to control himself, but his mother should have at least apologized! My child was in tears from the attack and she just walked right past us!
We made sure not to tell our child we were upset at the boy’s mother. Instead, we talked to him about how the other boy has his own strengths and challenges like our son does and he probably didn’t want to hurt my child, but couldn’t help what he was doing and that it’s our job to still love this child and give the kid space while he works things out. We also told my child we were sorry he was hurt but were so proud of him for not fighting back and trying to use his words. What’s the proper etiquette here?
Dear Mad Moms,
The other mother absolutely should have apologized to you for her son’s actions. Perhaps she was embarrassed, or simply overwhelmed by trying to manage him. However, it certainly comes off as uncaring for her to just leave the event without acknowledging what happened. You may want to talk to the master about what took place and how they plan to address these issues in the future. It should not have taken a few minutes to separate the boys. It’s great that you are being so empathetic towards this young man and have modeled that for your son. However, the karate school has to take this sort of thing seriously and create an environment where all children can learn safely. If this particular child has a habit of using what he is learning in class to harm other students, then it may not be the case that this is the right setting for him. If this was an isolated incident, it should still be taken seriously and your son should receive some assurance from the master that the adults in this program are there to protect him, and that they will do their best to ensure nothing like this happens again.
As far as the mother goes, you would be within your rights to confront her and let her know that you were upset by what happened and that you feel your child is owed an apology. If her son doesn’t have the capacity to issue one, she does, and should.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
My 8-year–old recently came out as non-binary. It’s great, we love them, we’re using their pronouns, they seem happy. We told their school and they’ve been pretty good too, with the principal being exceptional. The thing is that the school has advised strongly that we get them a psychologist. We’re figuring that out, but every psychologist wants to know why we’re looking for help and “because the school told us to” or “it seems like best practice” seem like bad answers. Can you help? Why should a non-binary kiddo be in therapy? I can spin some other reasons. Everyone should be in therapy! A baseline and support will be useful if they’re trans when they’re older (and hey, gender is flexible, that’d be cool too). I guess I’m just not feeling the necessity in my heart. When it takes away a time that could be for other extracurriculars, I want to be convinced that it’s necessary. What do you think?
Dear Affirming Already,
It’s great that your child has support from you, as well as the staff at their school, and I understand why that may seem sufficient. However, considering that the world-at-large has a long way to go in terms of accepting non-binary people, I agree with the school staff that it would be helpful for your little one to talk to a therapist—ideally one who has experience with gender non-conforming young people. As you said, everyone should be in therapy, and that additional support will be useful even if they don’t come out later as trans. A therapist will be able to help your child grapple with other children’s reactions to their identity, and to process their feelings about their journey. They will have language to address issues you may not think about. Therapy doesn’t have to be a huge interruption to your child’s schedule; you may find that they only need to go once or twice a month. You want to provide your child with all the resources necessary to ensure they walk through life as comfortably as possibly. The staff at their school isn’t just pulling this recommendation from nowhere; they know that therapy can be useful for kids like your child. Give it a chance.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
I am the mother of a terrific 15-year-old girl, “Emma.” She’s a joy to be around, has lovely friends, does fine in school; she’s athletic, smart, interesting, etc. I may be prejudiced, so I’ll name some exceptions. She frequently needs to be reminded about chores; she’ll sleep late, can be forgetful, and now and then there’s drama when we argue over rules. I’m not writing for help with that.
She (or we or I) need advice about the mother of one of her friends. This is a relatively small town, so Emma and “Charlotte” have known each other since grade school, and I’ve known Charlotte’s mother “Amelia” peripherally for almost as long. We’re not close friends but we are good for a chat when our paths cross. Emma and Charlotte had three classes together this past school year and will be attending the same program this summer. Emma and Charlotte have been thrown together a fair amount recently, and Amelia and I may arrange for a carpool for the summer program. It means Emma has been running into Amelia more during drop offs, pick-ups, time in the library, or a quick visit to her house, and this is where the problem comes in. Amelia rarely passes up an opportunity to compare the two girls. It would be bad enough if Emma were coming off the worse in these comparisons, but at least then I’d know how to tell her to defend herself. Instead, Amelia holds Emma out as an example.
She’ll tell Charlotte “Emma got an A on her biology test, why can’t you study like she does?” (Emma does like biology and did well in it.) “Emma cleaned her room. You should learn from Emma.” (Yes, her room was clean that time. It isn’t always, though we’re making progress.) “See how nice and polite Emma is?” (She is mostly polite to people, but it’s not like Charlotte is a horror. She’s just an awkward teenager.)
Charlotte gets tight lipped listening to these, and Emma sort of hangs her head. I don’t want to encourage Emma to put herself down, and I don’t want her to contradict Amelia, but she’s uncomfortable when this happens, and I don’t like the idea of anything coming between the two girls who otherwise are getting along fine.
—Don’t Make an Example of Me
Dear Example of Me,
I don’t think it would be wrong for you to contradict Amelia when she makes these comments, or to at least defend Charlotte a bit: “Emma’s room looks nice today, but you should have seen it last week,” “Charlotte’s always been a sweetheart to me, she’s one of my favorite kids!” If she continues to make these comments, you can let her know that they aren’t appreciated: “I’ve noticed that you have a habit of comparing the girls. I know you’re just trying to encourage Charlotte, but it tends to make Emma feel awkward and bad. I don’t want anything to come between the girls. Could you try to refrain from saying things like that?” Amelia probably has no idea what she’s doing and how it could make either of the girls feel; she could also just be one of those moms who has a terrible habit of putting her kid down on a regular basis. Either way, you are well within your rights to let her know that you and Emma are not a fan of her commentary and that you’d like for it to stop.
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