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I have a beautiful, awesome 17-year-old daughter. She does well in school and she doesn't get into trouble. This morning I dropped her off for band camp and she accidentally left her phone in the car. When I discovered it, I texted her with it, saying I had her phone.* Then a few texts caught my eye, and I snooped. It turns out my daughter is sexting with a couple of boys, sending naked pictures of herself over her phone. Should I pretend I never saw it but somehow subtly offer some advice about the dangers of sexting? I don't want her to feel the shame of knowing I know. But even worse, I don't want her to feel the shame of the entire world knowing if one of these boys decides to be an ass. These boys have sent pictures of their junk, too. If she were in a serious relationship, I could understand her having sex, but it's the sending of pictures that really has me bothered. What do I do?
Forget being coy—your daughter certainly isn’t. You need to sit her down, tell her what you saw, and discuss what to do next. Read this sexting horror story and then show it to your daughter. It will make you want to gather up all the phones involved, smash them, douse them with acid, then bury them in the New Jersey Pine Barrens. To summarize: girl sends nude photo of self to boy, boy forwards to another girl, and within hours it’s blasted across the entire school district. The cops are called, arrests are made, and the good news is that kids involved avoided becoming registered sex offenders for possession and distribution of child pornography. Fortunately, it’s very rare for sexting to go this far—here’s a good summary of the legal issues. But even if prosecutors never get a peek at your daughter’s pictures, she needs to know that sending nude photos of herself can be a life-changer. For more advice, I turned to my Slate colleague, Emily Bazelon, author of the forthcoming book Sticks and Stones, which is about all forms of bullying. From her interviews with teens involved in sexting, Bazelon says the girls often explained they sent a photo because the boys asked for it as a sign of trust. (Anticipating such juvenile idiocy is the reason the Founding Fathers declared the president has to be 35 years old—although as we know all too well, this doesn't always solve the problem.) She suggests you make sure your daughter understands these digital images can be used against her at any time and she must take action to get them removed. Your daughter should talk to the boys with whom she’s shared photos and explain the trouble the nude shots could cause for all of them. If the photos have not been forwarded, everyone can simply delete them. If they have been, it might be necessary to get the parents involved to make sure this contagion is contained. Let’s hope the parents are helpful, not hotheads. If your daughter doesn’t understand the gravity of having naked photographs of herself floating forever on the Internet, then she has a lot of growing up to do.
*Update: The sequence of events in the original letter was confusing, and my attempt to clarify didn't help. The mother wrote back to explain that when she found her daughter's phone she answered a few incoming texts explaining her daughter was not in possession of the phone. Then the sexts caught her eye.
Dear Prudence: Homophobic Ex-Husband
My husband and I have known each other since high school and have been married almost 20 years. When we were younger, we were both liberal Democrats, like our friends and my family. His parents are moderate Republicans. After 9/11, my husband changed. He became staunchly conservative, and it's been tough on the family ever since. He's smart, but now he needs to make sure everyone knows why they are wrong about their political beliefs. He's alienated our old friends and most of my family, many of whom we don’t see anymore. He gets furious and calls me narrow-minded when I refuse to listen to him on political topics. It's such a shame, because we used to revel in political discussions. Our daughter has said that she doesn't ever want take a stand on anything political because arguments at home make her so upset. Our teenage son tries to play peacemaker, which shouldn’t be his role. I love this man, but his behavior is making me crazy. Ideas?
—Red Husband Blue Wife
Start a marital book club and have both of you read and discuss Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. In it, Haidt, a professor at NYU who studies the origins of morality, explores why we are so viciously divided politically. Haidt was a liberal who became somewhat more moderate through his work, but his book has been widely embraced by conservatives who feel he understands them. In this interview Haidt discusses how liberals cherish caring and fairness while conservatives praise loyalty, authority, and sanctity. He says both sides would be able to communicate better if they could appreciate each other’s core values. Tell your husband you want to read this book together because your marriage, your entire family, is in trouble. Say you miss your lively debates, because now he just lectures, which is making you stop listening, giving your kids ulcers, and alienating your friends and family. Say you know that conservatives treasure traditional families, but he needs to know that his hectoring is threatening the happiness of yours. Tell him that perhaps hasn’t realized how serious things have become, but you’re hoping if you two start this project with an open mind, you can find your way back to more civil political discussions. And if he won’t join you in this goal and endeavor, then he needs to hear from you that he’s not the man you thought he was.
I’m a single mother with two children, a son, age 13, and a daughter, age 16. My son has ADHD. For the past few summers, we have shared a vacation beach house with two other families, one who has a son the same age as mine and the other with a girl the same age as my daughter. This year we were not invited—the two friends pretended they weren't going—but I found out that they were. I asked them why we weren't included and the friend who arranged the house said that the stress of my son's impulsive hyperactivity ruined her vacation. Instead of talking to me about it, she found it easier to just exclude us. My son and I have been in therapy to work on ways to help him with his self-control. The other friend says his behavior didn't bother her, but she also didn't talk with me about it. Right now I feel that these people are no longer my friends. Should continue to be friends with them and what I should say?