Help! I Can’t Stop My Young Daughter From Making Racist Comments.

Advice on manners and morals.
Feb. 7 2013 6:15 AM

Mommy’s Little Bigot

My young daughter won't stop spouting racist comments.

Emily Yoffe.
Emily Yoffe

Photograph by Teresa Castracane.

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Dear Prudence,
My 6-year-old daughter has beautiful blond hair and blue eyes. She gets compliments regularly from people on how pretty she is and basks in the attention. She attends a small private school and there is a little boy in her class who is black. He is sweet, well-mannered, and has a great sense of humor. His parents are lovely people. The problem is that over the last two years my daughter has been making comments about people's skin, particularly addressed to this little boy. These comments are along the lines of, "I don't want to sit by him because he has dark skin." Her teacher and I have sat down to discuss this with her and explain that this behavior is unacceptable to no avail. The other day she watched the beginning of Love Actually with me and she commented that the interracial couple shouldn't be getting married because they don't look right together. Obviously my method of teaching her to treat everyone equally and be accepting of all different people is not working. Her school is getting more concerned, although they know I am trying my best to combat it. Do I just hope she grows out of this, or is there something else I can do?

—At a Loss

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Dear Loss,
What a win-win this is for an attention-loving child. Usually she can just show up, and like a quokka, know that there will be oohs and ahs at the pleasure of gazing upon her. But since her classmates and teachers are accustomed to her looks, she may find school less gratifying. Then one day she stumbles upon the realization that if she says something awful about the color of a classmate’s skin, a stunning amount of attention comes her way. Sure it’s of the negative kind. But if you enjoy being the focus of things, you take what you can get. I spoke to Molly McDonald, a licensed marriage and family therapist in West Hartford, Conn. She says once the original explanation that everyone deserves to be respected didn’t extinguish the behavior, the continuing focus on your daughter’s transgressions became a kind of fuel. McDonald says both you and the teacher need to redirect your own behavior in order to change your daughter’s. McDonald says to think of her comments as being equivalent to a tantrum and thus best ignored. For example, when your daughter said the couple in the movie didn’t belong together, you should have either said nothing, or replied nonchalantly, “Oh, I think they look nice,” then refuse to discuss it further. You should talk to the teacher about her doing her best to not respond to your daughter’s rude remarks in the moment. But later in the school day she should discuss generally that everyone deserves to be treated with kindness.

McDonald also suggests engaging in role-play at home with your daughter. You say you’re going to play a game in which you pretend to be some of the other kids in the class, and she’s going to show you how she acts when she’s playing nicely. Then, playing the black classmate, ask her to sit next to you. If she does, you give her a hug and tell her she’s being a good friend. You tell her how happy you’ll be if you hear from the teacher that when she’s in school she’s being a good friend there. If the teacher does tell you things have improved, give your daughter a reward, such as a small bauble, to reinforce the behavior. McDonald also says it might be worthwhile to check into whether your daughter is getting some of her noxious ideas from someone in her life, possibly a relative. I’ll add that since you have a daughter who likes the limelight, find productive ways to turn it on her. Praise the funny story she wrote or colorful drawing she made. Teach her to help you make dinner and tell her what a good cook she’s becoming. Let her see that what she accomplishes is more important than how she looks.

—Prudie

Dear Prudence: Newlywed Insomnia

Dear Prudence,
My girlfriend and I are going through a very rough time after five years together, and we are now on an extended break. I am trying hard to address my own issues through counseling, and one of those issues is dealing with being lied to. I can't stand it. I am a rather honest person, but my girlfriend is far from it. After being exposed to her little white lies for so long, I have become aggressively suspicious and controlling, and borderline paranoid. I am hoping to address this and learn to "let go" since the snooping, spying, and obsessive grilling of her for the truth is destructive. I try to offer her opportunities to tell me the truth about things, but her first reaction is always to lie. It could be about something as innocuous about what she spent her time on in the evening. It could be more serious, giving me what I've termed "the onion" truth, in which a little bit is revealed, and when pressed, a little more, until finally the whole truth is out and it's just completely different than what was first offered. She is an avid reader of your column and I hope seeing this letter will cause some sort of epiphany in her. Am I doomed to be an honest person amid a world of liars? Do you think she is ever going to be able to just be honest with me, or has the damage been done?

—Lied To

Dear Lied,
Oh, yes, the damage has been done. And let me supply an epiphany to your girlfriend: You’re out of this relationship, so stay out! As for you, Lied To, I appreciate this letter because it’s always helpful to get inside the head of the person who causes grief. You are honest enough to paint yourself as a paranoid, controlling snoop who grilled your girlfriend mercilessly over her every activity. Maybe you got involved with a compulsive liar. In that case, you needed to quickly end things instead of becoming the Grand Inquisitor. But maybe your girlfriend gave you “the onion” treatment to try to save herself from the rage of her live-in stalker. She needs her own head examined to figure out why she’s put up with this for so long. Please leave your girlfriend alone, and concentrate on your treatment. Unless you have a psychological breakthrough that allows you to let the person you love not be under constant surveillance, you may be better off living like Diogenes, who spent his life alone in a fruitless search for an honest man.

—Prudie

Dear Prudence,
My friend is a single mother with several children and an abusive ex-husband. She has no money. Her oldest son is 19, smokes pot in front of her, and is verbally abusive. She also has an 11-year-old daughter who has numerous learning disabilities and is having a wretched time at school. Last summer, my partner let the daughter play around with his camera, and we discovered that she is an amazing photographer. For Christmas, I gave her a used but expensive camera to develop her skills, along with some picture frames for her work. My partner was planning to give her some lessons. Recently, the daughter told us her brother has taken her camera. I asked my friend about this, but she just became flustered. I sent the son a Facebook message, but he never answered. Is there a way to get her camera back to her without intruding and making an already tense family relationship worse?

—Angry Gifter

Dear Angry,
I’m sure many people reading this would happily pack up their cameras and send them so that this poor girl could have one sweet thing in her life. Given your description of his upbringing, it’s no surprise where this young man’s beastly behavior comes from. Thus the chain of pain continues. The mother is intimidated and ineffectual, the brother a strong, young bully. Mom needs to step up and set some standards or else tell the boy it’s time he got a job and his own place to live, but it doesn’t sound as if she has it in her, in which case  your gift may be irretrievable. I'm wondering if it would be possible for you to look for a decent camera, affordable for you, on Amazon or eBay, etc. If you don't think even a replacement camera would be safe at the girl's house, maybe you can hold it for her at yours and invite her over for a weekly photography lesson.  A caring adult who notices how special she is can truly make a difference in a bleak life.

—Prudie

Dear Prudie,
At 22, I was hired straight out of college to report at a daily newspaper. I'm lucky, I know, especially given the volatility in the economy and news industry. I am five years younger than the newest hire, and I am infinitely more efficient, clear with my writing, and communicative with my sources than the new reporter. The other reporter constantly works overtime, is defensive to managers, and is overall awkward and completely aloof to her bizarre treatment of sources, other reporters, and bosses. I wonder why nobody ever suggested to this girl that she pursue copy-editing instead of reporting, within the realm of being a "communications professional" of all things? The management here is terrible. I get so angry sitting behind her on days when I'm supposed to work, listening to her futilely pound at the keys (she finger hunts). I feel like I'm not furthering my career because I'm practically getting carpal tunnel just filling the news hole to make up for her inefficiency, rather than writing thoughtful investigative pieces. Should I suck it up, or speak up?

—Frustrated Minion

Dear Frustrated,
I guess I’m a “communications professional” too, and as one to another, you’ve impressed me with your whiny ingratitude and entitlement. You’re right that given the state of the news business you are lucky to have landed any job right away. No doubt your paper’s lousy management and your colleague’s annoying typing (typing, in a news room—the nerve!) are keeping you from those Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative pieces you’d otherwise be doing. Maybe if you spent less time focusing on the habits of your colleague, you could get out and do some reporting on those stories. I understand you’re a great communicator and all, but for now, I advise you keep your unhappiness to yourself.

—Prudie

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Emily Yoffe is a regular Slate contributor. She writes the Dear Prudence column.