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Ask a Teacher: My Daughter Refers to Her Friend as Her “Secret Bully”

Care and Feeding

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. In addition to our traditional advice, every Thursday we feature an assortment of teachers from across the country answering your education questions. Have a question for our teachers? Email [email protected] or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

My fourth grade daughter has a friend she calls her “secret bully.” This friend latched on to her the first day of school when we’d just moved to town, and she is extremely controlling. She doesn’t want my daughter to have other friends, will hide my child’s things when it’s time to leave so she can’t go, constantly tells her their “trust is broken” whenever my daughter does something she doesn’t like, etc. This friend’s parents both seem like nice people, but we are acquaintances. I can’t imagine talking to them, mostly because I think my daughter is probably at an age when she should be gaining the skills to manage these tough relationships herself. We have been in touch with the teacher and school psychologist, and they are providing support. But at the end of the day, we agree my daughter needs to draw her own boundaries and she seems unable. Any ideas on what can we do to help her?

—Enough of the Secret Bully

Dear Enough,

The first thing I think you should do is have a heart-to-heart with your daughter: does she want to continue this friendship with firm boundaries, or does she want to end it? Does she value the relationship despite its challenges, or is this friend causing more misery than happiness?

If she would like to remain friends with this girl, she is going to need help learning how to set boundaries. You can start by modeling ways she might respond to her friend’s controlling behavior. For example: “No, I did not break your trust; I can make my own choices.” Together, you can come up with a few similar phrases that help her assert herself. I suggest that you role play situations where she would find these phrases useful so she can practice. She might also benefit from reading books about friendship with you; one of my favorite blogs, A Mighty Girl, has a wealth of resources on books about friendship.

However, if she wants to end the relationship, then she may need your assurance that it’s okay to end a toxic friendship, especially if it’s making her feel bullied rather than connected. Teach her how to say “no” when invited over to this girl’s house, and how to explain that she doesn’t like being controlled.

Finally, I realize that it’s awkward to have difficult conversations with parents you don’t know very well, but if my daughter’s friend considered her a bully, I would want someone to tell me. Their daughter would likely benefit from her parents helping her learn how to maintain friendships without trying to control others.

Best of luck to you—and your daughter.

— Ms. Holbrook (high school teacher, Texas)

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My 10-year old step-daughter attends a small Waldorf school. On the drive home from school yesterday, she mentioned something really disturbing that happened during her reading lesson. They have been reading Bound for Oregon, a fictional book based on a real-life family’s journey out west along the Oregon Trail. To practice reading, they break off into small groups and take turns reading parts of the book out loud to each other. In the chapter they read yesterday, a character uses the n-word. When I asked my daughter what her teacher told the kids about the word, she said that she was told that “they didn’t have to say it if they didn’t want to” and that it “wasn’t a nice word.” She also said that some of her classmates had no idea what the word meant (I believe all of the students, including my daughter, in the class are white, as is the teacher). The teacher also told them they she wanted to talk more about the word, but that they didn’t have time that day, and would talk more about it tomorrow.

I emailed the teacher immediately, and said that my family was horrified, and that we didn’t think white people should say that word out loud, regardless of the context, and that the teacher should have talked to the kids extensively about it before letting them read that part of the book. I also asked why they had to read that particular book at all, (it’s not a classic piece of literature; it was written by a white woman in the 1990s), since there are lots of similar books that don’t have that word in them. Her response was pretty dismissive. Highlights of her email included not wanting to “sanitize history,” and that in the context of the book the use of the word was not shown favorably, so it was okay. While I can almost understand those points, I think that she is expecting too much from fourth graders to really get that, considering she didn’t talk about the history of the word with the kids before they read it.

My husband and I chose this school for our daughter because she has a sensory processing disorder, generalized anxiety, and ADHD, and was drowning in the public school system, and it was the only private school in the area that we could afford, but we don’t feel like we can keep her there now. We want to pull her from the school, but we also want to raise this issue with the school’s administrative team, and I am guessing that if we un-enroll our daughter from the school, they won’t care about our complaints, especially since there are only a few more days left of the school year.

I am writing to ask if you think there’s any point in keeping her in the school and continuing to advocate for change, and if you have any advice on how to discuss this with the school administrative team. I’ve also been tempted to bring this up to our local newspaper, to see if outward public pressure would be helpful, but I’m not sure if that’s a good idea or not. Also, I’d just love someone else’s opinion on how messed up this is. I know there are a lot of different opinions about how to explore the n-word in the classroom, so maybe we need to reevaluate our family’s stance on not saying the word out loud?

—No Place for Hate

Dear No Place,

There is no reason for your child or any of her classmates to say this world aloud. We do not sanitize history by avoiding the most hateful, hurtful words in the English language. We can acknowledge their existence and learn about the inhumanity attached to them without having to speak the word out loud.

You’re also right in pointing out that this is not Huckleberry Finn or To Kill a Mockingbird or The Bluest Eye. When confronting these great works of literature, the n-word will need to be addressed, but not like this, and perhaps not in the fourth grade. Allowing students to plow into that word in their texts without any kind of historical and contextual preparation is abhorrent.

This teacher has clearly made a terrible mistake. She has demonstrated poor judgment and a lack of understanding of issues related to race and social justice.

Should you remove your child from the school?

I’m not so sure. I would speak to administration first to determine if they support this teacher’s decision. Simply explain what happened and ask administration how they will respond. If administrators condemn this teacher’s decision and your child will have a different teacher next year, then there may be no need to unenroll. A single teacher and her single mistake might not be enough to leave the school, especially if your child’s experience has been so positive until this moment.

This may be a baby and the bathwater situation wherein one teacher making one mistake might not mean that you need to abandon an otherwise excellent school altogether. But you are right to be angry, and you were right to raise the issue, for sure. And you should most certainly follow up with the administration. Good luck.

—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)

My daughter, a rising second grader, has ADHD and is being recommended for Gifted and Talented testing next year. After a rocky kindergarten year, we are so glad she’s doing better and that our choice to medicate her was the best one for her. What are some summer activities that we can do to keep her ADHD brain on a good track? My goal is to work on reading every day, but I’m not sure beyond that. Do you have some ideas for her?

—On Task

Dear On Task,

I would try to expose your daughter to as many opportunities this summer as possible. Dip into as many sports as she’s willing to try. Paint, draw, and sculpt. Hand her your phone and invite her to record a movie. Let her experiment with a variety of musical instruments or make some of her own from items around the house. Teach her new games—card games and board games and everything in between.

My wife just taught our son Pick Up Sticks. He’s obsessed, and it’s a game that requires fine motor skills, patience, and strategy.

Outings like visits to zoos, public gardens, and if you can do so safely, museums, and aquariums are great, too.

As you might guess from my suggestions, I think one of the best ways to keep her “ADHD brain on track” is to simply keep it engaged.

My daughter, a 12 year-old with ADHD, strongly suggests that whatever you do, choose activities that involve other children. She says that playing with other kids has helped her to learn to deal with others when her ADHD is making it hard to focus on the sport, game, or collaborative assignment that demands her attention, which makes good sense to me!

—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)

My just-turned-two-year-old is going to start preschool in the fall. She’s been thriving at home with my mother and me taking care of her. But because we were/are being very cautious about COVID (which has existed almost her entire life), she has never been in anyone else’s care, or played with any other kids besides her baby cousin. I don’t know (and I don’t think the school knows for sure yet) what the COVID procedures will be like for the fall, but I feel sick when I think about dropping her off the first day and not even being able to go in with her (as is the case with some of my friends’ kids). I’ve gotten a bunch of books for her about starting school, and I took a video of the classroom and playground when I was there to visit, but what else can I (safely, she’s still unvaccinated obviously) do to prepare her for this change? We’ll also be moving back to my actual house (away from grandma’s), though she has no recollection of living there. How many weeks (2,3,4?) ahead should we move back to make it less traumatic?

The good news here is that most children your daughter’s age are going to be in the same boat. She will not be the only child in her class who hasn’t been with other kids. However, I do believe that there are always things parents can do to prepare their kids for a challenging new situation.

I love that you’ve gotten books! That would have been my first suggestion. There are so many good ones too—I don’t know which ones you have, but there’s Wemberly Worried and The Kissing Hand, two absolute classics about nerves when starting school. In addition, there are a few episodes of TV shows that teach kids that it’s okay to be nervous on the first day of school, and how to cope with that. Check out Sesame Street, Daniel Tiger, or Bubble Guppies next time you’re doing screen time. If your daughter is the anxious sort, you can always make her a social story about her first day of school—use pictures of her and pictures of the real school if you can get them, and show her where her classroom is, and where the playground is, and explain to her that there will be other kids. If it’s an option, see if she can get a picture of her new teachers, so the adult faces will be familiar.

As for moving, I would suggest that you keep the two huge changes to her life as far apart from one another as is feasible for you. Moving to a new house and then immediately starting school for the first time is a lot of changes for a little body, and stress can often cause kids to act out, have trouble sleeping, or cause dietary issues. You want her situation to be as steady as possible, so if you can move a month or more before she starts school, that would give her plenty of time to feel secure at home before she has to adjust to life as a preschooler. Kids crave stability. They tend to be happiest when life has predictable routines, and if you give her time to move and settle into her new-house routines, she will be able to start school more peacefully.

All in all, remind yourself as you go through this time that ultimately, kids are socially curious beings, and she will probably be excited to be around peers once she gets over the initial shock. I’m willing to bet you will have a harder time with that separation than she will.

—Ms. Sarnell (early childhood special education teacher, New York)

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