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September 5, 2023

Ask Lisa Podcast - Episode 134

My Son and his Friends Use Slurs. Can I Stop This?

Episode 134

A mother writes in about the fact that her teen son and his friends – who come from a mix of racial, religious, and socio-economic backgrounds – “jokingly” use slurs. Does she have the power to stop this? Dr. Lisa and Reena explore what’s driving the rise in hateful language and what adults can do to address this hurtful behavior. Reena asks whether it’s realistic for adults to think they can change the dynamics that unfold when teens are with their friends. Dr. Lisa offers advice on how to guide teenagers toward acting with empathy and respect.

September 5, 2023 | 28 min

Transcript | My Son and his Friends Use Slurs. Can I Stop This?

TRANSCRIPT | MY SON AND HIS FRIENDS USE SLURS. CAN I STOP THIS?

Ask Lisa Podcast, Ep. 134: My Son and his Friends Use Slurs. Can I Stop This?

The Ask Lisa Podcast does not constitute medical advice and is not a substitute for professional mental health advice, diagnosis or treatment. If you have concerns about your child’s well-being, consult a physician or mental health professional.

The following transcript has been automatically generated by an AI system and should be used for informational purposes only. We cannot guarantee the accuracy, completeness, or timeliness of the information provided.

——

Reena Ninan
You know, one of the things that always surprised me that you said we did an episode once of a kid who kind of got canceled at school for something racial that he had posted. And you were like, he’s kind of just have to up and leave. And I was shocked. You said that. But I kind of feel it’s often unfair when you talk about teens because they’re so rash about things and not thinking clearly and don’t have the life experience that they can just get canceled over things like that.

Lisa Damour
They can, and and when I think about that episode, you know, I don’t think it was like the only thing I thought could happen. But I thought it was something that could happen where he may need to start over, you know, depending on the broader context of what was going on in that moment. So teens can be very rigid with one another about acceptable and unacceptable behavior.

Reena Ninan
But also your teenage years, you should be able to have do overs. And so much of what you tell us is about having these conversations early and often and that you say I promise you it’ll sink in.

Lisa Damour
It will never I think as fast as the adults involved wish it would but I think we have to believe and we have research showing that teenagers care what we say.

Reena Ninan
So I want to read you this letter we got it’s about slurs. It says Dear Dr. Lisa, I have an amazing 14 year old son, he’s emotionally aware get straight A’s is the star of his wrestling team and has just started high school feeling focused and excited. He can be very loving and thoughtful. But lately he’s been kind of well, a jerk. He and his buddies make jokes that are terribly offensive jokes about race, class, religion, sex and gender. That if overheard in public would hurt, offend and embarrass others. He swears that his friends who run the gamut of race, socio economic and religious backgrounds all do it too, that they all take part in, in school and online making fun of each other and themselves and everyone else. I’m a single mom, but my partner who is male assures me that this is just normal teenage boy behavior. And to what degree I get that, but I feel compelled to stop it to teach him in some kind of way that what he’s doing is hurtful, hostile, and dangerous, not just himself, but to the people at whom his jokes are aimed. I hope he’ll grow out of it. And everyone assures me he will. But in the meantime, I don’t want to be silent about the hurtful things he’s saying. Thanks so much for your help. Ah, you know, what I love about our letters are these parents are so conscientious and know that something needs to be done and they don’t want to be quiet. What does she do, Lisa?

Lisa Damour
Alright, I know, as you’re listening as you’re reading this letter, I’m like, What a gift, like what a gift these letters are. They’re so deep and thoughtful and complicated, complicated. So my hunch is, she’s probably already said something right that she’s tried to share with her son what she shared so eloquently with us. And Reena as I listened to what you describe, I can feel like a split evolve in myself. That part of me is like totally horrified by this kid’s behavior and his friends behavior like like I have a very strong like visceral, personal reaction to the kind of language they’re throwing around. Another part of me, the psychologist always takes more sort of anthropological stance, like, what is this about for them? What does it mean to them? How does it operate in this peer group? And I think the reason I I want to start there actually, on the sort of psychological anthropological is, if she wants to change his behavior, if any parent wants to change his any kid’s behavior like this, you got to be really thinking about what the kid is getting out of it, how it is working, why it is working, because no one’s going to get rid of something easily that has has a meaningful force for them, that works well for them.

Reena Ninan
So walk me through this. So why do teenage boys use racial slurs, make fun of people’s sex, religion? Why are they making fun of other people?

Lisa Damour
Okay, this is key, right? Like, what are they getting out of it? Like, because I think if you just try to calm down on it, it’s just gonna go underground. Like you have to understand what how this works. So my sense is, and I think this is sort of tucked into the letter. This is a big part of the peer group activity. This is what they do for like, I’m using finger quotes for fun with each other, right is this kind of incredibly inappropriate banter for lack of a better word, that they tease each other, they tease, they talk about groups in ways that are totally inappropriate. I think there’s probably pleasure in the known naughtiness of this, like, we’re not supposed to be doing this. And we are doing this together. And there’s also I think, a lot of social pressure to do it. So this a good kid, she tells us, he’s a good kid, I believe her, she knows her kid. And so you picture a boy like this, or a kid like this, but it’s often boys who are using this as a way to create social glue. In a situation where people are starting to say things that are completely out of line. At 14, it feels like a real long shot for a kid to spontaneously be like, Oh, guys, guys, like, that’s not cool. We shouldn’t talk that way. Right? That there’s so much social momentum, in the direction of using this particular kind of discourse, to create a sense of community within themselves. And then of course, when I talk to teenagers who are on the receiving end of this, whenever they do push back, or who are participating in this, you know, when they do push back, everybody else quickly is like, we’re joking, we’re joking. Like, why are you making such a big deal out of it? So it’s very, very hard, even if the kid himself doesn’t want to be part of it, or doesn’t want to witness it, it’s not so easy for a kid to shut it down. Or to secretly make everybody stop,

Reena Ninan
Once the train is going, everyone’s on board, you just you’re part of it at this point, and not being part of it has repercussions maybe.

Lisa Damour
Absolutely. Like, that’s a great metaphor, like, what are kids gonna do, like, throw themselves off the social train? So I think we have to really grapple with that reality. And how we’re going to marry that reality with the fact that like, they shouldn’t be doing this, this is wrong. And as a mom, or as a parent, you know, our letter writers trying to seem together these realities, like I get it that my kid is doing this, and I also need him to stop doing it. Is there anything I can do to get him to stop doing it?

Reena Ninan
Does it change the fact that this mom is saying in this letter, look, my son’s friend group is mixed in terms of race and even economic and religious background? Does it make it any better?

Lisa Damour
I think it makes them much more complicated, because what I hear teenagers say, and I can see their reasoning, even if I don’t agree with their reasoning is like, but it’s a mixed race group, and everybody in the group is doing it. Right. So there’s that. And then the other thing that teenagers will point to, is the fact that words that have been seen as out of line have when used by certain groups, been brought back into acceptable use. So for example, queer is probably one of the main examples of a word that was used as a slur. And then the technical term in the linguistics world is re appropriated by the queer community and in a way defanged because it’s been taken over by the group against whom it was initially directed. Same with the N word that it is a word that is used within black populations, sum by populations as a term of affection, or solidarity. And so kids will be like, Why can’t I use it? They’re using, it’s being used. So there’s some parenting that needs to be done. There’s some work that needs to be done. And if a kid makes that argument, like, I don’t know, my friends were saying it. They seem cool with it. I guess it’s fair, it’s not so bad anymore. I think it’s actually worth saying. It is a word that if you are not part of that group, it is totally off limits for you. And even within those groups, there are controversies about whether or not those words should be used. But if you’re not a member of that group, it is not yours to use full stop. I think parents can do say that and be very, very clear on that. But I think it does make it murky when it’s not just a bunch of white guys doing this together when it’s a mixed group.

Reena Ninan
Do you think Lisa, it’s realistic to expect this teenage boy that this mom writes about to stop using these racial slurs entirely? Is that realistic?

Lisa Damour
I think is realistic over time, to be honest, and it’s not just racial. I mean, I think that there’s sexist stuff in here. I think that there’s, you know, probably anti semitic stuff in here. I mean, it sounds like this kid and his friends are really like making full use of the array of slurs that are available. I think what’s really hard is that she uses the word normal teenage boy behavior. I don’t know if it’s normal, but it’s certainly normed, that it’s definitely being used very widely, certainly in this group. But I’m hearing about it a lot. And I’ll tell you in one group, one form of this that I started hearing about in the last six months over and over and over again, all over the country pretty spontaneously was adults asking me and actually even times kids asking me about what they should do when kids and it’s boys always in the scenario are quoting Andrew Tate. Do you know who he is?

Reena Ninan
Yes, of course, but can you just explain? I think everyone kind of knows who Andrew Tate is, but why is it such a big deal among… We’ve seen this with teenage boys. I know exactly what you’re talking about.

Lisa Damour
So Andrew Tate is a British American who I don’t love the term toxic masculinity, but it’s okay to I think apply it here. I think I think he really lives into it. He is someone who had a very large social media platform. He’s a theoretically bendy platform. But his social media platform, which kind of came out of a kickboxing past was entirely just about like Baroque misogyny. I mean, absolutely full on like, the most denigrating, rudest, most sexist, flagrant kind of celebration of like, toxic masculinity and like guys are great and women sock. I mean, if you had to sort of sum it all up, and he is now under house arrest, his crew is being charged with all sorts of things around sex trafficking and rape. I mean, like terrible, terrible stuff. So theoretically, he’s been captured and marginalized. He’s doing fine. In the world of middle and high school boys.

Reena Ninan
But why is it? Can you explain to me when you’re talking about slurs? Why is someone like Andrew Tate so beloved amongst certain teenage boys? Like why is that hailed as a hero esque behavior?

Lisa Damour
Right, right. I mean, so there’s this point where it’s just like, so vilely offensive, and then you’re like, okay, but what’s behind this? Yeah. So, I mean, I think if I had to give the most generous possible psychological explanation, it would be it’s really hard to be a teenage boy. That, you know, the world can make you feel really small girls are often doing extremely well. I mean, when we look at college admissions, you know, colleges are admitting girls at a much much higher rate and they actually have to work to admit classes that are even boys and girls because girls are so performing beautifully. Academically, so I mean, my most generous assessment is like there’s a lot in this world that can make boys feel small and Andrew Tate is offering boys a way to feel big and so you know, it goes from there. So which is to say this is all around, it is heavily Nora. aimed, it is not just this kid. So that’s what the parents who are working against this are working against. I think the way to go at it is to start by acknowledging that this is not easy for this boy. Right? Everything we said, like, Look, I get it, this is what your friends are doing. I get it, these are your friends, I get it, that to be part of what’s going on, it means participating in this, I get it that telling them guys stop that’s racist, that sexist, that’s homophobic is probably not a viable solution. If you intend to stay in this friendship group, which, of course, is a question that one might call like, Are you do you really want to hang out with these kids? But this kids 14? I mean, are we really going to say you need to drop all of your friends and start over? That’s not typically how teenagers operate. But I do think that the adults around kids who are playing in this space, could say something like this, and I wouldn’t say it all at once. I think I would say something like, You need to think about to continuum, there is the continuum of hate. And there is a continuum of people who work against hate, and you are on one or the other. So yeah, you might guys might be making like what feel like dumb jokes, your dumb jokes that take people’s identities as a grounds for an insult. Those are on a continuum with the Holocaust with lynchings with full on racism, that is not even meant to be funny, though. It’s really never funny. Your behavior is on that continuum. Like just to say it.

Reena Ninan
Do you find Lisa that works that it gets through to teens, because I found people who sometimes don’t have connections to the Holocaust, don’t get it. Like once history has happened before your lifetime. It’s like eons ago with kids, right? But do you find talking to them and saying, Look, this is part of hate language like this is just not cool. You can, does that resonate? Like what gets through teenage boys to get them to understand?

Lisa Damour
I think the idea of saying it’s on a continuum with these things may be a fighting chance. Because if you equate it with, you know, horrible, murderous behavior, teenagers like but it’s not like we’re just goofing around in someone’s basement, so they quickly dismiss you. But if you say, look, it’s on a continuum with us is not the same as this, but it’s on a continuum with us. I think that you can say you need to be on the other continuum, where you are working against this behavior. So maybe you choose a profession, where you, you know, give your whole life to working against it. Maybe in your interactions, you start to find a way when someone makes jokes like that, where you’re like, Guys, let’s just change the subject, right? Like where you are, you know, maybe the lowest end of the anti hate continuum, where you don’t allow it in your presence. But I think that the way I would encourage this parent to think about talking to a 14 year old is to say, buddy, I get it, you may feel cornered right now, like, these are your friends. And this is what’s happening. You’re a smart guy, you’re gonna get yourself off of the hate continuum, and onto the anti hate continuum. And you’re going to figure out how to do this, and then leave it as the expectation.

Reena Ninan
Are there ways in the moment where they can’t leave the train? Because all the boys are on the train, and it is moving at 100 miles per hour? When you’re in a situation? How can we explain to our boys here is something you can do without having to feel like the dork who is ruining the party, but not to be part of it? Is that even realistic?

Lisa Damour
I think it is. And I think a lot of it, and this is again, probably the lowest end of the anti hate continuum, but we want to get the kid on that continuum is something like dude, then just change the subject, or tell everybody you have to leave, like I’m calling and you suddenly have to excuse yourself. Which is even like, that’s not even. I mean, it’s like, we are at the teeny tiny tail and like, but it’s basically like, I’m not gonna stay here and watch this fantastically, you know, participate in it. Or say, like, guys like enough of this already, like, let’s go play basketball or whatever, or like, you know, like, give them some suggestions. But right now, I’ve become very humble about middle aged people like us, advising teenagers, how they’re supposed to shift social forces that are happening in front of them. Like, it’s a really complicated world that we have, like, I wouldn’t even say like a fingernail grip on actually the dynamics that are at work. But I think talking to kids saying, like, you’re smart, you’re a good kid. I don’t think you feel comfortable participating in this. I know you don’t. You gotta get yourself on the anti hate continuum. You’re gonna figure that out. I count on you to figure that out. And I’m expecting you to figure that out. But probably not yesterday, right. I I mean, they may need time to sort this out. But the bottom line is, we have to say like, You got to figure out what kind of person you’re going to be. And what you do repeatedly becomes who you are.

Reena Ninan
Oh, that is good. What you do repeatedly becomes who you are. Wow, you drop these little gems that sometimes I just sort of the biggest thing that I have hope about parenting tweens and teens is when you say that talking to them, exposing them to this stuff, getting them to see which, you know, I never had these conversations with my parents, because it’s just like, you should know this stuff. This is so basic, but I’m realizing this is not basic to teens.

Lisa Damour
It’s not basic to teens, and we’re up against a lot. Because it’s not just their peer group, it is really their digital environment. And even Reena. If boys follow sports online, if you go to any women’s sports online, the comments are like an Andrew taeda. Fawn, in the comments about the women and athletes. And this is like, right out there in the world. This is not happening in some sort of like, secret space. And so there’s so much more maybe work for parents to do right now, in terms of talking about language, talking about hate talking about norms, talking about expectations, really appealing to the good part of kids, because all kids have a good part. Being realistic, that they may not be able to shut it down on the spot, but they need to work in that direction. I think it’s a very new and powerful aspect of parenting that hasn’t always been as prevalent just because our parents, we didn’t have this kind of digital access that our parents were working against.

Reena Ninan
That’s a great point. It’s just a whole new world. And it makes me feel better as a parent to know that is a different parenting era. I can’t hear that enough. But Lisa, on this topic of sort of getting kids to stop using slurs. What else do you think parents should keep in mind?

Lisa Damour
Well, Reena, let me ask you, right, you have a boy? Who’s a boy of color? What would you? What would your reaction be? Or how would you enter into this if you overheard him and his friends?

Reena Ninan
I think talking about it, in private with him. You know, one of the things he loves to do is because my family’s from India, he thinks it’s hilarious, a thick Indian accent and making fun of you know that he thinks that’s really funny. And we’ve had conversations about why people would think that’s uncool. And why if you’re around people who aren’t Indian even using it, and and I think talking and having them see the other side of why this could be hurtful in a way that having that curtain open and being this is what’s behind that if you do that, you know, getting them to see what the scenarios are. That could really affect their lives if they were caught at school, I think knowing that there are consequences for what you do and say.

Lisa Damour
Awesome, awesome, right? And so then let me push further with that. Right. So one is don’t do this. Because if anyone ever hears it, like, you will really be sorry?

Reena Ninan
Or do you understand this is hurtful, right?

Lisa Damour
And then that’s the second reason. But that’s not the main reason to not do it not because you’re gonna get caught but because it’s a wrong thing to do. It hurts people. Here’s another thing I think that we could put on the table. And I wonder if I’m in conversation with your son or this, you know, this letter writers conversation with her son, which is to raise the possibility that there are people there who are laughing who actually don’t find it funny, but don’t feel that they can say otherwise. Right? I was helpless. They feel helpless. Like I wonder, you know, if I picture you know, your your sweet boy in a situation where maybe a white kid started doing the same Indian accent thing. I imagine that would hurt your son. But I also wonder if he would feel like he could be like, whoa, whoa, whoa, stop. Right? I think that would be very hard to do in that setting.

Reena Ninan
And I think that’s the hardest thing, right? It’s like, it’s what I worry about the most is going along with the crowd when everyone is drunk, getting into the car, when people are doing things that are going to destroy property or affect your standing at school, that you just go along because it’s far easier than going against the current.

Lisa Damour
I think that’s right, even if you’re getting hurt, even if you’re hurting others, the force of wanting to be have a strong sense of belonging to people who you are your friends or the kids you hang out with. Like, those are very powerful forces, you know, that are going up against each other and it’s very terrifying as a teenager to imagine becoming socially isolated. And so we have to really reckon with the fact that that’s what kids don’t want to have happen.

Reena Ninan
Let me tell you, just hearing you talk about this, it’s you don’t even as adult want to feel socially isolated. So you know, these situations don’t go away. I feel like, you know, having the courage to stand up and and say something is wrong or you don’t agree with someone is is not an easy skill to learn in your teenage years, or your adult years.

Lisa Damour
That is the truth. And yet, I think we can help our kids get there. And I think often in helping our kids get there, we can try to get better and better at it ourselves, too.

Reena Ninan
That is so true. That is so true. So Lisa, what do you have for us for Parenting to Go?

Lisa Damour
For Parenting to Go on this one, I think that we have to recognize the complex situations, and this is a very complex situation, are not often resolved as quickly as we wish they would be. And I really think that, for this to resolve, as positively as possible for this boy to really get himself onto the anti hate continuum, and then push himself further and further up that continuum in terms of his actions, is going to take time, is going to take an open channel with this wonderful letter writer and other fantastic adults in his environment. And so I think on these things, my advice for the parenting to go is to say, you start a conversation, you set expectations, and then you make it clear that you’re available to keep talking about this very hard thing, and how the teenagers we love can meet the standards we’re gonna hold for them. Even if it takes time.

Reena Ninan
Setting expectations and having a standard to hold them by it’s really greatly. So it’s fantastic. And next week, we’re going to talk a little bit about things sort of a little different. How do you combat a kid’s perfectionism? Because it’s out there. I’m not a perfect perfectionist, but how do we deal with kids? And why does it happen? I’m really curious about that. We’ll talk to you next week. I’ll see you next week, Lisa.

Lisa Damour
I’ll see you next week.

The advice provided by Dr. Damour here will not and does not constitute - or serve as a substitute for - professional psychological treatment, therapy, or other types of professional advice or intervention. If you have concerns about your child’s well-being, consult a physician or mental health professional.

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