How to talk to an 11 year old boy about sexism/racism/etc
October 2, 2023 6:23 AM   Subscribe

How do I keep up the lines of communication with my 11 year old so that he doesn’t get red-pilled? My 11 year old who is sharply verbal, oppositional, and technically on the spectrum, loves all types of media and has (my personal bias aside!) an unusually sophisticated ability to analyze media and discourse. (Check my posting history for more on him.) He is “all boy” as they say, also white and middle-class. Unlike some other similar boys, we are actually raising him in an extremely economically and racially diverse environment. However this environment is not politically diverse - at all. And he is a tween Holden Caufield.

After a pretty intense discussion about how the Barbie movie was unfair to Kens went south this morning, I’m wondering if other parents/people who work with kids have ideas on how to engage in fruitful discussion on these topics with boys? I think he somewhat correctly feels he isn’t “allowed” to question orthodoxy, which generates in him a natural oppositionality. How do I help him to learn he can be critical but still open to understanding history and privilege?

And it’s not just about race and gender. He says he will never give his real opinion in class now after the kids laughed at him when he told them that most recycled materials aren’t actually recycled after the 4th grade class decided to do a project on recycling…
posted by haptic_avenger to Human Relations (38 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: (forgot to add: he is not exposed to any social media/unsupervised internet or youtube at all right now.)
posted by haptic_avenger at 6:24 AM on October 2

This sounds very familiar. I think you've summarized both the problem and the solution perfectly: "I think he somewhat correctly feels he isn’t 'allowed' to question orthodoxy, which generates in him a natural oppositionality." If he's allowed, or even encouraged, to question and argue, that should dampen the incentive to argue just to provoke. Also accept that you have influence, but not ultimate control, over whether the understanding of "history and privilege" that he will develop over the next 5-10 years matches yours. But it's entirely fair to ask him to explain why he disagrees, which should (but is not guaranteed to) moderate any truly offensive beliefs.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 6:56 AM on October 2 [5 favorites]

Does he have any interests you could lean into and maybe have conversations over that don’t feel unnatural? I have a couple of kids on the spectrum (one is 11). They happen to have both taken interest in sports (NBA for one and NFL for the other). Their favorite players happen to be African American and have produced books / articles about growing up in disadvantaged communities. Our kids have read them just as part of knowing more about their favorite players and it has lead to some good and very natural conversations about race and economic disadvantages etc. Sometimes it can be just 2 minutes in the car type conversation - but very natural none the less and I think they feel more able to talk about social issues with that frame of reference.
posted by inflatablekiwi at 7:35 AM on October 2 [4 favorites]

You might have more luck swaying him through doing rather than talking. Does he interact or see you interact directly with people without a lot of privilege? If not, all of this probably feels theoretical to him. Getting out there regularly (a one time per year volunteer sesh isn’t enough nor is going to school with less privileged kids if he is not close to them), seeing how other people live, assisting them in some way, experiencing them as humans, will probably do much more than a thousand conversations.
posted by scantee at 7:43 AM on October 2 [4 favorites]

I do think understanding the wider social context of…anything…is difficult and fairly mature reasoning. For example: art history. When you are newly exposed to some piece of art and told it is historic, you’ve already been exposed to the many pieces that came after that, done in that style, inspired by that movement, etc. Like, repetitive imagery of Campbell’s Soup Cans is like “whatever,” you know? Studying art history is putting art in context not just within art but within the society at large and you can infer and relate different social movements and ideologies by the art that was being made in that time.

So, he’s not wrong to point out the unfair portrayal of “the Kens.” That is, actually, the whole point. But it’s only interesting if you are aware of and sympathetic to the historical plight of women in mainstream pop culture. So, talk about that! Many people called Barbie “feminism 101” but it’s obvious by just looking around that we need a “feminism 95” as well as a 101.
posted by amanda at 7:44 AM on October 2 [19 favorites]

1. Weekly volunteering with people face-to-face, e.g. get him to read aloud to people in nursing homes as opposed to sorting produce in the back room of the food bank.

2. Take an active role in his media consumption and choices instead of letting him make his own decisions entirely. I think some parents like you and I start off with the assumption that we must not be overbearing and we must let kids make their own choices. What I've realized, though, is that guiding kids is absolutely part of our job too, and letting them make their own choices is not in opposition to, say, forming a book club with your son and electing yourself the perpetual book picker, or designate a weekly movie night and you always get to pick which movie. And then use these as your propaganda channels shamelessly and guiltlessly. This is what you are there for: to make sure he is exposed to the right kinds of things.

3. Don't overreact to when he talks about right wing stuff and don't argue against him either (it will turn into a power struggle). Instead become authentically interested in the least objectionable aspects of what he's saying, show enthusiasm for his thoughts on just this bit (firmly ignoring the rest) and perhaps gently bend the conversation towards how his excellent point about [unobjectionable statement] reminds you of [insert leftist idea], and then you're off to the races.

4. When he has a good point, HOLY SHIT, really get on his side in a vocal way! The recycling stuff sounds like he was 100% right about it and his classmates were being jerks. Encourage him to draw up a chart or whatever with citations that can be pinned to the class board, maybe, that proves his thesis. Or help him dig up information about where your town's recycling is going and exactly how "green" that is. Or maybe help him write something up on the subject of "greenwashing" and how it will be the death of us all. And encourage him to share it with his class. Get his teacher on board too! ........ While you're at it, slip in some words to him about how you're using your privilege as a parent and an adult - your stronger voice, your ability to call people up and find out things, your ability to get the teacher to take you seriously - to help him amplify his voice in this situation, because as a child and student he doesn't have the same power you do, and this is what we do with our power, we lend it to others who have less of it.
posted by MiraK at 7:56 AM on October 2 [15 favorites]

He says he will never give his real opinion in class now after the kids laughed at him when he told them that most recycled materials aren’t actually recycled after the 4th grade class decided to do a project on recycling…

I mean, he's not entirely wrong here. I'd give him the benefit of the doubt that he's perhaps thinking about plastic - Last Week Tonight did a segment on how the plastic industry has put money into covering up how little plastic actually gets recycled. So, I'd want to push him against thinking all recycling is pointless, but he's right that it's not as simple as often depicted. Also, where was the teacher in all this? Students shouldn't be laughing at other students for expressing an opposing idea.

And like amanda has stated above, the "unfair" portray of the Kens is in dialogue with a long history of misogyny, which I wouldn't expect that average 11 year-old to understand.

One pedagogical tool when an idea you want to push back against is raised is to depersonalize it. When in a classroom, if say "Bobby" expresses some sexist view, I the teacher might ask the class "What Bobby has expressed, while sometimes a controversial view, is also commonly held in our society. Where does this idea come from?" So it directs attention away from Bobby (since it's not his fault per se for holding an ignorant view - for all I know), and more into the social/historical/political context that gave birth to this idea. Giving students that context then helps them better determine whether or not they agree with it, and why. It also never declares the idea as "wrong," just debatable, so is less likely to have Bobby totally shut down.
posted by coffeecat at 7:57 AM on October 2 [6 favorites]

He says he will never give his real opinion in class now after the kids laughed at him when he told them that most recycled materials aren’t actually recycled after the 4th grade class decided to do a project on recycling…

This strikes me as a gift, in a way! I had a similar experience (a few of them, actually) at a slightly younger age and while it was baffling and upsetting to realize that people could be confident to the point of cruelty in their objectively wrong ideas, once I got a little perspective it was a useful lesson. I think you could point out to him that without listening, researching with good sources, and thinking seriously about people's contributions, one can wind up being so sure of a wrong idea that you make fun of someone and hurt their feelings even though they're right! The desired outcome isn't him "never giving his opinion again," of course, but recognizing that steamrollering over other people with that opinion can be hurtful and, maybe, foolish. I get the desire to train him in questioning and arguing, and I think that's great, but at this age and with these instincts I think one of the greatest gifts you could give him is the ability to truly listen.
posted by babelfish at 7:57 AM on October 2 [14 favorites]

My true pro tip is to connect your son with as many groups of real people in person as possible - in my older son’s case that was a gaming group that included girls, martial arts, art camp/classes, a volunteer group, and a theatre group. But whatever it is, just knowing people of all kinds, especially young women, helps.

I would try to create a narrative-rich diet that is still age-appropriate and fun, as well as just look for opportunities to briefly share your values. Sometimes it sneaks up on you. My younger son asked to watch Rise for family movie night and that started a chat on immigration and race in sports that I wasn’t expecting. Mostly we just try to regularly watch things that come from a perspective that encourages complexity, not simplicity. Age-appropriately.

I would also form a plan to gradually let him explore things on the net that relate to his interests even if the vlogger or streamer is somewhat meh. It’s a lot easier to discuss lousy ideas with a 14 year old than a 21 year old, because you have time on your side.

But also, by letting my kids pick movies and videos to watch (alongside us), and being respectfully curious about their things, we’ve kept family talk open and I think that’s really key. We had some interest moments over the Heard/Depp story here at my house, but we had a basis of lots of discussions to rest on. It was important for me to really listen and take my son’s views seriously and with respect before presenting my own. And to trust that his opinion doesn’t make him a bad person. (In this case probably an inexperienced one.)

I think one of the hard things today is that there’s a tension about being wrong, like one incel-type thought is going to lead to a van attack. For us, it’s been important to also let our kids be wrong, especially in discussion, and not turn that into a huge deal while not changing our positions. We’ve paired that with standing up for our values externally and so far it seems to be staying in balance.

Basically I guess…keep presenting things that centre your values, and keep communication open.
posted by warriorqueen at 8:15 AM on October 2 [8 favorites]

I’ve just started reading Caitlin Morgan’s new book “what about men?” Which is about this scenario exactly. She writes in the prologue that when we abandon men and boys to “sort it out themselves,” that may mean that they are only exposed to the only people who are really talking about manhood (ie the red pill path). I’m just at the beginning but you might want to check it out.
posted by CMcG at 8:21 AM on October 2 [1 favorite]

Unless he's stating that man has natural dominion over weak willed woman, an 11 year old boy having a low opinion of the Barbie movie doesn't strike me as a bright red flag for future misogyny. It's probably just not for him, just like the Michael Bay Transformers might not be for a girl that age.

As for his classmates laughing at him--does he have a good friendship circle? That's what I'd be more worried about here, rather than him being able to fully express his opinion. If you're telling everyone else they're stupid, is that worth it? In the case of something innocuous like recycling, sometimes it's better to be half right. Pick your battles (and if you're raising him right, he will have them).
posted by kingdead at 8:22 AM on October 2 [4 favorites]

What’s his sexism/racism understanding baseline? Like, does he understand the broad strokes that both things do currently exist and are current problems? Because getting into the rights and wrongs of how middle-schoolers interact about touchy issues is way, way downstream from understanding those issues in a primary way.

I would approach this as: (1) your classmates are all dopes, possibly with a few exceptions. Nothing against them, but people are mostly all dopes, and your classmates are also eleven. (2) (this one is huge and important and if he learns it it will make his life better) You can’t find out anything about an issue because you have found some people you think are stupid or rude or mean about the issue and deciding that they must be on the wrong side. There are stupid, rude, mean people on both sides of every important issue. Following smart, decent, reliable people will sometimes get you to a right answer, but reacting against shitty or stupid people will never never never get you any useful information. So (3) if you want to know what you think about sexism or racism, you want to be looking at primary facts about the world, not at all about being oppositional against people who annoy you.

And then when you’re talking with him about issues, keep redirecting to the world, rather than to interpersonal dynamics.
posted by LizardBreath at 8:28 AM on October 2 [2 favorites]

In my opinion the really dangerous part is when kids like this are exposed to something that strongly challenges their parents liberal beliefs, and then decide that everything their parents believe must be completely wrong. In my online experience a smart young man on the spectrum who realizes their parents are wrong (correctly or not) about some aspects of liberal beliefs has a high chance of getting sucked into something like the right wing version of the "rationalist" community which is very contrarian and ends up trying to "scientifically" justify various forms of racism/sexism/etc in an attempt to show how smart and rebellious they are.

Unlike many people here I think some useful ideas come out of the rationalist community, but the sense of persecution and overconfidence in their beliefs poisons everything and pushes members to defend really regressive false beliefs. And of course there are significantly worse online communities like the incel groups that share some ideas. One thing to remember about the smarter types of these groups is that the things they say are not easy to prove false as they have put a lot of time and effort into developing good arguments that appeal to contrarian young men.

From what you are saying I think you are already on the right track as it doesn't sound like you're harshly shutting him down when he brings up things you don't believe. But the one thing I would recommend is to encourage and allow him to see things in more grey terms instead of black/white. Ie, make it clear that he is encouraged to question orthodoxy, but only after he understands that orthodoxy is often useful even when some of the individual elements are false. Yes, recycling in suburbia is often a lie, but sometimes the town has a working process and either way it's still actually useful to learn how to creatively use recycled materials!
posted by JZig at 8:34 AM on October 2 [4 favorites]

I’ll take a different tack. Oppositional thought is just appealing in some unique ways, especially as a teen and pre-teen and doubly so if you’re already wired that way and smart. So while communication is important, so is making sure your kid can find some communities and media that really scratch that itch independently. I had a weird mix of disdain for authority and people pleasing throughout my teens, and the copy of Lies My Teacher Told Me I found and devoured while cat sitting for the neighbors one summer left a huge impression on me.
posted by deludingmyself at 8:46 AM on October 2 [4 favorites]

I would approach this as: (1) your classmates are all dopes, possibly with a few exceptions. Nothing against them, but people are mostly all dopes, and your classmates are also eleven.

I just want to add some caution here because having been a precocious eleven year old boy once, I think it's very easy to interpret remarks about being different from everyone else as being superior to everyone else. If left unchecked, that line of thinking can lead to some very undesirable outcomes.

And it is so. frigging. easy. for privileged, white, male children of that age who don't fit in to get the idea that the reason they don't fit in is because they're better/smarter/more special than everyone else.
posted by RonButNotStupid at 8:50 AM on October 2 [21 favorites]

It is possible that you yourself do not have full and perfect access to the Unadulterated and Righteous Truth, and could benefit yourself AND him by modelling epistemological humility and genuine curiosity. This is not something that is always well modelled in leftist online spaces, and I would be wary of allowing the often fraught tone of debates there to alienate you from your son or make you feel that he is something worse or more dangerous than he is. Your job is to love him, to keep him human and kind, to foster his ability to connect with others and remain open to new information. I like the idea above of exposing him to a broader community of people, particularly something volunteer/service orientated. Learning how to perform kind useful actions will stand him in good stead, whether or not he ever gets on board with received opinion on the representation of Kens in the Barbie movie 2023.
posted by snipsnapsnoop at 9:00 AM on October 2 [10 favorites]

I think it's very easy to interpret remarks about being different from everyone else as being superior to everyone else. If left unchecked, that line of thinking can lead to some very undesirable outcomes.

Oof, yeah. I had a friend at around this age or a bit older who took exactly this message away from Harrison Bergeron. A rough couple of years ensued where he was involved in a cultish "dojo" run by (naturally) an iconoclastic-but-authoritarian white dude who appealed to this line of reasoning. This was years before the red pill existed anywhere but in The Matrix (...which was also a favorite of the same friend, now that I think about it), thank goodness.

I generally have favorable feelings about Kurt Vonnegut but this one's a serious dog. Apparently it has also been quoted in a Scalia dissent.
posted by pullayup at 9:12 AM on October 2

I'm autistic, of the "oppositional" profile. An important concept to me is scale. This is well demonstrated in the example of the recycling conversation. Dogma: "Recycling is a great solution!" Wider lens reality: "Eh, there are other facts in a wider frame on that topic." The supremacist/red-pill scenes are all about making a view on something very sure, simplistic, and small. Encouraging him to apply his questioning tendencies in incorporating more actual perspectives and facts and considerations before coming to a conclusion is a pretty good way of very naturally making those toxic scenes seem pretty stupid rather than brave. The world is both very diverse and very interconnected. Being suspicious of simple frames is a valuable asset that can be built on.
posted by droomoord at 9:17 AM on October 2 [13 favorites]

There's obvious backfire potential here, but has he had any real exposure to the existence of actually sexist statements, policies, etc. in broader society today? Understanding the prevalence of these views at a societal level seems like it would help better explain, the cultural reaction to those views...and might also provide a new, worthwhile target for him to channel his skepticism and argumentative skills toward. (This is probably more likely to work if it's not totally obvious that it would be your desired outcome.)
posted by eponym at 9:24 AM on October 2 [1 favorite]

Nthing that showing your own (genuine) uncertainty along with your own perspectives is a super useful model for how we integrate new information, discuss/debate knowledge etc.

I teach, with a lot of emphasis on social histories of struggle, and encounter students who sincerely feel like they are only supposed to have the correct politics and will get in trouble if they show ignorance. Some of this includes racial dynamics, my school is majority students of color. As a way to open the possibilities up, I try to show my own journeys through cluelessness, my current concerns, etc.

And, especially when I have very strongly held views, I tell them just that and the limits of my own knowledge, e.g. "I am coming from the perspective that housing is a human right, and my views are rooted in housing justice advocacy, but I don't have much knowledge about the realities of real estate development. Here is an exercise created by affordable housing developers to show how difficult it is to get things to pencil out financially."
posted by spamandkimchi at 9:35 AM on October 2 [2 favorites]

One thing to remember about the smarter types of these groups is that the things they say are not easy to prove false as they have put a lot of time and effort into developing good arguments that appeal to contrarian young men.

Here are a couple of youtubers who have put a lot of time and effort into developing good arguments that appeal to contrarian young men:


Friendlyjordies on plastic might be a handy entry point.

Honest Government Ads might get a bit of traction as well (also season 2, season 1)
posted by flabdablet at 9:36 AM on October 2 [1 favorite]

There's also a Mark Twain quote my father would frequently sprinkle into conversations for no reason whatsover:
When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years
posted by RonButNotStupid at 9:44 AM on October 2 [5 favorites]

Yeah, I think the class recycling thing is a great opportunity for you to a) validate that he was right, and b) shift that conversation over into how sometimes the people who have unpopular opinions can get shit for it, even if they're right (and you can back that up with stories about Charles Darwin when he first introduced his theory of natural selection, or the guy who first thought up the theory of plate tectonics, or the guy who first thought of germ theory....)

I should also add too - I'm not sure what you mean when you say your conversation about the Barbie movie "went south". If all you mean is that he got frustrated and quit the conversation early - that may not be that bad, actually. I grew up having lots of intellectual debates with my father, and I've talked before about how when I was in late high school I realized Dad loved seeing me get fired up about my ideas, even when they were in opposition to his. But a neighbor who'd seen several of our conversations reminded me that when I was younger, I'd get really frustrated and angry.

And I think it's just age that was all that was happening; when you're nine and ten and eleven, you're convinced that your ideas are just obviously right, and the notion of someone coming to a different conclusion is just...RIDICULOUS. So when someone actually challenges your ideas with logic, and you can't combat's a shock to the system. I think that learning how to defend your ideas and debate them with someone who thinks differently is a profoundly valuable skill, though, and it's one that can be learned - as I learned it with practice, because at some level that's what those debates with Dad taught me. So I went from being an eleven-year-old who'd burst into frustrated tears when Dad didn't get why I was obviously right, to being an adult who actually got into a debate about Catholic dogma with a former Jesuit priest and probably came out with the debate in a draw.

So in short, I'm not so sure that what's going on is just that your kid needs to avoid being red-pilled. He may also just be at the early stages of learning how to debate effectively - and you can practice debating effectively on anything.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:50 AM on October 2 [3 favorites]

Since a lot of the right wing manosphere does a lot of glamorous mythologizing about the classical world vs our fallen modern days, you might find Bret Devereaux's blog a more rigorous counterweight for him on how those societies actually functioned and what it actually meant for the people in them, like how 90% of Spartan society was horribly abused slaves and their military actually wasn't all that and a bag of chips. Basically giving him some "well actually" tools in advance of some of their more odious shibboleths that he might encounter.
posted by foxfirefey at 11:39 AM on October 2

Oppositional thought is just appealing in some unique ways, especially as a teen and pre-teen and doubly so if you’re already wired that way and smart

This is a fantastic point/idea. There’s no shortage of material that challenges orthodoxy from the other direction, like Howard Zinn’s People’s History. Much better to “well actually” some point about American hegemony (or recycling! Good on him there!) than contemporary feminism, and may give him the same sense of satisfaction.

There’s also the angle of something like “feminism” or “antiracism” not being a monolithic set of ideas, so it’s hard to pin down an orthodoxy to push back against. Perhaps he would be surprised to learn that not everyone who considers themselves a feminist or antiracist agree on what exactly that means in terms of goals, or how best to achieve those goals. Would he be interested in diving into those subjects to learn more?

There’s no shortage of YouTubers that would fill this niche is various healthy ways if you’re ok opening that floodgate. (I would NOT include Vaush as “healthy” fwiw.) Shaun, Hbomberguy, and Contrapoints are probably my preferences in this vein. Hbomberguy’s ROBLOX_OOF video goes places, has some very satisfying detective work, is only implicitly lefty, and is engaging from the jump, especially if he’s familiar with the subject.
posted by supercres at 12:23 PM on October 2 [2 favorites]

Hello, I am the parent of a version of this child, now age 18. Also I was sorta the girl version of this kid when I was young too. It was helpful for me to remember the ways I used to engage around these topics and argue with my mom and other folks. I'm guessing you might have raised your kid to be this way, even if you didn't mean to. He's bright and assertive, right? Do you see that in you or other parent?

Anyway, the way I hung onto the roller coaster of the teen years: instead of focusing on different opinions, I focused on core values. We always had discussions of racism, sexism, transphobia, homophobia, etc, and there are certainly things that just aren't acceptable in my house (homophobic or transphobic language, for example -- "We don't use that language in our house" in something I said to kid and kid's friends once or twice). But mostly I had to trust that I taught my kids my values the best that I could, and that he might reject those, but that ultimately, those values were the foundations of our family life together. Mutual respect remains a big part of this (though I can't say I always felt like it was mutual, but I try to always treat my kids as if it is true).

It's really hard! The older sibling and I have discussed how completely exhausting it can be to engage with this kid on some topics. But here's what's super important: your kid gets to be wrong, and in ridiculous ways. That's part of growing up, having your own opinions and testing our ideas. And sometimes not arguing with him, even when he's clearly wrong and illogical, is the better path. I shifted from thinking of myself as being in opposition to him as being a cheerleader or booster for him, and it really helped.

Your goal isn't to get him to understand that, I don't know, the Kens were different than he thought, but get him to explore these ideas. "Oh, interesting. Why do you say that?"

If you're reacting super fast to every opinion he has, then likely he's just doing this same behavior back to you. So, slow down, listen, let him explore these ideas. I don't mean the redpill ideas, and I think it's okay to squash anything hateful you hear. But the more you create an environmental of mutual respect, the more likely he'll share the important stuff with you.
posted by bluedaisy at 2:29 PM on October 2 [5 favorites]

I should also say with my 18 year old kid: as a gaming boy, he absolutely engaged with some of those terrible ideas and has followed some of the terrible bro-y guys that seem to be a gateway to incel-land. But I have also heard him say that he and his other friends call out kids for being homophobic and that he sees how sometimes girls aren't treated well. And it's confirmed for me that he has learned my values and shares them.
posted by bluedaisy at 2:32 PM on October 2 [2 favorites]

God, it is so so hard to be a literate, intelligent human being on the spectrum. And I say that without sarcasm because I am that person! The world just..... does. Not. Work. In sensible ways. People always say black and white thinking is bad, and yes everything is nuanced, but some things should be basic truths. It's wrong to be deliberately hurtful. It's wrong to discriminate based on race or sex or orientation. It's wrong for billionaires when we have homelessness and child hunger. The solutions are unquestionably complicated, but the basic truths should be obvious. I don't want people to hurt me, so I shouldn't hurt them, and we can all do our best to get along. But there's an entire third or more of the population that thinks oppression and hatred is the way to be! Somehow they justify voting for hate.

And it's so, so hard to be told you're wrong when you know you're right. Dude had facts and knowledge about the recycling and everybody else was sticking to the utter surface level opinion. And yes, it's a fact that recycling is good, unquestionably, but also the way a lot of corporations go about it and how it's presented is simplistic at best and criminally disingenuous often. But as he learned, being right isn't always enough. The vast majority of people don't seem to think about beliefs, to dig below the shallowest answers to find better ones. I still don't fully understand how people aren't constantly drinking in knowledge or asking why to every single thing they come across. Being right, having the inarguably moral beliefs doesn't always pay off in this world. Too many people would rather inflict serious pain on others than suffer uncomfortableness or inconvenience.

And the sensation of elitism is a trap of it's own, but god is it hard to avoid. He's smarter and more knowledgeable and informed than his peers. That doesn't make him any better or worse than them, but boy is he outnumbered. And being right often doesn't mean shit against group solidarity, no matter what they support. Being right seldom leads to being happy.

Doing good is a constant struggle, and people will often hate you for it. It's easier to tear down and destroy than build and bridge and heal. Evil is often rewarded and lauded. (Hello Trump, fascism, red pill, etc ect). If good is hard and unrewarding, and people are going to hate you either way, why not be evil? It's safer, right? God knows the right wing doesn't respond to facts or logic or kindness. Basic humanity.

It's super hard to accept that the world often forces us to choose the least bad option. That incremental progress is progress. That some people are vile because they can get away with it. That some people value conformity over kindness. He might be 11, but I guarantee that he's starting to struggle with the utter insanity people can be.

I don't fully know how to fix it. I haven't figured it out in my own life. Questioning is always completely fine. Not understanding something is fine. Knowing who to listen to is not always easy. How to navigate a world where the white is so obviously shining true and the black is so obviously bad, yet people deliberately chose the black, is hard and exhausting. It will never fully make sense. Doing things that align with his values is going to make him feel better in the long run, but that path will always be rocky and limed with people who espouse simple, vile solutions. Question everything, including the orthodoxy. But always be examining who they want you to fight against, good or bad.

I don't know. I always lean towards the people who are humanist and angry at injustice. Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman, the people who say that it's not wrong to fight for the right, but you will always have to fight. And learning how and when to fight is hugely important. Sometimes you can wrestle with the pig, or let it destroy things. Questioning and understanding is never bad. It just isn't..... going to bring happiness always especially against the people who just don't care about the good ways to treat people.
posted by Jacen at 3:08 PM on October 2 [9 favorites]

I think the Kens in Barbie are so interesting and it’s great that your son is picking up on some of the complexity there.

Here’s a bit of fun analysis from a footnote in a recent Sam Kriss essay:

Ken’s problems, meanwhile—superfluity, anomie, disappearance—are all dramatised within the film. He is an actual character. He is violently in love with someone who doesn’t need him, and he doesn’t know who he is outside of his obsessive relation to the other. That’s real! He also gets Gerwig’s best line. ‘I only exist,’ he tells Barbie, ‘within the warmth of your gaze.’ Those nine words express far more about the impossibility of being a man than America Ferrera’s tedious speech says about the impossibility of being a woman. Notice that when Ken sets up his patriarchy in Barbieland, the system has absolutely nothing to do with strictly limiting women’s autonomy as a means of ensuring paternity, since reproduction doesn’t exist in Barbieland; instead, like all the ugly new masculinisms teenage boys keep picking up from the internet, it’s ultimately a desperate attempt to monopolise women’s attention. He wants to play his guitar at you. Nothing here is even remotely about male supremacy: men are the ornamental sex now, and Ken just wants to be a good ornament. Of course he does. He’s a doll.
posted by congen at 3:19 PM on October 2 [7 favorites]

Consider approaching these sorts of conversations through a lens of growth (not fixed) mindset. “You and your classmates are still learning. We are all learning! Your classmates didn’t know that the reality of recycling was so complicated. Your classmates also didn’t know how to respond to your statement in a kind and appropriate way. How do you wish your classmates responded instead? And by the way how did you tell your classmates this? Sometimes it’s not only what you say, but how you say it. Maybe next time your classmates would be more receptive to your statements if you did x or y instead?”

“I’m sorry you don’t feel comfortable giving your true opinion in class. You can still be yourself while being considerate of others and your environment. When we’re biking on the mixed use trail, we need to follow the trail rules. We especially need to watch out for pedestrians. Why do we need to watch out for pedestrians even though we have just as much right to use the trail as they do? Why not save your unedited comments from school for home?”

If you haven’t been doing it already, start having conversations why it is not okay for your kid to engage in problematic behaviors or language.

IMHO it’s useful to start teaching about basic types of logical fallacies, and if he notices them in media (and political speeches). When relevant point out that sometimes people are more persuaded by logical fallacies than facts.

The next time your son really wants something special, tell him that he needs to prepare and present his best arguments at the dinner table. Have him consider his audience… remind him that whining is a particularly a poor delivery method in the court of parental opinion. Use this as case study for putting his “best foot forward” when making assertions in the classroom.
posted by oceano at 6:06 PM on October 2 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: Each and every one of these comments is a gem that has given me much to think over! Thanks everyone.
posted by haptic_avenger at 7:49 PM on October 2

(forgot to add: he is not exposed to any social media/unsupervised internet or youtube at all right now.)

I would push back gently on this. If he has friends with devices at school or socially..... he is exposed.
posted by lalochezia at 6:32 AM on October 3 [3 favorites]

Backgrounder from Canadian Museum for Human Rights that might be helpful for terminology and framing or understanding the lay of the online land: Online misogyny: the “manosphere”

There are a lot of education resources about how to talk to boys about this sort of stuff being developed - your son’s teachers might have some resources. A good central source is the Learning for Justice arm of the SPLC.
posted by eviemath at 7:11 AM on October 3

You might also want to ask open ended questions during your conversations where both of you can share your thoughts. Why do you think Barbie / Ken did x or would have felt about y? Would you rather be a boy in Barbie’s world or our own? A girl? What did you like and dislike about the movie? In your opinion, who would enjoy the movie?

Make sure he’s getting the message from you that just because you are an adult in country X doesn’t mean you can do whatever you want. Roads have speed limits to keep people safer since the faster the car goes, the more energy is present in a collision, and the less time a driver has to respond to an obstacle on the road. You can’t speed in school zones since kids should have the right to go to and from school safely. Adults must pay taxes to fund things our family values and other things our family values less.

Regarding conversations about privilege, if you are based in the United States, you can compare the redlining maps with a drive through of selected neighborhoods. Point out how this policy happened during the time of his (great (great)) grandparents, but the impacts are still felt today. Neither him or you had anything to do with redlining. But your family still benefited in x,y,z ways. Also make sure that discussions of someone’s achievement have some nuance and recognition of obstacles faced (or not). Hard work is not the only factor.

You might also want to have conversations about developmental psychology and the changes that will be brought on by puberty. How adolescence is an exciting but sometimes scary time where brains can think in ways they couldn’t before. Like other milestones (e.g. learning to walk) people’s brains reach different milestones at different times. So it might be the case especially for the next few years that you and your classmates’ brains “level up” at different times. You may be ahead of some classmates in say complex thinking… but some of your classmates may be ahead of you in (other thing). So last year, many of your classmates were unable to make the connection that recycling is a complex matter. Maybe this year some of your classmates brains have grown, so that they can better understand complex arguments.

Also make sure your kiddo is getting the message that humans can vary on what they value and their preferences / world view (e.g. facts vs emotions/relationships, arts vs. sciences, the journey vs the destination, booksmarts vs street smarts, EQ vs IQ, etc.). Not everyone your son encounters is going to give highest priority to good arguments. It sounds like your son probably tends towards the data / logic side of the spectrum. Can you point out his different experiences with two teachers where both teachers knew the material, but one teacher “got him” and the other didn’t? In addition you can involve your son in the family’s decision making process for decisions that are more than “what costs the least?” The premise by having these conversations is to value different perspectives. In short, the message should be humans have diverse perspectives and what can we learn from others? not that one approach is superior).

You and your son should discuss how social media is not a suitable place to hone his debating craft and why.

In sum, you are succeeding if you keep the line open.
posted by oceano at 10:25 AM on October 3 [2 favorites]

Might be worth watching the movie "Tootsie" with him. A book that may give him some insights is The Autobiography of a Transgender Scientist by Ben Barres
From the review:
At the age of 43 Barbara transitioned to male and became Ben, and the larger part of this book is concerned with that process and Ben’s personal experience of the discrimination women suffer in science and usually in silence, and how different life was as a male scientist.
“By far the main difference I have noticed is that people who don’t know I am transgender treat me with much more respect: I can even complete a whole sentence without being interrupted by a man.”
posted by Sophont at 2:17 PM on October 3 [1 favorite]

He says he will never give his real opinion in class now after the kids laughed at him when

this is the kind of classic 11 year old dignity melodrama that gets called pouting and flouncing when girls do it but, apparently, is possible to interpret as “all boy” behavior in a boy. though it does not strike me as an obvious or intuitive interpretation. rest assured he will give his opinion in class again as soon as some subject is raised that riles him up sufficiently. 11 year olds of all genders thrive on exaggerated declarations of always this and never that, being proud and lonely dissenters, and feeling misunderstood. they are in reality always misunderstood by the adults closest to them so this is reasonable and even when it’s not reasonable it’s fine.

best thing to do for him is to argue with him respectfully and sincerely when you think he’s serious, ignore disrespectfully when you’re sure he’s only being flamboyantly provoking. that means don’t tell him what to think (though you can tell him what not to say if he says something dangerously offensive), but do tell him what you think is true. and prove it to him, if you know it’s true. just as you would with a girl or any other rational agent. talk to him the way he would have talked in the recycling argument if he’d had his references at the ready and they all said what he thought he remembered they did. if you keep arguing with him logically, he will eventually learn how it’s done.
posted by queenofbithynia at 7:31 PM on October 3 [1 favorite]

Redpilling comes from aggrievedess. Neurodivergent folks have a lot to be aggrieved about, and he will have already undergone trauma you may not even know about. Equip him with disability justice information and the analytical skills to politically situate and assess his own marginalisation, present and future, in a world geared for neurotypicality. This helps ENORMOUSLY. The autistic self advocacy network can help.
posted by The Last Sockpuppet at 6:18 PM on October 5 [1 favorite]

Also, offering him unconditional love on his own terms and the understanding he will always have a safe spot with you to land no matter what will undermine the second vector towards redpilling, which is fear and isolation.
posted by The Last Sockpuppet at 6:19 PM on October 5

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