Dear Care and Feeding,
My son, “Jack,” 14, has been maintaining a spreadsheet that tracks all of his classmate’s problematic actions. Jack has always had difficulty fitting in, but he is a compassionate and intelligent boy. We do not allow our children to have their own computers to prevent the risk of them being radicalized by alt-right websites, so our kids share a laptop that we monitor and control access to. We found an excel spreadsheet in Jack’s folder that listed the names of all of his classmates, as well as dates and descriptions of their problematic behavior.
Some of the descriptions I saw include “has a mom who is a cop,” “no pronouns in insta bio,” “laughed at a fat joke,” “lists problematic show as one of their favorites,” “mimicked a foreign accent,” and “used cis-normative language.”
While I am pleased to see Jack taking an interest in his peers, I get a weird feeling about his spreadsheet. As much as I don’t condone the behaviors mentioned, it seems a bit creepy for him to be monitoring his classmates. I also wonder what he is trying to do with the document.
Another concern is that we are white and some of the kids on the list are Black. Given the long history of white people policing Black existence, I question whether Jack is the right person to be taking on this task and whether it would be more appropriate coming from a BIPOC person.
We have asked Jack about the spreadsheet and he denies involvement, but we know that it couldn’t be anyone else. Am I right to be concerned about Jack’s list? I don’t know that it is the best way for him to engage with his peers and promote social justice. On the other hand, I am proud of how committed he is to this cause and I don’t want to stop him from bearing witness to injustices within his own community.
—Problematic or Productive?
Based on what you’ve mentioned here, his list does seem a little creepy. Kids at that age should be having fun, not documenting every transgression his peers are making. Also, the fact that he’s blatantly lying about his involvement in creating this list should be a huge red flag. If everything is on the up and up, then what does he have to hide? I would personally call his bluff and say, “OK, if this spreadsheet has nothing to do with you, then let’s delete it.” If he raises a stink, then you know that something bigger is at play here.
I respect your viewpoint about being uncomfortable with Jack policing the behavior of his Black peers, but as a Black man, that should be the least of your concerns. Your main objective is to find out why he wants to monitor his classmates in the first place. Is he trying to be a social justice vigilante in an effort to be viewed as cool? Does he want his classmates to be “cancelled” for doing things that he considers to be wrong as a form of payback for not being accepted by them? The possibilities are endless. If you don’t feel equipped to get to the bottom of it, then I highly recommend getting a therapist involved because his behavior is not typical for a 14-year-old.
On a positive note, there are far worse things Jack could be doing than this—and it seems as if his heart is in the right place by being in the corner of marginalized groups. He could use his energy to volunteer as a Big Brother, write for the school newspaper (if they have one), or look for other opportunities at school to make everyone feel included.
I just think the spreadsheet is something that could end up being bad news for him, and I hope you enroll him in therapy so an unbiased mental health professional can tell him the same thing.