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How To React When Your Kid Says Something Offensive, Obnoxious Or Incorrect
Using viral videos & news stories to build trust with our kids
Despite the fact that all of my children are back in school and my life is supposed to be settled, my mind has been little extra chaotic the last few days … maybe even the last few weeks.
You know that feeling where you can’t get comfortable in bed? Too hot with the blanket but too cold without it, the mattress is lumpy and the pillow is somehow just not right? My internal chaos feels like that, but rising up from inside me; a soul-deep rumbling like a big truck passing, except in my guts and not related to digestion. Nothing is wrong, really, I’m just restless.
It’s probably the looming spectre of our book being due to Workman in the spring, or maybe the low-key knowledge that my oldest baby is now living 1089.8 miles away (not that I’ve counted) or that my daughter is starting kindergarten and I have 13 more years of grade school ahead of me. No big deal, just life.
My bouts of ennui often lead to throwing myself into social media so I can drown in the poorly-formed opinions of people I don’t know or respect; opinions placed into my timeline or FYP by an algorithm that, in my mind, looks like Norm the robot from Finneas and Ferb.
I think we can all agree that turning to social media when one is stuck in an emotional swamp is generally a poor idea.
But it’s not always a bad outcome. Sometimes I find things that make me feel better. An inspiring meme, an emotional insight, a dog sitting patiently while a small child to covers it with stickers.
Sometimes Norm blesses me with joy, sometimes with rage.
I promise this Substack gives advice about parenting
But you’ll need to bear with me for two stories before we get there.
First, a hero:
This morning, Norm … I mean the algorithm on TikTok … showed me a video of a man on a hike who stumbled upon a woman — a stranger — yelling for help from a cliff’s edge in the Columbia River Gorge in Oregon. The man, wearing a GoPro on his chest for his hike, ran to assist.
The woman’s mother had stepped off the trail and was clinging 50 feet above a dangerous waterfall. Her daughter, who happens to only have one arm, caught her mother’s foot in her hand. She knew that without a second arm, she wouldn’t be able to pull her mother up. Her daughter holds strong, but is clearly panicked.
At one point in the struggle to keep the older woman from falling, her mother tells her daughter, “Let me go!”
This moment took my breath away. As a mom, I imagine she feared her daughter would be pulled down into the rocks and raging water along with her. Like most of us would, she’d rather her daughter let her go and save herself. Fortunately, it doesn’t come to that.
This rescue is all on tape and, of course, all over social media. While the camera is facing the ground throughout the bulk of the rescue, we can hear their words, their labored breathing and every second of the rescue is gripping.
It’s clear from the audio that this man was born to be a hero, gifted with the calmness and reassuring tone one usually reserves for their own children or elderly parent. He tells the mother that she’s not going anywhere, they’re not going to let her go, they’re going to get her up.
Her daughter asks how they’re going to do it, asks him to tell her how to help her mom, and he instructs her to take her other hand and grasp her mom’s other foot. That’s when she says, “I only have one arm”. He pauses. It’s clear he’ll need a new plan and it’s not going to be easy.
I’ve been in an emergency like this before. A child drowned in a friend’s pool and I was the one who took the child, cold and blue and without a pulse, from the parent’s arms after they were pulled from the bottom. I started CPR and then moved the parent’s hands to the child’s chest to keep compressions going. After four minutes operating in a type of mental numbness that only happens when your brain knows there’s no time for terror, this child woke. A few hours later, every bit of horror my brain had so effectively protected me from when it was “go time” hit me and I cried through the entire night.
Because of that, I know how the man with the GoPro was feeling. He didn’t think “How is this real?” He only thought, “What do I do now?” and then “What do I do next?”.
As I noted, the GoPro faces the dirt, giving the viewer a terrifying warning of what’s to come: crumbling soil at the edge of the cliff while the man pauses to try to figure out what to do next. Another shift and he’s in action.
“I’m going to pull you up,” he says and just does it. When her arms are high enough, he grabs under her armpits (which he tells her he is going to do before he does it — a fascinatingly respectful choice to make in a moment where all decisions are essentially reflexes). Here, he makes a reflexive noise that reminds me of the final push I gave in each of my childbirths: something like a grunt, from the expulsion of every bit of air from your lungs, from every single muscle being dedicated to one single task, from your entire body going until failure. And then she’s up.
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This story is an illustration of how social media can give us glimpses into the purest good of humanity. I also tell this story so you can keep it in mind when I tell the next one.
Don’t worry, it’s not traumatic, it’s just stupid. Then I’ll come back to this happy one.
The benefits of spending time on social media when you’re a parent
I don’t know how healthy people use social media, but I often like to visit the Twitter accounts of people whom I know are going to tick me off. Sometimes I do this to learn what the “other guys” are up to and it’s illuminating and helpful. Sometimes I do it for the same reason I watch Real Housewives of Whatever City — because I hate myself and I want to be annoyed.
The latter is what I was doing the other night when I stumbled upon a handsome Texan dad who recommended never letting your kids attend public school because some admins in a Colorado Springs school told a boy to remove a “Don’t Tread On Me” patch from his backpack before he could return to class with it.
Now, I’m not going to talk about whether kids have the right to wear whatever they want to a public school (or a charter school, as the one in this story happens to be). I’m also going to save for another day the topic of believing your child is too fragile to attend school with people who have different opinions.
Instead, I want to talk about the utter trash-fire way in which both sides of the political spectrum handled this story.
Most importantly, I want to talk about how we can use viral videos to help raise independent thinkers — kids who are less likely to fall for media manipulation.
The boy with the ‘Don’t Tread on Me’ backpack & a half-dozen images of firearms
A video of the parent-admin meeting was taken by the boy’s mother and shared by a right-wing influencer on Twitter, where it went viral. The influencer framed the story as being about a child who was kicked out of class for having a Gadsden flag patch on his backpack.
But that’s not quite accurate.
Where the Right went wrong:
According to multiple news sources, the boy wasn’t removed from class because of a Gadsden flag, it was because of patches with images of firearms on the bag along with the flag. Apparently he removed the gun patches, but wouldn’t remove the flag.
Why does the omission of the firearm patches matter? Because the initial framing of the story paints this child as a sweet little patriot, standing up for his right to wear a historical American flag to school.
If the original post had led with something more accurate, like, “He was initially asked to remove a half-dozen patches depicting long rifles” we may see the situation differently. After all, a fascination with firearms and sharing images of guns — specifically the ones designed to kill a lot of people in a short time — is a common early sign of a school shooter.
Of course, the vast majority of kids who are into guns will never become mass shooters, but I think we can all admit some discomfort with children who break school rules to advertise a passion for long rifles. After a school shooting, there are conversations among people on all sides of the political spectrum about why school shooters aren’t detected and intervened upon earlier, and the fascination with guns always seems to come up as something that administrators should have noticed.
That isn’t to say that this child is a school shooter — I would never say that about any child who is not clearly planning an attack, and there are no indications this child was doing that.
In fact, I doubt he had any ill intent at all, and that’s one of the things that turns my stomach about what that right-wing influencer did when he pushing this video into the public space on his large social platform.
He took a child who is probably too young to understand the multifaceted implications of his choices and thrust him into the spotlight as the symbol of one of the most emotional debates in the history of this country: whether the right to own a semiautomatic firearm and large capacity magazine should outweigh a child’s right to be safe in school.
From my perspective, the boy is an innocent pawn in all of this and has zero intention of harm.
He may be virtue signaling to fellow far-right folks that he’s one of them: a gun-loving fan of Doge, Christianity and the American Revolution. In the end, he’s just too young to make an informed choice about whether he wants to be in the metaphorical crosshairs of this controversy.
Where the Left went wrong:
This school entrenched on an issue they didn’t fully understand and ended up looking foolish — and by extension made progressives look oppressive and ridiculous.
The Gadsden flag does not have a historical foundation in slavery. It is a flag dating back to the American Revolution. Yes, slavery was an institution in Colonies then and the man who designed the flag reportedly enslaved people. All of this is horrific and there is no excusing it.
But there are plenty of historical events that occurred during America’s horrific period of slavery that we don’t immediately attribute to being about slavery or rooted in slavery. Think about the Boston Tea Party or the fact that nearly all of our early Presidents (trough Ulysses S. Grant) enslaved people and participated in human trafficking — to their great benefit. Slavery is at the foundation of the forming of this nation and its effects are still being felt today. We should never forget that.
But progressives should strive to be historically accurate so we can be seen as trustworthy advocates for freedom and human rights — not silly or ahistorical.
It should be noted that the Gadsden flag has been adopted by many racist groups in the last few decades — especially since the Trump Era. Even Reason Magazine, a libertarian publication, acknowledges that many racist groups have appropriated this flag.
While they’re in the minority, other non-hateful groups have also used the Gadsden as a symbol of their fight for freedom. There’s even a Pride version of the Gadsden, which is less shocking than it seems on the surface. After all, the Pride movement is rooted in standing up against oppressive governmental intervention in individuals’ lives. Many LGBTQIA activists have died as a result, including last month’s shooting death of an ally over a Pride flag on her business.
If you ask me, a rainbow Gadsden flag, in its purest form, makes perfect sense for this movement.
Regardless of all these nuances, this school made a foolish mistake.
They’re educators who didn’t stop to educate themselves on the history of this flag before asking a child to remove it from his backpack.
While I believe everyone can make mistakes and should be forgiven for doing so, the way they entrenched on their position in their first press statement by essentially ignoring their mistake and focusing on the fact that the child had patches with images of long rifles made them look silly.
How hard would it have been to simply say, “Hey, some people associate this flag with racism and we want to make sure we aren’t making any other students uncomfortable. Please leave it at home for a few days while we look into the issue further”?
But they didn’t! The video makes the educators look ridiculous. Their statement ignoring the misinformation and focusing on the guns makes it look like a cover-up and distraction, when, in fact, a child having images of firearms all over his backpack is a legitimate cause for concern.
The school eventually ruled to let the boy wear his Gadsden flag to school, but most of the damage has been done. Moderates and progressives with legitimate concerns over racism and gun violence will be further dismissed as silly.
What do the Gadsden flag & the Oregon cliff hero have to do with parenting?
They’re both examples of viral content that can be used to teach our kids critical thinking skills and media literacy.
Teens and tweens are smarter than we give them credit for, and one of the things they resist most is enforced ideology — and for good reason. Essentially, the teenage brain changes in ways that encourage them to push away from their parents and experiment with different adventures, interests and even beliefs systems. (For more into both the brain science and psychology of this process, read Dr. Dan Siegel’s book, Brainstorm.)
In other words, teenagers are wired to detect bullshit and narrow-mindedness in their parents and to rebel against it.
Using viral videos & social media trends to teach kids to think independently
When you see a news story like this Gadsden flag one, dig into it and see if you can find ways in which both sides are right and ways in which they are wrong.
In order for this to work, we have to be objective, and that is surprisingly hard!
It requires stepping out of the comfort zone of the like-minded thinkers we usually follow and seeking out others’ opinions. Sometimes it involves reading objective, fact-based online resources like Encyclopedia Brittanica and finding out the actual history of the Gadsden Flag or whatever other thing at the center of a controversy. Then we have to sit with all sides to find an opinion we can stand by.
Often, the hardest thing is admitting that you don’t know what is objectively the right way to think or feel about something. In this case, I will admit that I don’t know how to feel about this Gadsden flag issue. I am an ACLU progressive — meaning I believe people have the right to freedom of speech without legal consequences, even when I hate what that speech symbolizes. (Remember, social consequences for one’s speech are totally different than legal consequences, and do not fall under the rights afforded by The First Amendment.)
It may seem weak to admit that we don’t know the right answer on an issue, but it’s a huge lesson to our teens: It means we’re willing to be as intellectually honest as possible, even if it means saying, “I have no idea”.
This models for kids that sometimes it’s better to step away from the bandwagon and let it pass than to jump on it — regardless of which political bandwagon it is.
Before anyone calls this “both sides-ism”, let me make clear that there isn’t “another side” to racism, sexism, antisemitism, homophobia, transphobia or any other type of bigotry. There is freedom and there is oppression and choosing to be part of any sort of oppression is the definition of being anti-freedom.
But what freedom, justice and morality look like and how they are achieved are full of shades of grey, shades worth looking into with our kids. At the very least, this exercise teaches teens how to practice objectivity.
It also teaches kids we can be trusted to listen and consider all perspectives before judging.
Like I said before, tweens and teens learn quickly whom they can trust to hear them out. If a kid comes to a parent with a social or political issue they heard about online, and we respond with, “Where did you hear that garbage? That is such trash!” or “I knew I shouldn’t let you watch YouTube!” we teach them to we aren’t a safe place to ask questions.
Where do kids go when they can’t come to their parents to have respectful, objective conversations about politics and/or morality? The internet. And you know who is waiting on the internet for teenagers to type in questions about politics? Extremists with compelling arguments, persuasive sales points, and absolutely no moral center. They frame their positions as heroic, but they’re actually just looking to exploit our kids.
Remember, Google and the social media apps collect demographic data on all of us — including our teenagers — and it they know who is asking the question, what controversial videos to show them on TikTok, what ads to serve them on YouTube, and which Google results they’re most likely to click on.
Teach kids how emotions are manipulated for political gain
It would be nice if kids came to us respectfully asking if they can talk about some controversial opinion or news story so we could plate some cookies and milk, sit down on the couch, and talk together about feelings and social justice and doing the right thing like this is some sort of 1980s After School Special.
But that’s probably not what’s going to happen.
Instead, your kid will say something obnoxious they heard online or from a friend, something both insulting and incorrect, and we need to be able to handle it like grown-ass adults and not make our kids feel stupid, ignored or ashamed. We need to be able to have the uncomfortable conversation without pushing a kid into secrecy or isolation, the latter of which is particularly concerning with teenage boys.
The biggest challenge — and likely the most important one — is to hear the emotions behind the words or the meme or the trend and address that before the problem.
Let’s use the term “toxic masculinity” for an example. I know there’s a lot of pain behind the pushback against this phrase because it implies that being a man equals being toxic. While this isn’t what educated critics mean when they use this term, it’s hard for many people to see that. For those of us who were taught that negative generalizations are bad, it’s hard to stomach something like this.
In this case, if a teen came to me talking about toxic masculinity, I’d share this analogy:
“If I told you to take the rotten vegetables out of the fridge because rotten vegetables can make you sick, you wouldn’t think I meant to pull all veggies out of the fridge because they’re all rotten — and you wouldn’t think I meant all veggies make you sick. In the same way, the problems with toxic masculinity are about forms of masculinity that are harmful.”
Importantly, we should also recognize that hearing about toxic masculinity could feel hurtful to a teenage boy who interprets this to mean that masculinity is inherently bad.
After all, he’s probably trying his best to be a good kid, to be respectful to girls and his teachers, to do the right thing most of the time and to generally avoid drama. He may be wondering how he could be toxic if he never wanted to harm a girl or oppress anyone.
If you address the facts and ignore the hurt at the core of his confusion or imply his feelings are silly or incorrect, you risk him feeling like his emotions don’t matter to you — and guess what actually does contribute to toxic masculinity: expecting men and boys to repress their emotions or feel shame around them.
Instead, recognize the pain/sadness/frustration, empathize with him over those emotions, and then gently correct the facts about whatever problematic or simply incorrect thing he’s heard and repeated.
Share the good news, too
Don’t just sit down with your kids to talk about the evils of social media or the things people are getting wrong. Don’t just share the warnings or what upsets you.
We need to share the good news, too. Show them the Oregon cliff rescue video and talk about what made that man a hero. Talk about the value of doing the right thing, not just when you find a senior citizen hanging off the side of a cliff, but also when the queer kid in school is being mocked or when a guy you know is making a girl uncomfortable.
Talk about standing up for a kid who is being gossiped about or saying, “that’s not cool” when someone makes a racist joke. Talk about the ways in which so many people are heroes every day in ways that don’t get caught on camera and how the times we choose to do what’s right even though nobody is filming are the ones that matter most.
And before it sounds like I have this all figured out or like I think I’m so great at it, please believe me when I tell you that I started out really, really bad at it (and sometimes I’m still overreactive).
When I first heard my sons saying phrases I had only heard from the MRAs who spent their days trying to ruin my life, I almost cried. I was angry. But after a few minutes and a quiet intervention from my husband who saw the panic in my eyes, I realized that these were innocent little boys who had heard terms online that they didn’t understand.
Yes, I told them why those terms upset me and I shared the emotional toll of years of violent threats, degrading comments and harassment I’ve endured from people who used terms like that. (Someday I’ll tell you about the time my boys watched a famous YouTuber spend 20 minutes talking about what a moron B-word I am and how that changed the way they see online content.)
But I also reassured them that I know that’s not what they meant. Once they understood that I wasn’t mad at them, I was able to dig into the source of of where they were learning these terms. That’s how I stumbled upon an epidemic of young being targeted online for recruitment by hate groups. With my kids by my side, I set out on a mission to expose it. The rest, as they say, is history.
Joanna Schroeder is a writer and media critic whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Esquire, and more. Her parenting book, TALK TO YOUR BOYS, co-written with Christopher Pepper, publishes in 2025 via Workman Publishing.
'Confronting Conspiracy Theories and Organized Bigotry at Home: A Guide For Parents & Caregivers', a resource guide Schroeder co-authored with The Western States Center, is available as a download at no cost.
Preview image begrudgingly credited to Amazon