my coworker gave my kid $20 and told him to keep it a secret

A reader writes:

I have a predicament that I’m in and I’m not sure on how to approach the situation. Every day I have to pick up my son from school and bring him back to my job since they don’t provide after school care. This has all been approved by my boss. It’s been going on a couple months now and I haven’t had any problems until today.

I have a ex-supervisor (as in no longer my boss because of good reasons) who tends to overstep her boundaries, but I think this one tops the cake. Today, my son was sitting in the back minding his own business when she brings him some candy (no big deal as she’s asked before if I’ve minded and I said no). Then, she comes back and hands him something and tells him it’s their “little secret.” He comes over to my desk and hands me $20. I ask him where he got it and he said that my ex-supervisor gave it to him and told him it was their little secret.

How do I approach this with her? I want to explain that (1) she should never give money to a nine-year-old and (2) never tell them to keep it a secret, especially from their parents. I don’t want to cause any problems and not be able to bring my son back to work because this is the only alternative that I have. I also tend to avoid confrontation at all costs so being able to bring this up to her is definitely out of my comfort zone. Any help is greatly appreciated!

Go over to her with the $20, hand it back to her, and say, “Cecil told me you gave this to him and said it was a secret. I know you meant to be nice, but I don’t let him accept money from people, and I definitely don’t want anyone encouraging him to keep secrets. That can be really dangerous for kids. So we’re returning this!”

Say it cheerfully and in a kind tone. The tone and the “I know you meant to be nice” are there to smooth this over since you have to work with her and you want to avoid her raising any fuss about your kid being there (if she’s the type to do that if she feels slighted). She may indeed have meant to be nice or she might have some other agenda — which could be as mild as trying to buy your kid’s affection so she feels good about herself, or could be more worrisome. “I know you meant to be nice” is optional, but would be a social lubricant because you work together.

The important thing is that you’re setting the right boundaries for your kid, and you’re signaling to her that you’re paying attention and will enforce those boundaries if she pushes them. This is useful whether her intentions were benign or something worse. (But if there is a second incident, you will need to escalate the severity of your tone.)

Don’t think of this as confrontation. Think of this more as “oops, we just need to fix this” — like if she inadvertently handed him something she didn’t know he was allergic to. You wouldn’t have a major confrontation with her about that; you’d just matter-of-factly explain the situation and assume that of course she’d understand. (And yes, some people would not understand because they’re ridiculous about other people’s allergies, but that’s the tone you want, because being very matter-of-fact often bewitches other people into responding in kind.)

Read an update to this letter here.

{ 451 comments… read them below }

  1. Detective Amy Santiago*

    Ugh, this made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.

    Never ever ever tell a kid to keep a secret from their parent(s). Unless that secret is a surprise party being thrown in their honor.

    1. Lurker*

      Right!?! Next she’ll be asking him to help her find her lost puppy!! This just creeped me right out. I’d be having a really hard time now freaking out on her….

      1. irene adler*

        Yeah. Disturbing.

        Why would a supervisor ever hand money to the child of an employee?

        I would want to know why she gave him the $20. Is this to keep a secret? Then she needs to find out this secret. Or is the $20 the secret itself, and we’re grooming the child?
        (and maybe I’m not understanding something here)

        1. Not Paul Hollywood*

          The innocous reasoning could be that the supervisor just really likes this kid (evident by giving him candy), maybe she doesn’t have kids of her own, so this is her only exposure to a kid. So she decides she wants to give him $20, maybe because she had an aunt that used to slip her cash now and then. She thinks the mom would be uncomfortable with her giving the kid the $20, but she really wants to give the kid $20, so she tells him “Take this, but keep it a secret, because your mom will make you give it back.”

          1. Ka*

            Yeah, I honestly think this is the more likely explanation.

            Not saying OP shouldn’t still remain vigilant, but not everyone is “woke” to every issue. I can imagine she had a grandma who fed her tons of cookies or gave her money and said not to tell her mom. Then she thought that keeping secrets from parents was a normal thing that adults do.

            1. Stinky Socks*

              My surrogate grandpa (long story) was on a fixed income. When he’d come over to our house when I was small, at the end of the visit, he’d slip each of us a couple of bucks, with instructions not to tell our mom. Because she would make us give it back because fixed income.

              It was a different time.

              1. JSPA*

                Exactly. Or ex-boss thinks mom isn’t making enough, or not spending enough on the kid.

                I knew a teacher who did this for one of my classmates a couple of times. One parent was mentally checked out (later turned out to have been putting a lot of money up his nose), and the other had an eating problem, and there was often not much food in the house (or it was mostly celery, or there were locks on the drawers and doors). There was nothing disclosed to her that would have made it reportable, but she correctly interpreted the hungry looks.

                Not saying this applies in OP’s case!!!!

                Just that it’s not always wrong for someone to see a kid looking longingly at food, and quietly pony up an extra $10 or $20.

          2. irene adler*

            If she “just really likes this kid”, how about having conversations with him? Giving him money after having given him candy, just makes the ‘secret’ talk all the more strange, IMHO.

            1. Not Paul Hollywood*

              Sometimes adults can be charmed by a child and still have no idea how to interact with them so they resort to giving a kid things as a way to connect.

              I don’t really have conversations with my friends’ kids, but I like them, so I send them gifts sometimes (but the gifts are NOT secrets and I’ve listened to enough My Favorite Murder to know when you’ve crossed a line).

              1. Rusty Shackelford*

                “You’re in a cult! Call your dad!”

                But yeah, I wouldn’t consider this a red flag, just someone who isn’t good at navigating relationships with other peoples’ kids.

              2. Anonym*

                I think it’s never too early to teach kids “F*ck politeness” (a.k.a. refusing social pressures to accept boundary violations and potential dangers).

                1. dawbs*

                  In some ways, the kid is totes on top of the eff politeness… he took the money and ignored the “our secret”bs, and went to a trusted adult (mom).

                  Kid is doing awesome.

                2. Maolin*

                  +1 – Momma, you have a great kiddo there! Good on you for instilling in him to come to you with that sort of interaction. I’d absolutely hope there was no nefarious intent here, but anyone who watches TV or movies these days has to know that telling kids to keep secrets is all sorts of Um. NO. Not. Ever. And it sounds like she is the ex-boss for a reason, not just from a random reorg, so the secret thing definitely sounds like she’s trying to undermine you for some reason. Bad enough if it were undermining your relationships with colleagues, but undermining your relationship with your kid is oh so very bad. Not necessarily grooming pedophile bad, but definitely does exceed an infraction with your working relationships. If it happens again, that’s ignoring your clear request & repeated undermining, so you’d be well within your rights to utterly flip out on her. Hopefully it won’t come to that because she should now realize she isn’t going to be successful with secrets and attempts at interference because your son has shown he will not be manipulated. Just keep a close eye on things here on out – you don’t want her to in any way make him feel bad for telling you – that could make him less likely to confide next time. You may not want him to know you’re addressing it, especially if she gives you a hard time. If he is sensitive he may want to avoid a commotion if there is a next time. I hope that makes sense.

                  Now go give that boy a fun party for coming to you about this – good job for both of you! Positive reinforcement for doing the right thing (even though he is losing the 20 bucks).

              3. Amy Bradley*

                My reaction to this letter was “WTF?!” in Karen’s voice. Like, hasn’t this person ever watched a Lifetime movie before? You just don’t do that! A thousand high fives to this mom and kid – you’re doing great and I hope ex-boss doesn’t make it weird.

                1. SebbyGrrl*

                  I wish you could all see the GIGANTIC smile on my face and feel the JOY I feel finding MFM refs. here – not unheard of, but just YAY!
                  It feels like both AAM and MFM reach so far outside the boundaries of how to describe what they do.
                  Teach, guide, support, give insight and scripts and tools and REALITY CHECKS against so much socially enforced bad information, conditioning and training.

                  Thanks to Alison, Karen and Georgia, Hax, Captain Awkward and all the communities of sanity out there and folks that participate and try to do better for themselves and others.

            2. Dr. Pepper*

              Some adults have ZERO idea how to interact with children and resort to offerings to the child in an effort to get the child to like them is non uncommon. They’re using the same method they’d use to get a dog to like them. They don’t seem to realize that kids are people and you can interact with them as you would any other human.

              However, it’s still yucky and worrisome. It could very well be innocent, but then again maybe not. As another poster said, perhaps not a red flag but definitely a yellow flag.

              1. Michaela Westen*

                Why does coworker care whether the child likes her? What difference does it make? I would be happy with cordial relations without worrying about whether the child likes me. It seems weird to think about that with a colleague’s child. Not a relative or friend – a colleague with whom I’m not personally involved.

                1. Genny*

                  Some people are very vested in maintaining a certain image of themselves (the one everyone gets along with, the doting office mom/granny, the one kids love, etc.). IME, these people are either very clueless about how to maintain that image and do weird things like this woman did or they’re highly aware of how to maintain that image.

            3. JulieCanCan*

              There have been times I’ve given a co-worker’s kid a few nickels or dimes that were on my desk. The kid would come into my office to say hi and it became a thing he’d do – come in to “visit” then scan my desk for loose change, and ask if it was mine. He was adorable and to a 6-year old, 3-4 nickels and dimes are exciting. He’d run out and show his father the windfall he scored, seemingly thrilled about 20 cents.

              The difference was I didn’t tell him to keep it a secret. BUT after reading OP’s letter my mind didn’t automatically go to creepiness regarding the co-worker’s behavior. It’s what people tell a kid when their parent will say it’s too much money or it’s not right to accept that much money. Granted, if it was my son and I knew everything the OP knows about her/his associate, I’d probably feel differently.

              If the coworker acts offended or upset with OP’s request then there’s an issue. That would definitely be strange.

          3. Turtle Candle*

            Yeah, while I don’t think it’s appropriate, there are plenty of subcultures/contexts where the point is not grooming but “don’t tell your parents because I want this to be fun money and they’d probably make you give it back/put it in your piggy bank/savings account.” My own uncle did just that. It’s not great but it’s also not necessarily a red flag. Maybe a yellow one.

            1. Mommy MD*

              I sincerely doubt there’s anything predatory to this. I think she wants to do something nice for the kid and knows mom wouldn’t accept. Not ideal but not coming off as a grooming red flag. I used to give my daughter’s best friend lunch money when her mom was going through a divorce and couldn’t pay her bills. I said don’t tell your mom. Because I knew Mom and knew she would take it for herself.

              1. jenkins*

                I think it’s most likely a misconceived cool-aunt type effort, too, but it does need to stop – even if it’s not predatory in this case, it normalises adult behaviour that definitely can be predatory. I suspect this hasn’t even occurred to the ex-supervisor, but the kid needs the boundary that secret presents from random adults are not a good idea. The help you gave your daughter’s best friend made sense in the context and the existing relationship you had, and you were making sure she got lunch, not giving her secret extra treats to win her affection. You did a good thing, but that was in a very specific situation – I wouldn’t be happy about an adult secretly giving a child money/presents in most other contexts.

              2. Linden*

                That’s completely possible, but it is also possible that she is a pedophile and wanted to test the waters by seeing if the kid would tell his mom about the $20. So it’s absolutely critical that LW handle it as Allison described.

            2. Hc600*

              Yup. Several grandparents or fictive kin grandparents did this to me and my cousins growing up. It was a big game/joke with my grandfather in particular to complete the handoff without my mother seeing. She knew I always left their house with five dollars.

              1. Haligolightly*

                Several decades ago (ouch!), my grandfather used to give my sister and I a quarter or two, and tell us not to tell our parents. We thought it was great …

                … right up to the point when my parents _did_ find out and rightfully lost their sh!t on him. Why? The reason he wanted us to keep it a secret is because he wasn’t giving our brother quarters. Ever.

                Did I mention my brother came to us as a foster placement and our family adopted him as a young tweenager?


            3. madge*

              Exactly. My grandpa did it all the time because my parents would have protested that it was too much. I have aunts who did it as well. They all thought my parents wouldn’t let me spend it on something frivolous, which was exactly how they wanted me to spend it. Heck, my parents and brother do it to me/my son now (he’s the only grandkid/nephew).

              I would definitely broach the subject (and watch for other “off” behavior) but do so in the way Alison suggested. There’s no reason to assume from this single incident that she’s a pedophile. And my answer would be the same if the supervisor were a man.

          4. Ms Cappuccino*

            Or she could be a sexual predator. If former boss was a male, I am pretty sure nobody would think it could be someone who just like kids and doesn’t have kids on his own.

            1. RUKiddingMe*

              This. I doubt we’d be do fast to give the former boss a pass if he was a male.

              Also $20? For a nine year old?

                1. jennie*

                  Sure, why not. Nine year olds like toys, books, movies, games. Some like clothes. It’s not an outrageous or weird amount of money for a kid to spend.

                2. ValkyrAmy*

                  It’s not like he can take himself to the mall, though, and then there will be questions about where the money came from. Giving a more independent teen $20 is a lot easier to get away with. I would 100% notice if my kid had an extra $20 laying around. (She’d also tell me right away.)

            2. Alienor*

              Not necessarily. The in-law side of my family is from an Asian culture and it would be totally normal for any older person, male or female, to give some money to a visiting kid. They’d do it openly, though–it’s the secret part that makes this story a little weird.

              1. Akcipitrokulo*

                Yep. Giving the kid a large amount like $20 and saying “tell your mum it’s for being such a help!” or saying to the mother “hope you don’t mind I slipped him $20!” might result in a WTF? moment… and maybe a chat about “no, we don’t accept expensive gifts” – but the secrecy makes it an issue.

                My granda always gave the kids money when they were heading off. Never, ever secretly.

              1. JSPA*

                Statistically, it is. Granted, female predators are probably under-identified and under-convicted. But I’m not convinced that’s enough to explain the huge disparity in the genders of people on the Megan’s Law listings. (Which admittedly have all sorts of flaws and do not, themselves, correlate particularly well with actual likelihood of re-offending…but that’s another post.)

            3. August*

              Mmm, I’ve got to disagree here. I’ve had tons of instances like this with family friends of all genders. It’s definitely good to stay aware and handle it now, but jumping straight to “sexual predator” is a bit of an overreaction right now.

            4. Liet-Kinda*

              Jesus jack-jumping Christ, did I miss the site rule where we have to go to the most bonkers-ass most problematic possible interpretation of everything? Rein it in, for godsake. The chances that this person is a sexual predator because they tried to slip a kid $20 on the sly are nonzero, but obviously tiny. This – and Irene Adler’s post that kicked off this whole discussion – is as wild an overreaction as I’ve EVER seen on this site.

              1. JSPA*

                Yep. There are places where adults and kids basically don’t interact at all, anymore, due to fears on the one hand of predators, and on the other, of being thought a predator. In those areas, I guess this level of reaction might be what passes for normal.

                But there are also plenty of places where kids and adults do still interact–and where someone giving a larger gift that the gifts that they’ve already asked mom, if it’s OK to give (!)–are pretty darn normal. Assuming that everyone has the same level of (frankly nearly useless) paranoia about child-adult interactions is way off base. (After all, most abuse happens within families or with other deeply trusted inviduals, who are allowed broad stretches of alone time with kids. Which just isn’t relevant, here.)

              2. NextStop*

                It’s less the money and more the secret. It may be unlikely, but it’s exactly the kind of thing a pedophile would do.

              3. Michaela Westen*

                What if she is a predator and no one mentions the possibility? I think we need to mention it just in case, to make sure OP is aware of it.
                I’m old enough to remember when people *didn’t* discuss such things, and that enabled bad people. It also prevented children and young women from taking precautions because they didn’t know of the dangers.

          5. JS*

            Exactly. When my great grandpa would come over from Poland, he would literally hand me, a 5 year old, $200 and say “don’t tell your mom”. Of course I told her but its the same idea. Unless any “conditions” are attached to the money the money is innocent enough were the child’s safety isn’t a concern but still something that every parent has the right to set boundaries for.

        2. rogue axolotl*

          I think there is a possibility she’s just trying to get in the kid’s good books and was kind of being cute/jokey about the “this is our little secret.” But obviously there is good reason to be concerned that it could be something more sinister. I’d be watching her closely.

        3. Hills to Die on*

          Very disturbing. I thought grooming too. It’s a shame you can’t hire someone to have this discussion on your behalf because I would be more than happy to shut that down. Nope, nope, nope.

          Go back and tell your son (if you haven’t already) that he is not to accept anything else from this weirdo. Can he sit closer to you so that she won’t have access to him alone anymore? I dislike your former boss immensely.

          1. Hills to Die on*

            And I do think she was trying to play nice fun lady at mom’s work, but still is very not okay.

        4. boo bot*

          irene adler, my understanding was that the $20 was itself the secret – “Here, take this, but don’t tell your mom, it’ll be our little secret that I gave you money.”

          Thus setting up things like, “I gave you $20, you owe me X,” or, “If you tell your mom about X, I’ll tell her you lied to her that time I gave you $20.” Or just setting up a basic feeling of obligation and compliance.

          This totally freaks me out. I know that when you’ve eliminated the impossible, what remains, however improbable, must be the truth and all, but any non-predatory explanation for this looks really, really improbable to me.

          1. Anna*

            I think it’s more likely to be an innocent, albeit misguided, attempt to connect. Predators are not actually as common as all that and they tend to be a bit more subtle in their grooming.

            1. Jules K*

              They aren’t always subtle, because even when they’re brazen, it’s very common for people to dismiss it… since many people believe grooming isn’t that common, and predators are more subtle.

              1. Michaela Westen*

                +1 – or they are in a culture of denial which makes them unaware of the possibility. Or they don’t want to believe someone close to them or their colleague would do that.
                That’s how it happens.

            2. Avasarala*

              This. Maybe grooming behavior is common/dismissed because it overlaps with behaviors that can also be harmless or kind-but-misguided. I think without any further indications that this person is a creep or boundary-pusher, we should assume kind-but-misguided. Not every misstep indicates an abuser.

          2. irene adler*

            Thank you.
            I’m really hoping this is a case of someone who is just very awkward around children. They just do not understand the underside of keeping secrets from parents.

            1. Jules the 3rd*

              boo bot wasn’t the only one who read it, tho. It’s the ‘keep it our secret’ part that’s sending my thoughts in this direction.

        5. Allison*

          Older people discretely hand cash to their grandkids, and maybe nieces and nephews as well, so maybe this coworker was trying to foster a “cool aunt” relationship with the kid, not knowing that what’s appropriate for family members isn’t always appropriate among you and your coworkers’ kids. However, they need to learn NOW that it’s not appropriate.

          Although if they don’t have kids, and no grandkids, nieces, or nephews, or maybe even close friends with kids, I can kind of sympathize with someone who may be hungry for that kind of a relationship with kids and doesn’t have a lot of avenues where it’s normal and appropriate to foster them.

            1. ValkyrAmy*

              Mommy MD – do you tell your nephew to keep it a secret? Because related or not, that’s crossing a line and violating the parent/child relationship. Secrets are no. Surprises (secrets that we’re giong to use to make someone happy soon) are fine.

          1. Jen S. 2.0*

            I hadn’t put my finger on it this way, but I was trying to figure out what was weird about it, and this is the line. Slipping the kid a little something of some value might be fine among close family, very very close trusted family friends, “aunties,” godparents, et cetera. I’m 42 and I randomly got a pair of earrings in the mail from an “auntie” (who is always trying to make me wear jewelry) last week! If Mom and the giver are close, by friendship or blood, there’s an excellent reason to be cultivating a close relationship with the kid, even one that’s just a little bit separate from Mom, because they SHOULD have a relationship, as uncle / nephew, godmother / goddaughter, grandmother / grandson, whatever. Money and gifts changing hands should still be something of an open secret, but the exchange itself is not the issue there.

            But Coworker is not close enough with Mom to be fostering a separate relationship with her kid. Coworker indeed might just be a little awkward and mean no harm in having taken a liking to the kid, but Mom still needs to draw a boundary. Some candy is fine, but unearned money creates too fraught a relationship when you are not close with the person.

      2. D'Arcy*

        This is literally textbook grooming behavior, and there’s literally no other reason to do such a thing.

        1. Liet-Kinda*

          I can think of at least three reasons to do so, drawn directly from personal experience, so holy shit stop overrreacting and exaggerating.

          1. AKchic*

            Yet downplaying it is *exactly* how the grooming behaviors get dismissed in the first place. Please don’t discount a lot of people saying “hey, this sounds like grooming behavior” simply because you may not have seen it or experienced it or don’t *want* to think poorly of someone. Because that’s how it gets dismissed and overlooked. And that is one of the many reasons why continued victimization happens.

            We are not saying the ex-supervisor is a predator. We are saying that what she did is a common tactic of predators, which is why we feel it is an icky thing and why we are reacting to it, and is a valid reason for the OP to react to it too. Do we *think* ex-supervisor is a predator? Probably not. However, OP has stated that she has problems with overstepping boundaries, which is a red flag, and this is another red flag here (gifting money, secret-keeping, attempted illicit bonding) and now bears a wary eye. Not because she is a predator, but because she doesn’t have good judgement.
            I would rather be wary and keep her at a distance and be wrong than ignore this behavior and allow it to continue and be *right* about the suspicions, allowing a child to be victimized, wouldn’t you?

        2. JSPA*

          1. You like giving gifts, but you don’t want people to treat you as an ATM, or accuse you of “acting all flush with cash.”
          2. you worry money is tight, and want to make sure that the kid has occasional “fun money,” even if basic household expenses are iffy.
          3. you worry mom’s putting her paycheck up her nose.
          4. you like the kid–as a kid, not a sex object (sheesh!), but your relationship with the mom is fraught (for whatever reason) and you don’t want to make “doing something nice for the kid” into a new chapter in an old bullshit saga.
          5. you feel a bit guilty for some bad work interaction with mom, and you don’t want kid to suffer as a result.
          6. you worry mom is restricting kid’s diet because she has her own food issues.
          7. you worry kid is fearful or withdrawn, and want kid to feel that the world is a friendly place where people like him.
          8. you wonder if mom is using money for necessities to control the kid in ways that are not “normal maternal” but “mommy dearest.”

          We always support the OP, which means, in this case, that we’re all say, “yay, mom!” But not all moms are good moms. The problem coworker may have experienced the other sort. And may be conditioned to give kids a little financial autonomy, as a result. The assumption that she’s next going to blackmail the kid is, while not impossible, surely not likely. Just as most people looking to adopt a cat are not, in fact, selling them as bait to dog fighting rings. Bad things happen. We should be aware that bad things happen. But we should not stop all good things from happening, in the process, just because we’ve become so consumed with the idea of one particular sort of bad thing, that it gets to blind us to many other types of bad thing, and overshadow so many sorts of good thing.

          1. AKchic*

            The majority of these possible reasons are still overstepping boundaries, which OP has stated was a problem with the ex-supervisor.

            Regardless of the reason *why*, it was still inappropriate. If the ex-supervisor feels there is a problem with OP’s parenting, there are other options besides trying to slip cash to the child.

          2. ValkyrAmy*

            $20 doesn’t give a 9 year old a ton of financial autonomy when they barely have any physical autonomy (not to mention not the best judgment). If there are concerns, slipping money to kid and telling him to keep it a secret exhibits questionable judgment and I don’t think there’s any reason a parent should feel good about a work acquaintance sharing secrets with a child.

    2. animaniactoo*

      Yes. My mind went straight to “grooming that kid for something”.

      And I do not see pervs behind every tree.

      Okay, it might just be a power play ploy to end up with “your kid likes me better than they like you”. But this is so wildly out of bounds that my antennae are swishing around nervously.

      1. Dust Bunny*

        I think it’s a lot more likely she was trying to be the “fun auntie” and did it very, very, badly. But it’s still not OK.

        1. animaniactoo*

          If she’s trying to be fun auntie with her former direct report’s kid whom the sum total of her interaction with is mostly passing by when the kid is there for a couple of hours in the afternoon – there is no GOOD way that she could be fun auntie.

          And to be clear – there are kids who come through my office on a regular basis and there’s a few people here who are kid magnets and adore kids, and they hang out with the kids but not a one of them would attempt to be the “fun auntie” as opposed to the “temporary babysitter” or “fun *person*” whom the kids flock to because of their personalities.

          1. Akcipitrokulo*

            “Fun auntie” still isn’t great… but you do that by letting them swivel round in your chair or let them draw on your post-its. Giving a child money as a secret is another level of completely inappropriate.

            1. Sacred Ground*

              Also, “fun auntie” is itself an overstepping of boundaries. Mom is her coworker and a casual acquaintance, not a sister or bff. You don’t get to form a relationship with an acquaintance’s kid that’s closer than your relationship with coworker.

        2. BF50*

          It is totally not ok but I think this is possible. My mom’s cousin palmed me a $20 when I was 16 because I let him borrow my car. He wasn’t subtle, so I think it was intended to be a joke. It did totally buy my affection a bit. I do not believe he had any nefarious intentions, but as an adult I would totally side eye this.

          I think that there is possibly a lack of awareness about grooming techniques among people who are not frequently interacting with children.

          There might also be some generational things happening. I could see a young person not thinking this through and I could see someone my parents age or older also not catching on to the creep factor here.

          That said, i would be shutting this down immediately with this lady and following up with lots of talks and praise for my kid. Yikes.

          1. Anon for this*

            I do think there’s a difference between a 9 year old and a 16 year old. And a small payment for allowing use of a car is also kind of normal.

          2. Observer*

            There is a HUGE difference between a 16yo ad a 9yo.

            Also, you do realize that your cousin wasn’t just being boundary challenged, don’t you? He was bribing you to do something seriously inappropriate.

            Also, this is highly unlikely to be generational. I know people of many age cohorts and I simply cannot think of anyone who would think this is appropriate, even without the faintest thought of “grooming”. It’s just waaay out of line.

            1. Myrin*

              I’m not following the “bribing” paragraph – what’s boundary challenged or seriously inappropraite about borrowing someone’s car? Am I misreading the original comment?

            2. Observer*

              Maybe I misread, but it looked like BF50 wasn’t supposed to let their cousin borrow the car. If I’m wrong about that, then my second paragraph obviously doesn’t make sense.

              1. BF50*

                You misread, but I might not have been clear.

                He wasn’t my cousin. He was my mom’s cousin. She had arranged for him to borrow my car. He secretly slipped me money. He was also 30+ years older than me, so I’m not sure with a 45 year old secretly giving money to my 16 year old daughter.

                There is definitely a big difference between a 9 year old and a 16 year old, but 16 year olds are still groomed by older men, too.

                Also, I didn’t say it was OK. It is way out of line. I do think that there are some generations that are less aware of grooming behaviours than others. It wasn’t really a thing that had national attention until the 80’s and it would be easy to miss knowing the signs if you didn’t have kids or had kids who grew up in the 70s.

                1. Queen of the File*

                  Thinking of my older aunts and uncles who are very rarely on the internet or having discussions beyond small talk outside of their bubble it’s pretty easy for me to imagine them missing the message that it’s not OK to play the cool guy by giving a kid money/candy and telling them to keep it a secret. It was totally common when I grew up (where I grew up). Obviously I see the issue with it now and would never do it, but it’s not hard for me to imagine someone doing this carelessly rather than maliciously.

          3. A-No*

            Another factor is you were related to him not he was your mom’s coworker, significantly less weird.

              1. A-No*

                A family member palming you money in a joking manner for lending him your car is a lot different then a stranger palming you money for no reason.

                1. Avasarala*

                  I’m confused, how is mom’s cousin (therefore a relative) different from your cousin (therefore a relative)? Plus mom arranged the car-borrowing so this person isn’t a stranger? I’m really struggling to see how giving a younger family member money as thanks, when their income/freedom is determined by their parents and they could probably use $20, is unilaterally and categorically creepy. Just because they wink and say “don’t tell your mom” doesn’t mean they’re a sexual predator.

        3. Anonny*

          Yeah, I think it’s probably innocent, but telling kids to keep things you give them or do with/to them a secret is a very bad precedent to set.

          1. Kyrielle*

            This. (OP, if you haven’t, I hope you will praise your son for telling you about this. I know we tell them to, but it’s still important and good that he did. Regardless of if her intent is good, you now have a data point that he will tell you about things like this – including from someone he knows and who he knows is allowed to give him candy from time to time!)

            So, her behavior is out of line (and may or may not be worrisome, but I’d save real worry for if she tries it again / tries something else grooming-ish), but your son handled it perfectly and is likely to do the same if she or anyone else tries something similar again.

            1. Over the hill*

              This is a really good point.

              The child themself thinks this was an odd interaction. Its then the parents job to take that feeling seriously and stop it from happening again.

              It doesnt matter what the rest of us think, the kid doesnt think it was ok and that trumps everything.

          2. Allison*

            Right, and while it’s unlikely this particular woman is a predator, this is how predators work, they push boundaries in ways that can be easily explained as an accident, a misunderstanding, or somewhat inappropriate but have plausible, innocent reasons, so we keep giving them the benefit of the doubt, letting them continue to creep over boundaries, sometimes in ways you don’t notice, or make you feel weird but you feel like you have to be okay with because everyone else told you it was no big deal, until the time they do something really bad and at that point you’re afraid to say anything because people will ask how it got to that point, or assume you wanted it otherwise you wouldn’t have let them get so close in the first place.

            Best to set and enforce boundaries, even when people have totally innocuous reasons for crossing them.

      2. irene adler*

        Maybe she was hoping to get some dirt on the employee via the child route (“Does Mommy ever drink before she goes to work?”). Or wants to pump the child for info on things Mommy might have said about her.
        Both of which are inexcusable.

        I’m very bothered by this.

    3. Trinity*

      Even then, I refer to it as a surprise. There are no secrets my kid can keep from me, but they can surprise me with the help of trusted adult.

      1. HRJ*

        Definitely this! One of the recommendations becoming more widespread these days to help protect children is to not have secrets, period. Even things like a party or gifts should be referred to as a surprise, not a secret. The idea is that secrets are kept, but surprises are always ultimately revealed because it’s not a surprise if it’s not revealed.

      2. jennie*

        That’s the rule with my 9 year old and 6 year old nieces too: no secrets, only surprises.

        I have to admit, as someone without kids, I did have to learn to police my language a bit. If we stay up too late or have too much junkfood when they sleep over, I may be tempted to say “don’t tell your parents” but I understand we can’t have secrets!

        That’s why I can totally see this as being innocent, not necessarily grooming behaviour. It’s great that the kid told the mom right away. I think a discussion with the kid about how great he handled it, plus less interaction/keeping an eye on the coworker would be a proportionate response.

        1. JSPA*

          When we were kids, we heard “don’t tell your parents” for stuff like staying up late, all the time.

          It’s a style thing that has changed in the last 5-20 years, depending where you live, and in what subculture. The idea being, adults can see clear differences between one sort of secret and another; kids don’t always, and predators can use that to their benefit, so we’ll just make a huge change in how we talk to kids, and no longer use ANY ‘secrecy’ language, even for the most innocent things.

          Someone who last dealt with kids longer ago, or is from a different area or subculture, may have totally different norms on the language.

    4. Jadelyn*

      This not only threw up every single red flag in a ten-mile radius around me, but also set off big flashing red lights and loud sirens. This just screams grooming behavior to me. Straight up.

      I read downthread far enough to see people suggesting it’s actually innocuous awkwardness of an adult who wants to be nice to a kid but doesn’t know how to interact with them appropriately and…tbh, that just makes me think of the “but he’s just socially awkward!” defense of creepy dudes. It’s possible that’s the case, sure, but the costs of assuming it’s actually predatory are relatively low if you’re wrong, while the costs of assuming it’s innocent if it’s not…are much higher.

      1. Detective Amy Santiago*

        The best way for the OP to figure that out is to use Alison’s script and see what the reaction is.

        I mean, like, I could see myself doing something boneheaded like this. I love other people’s kids and enjoy spoiling them. But if someone said “Hey, I know you were trying to be nice, but this is problematic because…” I would immediately apologize and would never do the thing again.

        If she reacts defensively, that would be more of a red flag to me.

        1. madge*

          Same here. I had kids years after many of my friends and cousins. So I was the “aunt” who would give them candy/toys/money and we would stage-whisper near mom that it’s a secret. Their moms would know but also knew they weren’t supposed to know. Looks really dumb typed out but the kids and adults had fun with it. If at any point someone said it wasn’t cool, it would’ve immediately stopped. And we’re all pretty blunt with each other, plus I know they talk to their kids about actual secret-keeping.

          1. Jadelyn*

            That doesn’t sound dumb to me, that sounds cute! My only worry with that, would depend on the age of the kids in question. Very young children don’t have the ability to parse nuance and situational judgment the way adults and older kids do, so I could see this being a potential point of confusion for the child when Cool Auntie Madge is giving them pretend-secrets, but their parents are telling them not to let adults rope them into actual secret-keeping. It takes time to develop judgment to know which situation falls into which category, but assuming they’re a bit older I just see that as some harmless cute fun. It actually just sounds adorable.

        2. Jadelyn*

          That’s a good point – much like with creepy dudes, the reaction to being told “that’s not okay” is more illuminating than anything else could be.

      2. Avasarala*

        No one is saying OP has to be or should be OK with this. I think many people are pushing back on the idea that because this person (that OP knows) snuck her kid money, that we should assume this person is a threat. I don’t think it’s helpful to approach every situation as if it is the worst possible case.

        I prefer to assume good intentions and allow the other person to save face if it was a true accident, thereby preserving the relationship, and escalate it if things go weird or I continue to get warning signs. So proceeding based on not just the potential risks, but the likelihood of those risks.

      3. August*

        I don’t know, I think there isn’t any harm in assuming that there are good intentions, while simultaneously keeping an eye out for any future incidents/behaviors. In my experience, this is super common “fun aunt/uncle” behavior. Is it weird and inappropriate coming from her boss? Definitely, but I don’t think it warrants the kind of conversation that repeated attempts at grooming would (i.e. a serious conversation about how, if this doesn’t stop, a criminal report will be filed). Alison’s script is perfect.

    1. mskyle*

      Seriously, and also I think he should get to keep the $20. “Do the right thing and you lose a bunch of money” is something we all probably learn eventually but it’s nice to postpone the lesson if possible!

      1. Hills to Die on*

        ooh – good point, but I can also see it going the other way. It was okay after all because I got to keep the money? Maybe he gives the money back buyt he gets some other treat? I don’t know.

        1. Mimi Me*

          I agree with this. I think the money needs to go back and it needs to be explained to both son and co-worker as to why, but son needs to be rewarded for his honesty with a special treat – perhaps a small toy or a dinner out a special place?

          1. Bulbasaur*

            This is what I would do (for those that suggest matching it, what if it had been $500?) No money, but recognition for doing the right thing and some small reward. You could for example go with something non-monetary but valuable to the child, like setting aside some time that you wouldn’t normally have available to spend with them on an activity they enjoy.

        2. Tara2*

          That was my thought too, so I think its a better idea to get him a cool prize that is separate from the $20 for sharing the info with mom. I’d get that kid a reward toy or something.

      2. LizB*

        I’d give the coworker back her $20, and give the kid $20 of my own money (assuming that’s financially doable), or get his favorite treat for dinner, or something else he’d value as much.

        1. Jules K*

          I vote for a treat he likes, plus a talk about how a small treat you feel good about is better than a big gift that feels wrong.

          1. Dr. Pepper*

            When I was a kid, I once found $5 that a coworker of my mom had dropped. I told her about it and we gave the $5 back to the coworker and I got ice cream on our way home. So I was rewarded for good behavior without actually keeping the money. Kids don’t care about money so much as what money can get them (sweets, toys, etc).

          2. bean*

            I vote for a treat he likes, plus a talk about how a small treat you feel good about is better than a big gift that feels wrong.

            I think this is perfect!!

      3. Nita*

        Agreed, taking away the money as a punishment for honesty is not the way to go. I’d let him keep the money, return a different $20 to the coworker, and have a very direct conversation with her. I’d love to return the awkward to this sender.

        1. Nita*

          …but, I’d also tell him to not accept money or “secrets” from her again. Whether intended or not, that’s so creepy. Frankly, I might crack down on the candy too if it seems there are strings attached (had to deal with that one this summer, it was seriously no fun).

      4. Essess*

        I was thinking that the mother should give 20 out of her own pocket to give to her son to replace the one that he’s losing, and give the original 20 back to the coworker. Yes, it all still ends up as the mom giving a $20 to the coworker, but you need the overt action of showing the child that the money they keep should not come from the coworker and that mom is rewarding the child for being honest. This way if something similar happens in the future, the child won’t feel like they will be punished for telling the truth (by having the gift taken away).

        1. Tara2*

          I like the idea of keeping the $20 out of the equation altogether and just reward him with a completely separate thing. Let him pick out a toy, or a treat just as he would do with the money, but I think its easier to grasp “Keeping the money from the coworker isn’t good” if he doesn’t end up with the money, and then “Telling mom about secrets” is good by having a great reward.

    2. mrs_helm*

      +1 on Strongly rewarding your kid for telling you. That’s behavior we want to keep going!!! We can’t control all the adults/strangers, but we can definitely try to train our kids to know when something is off! If you do nothing else, make sure that kid knows telling you was Excellent Behavior.

    3. Nines*

      Just what I thought! Our son does this regularly with Grandma. It’s been discussed, it’s a weird and hard thing for her to break. But the silver lining is certainly seeing clearly that your son gets it. You’re doing something right with that little guy!

    1. ThankYouRoman*

      It’s creepy and mega confusing to me. If you like spoiling kids (guilty), you don’t make it a secret. My bff knows if she sends her kids to me, I’ll watch them while feeding them junk and taking them to hockey games. No, I don’t watch my language, etc.

      I also know her limits. Hell no am I breaking hard and fast rules or giving kids money on the down low. I’m cool but I’m not treating kids like adults or forgetting they’re developing tiny humans who are vulnerable. I would never hurt them but I’m not normalizing behaviors that nasty bad people will use to harm them. Arrrrgh. So many feels.

      1. Rana*

        Exactly. There’s spoiling that’s within the parents’ range of tolerance (and tacit or explicit acceptance) and then there’s doing stuff in secret because you know that the parents would shut it down if they knew.

        (I’m still pissed at my SIL for doing the latter last visit; she loves to think of me as the No Fun Mama and herself as the Fun Aunt, but there are reasons I’m “no fun” when it comes to letting her interact with my kid, and her inability to see anything wrong with this sort of behavior is a major one.)

        1. ThankYouRoman*

          Yes! I’d never want my nieces to think of their mother as some kind of mutual enemy of sorts. The rules are set for *reasons not because Mama is a mean ol dragon.

          I don’t need to try hard to be cool. Just not being their mom is cool in most kid’s eyes.

        2. Mimi Me*

          Oh the No Fun Momma thing…. I become scary when someone tries to make me the bad guy in my relationship with my kids. My own mother has this with me – once!, in front of my kids, and I don’t think she was prepared for my reaction. Basically it comes down to: don’t make me the bad guy when I do the thing parents are supposed to do by setting limits, rules, and boundaries and you (not their parent!) want to do something else. I will literally keep my children away from you – especially if you try to make it appear that being responsible and doing the right thing by a child is somehow a bad thing.
          (FWIW, I’m not talking about bending rules about candy or bedtime when with grandma or a trusted adult / babysitter. I’m talking safety issues like riding without a carseat or seatbelt, physically altering my child’s appearance without my permission, or behaving in unsafe ways)

          1. ThankYouRoman*

            Omfg bestie’s MIL had to be sat down years ago because she was like “lol u don’t need a life jacket!” to my nieces who were under 10 at the time. It was very much a “You will never see them again if you don’t fix yourself now.” conversation.

            My biggest “spoil” of all was letting my 13 year old niece choose her menu at the restaurant we went to for her birthday. “Oh mom always makes us use the kids menu!” “I’m not on her budget, so whatever you want is good.”

            Or when the 11 year old wanted onion rings but her mom hates the smell, so they’re frowned upon when she’s around. Onion rings for every meal on my watch.

            1. Mimi Me*

              When I was in my 20’s I used to take my sister and cousin (both 11 years younger than I am) out for their birthday. My sister is the baby of the family and was used to being reasonably spoiled but my cousin was the oldest of 3 (like me) and not used to this at all. I loved taking them out and watching my cousin get excited over stuff like getting a popcorn and candy at the movies and not have to share it. Sometimes those really little things are enough to spoil a kid just enough.

          2. Nita*

            I’ve had massive problems even with the candy-and-bedtime thing. An elderly neighbor started inviting my toddler over so she could plop him in front of the TV and ply him with cookies. At bedtime. She was strutting around so proud of herself for being the “reasonable” one who doesn’t force kids to eat healthy. She also wouldn’t listen to me long enough to get it through her head that she’s aggravating his already horrible painful GI issues. Never even mind the stress the whole family dealt with when he couldn’t get up on time the next morning.

            When he got better, I was the first person to tell her he’s allowed to eat whatever. But that was after I lost my temper with her so spectacularly that she avoided all of us for three months straight. Ahhhh. We really needed those three neighbor-free months to help him get his health back.

      2. F as in Frank*

        “but I’m not normalizing behaviors that nasty bad people will use to harm them. Arrrrgh. So many feels.” Regardless of what the coworkers intentions are this is the key, her actions are normalizing how predators behave. It needs to stop.

    1. Blaine*

      YES. I was just coming on to say that.

      An adult creating a space where they can have secrets with a child is never a good thing . Except of course in the case of surprise parties.

      1. BF50*

        eh, even then. I don’t really give a surprise party exemption, but I am biased in that I hate surprise parties.

      2. Jules K*

        In my family we make an exception for gifts, but the reveal is always part of the discussion. “We don’t tell Daddy what we got him RIGHT NOW, so when do we tell him?” “His birthday!” The kids know that there shouldn’t be any forever secrets, just for-now secrets.

          1. Hyacinth Bucket (Pronounced Bouquet!)*

            I think that’s the key to setting “good secret” boundaries with kids. It’s a secret for a clear purpose. We don’t tell Dad that we’re buying him a puppy for his 50th birthday because it’s his birthday gift and we don’t want to spoil the surprise, or we don’t talk to strangers about family finances because it’s impolite to talk about money. Give kids the tools to build their own intuition about secrets.

      3. JSPA*

        That works great for healthy families who are accepting of their kids and their kids needs.

        But…are you sticking to that absolute, even when kid is LGBT, and parents are not accepting (but some other family member is)? Or family are cult members, or supremacist racists (or whatever else it is that kid doesn’t buy into) that’s not explicitly abusive enough for CPS to step in, but a neighbor or teacher or friend’s parent letting them know that there’s a safe haven can make all the difference? I’m in favor of whatever lets a kid know that they don’t have to jump off a bridge, nor live under one, if things are feeling intolerable (but they’re not willing to call the police on their parents).

        Remember, even very messed up people tend to believe that they’re great parents. And that they know what’s best for their kid, always.

        1. ValkyrAmy*

          There are no secrets, only surprises in my house and that is a rule I 100% enforce.

          Except when I don’t. My daughter is trans and has to spend 50% time with her biodad and he has…issues. So I absolutely allow her to keep secrets from him and willing participate in said secrets. We tell him the bare minimum of what is necessary in some cases and smooth over everything else. I’ve become very adept at lying with the truth. But it keeps her mentally healthier and that’s important.

          the difference is I NEVER ask her to keep secrets from her dad or her teachers or anyone. Her dad asks her to keep secrets all the time and threatens terrible punishments. She asks me to keep secrets from her dad (to avoid aforementioned punishments), and I actively support her decisions to not tell him things that would work out badly for her. I think this is a good balance. BUT if a stranger handed her cash money and told her not to tell me, that would be super wrong.

        2. ValkyrAmy*

          I think the short answer is “asking a kid to keep a secret” is not okay. Allowing them to keep a secret from a parent for their own physical/mental health is okay.

        3. Jules K*

          There’s a concept I’ve heard (an alternative to Stranger Danger) where you teach kids about Tricky People and Trusted People. It’s about teaching children about how they should be treated, teaching them to trust their feelings and thoughts, and telling them that a Tricky Person can be anybody, including a parent. Also, there should never be secrets with Trusted People.

          I like it because it encourages self-advocacy and safe disclosures.

          1. JSPA*

            Seems to me that kids are people, and that all people have a right to keep things to themselves.

            I do like ValkyrAmy’s formulation of,

            “asking a kid to keep a secret” is not okay. Allowing them to keep a secret from a parent for their own physical/mental health is okay.”

            I really do not like the “Tricky vs Trusted” dichotomy. It puts a huge burden on kids to label adults, and fosters anxiety when they realize that pretty much everybody has at least a few issues / circumstances / moments where they’re “tricky.” A doctor may need a great deal of information–the sort you’d normally only share with someone “trusted” (in this system), yet may be closed-minded on some topics. A beloved, reliable grandparent may not be open to discussing “I don’t believe in God.”

            1. Jules K*

              Part of the struggle with this sort of thing is that “kid” is such a broad term. The way you teach a four-year-old (the age of child I work with) needs to be fairly simplistic to maximize the chance of finding out if something is wrong. As the child gets older, you certainly want to teach more about the nuances of situation and relationship. However, while I see your point about putting the burden of discrimination on children, my own experiences with molestation as a child and teen lead me to feel that unfortunately, children NEED as many tools as possible to protect themselves. Unfortunately, the price of providing those tools is that children may feel a burden I wish they didn’t.

    2. Anna*

      Which is probably why so many alarm bells are going off for people, and yet it’s not really how grooming is done.

        1. Jules K*

          Or just volunteer with some support centers. The things you learn will break your heart–and make you think twice about dismissing red flags because you like to think the best of people, or because it’s not the example of grooming that you’re used to.

          1. JSPA*

            Grooming is the misuse of normal acts of kindness. Let’s not broadly demonize acts of kindness, in response. Getting an unexpected $20 that’s all yours (which may require secrecy, to keep it all yours) would be a lovely kindness to so, so many kids and adults. It’s not weird or twisted to have the urge to do someone that sort of kindness.

            Would you look askance at any offer of apple pie, if someone somewhere once used pie to lure a kid for nefarious purposes? It’s normal for people to look out for other people. We can’t make kids safer by breaking down all of the social bonds that link us together into a society of people who care for each other and do nice things for each other. There are rules that work well, without demonizing acts needlessly: and that’s “listen to kids” and “teach kids that they’re allowed to set boundaries on touching.” That’s healthy.

            Encouraging them to be paranoid about every act of kindness, unless performed according to a detailed script? Not so healthy.

  2. FortyTwo*

    Absolutely, no secrets. I’ve been telling my son the difference between “surprises” and “secrets” (as surprises are limited and meant to be revealed), and he’s supposed to tell me if ANYONE asks him to keep a secret, especially from me or his dad. This coworker needs to know why you NEVER tell a kid to keep a secret from their parent.

    Also, good on the kid for telling the LW.

      1. ThankYouRoman*

        30s and samesies.

        I’m not a parent, I’ll remember it for the future or to tell my nieces.

    1. Parenthetically*

      Yep, this is exactly how I teach this concept as well. A surprise is something that a person will find out soon and be happy/excited/pleased about; a secret is something we try to keep a person from finding out so they won’t be angry/sad/displeased. It’s ok to plan surprises but we do not keep secrets.

      1. NoMoreFirstTimeCommenter*

        I don’t think those two categories completely cover all versions of things you’re not supposed to tell about, but most of the ones not covered aren’t relevant for kids. However, there are situations where somebody would be happy to hear about something but there are still reasons not to tell them. This doesn’t fall into either of those categories.

        I also can’t help thinking that in this category system, most R&D related business secrets would be classified as surprises (because the new product will become public at some point and people will be happy about it)!

        1. ThankYouRoman*

          That’s the thing.

          You have to break it into small chunks for kiddos. So no, it’s not an end all explanation but it’s good for the under 15 crowd at least. Once they start experiencing trade secrets and confidentiality agreements, we have a new talk with their more fully developed mind!

        2. Parenthetically*

          Yeeeeeaaaaahhhh this is definitely for helping, like, 8-year-olds understand why it isn’t ok for their scout leader/older cousin/babysitter to ask them to keep (sexual predator/drug use/having her boyfriend over to fool around) stuff secret from their parents. It’s not a comprehensive worldview, just a tool to help parents protect their kids from the people they’re most likely to be victimized by (i.e. NOT strangers, but people known to them).

      2. JSPA*

        I’m glad your family is a happy one. But how, exactly, does that work when mom’s an addict, and kid’s on painkillers for a broken bone? Grandma or aunt can’t have secrets from mom, about where the pills are hidden? Kid just suffers, then? I can’t be the only person who’s noticing that there are a lot of young moms and dads caught up in the opioid epidemic, and that sometimes, the kid is the most functional person in the household / is a child carer from a very young age.

        1. Parenthetically*

          This is the most extreme “not everyone can have sandwiches” comment I have ever read. Congratulations.

    2. PANK*

      Not a parent yet and I really like this distinction so I want to know a little more about your parenting strategy if you’ll indulge. How do you teach the concept of discretion and when to or when not to talk about sensitive (but not secret) subjects?

      1. FortyTwo*

        Heh, I haven’t even reached discretion yet; he’s five and on the autism spectrum. He’s prone to shouting about his poops (which we’re telling him is not a subject people we don’t know need to hear about)!

        More sensitively, though, I sometimes have to use a cane, and I’ll park in a handicap spot. This has made him very aware of other people with assistive devices, and he’ll just ask, “Why do they need that? Is it because they can’t walk on their own?” We’re trying to tell him that people need them for all kinds of reasons, and sometimes they don’t like a reminder that they do. I’m not completely satisfied with that solution, though.

      2. Parenthetically*

        Just to add to this — I’ve had discretion talks with my younger students a LOT. I usually have started out by asking them if they’d wear a swimsuit and goggles and big flippers to school, or if they’d wear their school uniform to the pool (or similar backwards situations) — the more laughs you can get here the better. They really get by age 5 or 6 that there are ways to dress for the beach/a fancy wedding/school/playtime, etc. that don’t work for other contexts, which makes a good segue into talking about appropriateness in other areas.

        Then we talk about how there are also some things we don’t SAY in front of big groups/with strangers/with anyone but trusted adults/whatever. Then I fill in with stuff about not making comments on people’s bodies (but it’s fine to say you like someone’s hair or eyes or clothes or shoes!) or talking about bathroom things (but it’s fine to quietly tell your teacher you need to go to the bathroom or step out into the hall to pass gas!) or discussing your own or other people’s private parts (but it’s important to use the right words when you DO talk to your doctor or parent about them!). Stuff like that.

  3. Anon for this*

    If it is possible, I would severely limit your son’s contact with this person. You want to believe the best in people, but this feels icky. I would put the kabosh on the candy as well. This is starting to feel like grooming which is how sexual predators get past your defenses.

    1. AnonTeacher*

      Yes, 100%. I work in child care, and this sort of thing comes up all the time when we have child abuse trainings. Keep an eye on this woman and trust your gut on this one.

      1. Mama Bear*

        Absolutely. First the candy and now a large (for a kid) sum of money that is supposed to be a secret? She probably knows LW is non confrontational, but this really feels wrong. Flip it around – if a male supervisor said same to a little girl, would people brush it off? I’d treat it the same way, and LW needs to not worry about being mama bear for her son. Her son being there is between her and her NEW boss. She needs to be firm. Whatever her motivations are, this needs to stop.

        1. A-No*

          Every interaction should be considered if the genders were reversed – especially with kids. That would be off the charts creepy if a man did that to a little girl so it shouldn’t be any different this way.

          Grooming is often thought of as what men do to little girls but if you take a quick google, it happens the other way almost as often.

          I’m also trying to consider this as she has no boundaries or concept of what is appropriate over nefarious intentions but she really did make it hard with the ‘keep it a secret’ thing and this involving children. It just puts my back up when there’s kids involved

          1. Avasarala*

            I don’t know if it’s always helpful to consider things with the genders reversed, especially in this situation because men are so overly stereotyped as dangerous towards children. “Man gives little boy candy” “Man smiles at little girl” “Man asks little girl if she likes ice cream”… switch the genders and they’re neutral but for some reason people think it’s threatening if it’s a man. To the point where sometimes men who are just reading on a bench at a playground are thought to be watching the kids for gross reasons. So I’m really concerned that people are taking a yellow-flag-level weird situation, switching the genders and getting massive-red-flag-level warning bells, then applying that to this situation.

    2. Anon Anon Anon*

      I agree. Stereotypes being what they are, if the ex-supervisor had been a man, I’d be thinking, “Woah! Sexual predator?!?!?”

      I don’t know what the stats are, but in my area, female sexual predators sometimes make the news. It does happen. I think it’s too early to jump to conclusions here, but I would be very worried about what else is going on and what this person’s intentions are. And I would not confront them directly and leave it at that. I don’t know what the best course of action would be, but I’d be looking for more info.

    3. Pay attention to the signs*

      Yes, OP needs to quit bringing her kid to work. This is not working out get him out of there before something goes wrong this was your notice he is not safe there.

      1. Smarty Boots*

        No, I don’t think it’s st that level. Tell Ms. Secrets to stay away from the child, keep the child situated where he is in your view, praise him for letting you know about the money, reinforce your already good lessons about secrets, and make sure he knows not to be alone with or go anywhere with Ms. Secrets. Have him practice at home saying very loudly, No, I don’t want to go with you, I want my mom RIGHT NOW.

  4. Miss Pantalones en Fuego*

    I’m sure they meant it nicely (my aunt has done things like this to me and my sister, for instance) but yeah. You could even say that you want to give him an allowance that he has to earn rather than accepting gifts, perhaps?

    1. [insert witty username here]*

      A good thought, but then she’ll get the idea that she can have him do “tasks” around the office – and who knows what that would entail! She is coming across as creepy, so I think OP needs to just shut it down, period.

    2. Observer*

      Given how often it is NOT meant nicely, it’s not a wise assumption to make.

      Also, regardless, this woman is so out of line that it’s just a really bad idea to give her “reasons”. That just invites her to argue and to find ways “around” your reasons. OP needs to just shut it down.

      1. Falling Diphthong*

        I think it is meant kindly far more often than not. Intent doesn’t make things automatically okay.

        It is not on the 9 year old to evaluate when the person asking them to keep a secret from mom is well-intentioned and when not, and the range of possible responses, and exactly which one to deploy with what words, tone, and actions. This one did exactly the right thing–tell mom, and let her handle it.

        1. Jadelyn*

          It may be more common for there to be good intent, rather than sinister intent – but the price of being wrong for good intent is pretty low, while the price of being wrong if the intent is in fact malicious is extremely high. Given that, regardless of the actual statistical likelihood of it being malicious, I’m pretty much always on Team Assume The Worst for this sort of thing.

        2. Observer*

          Come on. Giving a kid too much money is one thing. But telling a kid to keep it a secret from Mom is rarely done with really kind intentions. That’s the kind of thing that would have sent my parents through the roof, loooong before the concept of grooming was even a thing that professionals talked about, much less regular people.

            1. JSPA*

              After two months of him being brought to work, and of ex-supervisor bringing him candy, with mom’s express permission–“complete stranger” is a factual mis-statement. Even if the woman were not mom’s ex-boss (which she is!) it would be a factual mis-statement.

              We know that ex-boss isn’t good at boundaries. We have zero a priori reason to believe she’s a child molester.

              Bad boundaries are more than adequate to explain the situation.

              That doesn’t mean mom can’t lay down the law. It does mean that a lot of people who mistake real crime for real life (forgetting that a single real life case can spawn a dozen “real crime” shows) are far overstating the case for treating ex-boss as a would-be child molester (as opposed to a “could be” child molester–which anyone “could” be.)

    3. Blaine*

      A non-family member keeping secrets is much different then a cool Aunt sliding you some extra candy.

      1. Jules K*

        To be honest, offenders are family members often enough that I’d be wary of secret gifts even then. Encourage your nieces and nephews to be totally honest with their parents; safety first.

        1. Jadelyn*

          This. I know we’d all like to think family are above suspicion and should be exempt from the same rules as strangers or acquaintances, but as someone with two family members who were abused as young teens by their older sister’s husband, who everyone *of course* trusted to be a Responsible Adult with the girls…no. Unfortunately, that’s a dangerous assumption to make.

        2. Lumen*

          This. Every single response here saying how normal this is with family members has my shoulders up around my ears, too.

          It is dangerous to teach children to keep secrets for adults. Whomever the adult is (including parents). Whatever the secret is. Whether there’s malicious intent or not. It’s not a fair psychological burden to put on a child’s shoulders. Full stop.

      2. A-No*

        ^^ this. that is 100% the issue. This person is not related to, nor a good friend or something of the family but a person LW works with in passing.

      1. Observer*

        Right. But as Allison noted, it makes for a good lubricant. It’s not strictly required, but if it makes it easier for the OP to deal with talking to the coworker, I say go for it.

  5. CatCat*

    Since you don’t know if there is some worrisome agenda here, I’d keep an eye on any interactions they have and try to keep those interactions supervised and to a minimum. In that vein, I’d also put a stop to the candy so that cannot serve as an excuse for interactions.

    1. neverjaunty*

      “I am bribing you and don’t want your mother to know” is a worrisome agenda all by itself.

  6. Andy*

    keep a secret from his mom.
    she told him to keep a SECRET!!!!! FROM A PARENT!!!!
    my jaw
    EVEN IF she’s well intentioned she’s doing the work of predators by normalizing that language.
    Way to be terrible, ma’am.

    1. Pikachu*

      That’s exactly what I thought! If we assume that it was totally innocent, all in good fun, all it does is teach the child that it is normal for adults (including adults who are, for all intents and purposes, basically strangers) to have secrets with children, and that children are rewarded for keeping them. Noooooooooope.

      1. Queen of the File*

        Deciding that your coworker possibly meant no harm before correcting her doesn’t mean that you have to excuse or normalize the behaviour to your child. Two separate conversations.

    2. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

      I was having flashbacks as I read it to the one time one of my sons was nine, and his friend’s mother called him during daytime, when she knew I’d be at work, to reprimand him for something that had happened between him and the friend that she didn’t approve of, and closed with “and don’t tell your mom that I called you”. (Friend got fired from their 4-person rap band for not knowing how to rap, bought his way back in with a $20, my son spent half of the money to buy everyone in the band treats in the cafeteria and kept the rest as band treasurer or something. Stupid, I know. Third-graders are not generally known for their amazing decision-making skills.) I don’t know what that woman was expecting, he told me the minute I came home from work, as it should be. Like, how does one come up with the idea of telling a NINE YEAR OLD to keep something secret from their parent? Just, no. All it would’ve taken the person was to put themselves in the kid’s shoes, or the parent’s shoes, for five seconds, to realize how obnoxious and abnormal this is.

      (I called her and said I was coming over with the money, went to her place to give her back the $20 and to rip her a new one for the call, but was only able to follow through with the first part, because she turned out to be 8 months pregnant. Both kids are now 22-23 and are doing well, I suppose.)

  7. Traveling Teacher*

    Wow, that’s stranger danger behavior right there. A+ to your son’s trust in you that led him to tell you straight away!

    Hopefully she just doesn’t understand why telling a kid to keep something a secret is problematic at best, but that’s pretty strange…

    And, now I can’t help but wonder why she got demoted from a managerial position. Creepy stuff? Incompetence? Or something really weird, like wearing unicorn onesies to work…?

    1. ThankYouRoman*

      “Or something really weird, like wearing unicorn onesies to work…?”

      As someone who dressed up for sales/impromptu mascot reasons, this is making me laugh way too hard.

    2. Anon Anon Anon*

      Yeah, the demotion factors in to me. If this was someone LW thought highly of, I’d be more inclined to think it was innocent. But the fact that it’s a problem employee doing this . . . I’m creeped out.

      1. Anon Anon*

        LW should be suspicious even if it had been someone she thought highly of. This is textbook grooming behavior and plenty of well-regarded predators rely on people to assume they’re innocent.

  8. Boredatwork*

    yeh – I also got creepy vibes. It could be as innocent as, I want you to like me more, because your kid likes me now, and I’m going to use this social currency to get something from you (the LW not the child)

    I routinely entertain my co-worker’s children when they’re in the office. I would never give one of them money or ANYTHING without checking first with their parent.

    Allison’s advice is spot on – and good on your kid!!

    1. Tara2*

      It could just be a ‘wanting the kid to like me’ for wanting kids to like me’s sake. My friend has a kid who I’d see every once in a while, and I really wanted to be good with this kid because she’s fun and adorable and children are cool and I don’t know very many.

      Of course, what I did is was far less creepy (we were making snow forts together while her parents, my friends, were playing in the snow with her brother and some of my other friends, and she mentioned she wanted to be a rainbow princess so I got her some dye to make the snow fort rainbowy). It totally worked, and now every time she sees me she runs over to be like “You’re the one who made me a rainbow castle!”

      So I think wanting a kid to like you doesn’t really need any nefarious reason at all, even in a social currency way, but definitely the way this coworker went about it was creepy af.

      1. Jennifer Thneed*

        Exactly! I’m the “auntie” who likes to talk to kids, partly because they’re fun themselves, and partly because I have very good memories of adults talking to child-me. I would never ever ever do something with the child that I wouldn’t do right in front of their parents, and I reinforce their parents’ rules. Kids know their rules and it makes them anxious to break them. I don’t want a child to associate me with anxiety – I want them to think I’m awesome! And now I’m sad that I don’t live where it snows.

  9. Delta Delta*

    Weird. This looks like grooming behavior. It’s one thing to give candy to a child who you know (I mean, tangentially, in a work place isn’t really knowing a child well, but they’re not complete strangers). But giving money seems to escalate the matter. Then add onto it the requirement to keep it a secret, makes this all look like it’s heading in a very uncomfortable direction.

    Really good kiddo said something. Even if this particular person meant well – and I’m willing to entertain the idea she did mean well – this might not be the case if another person tries something similar in the future.

    1. Psyche*

      Yep. Giving candy after asking the parent is fine. Giving money and telling them to keep it a secret from the parent is creepy.

      1. boo bot*

        Yeah, and I think it’s also testing the waters – give the kid candy and get him used to accepting gifts, then see if you can escalate to accepting money and keeping a secret for you.

        Fortunately, young Cecil’s instincts were spot on, which speaks well of the OP – I can imagine myself at that age, accepting the money because I felt backed into a corner by a grown-up, then thinking, “I shouldn’t have accepted the money and now I’m in trouble no matter what I do so I have to keep it secret.” Which was the reaction I suspect this woman was going for.

  10. Joe in Frederick*

    Straight up grooming. The kid’s head is on straight, the letter writer is absolutely in the right.

  11. Observer*

    Do reward your kid in some way for telling you – after all he gave up $20, so you don’t want it to be a negative thing. Not in a “Oh, poor you for losing out on the money” but in a positive “Good for you for being smart!” way.

    This reminds me of a story I heard. There is a principal / child safety activist that has done a lot of work in the community on the issue, including how to give the kids the tools to defend themselves to some extent. (To some extent because there is a limit to what you can put on the kids.) There are two key items that he talks about. One is that you need to never pitch a fit when your kid comes to you with something untoward.

    The other thing is to reinforce with kid that the minute someone asks them to keep a secret from their parents that’s a HUGE red flag that they should tell their parents about immediately. One of the teachers in his school apparently was doing a project where the kids were making cards to send to their parents. It was intended to be a surprise, so she told them to keep it a secret from their parents. He said that he felt SOOOOO good when he got at least a half a dozen calls from parents who said that their kids came to them to tell them the the teacher told them to keep a secret so they are telling Mommy and Tatty. (He also told the teacher to NEVER, EVER so that again.)

    1. Andy*

      wow, that’s a super good example of a totally innocent activity and how the ‘secret’ vs. ‘surprise’ language that another commenter was suggesting could be a good switch-out. thank you!

    2. Dr. Pepper*

      Yes. Exactly this. It’s sadly quite easy to scare off a child from telling you about things. You want to be the safe place where they can bring up weird, questionable, confusing, or scary things without fear of punishment. I don’t think the kid should get the keep the $20 but some sort of reward for doing the right thing is in order, as well as a discussion of “yes, that was exactly what to do, you did very well”.

      I love the “secret” vs. “surprise” language. A secret is a secret indefinitely. A surprise is only a secret for a limited amount of time, and the whole point is that you will be sharing the surprise with the person you’re keeping it from. A surprise is meant to be shared, a secret is not.

      1. Lumen*

        I’m so glad you brought this up. Because it’s not just “Mom is mad at ME” that a kid might be worried about. It might just be telling a parent something that the kid knows will scare/anger/upset them. Kids care about adults, too – they often don’t want to cause their parents extra stress, even if it’s not directed at them. So it’s really important to stay calm and focus on how the child feels, and save your own adult emotions/reactions for processing with another adult.

  12. animaniactoo*

    LW – something to be careful of also as you handle this: Make sure to praise your son for letting you know what happened, and tell him how much you appreciate it and what a good job he did.

    You want to be very very VERY careful to help him continue in that vein and get that positive attention if “Ms Marbles” comes back to him later and expresses disappointment or being upset over him not keeping it a secret. Give him the tools to defend himself from that if it happens “I know Ms Marbles might be upset that you told me, but you did a good thing and it’s okay for people to be upset with us for doing the right thing sometimes. If there’s a problem about it, come get me right away, okay?” and then back that up with another hug and “proud of you” kind of statement.

    Don’t go too far overboard because that will squick your son out in the other direction – be as brief as you can but warm and approving and levelheaded in tone.

    1. Kate of Kate Hall*

      I would have written my first comment ever just to drive the point to give positive reinforcement to the kiddo’s behaviour. Maybe LW already did, maybe they were weirded out at the moment, but definitely +1 to your comment.
      Reward that smart, upstanding child! :)

  13. CommanderBanana*

    This is creepy. A coworker giving your kid $20 randomly is weird enough, but giving him money and telling him to keep it a secret is frankly bizarre and pretty far out of the norm. You’re going to notice when a kid that young has a random twenty.

  14. RandomusernamebecauseIwasboredwiththelastone*

    I’ll start with the obvious, yes people shouldn’t be trying to get kids to keep secrets from parents.

    Yes, this is a very known technique for grooming. But it’s not a universally known thing, a lot of people innocently would never make the connection. I totally get why the OP needs to stop this and why it’s very worrying. But I feel like a lot of people have assumed the worst about the former boss. While the worst is certainly a possibility, I’m not sure that it’s the most likely.

    All the above being said, I’m side eyeing the former boss about why she did this. I get the impression from the OP’s description of boundary issues that there is something at play here or along with the boundary stomping there is an element of narcissism, and the former boss is garnering attention or looking to ingratiate herself with the OP. It sounds like there’s probably an interesting back story between the OP and the former boss.

    1. Hey Karma, Over here.*

      Very much this. This is an awkward person being awkward. She didn’t have any candy that day and instead of giving the kid change to hit the vending machine, she thought, oooh, $20 will be better.
      But it’s not. It’s worse. It’s weird; it’s creepy and it’s not safe. Nobody should be buying your child for any reason. She may want you to like her, she may want your kid to like her more. She may want to show that she “has your back.” She is wrong. Shut it down.

      1. animaniactoo*

        If the limit of thinking was “$20 to hit the vending machines”, she’d be letting OP know that she did that or just doing it but not telling the kid to keep it a secret from OP. This is beyond awkward person being awkward.

    2. Observer*

      The thing here is that even if she’s not actually grooming the kid, it’s still wildly out of bounds. And there just is no scenario that is likely and benign, even if it’s not grooming.

    3. animaniactoo*

      The thing is – grooming is grooming. There can be grooming for various different results – we most commonly hear it in combination with sexual predation (and I admit I made that connection above myself), but the reality is that it can be to get the kid to gossip about mom, or be upset with mom, or just an ego boost to be liked better than mom. So I think it’s important to identify it as grooming behavior while separating it from a specific result.

      1. Lissa*

        oh yeah good point, I was thinking everyone who said “grooming” specifically meant this woman was a molester, and tbh I do that that’s a huge leap (remotely possible but..) But grooming for gossip or an ego boost? SUPER likely, IMO!

    4. Drago Cucina*

      Well put. My late mother-in-law had boundary issues. She didn’t like that I demand my baby ride in a car seat rather than allowing her to hold him. She would give him another bowl of cereal after I said no (7 was the record). And he was never supposed to tell me. He did.

      There are people who want control over the adult vs. grooming the child. It could be this simple. But, what ever the reason a big congrats to the son for telling the OP. Also kudos to a previous comment on distinction between a secret and a surprise. Well put.

      1. Observer*

        Your late MIL wasn’t doing any of these things innocently. Trying to control an adult via their kid is plenty creepy on its own.

        1. Akcipitrokulo*

          Oh yes. My mother tries these tricks from time to time. There’s a reason they don’t get to stay over at hers…

          like when we were all on holiday, and I went for shower when my sister was up, and she told my sister not to call me, it would be fine, and took the boys out without asking. Because she knew I wasn’t comfortable with her taking them by herself, so waited until I wasn’t there. Yeah. Decided I could smell bad for the rest of that trip…

          1. Drago Cucina*

            Oh yes. My kids couldn’t figure out why I wouldn’t let them spend summers with my mother. She made my MIL look upfront and honest. There’s a reason we chose to live far away from both sets of parents. Putting the fun in dysfunctional.

    5. Hallowflame*

      I think it’s worth pointing out that, regardless of the motive behind the former manager giving the OP’s son the money and telling him to keep it a secret (i’m inclined to think she’s just boundary-challenged, not predatory), the action itself could condition him to accept this kind of grooming and leave him vulnerable to other adults who may actually mean him harm.
      It sounds like OP has already done a great job of teaching her son about secrets. Allison’s script sounds perfect to me for addressing boundaries with former manager, and a refresher-conversation and treat for the son should cover all the bases.

    6. Dr. Pepper*

      She’s probably trying to be “cool” and get the kid to like her more than anyone else because that makes her feel powerful. “Look how much your kid loves me, aren’t I wonderful?” People like this will also try to get other people’s pets to adore them and prefer their company. “I’m so awesome, Jane’s dog totally likes me better than Jane.” It’s a power play. A foolish one, but a power play nonetheless.

      1. Michaela Westen*

        I’ve been reading this fascinating thread since Friday and I have to say, that is so, so pathetic! A person who builds themselves up by manipulating pets or children is so sad!
        And rude, selfish, and creepy.

  15. Akcipitrokulo*

    No no no no no.

    That is the behaviour of someone who is beginning to groom a child. If they have contact with other children, you really do need to report this.

    This is screaming red flags that this person may be a danger to children. Please don’t ignore it.

  16. Kramerica Industries*

    I’m gonna give her the benefit of the doubt and say that maybe she meant it as a “Your mom is to strict with you. Here’s $20 – go buy a nice toy” because she GENUINELY thinks she’s doing this kid a favour. I remember as a kid, going over to a neighbour’s house and them giving me candy without telling my mom because she really loved spoiling me, even though she knows my mom didn’t like it. I like Allison’s scripts to address this.

  17. ThankYouRoman*

    I’m thrilled your kid came right to you and told. At least you know you taught him right!!

    Randomly giving him money? What? If he was doing some minor work, that makes sense but you still go through the parents. I’m at a loss for why anyone would do this to a coworkers kid. I’ve handed money to kids to use a vending machine but it’s very clear and not a secret and they ask or hint at being hungry, etc. This woman is strange and should be told to stop and more so that you’re aware of the shenanigans.

  18. Yikes Dude*

    I once bribed my goddaughter to be quiet for 30 minutes with $5 and told her not to tell her mom. She of course told her mom. My friend wasn’t mad that I bribed Kiddo to be quiet one time, but explained to me that while she knows that I just didn’t know how else to deal with an unexpected urgent work call while babysitting but that what I did could normalize grooming efforts. People might not immediately get it, but anyone even kind of reasonable would get it when spelled out for them.

    1. Bday Girl*

      This feels a lot like grooming. Ick. You’re showing way more restraint that I would. Set those boundaries and keep kiddo close.

    2. boo bot*

      Yes, I think this is important – even if the woman here is acting all in innocence, the kid can’t learn that this kind of behavior from an adult is okay, because the next one might not be acting all in innocence.

      The righteous and petty parts of me actually would love to see the OP approach this woman the way your friend talked to you: if she’s like you and is a nice person who just never thought about how it could come across, then she’ll learn something! If she’s got a nefarious agenda, she’ll know the OP has her number.

      1. Rusty Shackelford*

        Yes, I think this is important – even if the woman here is acting all in innocence, the kid can’t learn that this kind of behavior from an adult is okay

        Looks like the kid already knows this isn’t okay, so kudos to mom!

  19. Narise*

    When my nieces were little my idea of a secret with them was ‘don’t tell mom the dogged licked the baby’s face’ type thing and yet I knew it was going to come out. I can’t imagine telling a nine year old that I am not related to keep a secret and I can’t imagine giving a child money without it looking inappropriate. How could it be appropriate?

    Be straightforward and nice when you return the money and explain why but make sure you keep eye contact. Eye contact will convey the ‘I’m watching you’ and make sure she realizes you are serious.

  20. Arctic*

    People are saying grooming, which I get and am not remotely dismissing (keep an eye out for sure.) But to me this also sounds like tactics divorcing parents sometime use with their kids to be the “fun” one. You say she’s your ex-boss maybe in some twisted totally out of touch with reality way she wants your kid to like her the best in the office. Show you what you are missing by not working for her anymore!

    (Like I said she’d have to be totally out of touch with reality but that’s not impossible.)

    1. ThankYouRoman*

      But she’s already taking the kid candy and talking to him. That’s enough Cool CoWorker status. Most are at best saying hi to him in passing. She’s still wildly out of touch regardless of intent.

    2. Fake Old Converse Shoes (not in the US)*

      Yeah, that sounds more plausible for me. I knew someone that gave $10 in candy to the youngest and then refused to pay the eldest new uniform claiming bankruptcy while calling her ex a gold digger. Yikes.

      1. Michaela Westen*

        Kids are not stupid. My father used to say he “couldn’t afford” to buy what I wanted/needed and I knew he had a good job that paid well. And he always had enough for what he wanted.

  21. YB*

    In my industry/culture (I’m not in the States), giving money to kids who come into the workplace is so much the norm that I’m surprised that some people are surprised by this. I feel like my family would have gone bankrupt several times over if it weren’t for people at the office randomly handing wads of cash to the kids. “Hey, there goes a kid! Here’s some money!” <– everybody here, every time there's a kid.

    But…we're open about it, is the thing. Any virtual stranger asking a nine-year-old to keep a secret from their parents is on a bad path. Your coworker might just be unaware of how they're coming off, but at best, it's an innocent thing that seems really creepy, and at worst, it's really creepy. I agree with Alison's advice.

    1. Observer*

      The money thing is really uncommon here, which is a key thing. Giving young ids things that are not normally given to them is an issue. It doesn’t really matter what it is. If every kid that comes in gets a doughnut, then it’s no big deal when your kid gets a doughnut too. But if only your kid is being given donuts, you need to ask why.

      Keeping it secret takes it to a whole new level.

  22. Akcipitrokulo*

    It may be a very good idea to get other people involved in your office – for your protection as well as your son’s. This could be spun to make you look like the unreasonable one.

    Tell your manager, and explain that you don’t want her around your son. This protects him, and gives you protection in case she tries to complain about you to your boss later.

    Also informing her manager/HR could help. This could be anything from “hey, just so you’re aware what happened, and this is really not a good look if she doesn’t know how it appears?” to “I have reason to believe this person should not be near children – can you look into it for me?”

    From the the stats – the majority of abuse is from people known to the child. From personal experience when I was child – this is sounding really horribly familiar.

    (And echoing tell your kid that he definitely did the right thing and a treat as a reward is on the agenda :) )

    1. Another Anon*

      OP should be aware that if she brings this to manager/HR their solution may be that she stops bringing her child to work with her. Might not be fair or kind, but I would imagine a lot of managers wouldn’t want to deal with this.

    2. LJay*

      I feel like going to her manager or HR about this and insinuating that she might be a child predator would make you look wildly out of touch in most workplaces, and would almost definitely result it you not being allowed to bring your kid to the workplace anymore.

  23. caryatis*

    Commenters are going way off the deep end here. Most people don’t want to abuse kids; that is pretty rare. But, most people DO want to be nice to kids. And those of us who don’t have kids of our own often don’t really know how to act around them, so it’s 100% understandable that you would throw the kid candy or money. If the adult acts a little weird, it’s more likely an indication of a person who hasn’t spend a lot of time around kids then *gasp* a predator.

    I really wonder if it’s possible to be nice to a child nowadays without being accused of “grooming.” No, people, you don’t call the cops every time someone hands out candy. Seriously.

    1. PhillyRedhead*

      Yeah, I tend to be more suspicious than most, but this seemed over the top to me. “You never give a kid money” — seriously?? My kid gets money sometimes. Sometimes for occasions, like birthday, but other times for no reason at all. Never with the caveat “it’s our little secret,” but the way the OP phrased it, it seemed like the giving of money was a separate issue on its own.

        1. PhillyRedhead*

          Not in the OP. “I want to explain that (1) she should never give money to a nine-year-old and (2) never tell them to keep it a secret, especially from their parents.”

          1. Grapey*

            Right? $20 bucks was too much IMO, but I’ve given friend’s kids $5 in origami forms without thinking if they would tell their parents or not. I didn’t say “It’s a secret!!” but I’ve also never been told to not do it. Slipping some money here and there for piggy banks is such an old tradition!

      1. Micromanagered*

        To me, it’s the amount. There’s a big difference between giving a kid a silver dollar or a $2 bill because they’re unusual, and like, $20.

        1. So long and thanks for all the fish*

          I agree with this. $20 felt like a lot to me in college- it would have seemed like a fortune to me at 9. $1 for the vending machine? $5 to buy a toy? Sure. $20 is way over the top for a 9-year-old!

          1. Anonymeece*

            Yes, but not everyone necessarily knows that. I have wealthier friends who think of a $20 the same way they think of $1. If this ex-boss is not around kids a lot, and out of touch with that sort of thing, I could see this being a case of “I’m being the cool one!”.

            I realize that many people have been pointing out the “it’s a secret” thing, but that really just screams to me she’s trying to be “playful” and missing the mark completely.

            There may be some sinister undertones, but to me, it seems like an awkward woman who’s not around children very much who is wildly out of touch with what kids are impressed by.

        2. TL -*

          I’d slip my 10 year nephew $20. Sure, it’s a lot of money but I’ve definitely given him gifts worth much more, and he’s old enough now that having money to spend on his own is fun and exciting.

      2. Observer*

        Never give a 9 year old child who is all but a stranger to you is not all that unreasonable. Those two caveats are really important.

        1. a1*

          Except not really a stranger. The LW knows this coworker (they are an ex supervisor), and LW brings kid to work every day. It’s still not good and LW should definitely exert boundaries, but this is not a complete stranger.

    2. Andy*

      when language that is used in grooming is used in other contexts (especially innocent ones) it normalizes the language and results in flags getting raised less quickly. this language is dangerous even AND ESPECIALLY when used innocently. i realize that this may not make intuitive sense to you.

      1. Rana*

        This. Part of teaching children how to help keep themselves safer is giving them clear rules about what constitutes “behavior I should tell my parents about.”

        Maybe this lady means well. Maybe she doesn’t. But it shouldn’t be on the child to try and figure it out. “She told me to keep a secret; I should tell Mom” is easy for a kid to do. “He told me to keep a secret; I’m supposed to tell Mom… but last time Lady told me a secret I got $20 and Mom was okay with it…”.

        You see how letting the first incident slide makes it harder for the child to protect themselves?

        1. LJay*

          I think, “Last time Lady told me a secret I got $20, and when I told mom she made a big deal of it and took it away from me,” is more likely to make it harder for the kid to protect himself than in your scenario.

          (Not that I think this is okay behavior. But I think Mom should profusely thank him for telling her, and make sure he either gets $20 from Mom, or something just as good or better for telling. Taking the $20 away when he tells just means he thinks “Not telling means I get to keep good things, telling means the good things go away” outside of the larger context of whether secrets are ever okay or not.

    3. Anon for this*

      Except that it didn’t stop at candy. She gave the kid money and told him to keep it a secret from his mom. Intentional or not, a line was crossed. Its possible to be nice to a child nowadays by being respectful to them. Putting them in a position where they can keep something they probably want but don’t tell mom is disrespectful of the kid.

    4. Psyche*

      Most people aren’t saying that the supervisor is a predator. They are saying that it could be a warning sign. If your kid is lethargic and doesn’t have an appetite, you aren’t going to call an ambulance. But it could be a warning sign that your kid is getting sick so you’re going to keep an eye on the situation. No one is saying call the police, they are saying be careful.

    5. Observer*

      That’s a total misrepresentation of what happened, though.

      Firstly, no one was having a fit about the candy. And there is a significant difference between some candy and a significant amount of money. And, any adult who thinks it’s ok to tell kids to keep things from their parents is not one who I would trust around kids, grooming or not. It’s just TERRIBLE judgement, at best,

    6. Akcipitrokulo*

      If you’re just being nice, you don’t make it a secret.

      If you make it a secret, people assuming that you are grooming them is more than reasonable.

      Don’t get kids to take money from adults and say they can’t tell their parents.

      Example… a while back, lots of people in a public place, excited and celebrating and a lot of them were drunk tbh!

      Some of the slightly more merry of them – strangers – asked me if they could give my kids pennies for sweeties.

      Sure! All good!

      The kids had very heavy pockets by the end, and no-one was creepy – because they ASKED.

      Keeping monetary gifts secret is not in the same league at all.

    7. Amber Rose*

      Asking someone’s kids to keep secrets from their parents is extremely inappropriate. I don’t have or need kids to know that. And even if this isn’t grooming (which, as you say, probably not) teaching kids that this sort of thing is OK leads them to be more at risk from grooming behaviors.

      Giving the kid that much money is a little off to begin with and in no way 100% normal, but if they are telling the kid to keep it secret, that implies they know they’re doing something wrong, or something the parent would not approve of, which is more than enough to know that they should not do it. The response to thinking a parent will not approve of your actions is not to do it anyway and try to keep them from finding out. That’s horrifyingly bad behavior, and is part of why people in the comments are “going off the deep end.”

      In all my childhood years, I only encountered a single person who gave me something without creepy intentions when my parents weren’t around. Mostly they were religious, not sexual, but still. Plenty of creeps in the world.

    8. rogue axolotl*

      I do think there’s a chance that the coworker is just naive and not used to kids, but giving a kid of that age as much as $20 for no apparent reason and telling them to keep quiet about it is pretty alarming behaviour from a virtual stranger. This is the exact kind of scenario kids are instructed to be careful about.

    9. Yeah I'm Commenting!!*

      Yeah, this actually happened to me several times as a child. Usually with family or family friends. I can’t remember if it was ever explicitly said “keep it a secret” but it was often handed over with a sly wink or giggle. I can confirm nothing bad ever came from it.

      My daughter who is 3 was recently given 20 bucks by a man at the atm at the grocery store and even though I thought it was over the top I didn’t think it was strange enough to cause concern.

      1. sunny-dee*

        Yeah, my first thought was that the “don’t tell mom” meant don’t tell mom so she doesn’t tell you to give it back, not don’t tell her so I can lure you into my basement.

        1. Observer*

          It doesn’t matter WHY you tell a kid to keep it secret. And to be honest, if you know that the parent is going to object, why are you doing this? Telling a young child to do something they know their parent is going to object to is something that is seriously problematic all on its own.

        2. Not Paul Hollywood*

          Yes, that happened to me too. Someone would slip me $5 and say, “Don’t tell your mom” the same way my grandma would let me have two bowls of ice cream and instruct me not to tell my mom.

      2. Amber Rose*

        Family/family friends is an entirely different category from near-strangers.
        The dude at the ATM probably didn’t say to keep it a secret.

        These are differences that matter.

      3. Observer*

        Don’t you see the difference between family and friends and someone who isn’t in that position? Also, the amount, for a kid this age is very high. $2 to get some candy from the machine or the like is one thing, but $20 is another.

        1. Episkey*

          You keep saying this, but the VAST majority of abusers actually ARE family members/friends of the family. I actually would be more creeped out if this was the kid’s older cousin/uncle/etc than some co-worker of his mom’s who he sees for a couple hours everyday in a highly public & visible place. I think it’s much more likely that this person doesn’t realize the ramifications of telling a kid “keep this our secret.” Which she absolutely should be educated about, but some of these comments are crazy.

          1. Observer*

            It’s true that a lot of abusers are family and friends. But one of the reasons for that is that the dynamic is different. Part of the difference is that certain behaviors among family are far more likely to be benign than the same behavior from a non-family member.

      4. Rat in the Sugar*

        Yeah, this definitely happened to me multiple times as a kid and I was a little confused as to why OP was upset at all. After reading the comments, I can see why it’s important that OP explain and be firm with the “no secrets” rule, but I don’t think that retroactively turns the supervisor into a creeper/groomer.

      1. PhillyRedhead*

        To you, maybe. Not to the OP, who has a problem with the kid being given money at all, secret or not.

        1. Observer*

          Actually, the OP had a problem with both.

          And, just because some weird guy gave a kid $20 without anything harmful happening, it doesn’t make it ok. Adults really have no business giving kids significant sums of money without their parents knowing it.

        2. Detective Amy Santiago*

          I can understand why the OP might have an issue with that too.

          It’s also possible that if coworker had handled it more appropriately, OP would have been okay with it. Like, IDK, if I was having a convo with a kid about a book they really liked and I wanted to give them money to buy the next one in the series, I don’t think that would be completely out of line IF you got the okay from the parent. But just randomly giving a kid you barely know $20 is kind of weird.

    10. Alton*

      I agree, in that I think it’s very plausible that someone just wouldn’t think of the grooming/abuse implications and would do something like this with good intentions. I definitely wouldn’t give a kid money and tell them to keep it a secret, because I wouldn’t want to overstep the parent’s authority or create any conflict, but to be honest, the grooming implications probably wouldn’t occur to me. I’m not a parent and don’t work with kids at all.

      I do think it’s definitely something to nip in the bud and keep an eye on, and I don’t think the OP would be remiss in limiting her son’s interaction with this person. Better safe than sorry, for sure.

      1. Observer*

        It doesn’t have to be grooming. But, as yo note, it IS overstepping a parent’s authority, and you don’t have to be a parent to understand that. Given that, it’s hard to claim that good intentions are the most likely explanation.

    11. Rae*

      It’s not the just the money–it’s that he was told to keep it a secret. Also, unless you’re super rich $20 is an awful lot. There’s a huge difference between giving a kid $2-3 to get something from the vending machine and giving them a $20.

      And even if this person was 100% legit, it is imperative to teach a child that accepting large bills in secret is just not OK. Heck, if someone gave me $20 as an adult I would understand that there are likely strings attached.

    12. AnonForThis*

      This is not “being nice to kids.” This is giving them something BEHIND THEIR PARENT’S BACK, and telling them to KEEP IT A SECRET. No matter what the intention was, this has to stop. A young child who is told to keep a secret by someone they know may not be able to tell the difference when someone they don’t know tells them the same thing. If the supervisor doesn’t know how dangerous this is, they need to be educated.

    13. LGC*

      Hard disagree, and I’m childless. The ex-supervisor was at the very least wildly inappropriate when she asked the kid to keep it a secret – intentional or not, that does scream “grooming.” And I’m pretty sure this is common enough knowledge.

      I don’t know if – and don’t necessarily think that – the ex-supervisor is trying to molest LW’s kid. But this is beyond the scope of what’s remotely appropriate.

      1. motherofdragons*

        Yes. There’s also a difference between “That behavior is grooming behavior” and “This person is a predator.” I’ve seen lots of comments noting the former, and very few jumping to the latter. But I suppose it’s more fun, and gets more attention, to pick out the couple of extreme responses and be like, “Everyone is losing their effing minds!!!!!”

    14. ThankYouRoman*

      Yeah…there is a ton of crimes against children that isn’t reveled until years later. There is a huge problem with it in the world. Not teaching your kids to be aware that adults telling them they have “secrets” or special bonds of some kind is how kids get abused and only in therapy in their 30s realize why they’re in a string of bad relationships or depending on self medication, etc etc.

      It’s not Pleasantville, if you’re nervous around kids, that’s fine. Get an understanding from their parents what’s acceptable behavior. These are children. They can be harmed emotionally and physically and are often unheard victims.

      1. Grapey*

        When I was 9, I knew the difference between a family friend slipping me $5 for “the piggy bank” (aka buying candy) vs a hypothetical “let me touch you and don’t tell your mom”. In fact, my dad always prying to see what my grandma slipped in my pocket gave me more controlling trust issues with HIM than with her. I kept more secrets from him as I got older because I didn’t trust him to not fly off the handle.

        A 9 year old (should be) is old enough to understand context and it’s not doing them favors to be so militant about gifts. Lessons like “just because someone gives you gifts doesn’t mean they’re a friend, and think about WHY they’re giving you a gift” go a far longer way in teaching critical thinking.

        1. zaracat*

          The whole point of grooming is that it is sufficiently subtle/gradual that it erodes a person’s judgement as to what is okay and what isn’t. Given the descriptions on this site of wildly inappropriate workplace behaviour that *adults* are groomed into accepting as normal or acceptable, I think your expectations of a 9 year old being able to safely judge every single time are not realistic. Using a rule as a starting point and then being open to discussing exceptions is a far safer approach than relying on a belief that kids of this age will always get it right.

          1. Akcipitrokulo*

            Exactly. Start with something that is reasonable, then something just that little more, and make the kid doubt themselves.

        2. Akcipitrokulo*

          OK – abusers don’t go straight to the end from the start. They do it a bit at a time, and each increment at the start has plausible deniability. Then if that goes OK, a bit more. Then a bit more.

          And no, it’s unfair to expect a 9-year-old to be able to understand that kind of context. Give them tools and guidelines – which it sounds like this kid has followed – but expecting them to pick up on stuff? Not all will. (Maybe you could – which is awesome – but not all kids can, or should be expected to.)

    15. First Time Caller*

      One in three girls and one in six boys will be the victim of child sexual abuse by the time they’re eighteen. It’s not rare, and it’s just good body safety practice to apply these rules, like “no secrets,” in 100% of circumstances, regardless of how inadvertent you believe the action to have been. Alison’s advice allows the OP to communicate that “of course it was inadvertent” while also sending a clear message that her child is not “prey” and the family has very solid safety rules in place, just in case. It’s also an excellent opportunity to educate someone on this important topic. Good luck, OP.

    16. Jadelyn*

      It’s not the giving kids stuff that’s the problem. It’s the telling them to keep it a secret from their parent that’s the problem. That’s a widely-used grooming tactic that actual abusers often employ in the run-up to abusing a child, so even if it’s innocently intended it’s still normalizing that kind of behavior to the child, in a way that could be very dangerous if they were ever actually targeted by someone with actual malicious intentions.

    17. Courageous cat*

      Jeez, yeah. This is a lot of paranoia! It definitely COULD be nefarious, but many things in life could be.

    18. NewHerePleaseBeNice*

      No, I genuinely don’t think it’s possible to be nice to a child without being accused of grooming, in some people’s eyes. Here in the UK there is a terrifying attitude in some sectors of society whereby adults say they would not go and help a lost child, or a child in distress, or even a SERIOUSLY INJURED CHILD because they are afraid of being accused of paedophilia.

      In the same way that not all men are rapists, not all adults are paedos. Society (and social media) is seriously out of whack somewhere.

  24. mark132*

    LW, I’m just going to compliment your child for not keeping that secret. That was very well done on his part.

  25. neeko*

    Can we focus on what is actually being asked and concrete steps to take instead of wild speculation about the motives of the former supervisor? I think Alison’s advice is spot on and yeah, certainly escalate the issue if it happens again.

    1. Micromanagered*

      I mean, I get what you’re saying–it’s speculation to say “oh this is definitely grooming behavior!!!!!!” But at the same time, I think it’s important to validate OP’s concerns that this is wildly inappropriate. People may or may not be familiar with the concept of “grooming” and OP already “doesn’t want to cause problems” so I think it’s worth saying very clearly that this *is* a huge problem and why.

      1. neeko*

        I mean, yeah. It’s inappropriate. Period. That was covered in Alison’s response which I thought was spot on.

      2. Rat in the Sugar*

        Yeah but I’ve seen several comments about how the child may not be safe with the supervisor now or that supervisor may be trying to use the child against OP somehow. I think we can have the validation that OP is right to protect her boundaries without that.

  26. No Mas Pantalones*

    So, this isn’t about the money, as everyone has pretty much covered that and it’s obvious you’re already on the ball with raising an awesome kiddo who wasn’t afraid to come to you.

    The confrontation avoidance thing though…. One of the best pieces of advice my mother ever gave me was: Get comfortable with confrontation.

    You don’t have to be confrontational in order to be comfortable with confrontation. You don’t have to seek out confrontation. Actually, I’d recommend against that as a general rule. However, you should be comfortable enough with confrontation to assert yourself in situations where someone may be taking advantage of you, speaking down to you, or otherwise treating you or talking poorly of you.

    It’s not about confronting people. It’s about confidence. You’re an awesome person. You should be confident in that. And should someone not recognise that and attempt to undermine you, remember that you’re awesome and SHOW that person that you’re awesome and that you won’t take their crap, albeit calmly and respectfully. The first time is the hardest. The next couple are still difficult. After that, you’ll find you won’t have to do it nearly as often because the message will travel. “Don’t try to pull anything on Wonder Woman. She doesn’t play those reindeer games.”

    Also, when you confront someone like your ex-supervisor who is trying to sneakily undermine you, it tends to catch them off guard at the least. It makes them feel uncomfortable and defensive because they know they were caught. You may even be able to see the fear creeping up on them. And that part is actually kinda fun.

    Good luck, OP! You’ve got this! You’re awesome! OWN IT! And don’t let ANYONE try to believe otherwise!

    (i believe my large cold brew has kicked in.)

    1. Casey*

      So I am a long time lurker posting my first comment ever because I loved your whole comment so much. Being comfortable with confrontation is definitely something I could improve on, and I am working on it. The only thing I would add is something I’ve learned while working on it as a skill.

      I am not a person who ever really defaults to anger and I’ve noticed that tends to go hand in hand with a lack of comfort with confrontation, maybe because people who do tend towards anger are propelled into more confrontation early on and become comfortable by necessity. My point is anger does serve a purpose. I’m not talking about blinding rage, but if it helps, talk this out with a friend, and try some anger out. She asked your kid to keep a secret? Who doesn’t know that’s inappropriate these days?! Then calm yourself back down and take all that energy and fortitude that one gets when righteously mad about something into your conversation. I’m not saying yell at her, but sometimes reminding myself of the reasons why I have the right to be mad about something gives me the confidence to stop my voice from shaking.

      1. No Mas Pantalones*

        I agree that anger can be very useful. It can also be a kiss of death, but I think everyone knows that part. The key is presentation. I rarely yell in anger. And if I do yell, it means whomever I’m angry at is pretty safe from my rage. When I’m truly angry, firey rage angry, I get scary calm. It’s only come out at work once, and that was via email (CYA).

        1. Jennifer Thneed*

          I’m similar, about pain. If I bang myself on something and yell, my wife knows that it’s mostly surprise and even if there’s blood, I’m not hurt that badly. But if I bang myself on something and go *silent*, my wife knows that I’m in real and surprising pain.

          (She’s learned to check on me if she hears a loud noise and doesn’t hear me react, and I’ve learned to just ask for help as soon as that happens. Because I have a bad bad habit of trying to tough it out.)

  27. Micromanagered*

    Also, $20 is an *awful* lot of money to give a 9 year old. If she’d given him, say a silver dollar because it’s cool (and there was no “our little secret” factor–ew) I would be on Team Calm Down.

    1. Marion Ravenwood*

      Agreed. At nine years old, £20 would have been an absolute fortune to me. If it was 50p or £1, then maybe – although it’s the ‘our little secret’ part that makes me uncomfortable rather than the money per se – and it may be that as an adult co-worker doesn’t see $20 as that much to her, but to a child that’s a lot of cash in one go.

      (I’m British, so I’m writing in sterling rather than dollars, but the principle stands.)

  28. Amber Rose*

    I would change “money” in Alison’s script to “gifts.”

    I have a feeling there’s a chance this person would push the no money boundary by instead buying some expensive toy and giving that to your kid.

    Better to shut that down before it happens.

  29. Coder von Frankenstein*

    Yeeck. Agreed with everything Alison said.

    Also, I’m sure you’ve done this already, but just in case you haven’t – praise your son and tell him that he did the right thing by telling you rather than keeping the “secret.”

  30. Akcipitrokulo*

    OK – actual practical steps.

    First, I absolutely disagree that you should soften this. You did not create the badness here. There is nothing wrong with returning the awkward to sender.

    But – if you think that this could endanger your childcare situation – chatting to your boss first is a good step. You could ask them for a quiet word, tell them what happened and explain that for obvious reasons, you want to stop contact between co-worker and child. You could soften at this point by saying that you’re concerned that they may not be aware of how bad they look, and that you want to avoid drama over this.

    You may also want to say something like “how I was thinking of working it was if Child stays in X area of office when he comes after school?” – this has added bonus of getting the confirmation that this will continue.

    Then, after you’ve got yourself covered, return $20 with something like “Child told me you gave him this. (You may not realise that) This is inappropriate.”

    And most important – don’t let them be alone together. If possible, no contact is preferable, but do not let them be alone with your child, and try to redirect if they start a conversation.


    – talk to your manager
    – tell her to back off
    – protect your child

  31. Cardamom*

    I might want to give my child $20 myself in this situation (maybe in smaller bills, so it’s clear it is different money) so they don’t feel penalized for sharing the secret. Would that make sense?

    1. Akcipitrokulo*

      Yeah, I probably would. It’s difficult but… yeah. at the least special treat time as reward.

    2. ThankYouRoman*

      I would take them to their favorite bookstore or toy store for a reward. In wouldn’t just hand them money necessarily. Depends on your kid.

      But very much agree to reward them doing the right thing. Not just “good going junior! We’ll be having Brussels Sprouts and liver tonight!” switcher-roo.

      I’d return the money to coworker. My family wouldn’t be accepting it.

      1. LadyPhoenix*

        Yup. Return the money to supervisor, tell her never to do it again, tell your child to not accept things from ex supes again without the child talking to you first, and take the kid out for a happy meal, the latest movie, Build a Bear.

    3. LJay*

      I absolutely would make sure the kid got money back or some type of special reward.

      Otherwise the lesson they learn is, “I told Mom about a secret and lost out on something because of it. Next time I won’t tell her so I can keep the money,” rather than, “Telling mom about this secret was the right thing to do and benefited me as a person.”

    4. Anon Anon Anon*

      I would take them somewhere and spend more than $20 on them to reinforce that they did the right thing. Go to a toy store and let them pick out $30 worth of toys, for example.

  32. LadyPhoenix*

    When it comes to creepy crap like this, I don’t give anyone “benefit” of a doubt because those people that we “trust” (other family member, coach, teacher, neighbor, friend of family, upstanding member of the community, etc) are far MORE likely to molest kids than some random stranger.

    Give them back the $20, tell them to not do it again, and maybe with let your boss know.

  33. jcarnall*

    I really, really doubt OP’s co-worker was grooming the kid. Probably it was “oh there’s the kid I give candy to – I don’t have any candy – oh I’ll give him some cash – oh wait, I haven’t checked it’s OK with the kid’s mom and she doesn’t like me, oh well I’ll just tell the kid not to tell his mom.”

    So I think the approach Alison proposes is dead right – set a clear boundary, make it polite and even friendly “Of COURSE you understand this wasn’t on” – and only escalate if it happens again.

    But I agree that one reason it’s not on and a clear boundary is that while all kids have secrets from their parents, an adult telling a kid to keep something secret from their parents is a big NO. Especially when that secret is “I gave you cash, now don’t tell your parents.”

    It’s not that I think this co-worker is grooming the kid, it’s that the kid needs to have it absolutely clear that if an adult gives him money and tells him not to tell his mom, he should go tell his mom right away. Certainly when he’s nine.

    1. T*

      I don’t know why, but if you flipped this scenario to a man giving the kid candy and $20 as a secret, it has much more nefarious undertones. It’s red flag behavior regardless if it’s a man or woman doing it.

      1. jcarnall*

        Yeah, I know.

        But there’s a reason why airlines never place an unaccompanied minor child in a seat next to a adult man – if there isn’t a way to sit the child next to a woman, the child gets an empty seat for an neighbour. Not because airlines think all men are molesters, but because airlines have discovered that the only way to be sure an unaccompanied minor child isn’t molested en route is to place the child next to a woman or no one.

        1. Mom3*

          Not true. I sat across the aisle from a little girl & they asked the man in the middle seat to keep an eye on her. He had his own child in the window seat.

        2. Rex13*

          I’m sorry for derailing. This will be the only thing I write. I didn’t know about this airline rule. I read up on it and I can’t believe this is actually a thing. Reminds me of all the stories in the papers where a man got questioned for being alone at the children’s clothing section (buying something for his child). Or man getting questioned by the police for going into a hotel with his child. Or male daycare workers not being allowed to change diapers.

          Child abuse, grooming etc. Is a big problem and we definitely have to do something about this. But in my opinion this is not the way to go. We are trying to not have male/female jobs, we are trying to bring equality in parenting and at the same time pulling it back. I don’t think the gender of the former boss is relevant in this case and it would not change my first instinct. Again, sorry for going off topic but I was interested in learning something new.

          1. jcarnall*

            I imagine that a dad travelling with his own kid gets an exemption from the “No unaccompanied minor child sits next to a single man”, yes.

            Also, while under most circumstances I’d agree that assuming a man is an automatic risk to a minor child is not the way to go, in the very special and particular case of a minor child travelling unaccompanied, I don’t have one little problem with the staff of that airline just making a sweeping judgement that the minor child will not be sitting next to any men. (With reasonable exceptions made for a man travelling with his own child, sure.)

            Not, as I said, because anyone should assume that all or most men are a threat to children. But because if even one in a hundred men – if even one in one thousand men – would respond to having unfettered access to a minor child stuck next to him on a plane by molesting the child, that is one in one thousand children *too many*.

          2. Avasarala*

            I agree, this rule is absolutely ridiculous. As long as we view men as inherently more dangerous to children than women, how are we supposed to uncouple womanhood from childcare?

            Usually people jump up to say how even though they are female they don’t have kids/aren’t interested in kids/don’t want that to be an assumption about them just because they are a woman. But there’s this weird chain of thought I’ve seen a couple times here that goes, “Is this woman being weird to this kid? Maybe, let’s flip the genders. Is this man being weird to this kid? OH MY GOD HE’S A PREDATOR RUN.” This is just as much an issue of sexist and gender-based assumptions as anything else on this site, and it hasn’t been brought up enough today.

            1. jcarnall*

              At risk of being repetitive:

              The rule about airlines not placing unaccompanied minor children next to men didn’t come out of nowhere, and wasn’t imposed because airlines made sexist assumptions about how all men are predators.

              It was imposed because airlines discovered, pragmatically, that sometimes men travelling alone, seated next to an unaccompanied minor child, would take the opportunity of having unfettered access to that child’s body to molest the child: but women travelling alone never did this.

              Airlines don’t have time or resources to vet every adult passenger: the plane’s crew do have other important calls on their time and cannot police the behaviour of every single passenger. Therefore, they took the pragmatic decision that the best way to protect unaccompanied minors was not to seat them next to men.

              I can’t see why any reasonable person, taking a few moments thought, would have a problem with this. I really don’t.

          1. jcarnall*

            In the article I read about it, the airlines presented it as a decision made out of pure pragmatism:

            If they placed an unaccompanied minor child next to a man, the man sometimes molested the child.

            If they placed an unaccompanied minor child next to a woman, the woman never did.

            The people to be indignant about, it would seem to me, are not the airlines attempting to protect the unaccompanied minor children from molestation, but the men who think “hey-hey, I have unfettered access to this kid for the next several hours, I’ll enjoy myself”.

      2. LGC*

        Probably because – reasonably or not – men are assumed to be higher risk? I’ll admit, I don’t know if the servers would have survived the stream of outrage if Alison posted this letter with a male supervisor instead of a female one.

        It’s actually interesting because I’m wondering if the supervisor saw her gender as a “shield” – that is, did she think that it was more okay because she’s a woman and thus “safe?”

        1. jcarnall*

          As I recall, the decision was presented not as “men are assumed to be higher risk”, but that the airlines had discovered that men *were* higher risk.

      3. Courageous cat*

        Men hold the most power in this society so I’m comfortable going ahead and saying there IS more of a concern that they will be abusers – because it’s about power.

    2. Observer*

      Could we stop bending over backwards to justify bad behavior by making up highly unlikely scenarios?

      1. Coworker DID have candy – she actually gave the kid some.
      2. If you want to give a kid some money to buy candy, you don’t give hem $20. You give the $1-2
      3. When you realize that Mom might not like that, you do NOT double down and tell the kid “this is our secret”, you just don’t do it.

      I don’t know what the coworker had in mind. But experience says that it was not what you seem to think.

      1. jcarnall*

        I think the idea the co-worker was grooming the kid is a highly unlikely scenario.

        I think that saying so, isn’t trying to justify her behaviour: she shouldn’t have given the kid cash and told the kid to keep it secret from his mom. Botheh on general principles – you don’t give a kid presents without checking with their parents – and because you don’t encourage a kid to take money from someone they hardly know and keep it a secret from their parents.

        I just think the grooming scenario is really unlikely.

        1. Observer*

          Unfortunately, trying to groom the kid is not so unlikely.

          But what I was addressing with the idea this was probably a kind action taken with a few mistaken ideas. That’s completely and utterly unlikely. The facts simply don’t jive with your description.

        2. Hamtaro*

          It’s nice that you want to think the best of this person, but in a situation like this you can’t really operate under the assumption that they had good intentions. It’s dangerous for the child.

          1. jcarnall*

            What danger to the child do you perceive if the LW takes action as Alison proposes, and the ex-supervisor then never either gives the kid money nor says “keep this secret from your mom”, ever again?

            I see none.

            I think Alison is right to say: Set your boundaries clearly, and escalate only if the ex-supervisor then ignores the set boundaries.

    3. animaniactoo*

      I would accept all of your rationale – EXCEPT THAT when the question was “give the kid candy”, former supervisor checked in with the LW and was granted permission. They did not just give the candy and tell the kid to keep it a secret.

      In that context, there is no where that “give kid $20 but don’t run it past the parent cuz awkwardness” makes any kind of remote sense as a logical thought path.

        1. animaniactoo*

          The first time no – when repeating a previous setting, people have patterns and they default to what they would normally do. If the default to wanting to give the kid candy is “check in with OP”, then the default to wanting to give the kid money would be far more likely to be “check in with OP” than “Uh oh, better not bother OP with this”.

    4. Whippers*

      Thank god for this comment; I was really starting to think that I was going a bit crazy with all these “grooming” comments.

      I can’t believe this is the first thing people would leap to. For one thing, there are so many variations of human behaviour and motivations, that there are so many other much more likely possibilities of what this woman’s motivations were beyond “grooming”. People act in illogical, silly and unfathomable ways all the time; it doesn’t mean they are paedophiles.

      For another thing, for all those being outraged that were the coworker male, his motivations would be suspected right away. Even though I wouldn’t agree with that either, there is a reason for this; child abusers are overwhelmingly male. It’s not just sexism; it’s borne out by statistics.

  34. My name is NO*

    As a mom of a 9-year-old boy … omg, no no no no, a million times no. This is completely inappropriate and creepy AF.

    Can you son sit somewhere else, where people are less likely to interact with him?

  35. Holly*

    So, I get this isn’t the most important detail in the letter, but I think we covered that – anyone else particularly concerned that it’s *$20*?? I feel like at most people treat little kids with a surprise spare dollar or 5 dollars at most. But 20? That’s a bit…substantial. Who knows, the supervisor could be wealthy and $20 could be nothing to her. Just seems to make this scenario *extra* odd.

    1. Amber Rose*

      Yeah, that’s what’s bugging me. I had people toss dollar coins my way every now and then, but $20 is a LOT of money for a 9 year old. That’s birthday money from Grandparents level.

      1. Not Paul Hollywood*

        Is it? $20 was birthday money from grandparents when I was little 30 years ago. I feel like $50 would be birthday money at this point in time. $20 is a good amount of money, but it doesn’t have the buying power it did 30 years ago. It’s like one YA hardcover book and a candy bar.

        1. LadyPhoenix*

          Yeah, but that was your GRANDPARENTS giving you $20. That’s the thing.

          This is an UNRELATED coworker giving a child $20 and then asking the kids to keep it hush hush.

          1. Not Paul Hollywood*

            I’m just saying that yesteryear’s $5 slipped to a kid may very well be equal in some people’s minds to today’s $20 slipped to a kid.

            1. Holly*

              I agree, maybe there’s some inflation here, but I agree with LadyPhoenix – it’s still substantial for a “pocket change” sort of gift!!

        2. Jules the 3rd*

          It is curernt bday money for my parents directly to my 10yoish kid. But my grandparents gave us $5 when I was little, about the same time as you, so there’s regional / family differences. We also only give $1 for teeth, and I know people who do $5 per tooth.

          $20 is part of a new video game (say, half of Fortnite, or multiple games on Steam), or 3 paperbacks.

    2. Rae*

      I think a few people have mentioned that giving a kid sub $5–especially for a purpose like a splurge on the vending machine–would have been fine.

      $20 is money that comes with strings even for adults.

      Or maybe I’m poor and out of touch.

    3. Turtle Candle*

      I think this is really personal, honestly. There have been times in my life that twenty bucks was the difference between buying groceries and not. Now, I sometimes impulsively give a twenty to a busker if I like their music. So it all depends what that twenty means to the coworker; it’s not an objective thing.

      1. Holly*

        I totally get that – I think I addressed in my original comment that it could be nothing to her. I think it’s just particularly unusual to gift a twenty to a small child as pocket change.

      2. Tableau Wizard*

        I think the context of what it means to a kid is more important. $20 to most 9-year-olds is a lot of money.

    4. ThankYouRoman*

      It’s not a lot in my mind because I’ll donate $20 instead of buying fundraiser stuff but it’s not change for the vending machine.

    5. Girliusmaximus*

      I agree, the $20 was just excessive. My daughter would have went right along with the secret and would have spent it all on happy meals. Good for little Cecil that he didn’t keep the secret from mom. I think the ex-supervisor needs to be better with boundaries concerning another’s child.

    6. jcarnall*

      I agree that whether $20 is a lot of money is situational. For me (converted to GBP) it is, right now: but there have been times in my life when it wouldn’t have been.

      I don’t think I would have thought it weird if the ex-supervisor had gifted the kid a handful of coins, even if the coins had added up to quite a bit: because I associate office vending machines with coins not notes, and it would seem pretty reasonable to give a bored kid change for the vending machines. Do US vending machines often take paper money?

      Is it just me being British, because US dollars all look pretty much alike to me,to wonder if the ex-supervisor even realised it was a $20 note and thought she was handing over a $5 note?

      1. Observer*

        A handful of change or a few singles might have been vending machine money. A $20 – no way. The machines don’t even take them. And they look different enough that it’s REAAALY unlikely that she didn’t realize how much money it was.

        1. Tableau Wizard*

          Yeah, in the US, since all the money is the same size (and has historically been the same color), we usually pay attention to the actual numbers. Or maybe that’s just me?
          But I’ve never confused a $5 for a $20.

      2. LadyPhoenix*

        Normal vending machines will obly take coins and $1 bills (MAYBE $5).

        The only ones Incould think of that take $20 are super FANCY vending machines that a little child should NOT be buzzing around.

        1. J*

          Hmm, as an American, I’d say it’s pretty unlikely she mistook the 20 for a 5. Possible, I guess, but I know my eyes always automatically go to the corner of a bill where the amount is indicated before I look at which person is on the bill, etc.

          1. jcarnall*

            Fair enough!

            Everytime I have had to deal with US paper money, it always strikes me how alike the notes always are: in most countries the denominations are clearly indicated by size, shape, colour, etc.

            But I can well believe that Americans develop a finely honed currency sense.

            1. Autumnheart*

              As an American, the different denominations of US dollars look very different to me. I couldn’t mistake a $20 for a $5 unless my eyes were closed. I think that a person just becomes attuned to the visual distinctions in their local currency, so that people using euros (for example) look first for the color or the size, and people using US dollars look first for the denomination, or the person being portrayed on the front.

              Anecdotally, when I traveled to a euro-using country last month, it was still my first impulse to look for the number in the corner of the bill, and navigating the whole “a one is a coin, not a bill” situation took much more conscious thought.

    7. Smarty Boots*

      That part of it isn’t especially odd, I think. That’s what I get at the ATM. Most of the time I have twenties and nothing smaller. Quite possible that that’s all Ms. Secrets had on her.
      Not that offering it was appropriate, just that there’s nothing especially sinister about a twenty.

  36. T*

    This struck me as grooming behavior. $20 is a long t of money, and nothing about this exchange sounds right to me. I would keep my kid the hell away from this woman.

  37. nora*

    So here’s the thing. What ex-supervisor is doing is grooming the child, whether she means to or not. Ex-supervisor may be a predator. She may have been the victim of a predator. Maybe both. Either way, one incident isn’t a big deal. It’s the pattern that may emerge that’s the problem.

    1. Asenath*

      It’s not necessarily grooming. As a child, I was sometimes offered money by my parents’ friends – one of them in particular used to give me money almost like a tip if I did something for her or dropped off something my mother wanted to send over. And one of my siblings was given money by a stranger who explained that he wanted to help (my sibling was obviously disabled, and yes, used that term). There are, and have been, times and places in which adults give money as a private/secret gift to children without ever molesting them – or planning to do so – and this might be what is going on here.

      It is also perfectly acceptable for the mother to return the money with as statement like Alison suggested, and she can do so simply because that’s her family rule, not because she thinks the co-worker is a pedophile.

      1. Observer*

        It’s extremely unlikely that the coworker is just being benign. The scenarios you paint simply don’t have any support in the facts we see. Certainly there is no reason to believe that CW is giving the kid this money as a thank you for a task he did – he didn’t do any tasks for her.

  38. Nancie*

    My first thought (after possible grooming) is that former supervisor wanted to come to work the next day saying “$20 disappeared from my purse after LW’s son was in the office.”

    Why? To be a glassbowl, and to get the after-school privileges revoked, maybe. I’m assuming there’s a reason they’re a *former* supervisor.

    1. Akcipitrokulo*

      That didn’t occur – I kind of hope it’s that as it’s a lot less creepy! Horrible, but better!

    2. jcarnall*

      Urk, that would be nasty. I hope not. If so, the script Alison proposed foils it completely – the ex-supervisor got her money handed very publicly back to her.

      1. J*

        Eh, it’s definitely the least likely option, but not totally impossible. Once when I was working a cash register, my supervisor secretly took 10 dollars out of it when my back was turned “to teach J a lesson.” I really, really wouldn’t have thought someone would do something so cruel (predictably, I FREAKED out when the drawer was short) and totally unnecessary, but people can be weird.

  39. MassMatt*

    I am trying to give the ex-boss the benefit of the doubt about having nefarious intent but her behavior is really not OK.

    My first thought went to grooming behavior, and how this could get ramped up. I immediately discounted that notion because the ex-boss is female. The stereotype of who grooms and abuses kids is male—Maybe time to re-examine my gender assumptions?

    1. Whippers*

      There are gender assumptions about this for a reason. The vast majority of child abusers are male.

    2. Nita*

      Considering she’s very unlikely to be alone with OP’s child under any circumstances, it’s more likely something else – but it certainly does seem similar on the surface. As for assumptions… for what it’s worth, the one time I came across what looked like a grooming situation, the person raising all the red flags was a woman. And because that’s not the stereotypical “creep” group, I had quite a time convincing my husband to keep a close eye on our son when she’s around. But she was creepy, all right. I never did find out if she was just really socially awkward or something worse, but I’m just glad she’s no longer in our lives, and hope it stays that way.

  40. Bulbasaur*

    I like Alison’s script for this. If it was meant innocently then she will probably be horrified and apologetic.

    If she doubles down and claims that she did nothing wrong and you shouldn’t be offended, I would offer to poll some other parents in the office to see what they think of it (you can frame it as settling a disagreement). It’s important that she learns that this is not OK, and if she won’t accept your view on it then maybe learning that others agree with you will do it. If she backs down and doesn’t want it discussed outside the two of you, then… keep your eyes open.

    1. Jules the 3rd*

      Nah, don’t discuss pulling in other coworkers. OP’s not being ‘offended’, she’s being ‘my rules say this isn’t allowed with my kid’. That’s something each parent is allowed to set as long as the kid’s not harmed. OP has to be rock-solid on it, though, and continue to follow through if she sees anything more.

      I’d probably be like, ‘I think I want you to quit with the candy’ though, to make the boundary more solid.

      1. Bulbasaur*

        I think the AAM comments on the issue and basic common sense suggest that this is not just something ex-boss should avoid doing with OP’s child, but with all children. But I agree that it’s not OP’s job to explain that, especially if there’s a chance it might undermine the “my family, my rules” message.

      2. jcarnall*

        I wouldn’t say “And quit with the candy.”

        (Well, not without checking in with the kid, first.)

        First, because with regard to the candy, the ex-supervisor did it right: asked the parent first if that was OK.

        Second, because if the kid likes getting the candy, that’s a bit of a negative penalty for having the sense to tell his mother when the candy-gifter overstepped the bounds.

        Also, that escalates the situation with the ex-supervisor. The mother isn’t just explaining that the ex-supervisor crossed a boundary and shouldn’t do *that* again, with an assumption of goodwill and friendliness to keep things sweet, the mother is effectively sending the message “Since you crossed my boundary I cannot trust you to interact with my child at all, even the things that were OK before”.

        I’d say that if the kid himself starts feeling uncomfortable about the candy or the ex-supervisor, then cut off even this contact. If the kid isn’t uncomfortable about the candy and the ex-supervisor doesn’t make the kid feel uncomfortable about the rejected twenty dollars – the ex-supervisor shouldn’t even *speak* to the kid about the cash issue! – then let that continue as normal.

  41. Former Expat*

    At the risk of being yelled at by internet strangers, I think that it is way more likely that your coworker was just trying to be nice to a kid. My suggestion for your actual question: I use the “Ben Franklin effect” when I have to minimize the potential for conflict. You could frame it as “Could you help me teach my child to not accept money/gifts from people outside the family (or however you want to narrow it down)?” while you give back her $20.

    When I was 9 or 10 a friend and I were at the movies (without parents, different times!) and a stranger gave us money for popcorn since we didn’t have enough. I’ve been waiting decades to pay that favor forward. There really are people who just value the chance to be nice to kids.

    1. Akcipitrokulo*

      Thing about the money for popcorn – that was someone who just did something nice for a kid they would never see again – so was genuinely nice. And didn’t say it was a secret.

      This is different with someone the child will see on a regular basis, and said to keep it secret.

      Guy with popcorn was cool. This person isn’t.

      Having said that – if the “help me teach my child what isn’t appropriate!” line works, then go for it!

      1. Jules the 3rd*

        ‘and didn’t say it was a secret’: ding ding ding ding. That’s the difference. Even without the secret, you should not pay it forward directly to a kid. Times really have changed, and you would scare parents more than delight kids. Look at paying it forward to a parent instead.

        Your verbage is not horrible, but OP is fully justified in being uneasy about this, and Alison’s script is firmer.

        1. Avasarala*

          Their parents weren’t there. This kind stranger saw two kids trying to buy popcorn, they were short, and gave them some money. Yes there was no mention of a secret, but there also probably wasn’t mention of “and make sure you tell your parents!!” I think they shared this story to show that there are some situations where it’s not creepy to give money to a child, and that it’s important to teach children how to distinguish when it is OK to keep secrets, and when it is OK to receive money from strangers/acquaintances.

    2. ThankYouRoman*

      If you want to pay it forward, pay someone’s tab. I do it in drive thrus a few times a year.

      I’ve also paid for people who are short money at the grocery store.

      I drop coins and leave them for whoever wants to bend for them. I leave change in the change dish at grocery stores. I clear out my pockets for charity bins.

      I donate money to Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts and Campfire Kids and any kid wanting to go to camp. I have so many coupon books I rarely bother to even use but it supports kids playing sports.

      There are a million non-creepy ways to give kids and others money.

  42. Jules the 3rd*

    As the parent of a kid in this age range, yeah, my eyes got big at this one. Make sure you reward your kid, and tell him that situation is *exactly* the kind of situation you want to know about. I tell my kid he can tell me anything and I will help him figure out how important it is and who else may or may not need to know.

    I think Alison’s answer is a good one, but I think you really really have to do it, or something like it. Because this sounds like classic boundary testing, her checking what she can get away with, and you do not want that to escalate. You might also want to see if he can stay someplace within sight. Because wow.

  43. bopper*

    And tell your son that the only kind of secret he should keep from parents are surprises…like gifts or parties and that he did good telling you.

  44. Lumen*

    OP, you’re doing something right as a parent if another adult tells your child “this is our little secret” and your child tells you right away. So, kudos on that.

    Perhaps your ex-supervisor isn’t a danger to your child, but the lesson she just tried to teach him is the sort of thing that grooms children for abusers.

    I think you’re well in your rights to calmly tell her exactly what Alison suggested. Yes, use the word ‘dangerous’. Yes, get more severe with her if she does anything like this again.

    And make sure your child knows that he did the right thing by coming to you and that you’re proud of him. Reinforce with him, in whatever way you know is appropriate for your child, that anything another adult wants him to keep “our little secret” from his parents should raise a BIG red flag.

  45. Close Bracket*

    And give the kid 20 bucks for his honesty. Or 10. Whatever.

    Whenever telling my parents resulted in something good being taken away, I just learned not to tell my parents stuff.

  46. Formerly Arlington*

    Wondering if she’s just not well versed in stranger danger and is harmless,especially if older?

      1. Angeldrac*

        It’s always “other people” though. I don’t think this offender has a concept that the stranger danger rules are there for everyone. She “knows” she’s nice but doesn’t recognize she is setting a precedent to the child.

      2. Elsajeni*

        I think the recognition that “stranger danger” should really be “adults you kind of know danger” is a newer development, though, and that’s the category she falls into with this kid. And I also think many, many people interact with kids they kind of know without thinking “ah, I am a Potentially Dangerous Adult and should be very careful of the optics of giving my coworker’s kid a gift,” because, like… they know they’re not a creep, those rules are obviously for Other People.

  47. P*

    LW: Also, if you haven’t already, make it really clear you’re glad your son told you about this and he did the right thing!

  48. I exist*

    you could tell your kid to report any other suspicious behavior from this person in the future, if you don’t think he’ll be too worried if you seem worried. also good job for your kid for telling you right away! Make sure you tell him that it was really good that he told you.

  49. Reluctant Manager*

    +1 for creepy grooming reaction, but—OP, congratulations on having a secure, well-attached child who came to you right away. Personally, I wouldn’t lavish too much on the kid because I’d want to normalize his telling you, but you are doing something right.

  50. Angeldrac*

    I’m so excited for you that your child’s first response was to come straight to you and “spill the secret” – parenting job well done, OP!
    When I have had to lay down the law with other wellmeaning adults doing things like this for my children, to try and diffuse the awkward (I also hate confrontation) I try and make it less about me and my desires, and give it a more generalized spin: “That was a lovely offer but the thinking with kids these days is not to encourage them to keep secrets from their parents – it can make them vulnerable to other less well meaning people”- kinda make it sound more like this is the universal thing experts are recommending (which funnily enough, IT IS) rather thank your personal little quirk. This seems to make it a bit more palatable to the offender because it isn’t “me” finding fault with them.

    1. Cat Fan*

      Honestly, I think I would go to the co-worker and ask, “Why did you give my child money and tell him not to tell me?” And then just stand there in the awkwardness and wait for a response before telling her not to do it again. I would not care if it seems like my quirk. Any normal person will realize that she shouldn’t have done it and apologize immediately instead of think there’s something wrong with the parent for caring.

      1. Angeldrac*

        Well, I’m glad you would have that approach, good for you. OP specifically says how uncomfortable they are with confrontation so that approach will not work for them but they still need to find a way to comfortably address the issue at hand and have the coworker understand their perspective.

  51. pcake*

    OP, you did a good job raising your kid, and your kid deserves kudos, as well.

    I’m not sure why so many people are sure this woman meant well. For one thing, how would we know? There are plenty of people in the world who don’t mean well, and we often don’t know which ones they are. Besides, intentions don’t matter. I had a babysitter manhandle (or should that be womanhandle in this case?) my 5 year old son so he had bruises. She was usually a very nice lady, but turned out lacking greatly in the patience department with sense of how to treat small helpless beings or other people’s children.

    Btw, that co-worker shouldn’t be giving kids candy OR money. Even if she means very well, wants to make the kid happy and wants the child to like her, the next kid she gives candy to without talking to the parent could have a terrible allergy (peanuts come to mind as some candy has no visible peanuts but may have peanut oil) or diabetes.

    As far as asking the kid to keep a secret, as most people here have said, way over the line. It doesn’t matter why she did it. At best, it’s teaching the child it’s normal and okay to keep a secret at the request of another adult.

    Being a co-worker doesn’t make someone harmless. Many years ago a co-worker of my father’s made all the newspapers because a few days before Halloween, security where they worked (this was an aerospace company) noticed one of the managers was working late and went to check on what they were doing as per policy. Turned out he was carefully unwrapping chocolates, sliding fishhooks inside them and sealing them back up. My dad and his friends never noticed anything weird about the guy, and I actually met him twice when my dad took me to his work to show me what he did.

    1. jcarnall*

      Snopes has only one documented instance of an adult putting sharp objects in Hallowe’en candy, and it was needles, not fishhooks, and in Snickers bars, which would be very difficult to rewrap. (In fact, any commercially-wrapped chocolates would be difficult-to-impossible to rewrap without someone noticing the wrapping had been tampered with: and I’m also dubious about the idea that anyone could slide a fishhook into a chocolate without this being really, really obvious.) If your dad’s co-worker really had “made all the newspapers” by this attempt, I am fairly sure Snopes would have it.

      I think you were told an urban horror story. Sorry.

      You’re quite right, of course, to say that just because someone is a co-worker they could be dangerous. I knew a man via my work who was unexpectedly arrested for child molestation: we all thought we knew him well and assumed this was a mistaken arrest, but it wasn’t, and the details are worse than I care to share here. But far from exhibiting grooming behaviour at work, the man had kept the two sides of his life completely separate – not one of the young people he had worked with over the years could believe he was guilty, til the evidence was made clear and awful in court – because to the young people he worked with, he had never been anything but responsible, kind, and professional. It was a dreadful case.

      1. Oranges*

        Also, I was told in my Criminal Studies* course that the only known candy poisoning(s) was by a relative.

        The two things that stuck with me from that class were:
        Stranger Danger isn’t really good at preventing molestation since most of the time it was people the child knew and trusted. A better course would be something along the lines of “If you are uncomfortable about anything, tell your parents”

        White collar crime costs society SO MUCH MORE than street crime but we don’t care because it’s people who are in power doing it.

        *I forgot the actual class name….

  52. londonedit*

    I don’t have kids, and I don’t know very much about parenting, and I’ve been in quite a few situations where I’ve said something around a friend’s children and the friend has immediately said ‘That’s not what we do/say in our family’. And I’ve been mortified, because I’d thought I was being helpful or nice or being the ‘fun aunt’ or whatever. For example, when my friend had her second baby, I visited her in hospital along with her first child, who was two at the time. The baby was asleep, and I said something to the two-year-old along the lines of ‘And what do we do when the baby’s asleep? Do we need to be quiet?’. My friend snapped back ‘Actually we don’t do ANYTHING in particular when the baby’s asleep’ – because she didn’t want the two-year-old to know that ‘being quiet when the baby’s asleep’ was something she could push back on and disobey to get her mum’s attention. I had NO IDEA that was even a thing! I thought I was being helpful!

    So, I can see how someone might do or say something that a parent would think was wildly inappropriate, but with no malice behind it. I can’t be 100% sure that I would realise in the moment that saying ‘keep it a secret’ would be horrendously inappropriate. But, on the other hand, I wouldn’t give a child money or sweets without asking the parent if it was OK first. Especially if that child wasn’t one I knew particularly well.

    1. Belle8bete*

      I’m so sorry people snapped at you! Wow. Those folks are being kind of jerky and unrealistic of the fact that the world isn’t confined to their house. I just want you to know that, to snap something like that in front of the kid is pretty cruddy and undermines you as an adult to the child. I hope they don’t plan for you to babysit anytime soon!

      If they have an issue, they should find a moment, not in front of other people, to say “oh so I’d really appreciate it if you didn’t say x y z”. But frankly, there are FEW things that really deserve that amount of drama. You really shouldn’t be scolded like YOU are a child.

  53. Mrs. Fenris*

    Oooh, my MIL used to do things like this all the time. She’s not a malicious person, but she really loves to be the “fun one” and she just has crummy judgment all around. She still laughs her head off telling the story of when she took DH and his friends to see a movie, but the movie they were supposed to see wasn’t at the theater anymore, so she took them to see an R-rated movie instead and told all the other kids not to tell their parents. She did a few things like that with my kids when they were young…mostly dumb stuff like buying them junk food and saying “don’t tell your mom.” She dropped a bunch of hints about being my regular babysitter after school, and I ignored all of them. I was fine with them spending time with her for “grandma” visits, but I was not about to have this foolish, sneaky person be their regular caregiver.

  54. Elizabeth*

    I agree that this coworker is way out of line but, no matter how creepy this seems, I’m going to give her the benefit of the doubt and assume her intentions were innocent and harmless.

    One of my best friend’s dads (who was like family) used to slip me money sometimes (along with my friend/his daughter). It was just his way of spoiling us a little. He never told me to keep it a secret though–my mom knew he did it.

  55. Michaela Westen*

    This is weird. If it happens again I would escalate to boss, management, and maybe even law enforcement. I can’t imagine why anyone would do that.
    Maybe there’s a way to quietly make a report to police or law enforcement without causing trouble with the coworker? If it happens again.
    Maybe check her record and see if she’s been reported or gotten in trouble for such things before?

  56. Atalanta0jess*

    So, it’s worth saying that grooming behavior is PURPOSELY CALIBRATED to start out as looking very benign. I obviously have no idea whether this woman is a danger. But the idea that something isn’t grooming because it is so very close to normal behavior, or because it is something one would do with good intentions, is very dangerous. Grooming is intended to fly under the radar.

  57. blargh*

    I think it’s important that people know that the behavior the supervisor did, the one who gave the money to the kid and said “Let’s keep it a secret” is technically grooming behavior. Not all grooming is sexual. She likely didn’t even realize that’s what her behavior does. She probably just wanted to treat him because he’s a nice kid and didn’t want him to get in trouble with mom for taking that much money so she told him to keep it to himself.

    The problem is if a kid gets money from someone they know and are told to keep it a secret, and nothing bad happens from it, it sets the kid up to be more likely to accept the money again when a known adult gives it and to not say anything. Every time this happen, it sets up the child to be more willing to accept the money and be more willing to not say anything even if the adult starts to do something. That something is likely minor at first but then increases in intensity and the child feels stuck. Can’t say no to the adult, they have power over them and they accepted their money. Can’t tell parent because parent already has told them not to take the money but the kid kept on doing it. The known adult can introduce the kid to an unknown adult who does the same thing with money and secrets and behaviors. Or the kid can be approached by someone unknown to the parent or the money giving adult and just be more open to accepting money for favors and not saying anything because already someone in their life has done that and no harm came of it. So even though the first adult did nothing wrong to the child, they still set the child up to accept particular behaviors from an adult. That’s the grooming part.

    Grooming happens in a lot of ways with children. Things like teaching kids to accept excessive touching from people they don’t know or like is a form of grooming. It shows them that forced physical contact is ok. This is a link about predators that is aimed at sexual predators, but again the actual grooming can be and often is not sexual in nature., but you can see how this money/keeping it a secret is a form of grooming, even though I did a crappy job of explaining that.

  58. CustServGirl*

    Everyone is right on the money about this! I want to say good job to mom/dad for raising their kid to be honest and tell them, and yes- the coworker’s behavior is problematic for many reasons.

    OP, I hope all goes well when you approach your coworker.

  59. OPwithanupdate*

    Hey everyone, OP here. I’ve read through every comment and I definitely understand where everyone is coming from and I deeply appreciate all the advice and information! To be completely honest, I didn’t even think of this as grooming behavior until I really read it from y’all and online but it does make sense. As far as my former boss goes, she is a former boss because of her overstepping boundary behavior. She is an older woman in her late 60s early 70s who has no children and never been married, so I do think she just doesn’t know the norm when it comes to children. I took Alison’s advice and brought the $20 back to her office. I approached the conversation with the advice of “I know you meant to be nice BUT….” and continued with the rest. It was hard to fight through the anxiety but she was understanding, deeply apologetic, said it will never happen again and that she didn’t mean the secret as a literal secret and that she was just being kind of funny and didn’t realize the severity of what she said. I have moved my son though and he now sits at a desk with workers surrounding him (3 awesome ladies) within eye view of my desk, just to make sure it doesn’t happen again. I spoke with him about the incident as well and praised him for telling me right away. I did take the $20 from him but we stopped for ice cream on the way home after work since he was open and honest with me. Ever since he was little, I’ve made a point to tell him if he ever had a problem he could always come to me without any judgement and I will back him up 100% and he has taken me up on this a few times to which I’ve proven it to him. He knew I would be upset if he kept it from me so it was in his best interest to let me know ASAP plus she made him uncomfortable since he doesn’t keep secrets from me at all. I wouldn’t have been upset if she asked me first and if it was a couple dollars but the amount and the “secret” was definitely a line crosser but I believe I got the point across (fingers crossed). If anyone has any questions though, I’d be happy to answer them!

    1. Belle8bete*

      It sounds like she was being foolish more than creepy…is that the impression you got after talking with her?

      You should definitely have him supervised at work anyway, so shifting him to the middle of the pack is a good idea anyway!

  60. Erica*

    If you don’t trust your co-workers, why bringing your child around them in the firat place? It isn’t there place to have him in the officw wvery day and if he is always coming in and they are doing their best to make him feel comfortable there by including him in ways they only know how to through candy/food and money and you (OP) dont trust them, them find somewhere else for him to be at after school.

    My co-workers become like family and we all get to know each other and family members through events, shared lunches, just paid visits to the office, etc. If my mind ever even thought someone was grooming my kid because they offered cash or candy, wth would I want to work around said people anyway? Sounds like trust issues to begin with and they aren’t starting with the 9 year old child.

  61. cej*

    This is why employees shouldn’t be allowed to provide regular daycare in the office while in a paid status. This lady made an honest misstep in an attempt to befriend your child (probably because she senses your hostility towards her) and from there the conversation turned into a “stranger danger” situation. Unless you are absolutely certain this woman was intent on “grooming” your child for some illicit purpose this strong accusation shouldn’t be made. BUT! I’ll bet you discussed this situation with others in your office and used it as leverage in your campaign to malign this employee and her reputation. I’m going to solve this problem right now. You have to hire a babysitter and you have to stop speaking poorly of your former supervisor, in public forums and in the office. Thanks! Have a Good Day.

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