Care and Feeding

My Daughter Can’t Take the Clingy Little Boy Who Says She’s His Girlfriend

She was nice to a quirky kid, but now he’s way too much.

A girl exasperated with a boy who fancies her
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Email careandfeeding@slate.com or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

Recently, I ran into another mother picking up her first-grade son from the after-school program he attends with my 10-year-old daughter, Jane. Her son (let’s call him Joe) seems to have some difficulty fitting in with other kids. The boy’s mom stopped me and thanked me for having such a kind daughter who was nice to her son when very few other kids had been, and always made him feel included. I was really proud of Jane when I heard that—I was a bullied kid and I’m glad to know that she has taken my lessons to heart about being kind.

However, a few days later Jane asked if she could talk to me in private and confessed that she was having some problems with Joe. Apparently in the after-school program he has been telling everyone that Jane is his “girlfriend” and basically won’t leave her side the whole time she is there, even sitting next to her and staring at her while she is working on her homework. She said that she knows it’s important to be kind and make people feel included, but he’s sort of driving her insane, and she doesn’t like him calling her his girlfriend. She said she had asked him directly to give her some space, told him that she doesn’t like being touched when he tries to hold her hand, and has asked the teachers to help her, all to no avail.

I want to raise a daughter who has a sense of her own worth and is willing to confront men behaving badly. I also feel a lot of sympathy for Joe, who sees a popular and (I may be biased) cute girl who is nice to him and has grabbed on for all he’s worth. How do I advise her in this situation? And is it worth me calling the after-school program and asking them to do better about enforcing my daughter’s boundaries?

—Where Do I Draw the Line?

Dear Where Do I Draw the Line,

This is so unfortunate. Joe is not being done any favors in this situation; learning how to hear and abide by social boundaries is as important a skill as any that we learn as children. He is, however, only in first grade, which means this is a great opportunity for him to work on this issue.

I would absolutely talk to the after-school program (be especially clear about the no-touching rule), and in the meantime, ask your daughter to treat him with the civility she would treat any other younger child in the program with, while also being extremely firm if he does something that makes her uncomfortable. If the people running the program continue to whiff on this issue, you’ll have to talk to Joe’s mother. “It’s so common for younger kids to get crushes on older kids,” you can say, “but Joe is getting a little too attached to Jane and we’d like him to back off.”

This doesn’t have to be about Joe being weird, or bad, or different. This is very standard kid stuff, everyone has to learn it, and you’ll get a lot further with Joe’s mother if you seem firm but unfazed by his behavior. Your daughter sounds like a lovely young woman, and very kind. Well done!

Dear Care and Feeding,

My 3½-year-old son has recently started asking questions about whether any given individual is a boy or a girl. I’ve been answering him with a question: “Does it matter?” I’ve also had a couple of (brief) conversations with him where I explain that some people are girls, some are boys, some are both, and some are neither, and I make it clear that I don’t think it matters whether someone is a boy or a girl. I’ve been giving him both traditional “girl” and “boy” toys and he owns a lot of pink stuff, though now that he’s in preschool he seems more interested in classifying colors by gender and all that nonsense. I’ve also bought an age-appropriate book that deals with gender identity, though it’s on preorder at the moment and won’t ship for a while.

Basically, I don’t want to raise him with toxic expectations of what it means to “be a man,” and I want him to be respectful and accepting of people regardless of gender identification. Am I handling this correctly? He’s been asking about this a lot lately, and my “Does it matter?” response feels limited. Do I just keep repeating the “Some people are girls or boys or both or neither” mantra to him? Does this merit additional explanation at this age? I’m very open to suggestions and recommendations for age-appropriate resources to answer his questions and teach him kindness and acceptance. For what it’s worth, we have a “traditional” family (Mom’s a woman, Dad’s a man), and he’s aware of the anatomical differences between the two of us, which is also a source of curiosity.

—Does It Matter if I’m A Girl?

Dear Does It Matter,

I can tell that you really, really want to get this part of parenting “right,” which is great. A lot of us have been raised with really regressive gender expectations, and plenty of people no longer identify with the gender they were handed at birth, and doing our best to help the next generation navigate these things with love and respect is a good thing.

I think you should cool it with “Does it matter.” It’s a weirdly negative way to respond to a child’s genuine question. Kids ask loads of questions for which the answer doesn’t technically matter. “How do birds go to the bathroom?” “Is the moon asleep during the day?” “Why can’t I butter the cat?” And yet we know that part of encouraging kids to be inquisitive and interesting people is to do our best to answer them (except about buttering the cat—you’re fine with “Because I said so” on that one).

And it does matter, to your kid. Kids love dividing things into categories of all kinds, they’re desperate to spot patterns in an unfamiliar universe, and the vast majority of kids go through a phase where they really, really want to know who is a boy and who is a girl. Why make him feel weird about it? If you know or have a good guess that the mail carrier is a boy, you can tell your son he’s a boy. If you do not know them and their appearance makes guessing difficult, you can truthfully say that you don’t know.

You don’t have to be some kind of troglodyte to think that being a man or a woman matters, on some level, or that it makes a difference in your life or the lives of the people you meet. Give him a bit more space to form his own conception of the universe and the various kinds of people in it, while also telling him that there are boys and girls and both and neither, and he’ll do just fine.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I have a 6-year-old son who really enjoys playing video games and has asked for a particular console for Christmas that costs hundreds of dollars. I explained to him that it’s too expensive and we have enough games already. However, he has written and mailed a letter to Santa asking for it and is now very worried about whether Santa will bring it for him.

He doesn’t really believe in magic, but he thinks Santa is a superrich guy who buys and delivers presents to all the children of the world. I don’t know what to do: buy him a cheaper hand-held video game? Talk to him about how there really is no Santa? Don’t get him what he wants at all and have him feel super sad and let-down on Christmas? Please help!

—Party Pooper

Dear Party Pooper,

What a marvelous opportunity for your son to lose his faith in the largesse of the superrich! So many of us take far more time to come to that realization.

Honestly, if he already thinks Santa is just a fat Jeff Bezos with a heart, there’s not a lot of whimsical magic to be lost at this stage. I think it’s time to introduce him to the secret of Santa: that anyone who wants to can be Santa for others, and that you and your husband have gotten to be Santa for several years, and now he’s old enough to get to take his part in being Santa as well. He can find a gift for a younger relative and wrap it with some help and address it “from Santa” and bask in the reflected joy.

Then a few days later you can tell him that particular game is way too expensive and ask him for some backup choices.

Have a very merry Christmas.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My sister had her first child (a boy) two years ago and has become the Ultimate Helicopter Mom. It’s honestly painful to watch! She hovers about a step behind him when he’s toddling, is constantly putting “dangerous” items up out of his reach, and seems like she’s glued to his side.

I don’t have children, and I don’t think she’d appreciate my advice, but is there any way I can tell her to relax a little that won’t ruin our relationship?

—Chill Out!

Dear Chill Out,

When I saw “Ultimate Helicopter Mom” in my inbox I was all ready to hear about how your sister is meeting her kid for lunch at school three times a week and won’t let him cross the road to go to high school. He’s 2. This is very normal parenting when you have a 2-year old! They are constantly face-planting and trying to eat anything they get their little ravioli-size fists on. You can’t just crack open a cold one and assume they’ll manage fine.

If you want her to relax, I recommend offering to babysit for an evening yourself. You’ll get a better sense of what it takes to keep a toddler out of trouble, and she’ll appreciate it a lot more than backseat parenting.

—Nicole