Care and Feeding

My 10-Year-Old Son Only Wants Clothes That Are Too Small

He’s really a medium! What’s going on?

A child wearing jeans that are too small.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My 10-year-old son just had a growth spurt. Once upon a time I just picked out his clothes or gave him hand-me-downs from cousins, but he’s getting interested in fashion and is much too cool for that now. We are having a great time shopping together, with one exception. These days you aren’t allowed to use dressing rooms, and he won’t believe me when I tell him what size to buy! He is a skinny guy and wants to be the smallest and gets upset when I tell him a size bigger than he is trying to pick out. He wants to get the smallest … but he’s 10 now and the smallest kid clothing just isn’t going to fit. When we get home, he puts on the size I picked out and it fits, but it still turns into a standoff at the store every time where I’m the bad guy saying no to a size small. If you’re WEARING a size small and it’s too small, why would the size small at the store be different? What can I say to navigate this disagreement without upsetting him? Why is he so desperately clinging on to tiny clothing?

— Medium in Seattle

Dear Medium,

Have you considered moving more of your clothes shopping online? Given that your son can’t try on clothes in dressing rooms in accursed 2020, it seems like you could avoid the exposure and the public standoffs, even if it means missing out on a little bit of fun clothes shopping. The no-muss-no-fuss return policy of many online stores often means that it’s easy to solve this problem by simply buying two of each pair of pants, one in a small and one in a medium, and then returning the small when he grudgingly admits that the medium fits better. (Another solution: Just order the medium and cut out the tag before he even sees it.)

I confess that it’s unusual for a 10-year-old boy to feel emotionally attached to the idea of being smaller than their peers. I don’t think you need to quick-diagnose your child with any kind of eating or body dysmorphic disorder, but I would keep an eye on how he feels and talks about his body as adolescence approaches, and if he continues to express dissatisfaction with the difference between his physical body and his self-perception, it’s worth letting him talk about it with a therapist.

But if it’s just that he’s stubborn, generations of parents have solved the problem of children’s sizing with four magic words: “You’ll grow into it.” I urge you to deploy them each time this question comes up.

Dear Care and Feeding,

This is not the most high-stakes question considering everything going on in the world, but we are trying to work out space considerations with a new baby. My husband and I are expecting our second child in March. We have a 2-year-old son who will be 2-and-a-half by the time the new baby is here. Our house has two bedrooms on the second level, and a finished attic that will be one of the kid’s rooms eventually. The bathroom for the kids is on the second level, right by my son’s room currently. Right now, our son is in the room down the hall from us. The new baby will be in our room for the first six months or so, but what do you think is the best answer after that? Our son will be potty training around the time the baby leaves our room, and if we move him to the attic room, he would need to navigate a steep staircase at night to go to the bathroom. On the other hand, if we put the new baby in the attic we will be going up and down for night feedings. Do we put the baby in the attic until my son is older and completely potty trained? I worry about the drama of room switching when they are older, but would prefer my oldest to have the attic room in the long term. What do you think is the best solution in the long term?

— Banishing One to the Attic

Dear Banishing,

Oh, this is an easy one. Put the baby in the attic. You’ll be grateful for the little bit of extra distance, and your son will be happy not to have yet another upheaval in his about-to-be-upheaved life. The switch in a few years will be easy, as baby gets big brother’s toddler bed and big brother’s room—and big brother gets his own space upstairs, thoughtfully redecorated to reflect his interests and featuring a big, beautiful single bed just for him.

Congratulations on your new addition! Get that baby in the attic ASAP.

· If you missed Sunday’s Care and Feeding column, read it here.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

A year or so ago, my husband’s family gave us a fancy play tipi as a gift for my young children, which I expect cost them a significant amount of money. We’re concerned about cultural appropriation, and after discussing it as a couple we decided to simply put it into storage.
We do actively speak with our children about racism, and they are also too young to understand why we’d be uncomfortable with this gift. My mother always taught me that when you give someone a gift, it’s then theirs to do with as they wish, and rude to inquire about further. However, my mother-in-law, who lives out of state, does not seem to share this value. Over the past year she’s been inquiring repeatedly to my husband about why it’s not in any of the pictures we send. My husband used to deflect the question by saying we don’t have enough space to put it up, which may or may not have been the best approach.

However, we’ve moved, and now have space—and she’s now pushing hard about why we haven’t set it up yet. My mother-in-law is someone who would likely be aghast at the insinuation that she’s racist, though I believe we all hold racist beliefs and must work to overcome them. I’ve heard her make generalizations that concern me, though nothing explicit. At those times I’ve explicitly encouraged her to think about the things she’s saying, which seems to have bewildered her a bit. But I feel like this is a slightly different situation, where she’s given us what she perceives as a lovely gift. Can you think of a way to address this while keeping our relationship with her intact?

— Tricky Situation

Dear Tricky,

You are, of course, absolutely within your rights to tell your mother that you’re not comfortable with the gift she gave your children. Ideally, you’d be comfortable enough with each other that this conversation could be simple and nonjudgmental on both sides. “You know, I’ve done some reading,” you could say, “and we’re just not comfortable putting up a tipi in our house, because it erases meaning from a touchstone of a marginalized nonwhite culture.” You could cite pieces by Native writers about how hurtful such cultural appropriation can be, even in such seemingly innocent realms as children’s toys.

In fact, you could have had that conversation a year ago, when your mother-in-law gave you the gift. I wish you had! That would have been a lot easier. Now you’ve spent a year deflecting her requests for photos of her adorable grandchildren playing in the gift she sent—requests that are, in my opinion if not in your mother’s, totally reasonable. What grandma doesn’t want to see those photos? Your husband, caught between a mother whose feelings are hurt and a wife who seems not to like his mother very much, lied about not having enough room for the tipi, and now you live somewhere bigger and the lie’s been exposed.

I’d encourage you to clearly and kindly tell your mother-in-law the truth about the tipi. One way to be kind is to talk her through the journey you surely made at some point, from thinking a toy like a tipi is harmless to realizing it’s a bad idea—as opposed to presenting this concept to her as something that every enlightened person already understands. Unless your letter is omitting glaring examples of intolerance and misbehavior, your mother-in-law seems like a perfectly sweet, totally normal older person, who may not be as wonderful as your own mother but who doesn’t deserve the teeth-gritting treatment your letter suggests you’re giving her.

Dear Care and Feeding,

How do you handle feeling like you are constantly disappointing, scolding, or otherwise having a negative experience with your child? My husband and I both work from home full time, and we have no help with childcare, so our 6-year-old is left to entertain herself for hours at a time. This newly developed ability is a great improvement over the first few months of stay-at-home, when I was trying to work with her literally hanging off my elbow demanding my attention. She’s not fending entirely for herself—I peek in on her every 20 minutes or so (more often if she’s suspiciously quiet) and we have regular 1:1 time throughout the day. She reads to herself, plays with toys, draws, cuts paper into a million tiny pieces, uses endless rolls of tape. It’s amazing. But she also does lots stuff she knows she’s not supposed to do: draws on the walls, applies various goos (glue, toothpaste, hand soap, shampoo, even a bottle of sunscreen) to every surface she can reach, cuts her own hair, cuts up her clothes, tears leaves off of houseplants, etc.

I get it, she’s bored. I try to let the little stuff go, get her to help clean up the messes, and only correct her when she’s done something truly wasteful or dangerous. I’ve tried to make my expectations clear, and I’ve provided her with approved outlets for mess, experimentation, and even destruction. Trust me, I realize how unsatisfying that sounds—no burgeoning modern artist/anarchist/agent of chaos wants an approved outlet for mess. At the end of the day, it feels like our relationship is a constant stream of me being like, No, don’t do that, not now, clean that up, please don’t destroy that, stop that, no. In turn, she’s constantly looking at me like I’m destroying every chance at happiness she has in the world. I feel mean and like a stick in the mud and I’m so sick of it. Help!

— Jackson “Toothpaste” Pollock’s Mom

Dear Mrs. Pollock,

This year has been hard on everyone, but it’s been a particular kind of terrible for the parents of small children. My kids are old enough that the mischief they get into on their own in their rooms is of the “get in a flame war on Reddit” variety, not the “cover the walls in sunscreen” variety—still troublesome, but less goopy.

I guess it’s possible that your 6-year-old is so thrillingly disdainful of The Man that she would reject any “approved outlet for mess,” but I think you might be projecting a bit. Most 6-year-olds are not making messes because they are Antifa; they are making messes, as you say, because they are bored. And it’s entirely possible to incorporate some authorized times and places to make messes into their lives without turning them off. You might consider placing a designated slime table with raised edges in her room, or painting her walls with chalkboard paint, or covering the bathroom floor with towels and declaring 2 p.m. every day water play time.

It can feel so disheartening for parents when they feel, as you do, that all your interactions are corrective. But I’d remind you that that’s not the case—those stick with you, of course, but the 1-to-1 moments you’re making sure to schedule into your day aren’t only about scolding, I’m sure. You’re providing lots of love and support to your budding Abstract Expressionist, which will surely be reflected in her eventual Oscar-nominated biopic.

One last thing: You mention that both you and your husband work from home, but he then disappears for the rest of your letter. I am sure he is also popping his head in every 20 minutes and stopping her from covering the cat in shoe polish—right? If he isn’t, remind him that it’s not fair for you to be the only one who reprimands lil’ Jackson for covering her duvet with ketchup—just as you shouldn’t be the only one thinking hard about how to make your daughter’s days as happy as they can be.

— Dan

More Advice From Slate

On Mom and Dad Are Fighting, Slate’s parenting podcast, soccer legend Abby Wambach recently answered a question from the parent of a “weirdly athletic” 4-year-old who doesn’t know how to handle their child’s intense passion for sports.

“I think there are three things that we share with our kids when they walk off the soccer field. Number one: I love watching you play. Period. Number two: How did that feel? How did it feel out there? And number three: What was something that you learned today that you didn’t know before? And that’s it. That is all you need to say to your kids after soccer games, because anything more, and you are indirectly telling them that your love is conditioned on them being good or not messing up on the field. The whole thing with sports is making mistakes and dealing with it and making mistakes and dealing with it.”

For Wambach’s full answer, listen to the latest episode, and subscribe to Mom and Dad Are Fighting wherever you listen to podcasts.