Care and Feeding

I Think My Son Is Leading a Girl On

Should I intervene?

A teenage girl with her finger under a teen boy's chin, trying to get him to turn to look at her.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by mocker_bat/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My son “Michael” is 15 and may or may not be exploring his gender and sexual identity; the majority of his friends are LGBTQ+ but he has not yet self-identified as anything other than straight and male. He has a “best friend” who is a straight girl, and I am beginning to suspect she may be wanting something more from this relationship and that he may be cluelessly or unintentionally leading her on.

Prior to the pandemic, Michael and “Ellie” hung out in a large, diverse friend group. When COVID hit, the kids’ social options dwindled, and they resorted to small backyard gatherings with social distancing and masking. I noticed Ellie would attend every gathering hosted in our yard and would often stay long (sometimes hours) past the other guests. As COVID restrictions have lifted, she is a frequent solo guest at our home and readily engages with me, my husband, and our other children. She’s even begun covering household chores while we’re away and joining family dinners when we’re home.

Having had a lengthy, purely platonic relationship with a member of the opposite sex during my own high school years, I didn’t question any of this until my older teen daughter asked me, “Do you think Michael’s leading Ellie on?” That got me wondering. My daughter then asked Michael if he thinks Ellie likes him (“Maybe”) and if he feels the same way about her (“Um…not really…”). In that same conversation, Michael verbalized that if Ellie ever discloses feelings for him and he doesn’t reciprocate, the chances of their friendship surviving are slim.

Michael has a lot of casual friends but not many close friends, and I know Ellie is special to him in the same way his sister is special to him, but now I’m worried he’s leading this poor girl on and I don’t know what to do. Any advice?

—Mystified in the Midwest

Dear Mystified,

It’s important that you teach Michael the importance of being delicate with other people’s feelings; regardless of his sexual orientation, he may continue to come across people throughout his life who have an interest in him that he does not reciprocate. There’s nothing to feel bad about when it comes to not wanting someone back, and no reason to pretend feelings that are not there. However, there’s a certain amount of grace we owe to people who we care about and who have expressed their feelings to us respectfully. It sounds like Ellie, if indeed this is a crush for her, has shown how she feels by treating Michael and his family with kindness, and by being a good friend.

Talk to Michael about creating clear boundaries and emphasizing how he sees Ellie: “I value our friendship so much. You’re truly like another sister to me.” He doesn’t have to tell her, nor you, anything about who and what he does desire, but he owes it to her to be very explicit—and kind—in making it clear that it isn’t her. If she hasn’t made any romantic gestures, perhaps he needn’t confront her with a “just friends” speech, but he needs to make a point of contextualizing the relationship for her on a regular basis and letting her know that what it is now is what it is going to be.

Also, continue to work at creating an environment in which Michael feels comfortable talking to you about his feelings. Whether he is same-sex attracted and is still figuring out how to share this with certain people, or if he’s just a cis-het kid whose BFF simply has a doomed crush (he might not want to kiss her even if he is straight!), he needs to know that his parents are down for him no matter what, that you’re a safe place to turn to with his feelings, and that they’re valid.


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