Care and Feeding

Our First Grader Keeps Getting Weird Gifts From Someone at School

We’re really uncomfortable with this.

A child's wrist with a star-beaded bracelet.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by mashiro2004/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

Our daughter is a well-adjusted first grader who attends an after-school program with kids from other grades. About a month into the school year, she came home with a nice charm bracelet that one of the older children in the program had given her. We didn’t think much of it, as it sounded like this child had given them out to other kids as well. We also didn’t feel a need to reciprocate, as our daughter said thank you (we talked to her about writing a thank you note but never followed up). But over the past month, the pace of the gift giving has increased dramatically. Probably every other day, our daughter comes home with something. None of the gifts are outrageous and are quite small (e.g., notebooks, small toys, keychains, markers, mechanical pencils). Our daughter seems to just take the gifts and says thank you, and from what we can tell, she considers this child to be a friend. However, she has started to talk more about this child in recent weeks, and it sounds like about half the time, this child only gives something to our daughter, and not the other kids.

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Something about this makes my spouse and me uncomfortable. We are well-off but live well below our means, and we’re trying to raise our kids to have a healthy relationship with money and stuff. We aren’t cheap, but we’re not big gift-givers either, and we’ve shied away from throwing big birthday parties or anything that seems too materialistic or attention-seeking. We don’t buy them a lot, and we talk a lot about needs vs. wants and making sure things we buy will be worth it; at some point, we will talk about the environmental impact of consumerism. The steady stream of free stuff runs counter to our values. That said, we recognize that people have different “love languages” and people—including kids—may show their affection with gifts. This child may just be incredibly generous. However, it doesn’t quite feel ok for our daughter to just accept all these things from another child, or also, potentially be learning to be more inclined to play with a child who gives her a lot. When it comes down to it, this feels like a baby version of buying someone’s affection.

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Because of COVID, and because it’s butt-cold out there right now, having a playdate or something like that to get to know the child and their family isn’t an option for us. At this point, we’re wondering if our daughter should get this child something reasonable but nice (like a set of markers) out of her allowance money. Or perhaps she can make a thank you note, finally; but in a weird way even that feels like it is reinforcing that she should be thankful for stuff. Or maybe we should try to put a stop to the gifts, though we also don’t want to intervene and make this other kid feel badly if we’re being crazy. We also know kids are fickle and the friendship may come to an end on a dime, and this may resolve itself in a few months. What should we do?

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—Can’t Buy Me Love

Dear Can’t Buy Me Love,

Your daughter should feel thankful for these presents, even if you do not, despite the fact that you don’t want her to come to expect such a thing from this or any other friend. It is also appropriate to present the child with a thoughtful present, and an overdue thank-you note. That note should explain that while she has really appreciated getting these kind gifts, she will no longer be able to accept them because you (her parents) don’t allow her to get new things that often. It should also state that there’s no need for her friend to worry, for her affections were not the result of the presents—they won’t change now that the treats are coming to end. Good luck to you.

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Slate Plus Members Get More Advice From Jamilah Each Week

From this week’s letter, I’m Worried That My 7-Year-Old’s Bad Habit Could Lead to Trouble: “My 7-year-old daughter has never been great about telling me the truth.”

Dear Care and Feeding,

My wonderful, happy, smart 5-year-old is a cautious kid. He’s never been the type you worry about getting hurt falling out of a tree or falling down the stairs, even when he was younger. My child needs encouragement to go down the big slide at the playground. He’s shy around new people and situations, and the pandemic hasn’t helped. For example, he stays away from unknown kids at the playground. I know the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, as I have always suffered from anxiety; on top of that, I would classify myself and his father as introverts. He starts kindergarten in the fall, and I want to set him up for success. How can I make sure that my anxiety doesn’t rub off on him? Or is it already too late?

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— Worried About Worrying

Dear Worried About Worrying,

It is entirely possible that your child will be anxious with or without it “rubbing off” from you; it’s probably too late for this, but try your best not to let your child’s potential for anxiety serve as another source of anxiety for you. Instead, identify the effective strategies and mechanisms you’ve used for managing your own struggles with it and model them for your son. Talk about his fears and worries, explain the difference being adequately concerned and uncomfortably frightened by various circumstances, and give him language to help him explain his range of feelings. Let him see you and his father step out of your comfort zones in situations with new people, and talk about what it takes for you to make that happen. Keep an eye out for any behavior that implies he’s gone from simply cautious, and perhaps a bit shy, to experiencing something that seems to be causing him real trouble, and don’t be afraid to let him speak to a professional about your concerns even before that has become the case. You know how your own walk with anxiety has felt, and if you think some additional support might have benefitted you at his age, it’s entirely possible that he could use it as well. All the best to you.

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Catch Up on Care and Feeding

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

We live in a small town with only two solid middle school options: the local public middle school, which is large, and a much smaller charter school on the other side of town. The two schools are in opposite directions from one another. I have two daughters, a current sixth grader and a current seventh grader. We enrolled both in the public middle school because most of their friends from elementary school were going there, and the middle school has fairly acceptable academic outcomes.

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The problem is with my seventh grader. She’s now been at the middle school for 1.5 years and is deeply struggling. She had a falling-out with her friend group, has been experimenting with drugs and alcohol in addition to struggling with depression, feels bored in all her classes, and honestly has not been supported by the staff of the school. It’s impossible for me to get a hold of anyone (short of walking into the office myself). Teachers who have been there forever just kind of put their lessons on “autopilot,” and there isn’t much individual attention. My sixth grader, on the other hand, has had a great experience—she had an easier social transition from elementary school, and has fewer mental health and academic needs, meaning the “middle of the road” approach of the middle school actually serves her just fine. If my seventh grader was an only child, I’d move her to the charter school in a heartbeat. My neighbor’s daughter goes there and initially struggled in similar ways to my daughter, but she has really blossomed at the charter. She has a behavior plan that is adhered to, my neighbor is in text-message-contact with all her daughter’s teachers, and the atmosphere is much warmer and individual-focused.

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But moving my seventh grader would also mean moving my sixth grader. I’m a single mom with no extended family in town. The charter school does not offer a school bus. We can’t carpool with the neighbor because of my neighbor’s stated COVID boundaries (which I want to respect). I work long, unpredictable hours and cannot possibly manage two different schools’ schedules, transportation needs, and logistics. I actually don’t think the charter school would be a great fit for my sixth grader, who loves the “traditional” aspects of the middle school and has miraculously fared socially well throughout the pandemic. I don’t want to uproot her. I feel like I’m choosing between my two kids and my oldest is suffering. What in the world do I do?

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—Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Dear Hard Place,

I think you know what you have to do here, and it sucks, but it seems to be your best available option: Transfer both your children to the charter school. It doesn’t seem likely that your youngest will be academically and/or socially devastated by the move, but it seems abundantly clear that your eldest cannot endure another school year with things the way they are now. It is a difficult and uncomfortable choice, one that will impact both of your children (and that may upset your youngest), but it is the sort of unpleasant decision that has to be made under dire circumstances. What you are experiencing now is a fire, and the best way to put it out is to make the move.

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Explain to your children that you are making the decision for both of them, that your concerns about the current school are quite serious, and that while you know this may be a difficult transition for them, that you are confident they will be happier in the long run. Also, it would be ideal for your eldest (if not both of your children) to speak to a counselor or therapist about the challenges she’s been having this year; the school change is not a magic wand that will solve all of her issues, and the transfer may come with its own new concerns. Finally, do your best to absolve yourself from guilt over making a choice for both children that has the needs of one child at heart. Part of being a family means having to sacrifice, and while your youngest probably would not have chosen to do this for her sister, you are not shortchanging her by making the choice for her. Wishing the three of you all the best.

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Want Advice From Care and Feeding?

Submit your questions about parenting and family life here. It’s anonymous! (Questions may be edited for publication.)

Dear Care and Feeding,

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My partner and I are first-time parents with a now 10-week-old child. We are finding that there seem to be a lot of things that are both normal and unpleasant for babies and are trying to figure out how much to try to “fix” when our pediatrician (who I like, and who is a good balance for my alarmism) says it’s not dangerous and baby will grow out of it. Some things seem petty and/or more about our own comfort (cradle cap, spitting up, poo bombs), others more serious but hard to address (crying in pain from gas—we’ve tried a few things that don’t involve the breastfeeding parent overhauling her entire diet). We don’t want to exhaust ourselves trying to fix the unfixable (babies cry and it’s ok!), but also don’t want our baby to be in distress if it’s avoidable. How do we figure out as parents where to best direct our energies?

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—Sweating the Small Stuff

Dear Small Stuff,

Congratulations on the new baby! Sweating the small stuff is part of the work of a first-time parent, but you should be cautious not to let yourself get carried away. Google will be your best friend. Is it normal for a baby to do XYZ? Google knows! Make sure you’re looking to reputable sites, like the HealthyChildren.org, which is operated by American Academy of Pediatrics, and that you differentiate between expert information and first-person testimonies from other parents (who are experts after a fashion, but it’s not the same as taking advice from medical doctors and scholars.) Speaking of other parents, talk to people you know about non-“emergency” concerns and compare notes; chances are, they’ve been through it, and if you find that no one has, then you may need to escalate your concerns to a professional. Remind yourself and your partner that this is all very new and very hard, that no one gets it right 100 percent of the time, and that you need to be patient with yourselves and one another. Sending you lots of good energy.

—Jamilah

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