Out of all parents in general, I think I'm more inclined to sympathize with people who don't exactly know what to say to kids. I've never been a fan of using baby talk with kids (or even babies), and I generally tend to lean on the side of challenging kids to elevate their understanding beyond what kids are conventionally tasked with thinking about, as opposed to limiting what I'll talk to them about in an attempt to shelter them. So, like, I can understand the reasons behind the things people say to my son that are creepy. They're probably just the byproduct of a judgment call grey area.
That said, some of the things that I've experienced people — family, friends, teachers, random-ass strangers on the street — choosing to say to my son just rub me entirely the wrong way, my natural inclination to be understanding be damned. When you know something is "off," you just know.
And for what it's worth, I do understand that most of these things are historically very common to say to kids, and I don't really judge the people who say them. I mean, I definitely wish they wouldn't, but I don't assume most people spend a great deal of energy analyzing and unpacking the real implications of certain ways we're all socialized to communicate with kids. We've heard these things said to them a million times, they were said to us, and they're so common that they must surely be totally benign or even positive, right?
Well, no. And because I am the kind of insufferable person who picks apart what we're saying to kids and the kinds of messages we're subsequently delivering to their tragically impressionable brains, let me do the work for you: please stop saying the following things to my son. Talk to him about his cool wheelie sneakers, or climate change, or the failing subway system, or the prison industrial complex — basically anything other than the following:
"Is That Your Girlfriend?"
I mean, no, it's definitely not his girlfriend because he's 5 years old. Please stop trying to sexualize these innocent childhood relationships. He doesn't know what that means, but the way you're saying it is weirding him out, and it's weirding me out. He literally has the rest of his life to feel confused about his relationships. Let him live. Also, who's to say he's going to even be into girls like that? Stop projecting sexuality onto my child. It's gross.
"Are You Mom's Date?"
Look, I'm such an amazing mom that any woman in his possible future will fail to compare to my overall excellence. That ship has sailed, and I have mixed feelings about it. But if I don't want you to prematurely sexualize his relationships with his female peers, I definitely don't want you to even approach sexualizing his relationship with his mother, what the hell is wrong with you. No, we are not dating, dear god.
"You're So Handsome, I Bet All The Ladies Love You!"
Again with the forced interpersonal dynamics. Cut it. Also, if you're going to give him the impression that certain qualities will make him more appealing to other people, maybe step outside the superficial. What if he's not handsome? Some people aren't! He's cute as sh*t right now, obviously, but what if ends up with a hook for a hand one day, and because people like you made him feel like his physical attractiveness is the best thing he has to offer someone else, he feels devalued? This is like half a compliment, but also half a set of expectations.
And don't tell me I'm thinking too hard about it. You're the one who wants to know if my son and I are dating.
"Are You Pretending To Be [Insert Profession Here]?"
When my kid is building a tower with Legos, or sketching a suspension bridge, he isn't "pretending" to be an architect — he is one. He talks about it like it just is his career. It's his job. It's what he is and what he does, he's merely in the very early stages of his training (ya know, learning to read and do math), but nothing about it is pretend to him. The same is true of kids who are obsessed with learning piano, or dance, or love to make art. They aren't "pretending" to be artists — they are artists. I feel like telling kids that whatever they're doing isn't quite real or doesn't quite count doesn't do any good, and could potentially (depending on the kid, who's saying it to them, and how they're saying it) dissuade and discourage them from taking their pursuits seriously (which is honestly the only thing that will eventually lead them to not pretending one day).
This one might not matter a lot to many kids who really do see their hobbies or games as "pretending" to be something, but the change in how you ask this question is so minor that I feel like we can all just agree to adjust for the sake of kids who don't see their interests as "pretend." Isn't it just as easy to say, "Oh wow, so you're an architect?" Especially when it's the difference between being incredibly validating and empowering and being dismissive and belittling.