Slow Dance, Fast Track
Last September, as the first leaves fluttered from the trees, Jill S. felt a seasonal stirring in her daughter's life. At age 11, just entering sixth grade, Ann was flush with excitement over her first boyfriend.
"When I picked her up at a middle-school dance, she was so happy and said, 'Guess who I danced with?' It was David, a boy she'd described as her 'mortal enemy' for two years. She said, 'We slow danced twice! Ask me some questions!' It was all sort of happening for her that night, in a very sweet way."
But the innocence gave way to parental concern two days later, when David called and asked Ann to go to the movies. Even though a double date was planned, Jill felt her daughter was too young to pair up. After conferring with the boy's parents, an alternative was planned: the kids had pizza at David's house, then went bowling with parents in tow.
They Push, You Pull
"What's happening in sixth grade is the kids are starting to pull away from you, and you're trying to reel them back in," Jill reflects. "As parents, we begin to struggle with, 'What's my role with my child?' Because we're seeing adolescent behaviors, but it's still too soon to let them move into that independence without the guidance they need."
For parents, a child's budding interest in members of the opposite sex is often cause for apprehension. Parental concern about emerging sexuality is nothing new, but the issue is decidedly more complicated now than it was a generation ago. With toy makeup marketed to preschoolers, midriff tops and skin-tight jeans worn by 8-year-old girls, and sexually provocative lyrics parroted by 11-year-old would-be rappers, children's thinking and behavior is vastly influenced by their exposure to sexually charged media. Technology in the form of email, Web surfing, and online chats is also changing the way boys and girls relate, creating new challenges for parents.
How Much Is Too Much?
After seeing her daughter send some "inappropriate" emails, Jill S. decided to monitor Ann's messages. One day, her daughter sent an email to David: "So-and-so told me you don't like me anymore and I still like you and I want you to be my first kiss." David emailed back: "I still like you, and yes, I'll be your first kiss." Although Jill didn't talk with Ann about the email, she later learned that "the first kiss" had occurred at a party, during a game of "spin the bottle" she'd asked her daughter not to play. There were no reprimands, but Jill was left with unanswered questions.
"It's tricky. As parents, do we feel it's okay or not okay? My gut says it's not appropriate at this age, but then I wonder -- is that because I don't want to let go of my daughter?"
Mars and Venus: Different for Boys and Girls
What kids tell their parents or friends about crushes, and how they handle them, is often dictated by gender, says Stephanie Meiselman, a clinical psychologist at The Medical Psychology Center in Beverly, Massachusetts.
Girls: "Typically they talk about things more, with each other certainly, and perhaps with their mother."
Boys: "A lot of the time they don't talk about their feelings for a girl, or aren't even aware of them."
Girls: "They're very intense about relationships. They're best friends in the morning, enemies in the afternoon, then best friends again. There's a lot of confiding about crushes."
Boys: "They may be very sensitive to being teased by friends, so they don't say anything."
Keeping the Lines of Communication Open
Parents, Meiselman believes, may tend to blow a crush out of proportion or ignore it entirely, when in fact, both boys and girls may need conversational "openings" to allow them to talk about their feelings.
A dismissive statement, likely to shut down a conversation is, "Oh come on, you're only nine. There's plenty of time for that." An overreaction would be, "Don't think you're going on any dates, young lady."
Striking a neutral, curious tone is best with children of both sexes, Meiselman recommends. If a child confides, "I think I like Joey," a good response might be to simply ask: "What do you like about him?" Kids may give a vague reply: "I don't know. It's weird." But genuine curiosity ("What's weird about it?") may help get a dialogue going.
If kids are hesitant to talk, Meiselman advises parents to use what she calls the "Some Kids Approach," saying things like, "Some kids worry they might get teased if they admit they like someone." This kind of comment gives a child a chance to dismiss or disown an idea if it doesn't resonate with his or her own experience, or open up and talk if it does.
Gauging Feelings of Self-Worth
Monitoring early crushes can also give parents a sense of a child's self-esteem.
"You want to watch out for comments like, 'She won't like me because I'm fat,' or 'He won't like me because I'm tall.'" Meiselman advises, "It's a good opportunity to remind children, 'We don't like or not like someone because of just one thing about them.'"
While comparing notes and strategies with other parents can be useful, focusing too much on the first pluck of a child's heartstrings is usually not warranted, as Jill S. has discovered. Barely four months after Ann's first slow dance with David, his name has yet to become a household word.
"I think it's toned down," Jill muses. "If things are still going on, we're not hearing about it!"