Date: December 1, 2007
Boys and girls have always been attracted to one another. But when attraction begins varies tremendously from one person to another. For some, those feelings of attraction start in late elementary school. For others, it’s not until high school. Although the age gap varies, experts agree when a child of 9 or 10 years old begins showing interest in the opposite gender, parents need to sit up and take notice.
“Kids this age may have a boy- or girlfriend, but still not know what dating means,” says Shaunti Feldhahn, relationship researcher and analyst, and author of “For Young Women Only.” “They are mimicking what they see played out on TV or by teenagers, but they don’t have a full grasp of how a relationship works.”
Parents, she says, might have a tendency to dismiss these early relationships as trivial, but they should be taken seriously.
“It’s an advanced signal of what is to come and needs to be addressed by Mom and Dad while they still have a major influence in their child’s life,” Feldhahn suggests.
Jane Bowen, director of a statewide parent education organization agrees. “Parents should take the lead in facilitating age-appropriate discussions with their preteen regarding friendships, dating, decision-making and sex. If your son says he has a girlfriend or is ‘going out’ with someone, ask what that means,” she says.
But according to Bowen, talking about it shouldn’t be a one-time deal.
“These conversations need to happen frequently so parents know where their preteens are in relationships and preteens know what their parents’ expectations are,” she continues.
This is what Patty and David Ford did with their 9-year-old daughter Amber. “When she was in the fourth grade, Amber would tell me that so-and-so liked her and that other girls in the class had boyfriends,” recalls Patty. “I felt like if she came and shared it with me, it was important that we talk about it.”
Ford told her daughter she was too young to have a boyfriend, but she was careful to keep the line of communication open.
Two years later, a bigger relational issue cropped up. With the parent-child dialogue already established, Ford was able to help her daughter navigate the sticky situation.
“This past fall, a boy at school gave Amber a necklace,” says Ford. “Since it was right before her 11th birthday we told her if she wanted to keep it, it would have to be a birthday gift.”
But on her birthday, the same boy gave Amber a card with $50 tucked inside of it. Amber didn’t know what to do, so she brought the money home and talked it over with her mother.
“I told her there was no way she could keep it, and she understood,” Ford explains. “We talked about how accepting a gift like that could make the boy think their relationship could possibly go to the next level — holding hands, giving him a kiss, that kind of thing. We agreed that I would call the boy’s parents, explain the situation and tell them the money would be returned the next day.”
When parents talk with their children, they should communicate their values and expectations and then lay out boundaries. Equally important is to explain why the boundaries are there.
“Rather than imposing rules preteens may resent, help them understand reasons why the rules are there so they begin to develop that internal compass,” says Feldhahn.
Parents should also try to find out what is influencing their child — be it friends, an older sibling, or some form of media — so they can address the issue as a whole.
“When Amber and I talk about relationships, I find out what is going on not just with her, but with the entire sixth-grade class,” says Ford. “It helps me understand what’s influencing her. Is it persuasion from a new friend? Is she trying to fit in? Does she feel pressured?”
Although 10-year-old Jordan Adams isn’t yet attracted to the opposite gender, he fell prey to a peer-induced pair off that made him uncomfortable.
“This past fall, Jordan’s school organized a dance for the kids,” explains his mother Amy. “It was supposed to be a reward for good grades, but things spiraled out of control. Jordan came home one day and told me he didn’t want to go to school because everyone had a date for the dance and he didn’t.”
Adams called the school and talked with the principal. He informed her that the administration knew nothing about the pair offs; it had been instigated by the students.
“Up to this point, I hadn’t discussed boy/girl relationships with Jordan,” Adams says. “I didn’t think I needed to. But I’m realizing now that even if he isn’t thinking about girls, the kid sitting next to him in class may be, so I’ve got to maintain a constant dialogue with him.”
“Attractions are normal and will only increase as children grow,” Bowen concludes. “If we want to prepare our kids for healthy dating relationships later on, we need to start communicating and building a trusting relationship with them now.”
Denise Yearian is the former editor of two parenting magazines and the mother of three children.
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