Ask the Expert: Should We Ignore Childhood Crush?

Q: Our second-grader has a crush. He talks about his “girlfriend” all the time, asks to call her and writes notes in class and wants to bring little gifts. This behavior seems advanced and inappropriate for such a young age. Should we say something to him about it or will it just bring more attention to the behavior?

A. The first thing I consider when I look at this question — or any question about a child’s behavior — is, from a developmental perspective, what is the main task for this child?
What research shows and what developmental theorists have told us over the past century is each age group has its own tasks that the child is trying to complete to feel successful. For second graders — around age 7 to 9, depending on the child — this task is developing a sense of self. They do this by trying to become more independent and trying to show initiative. They try to do things on their own.

Children work on this a couple of ways. Sometimes, they do it academically because school is a really big part of their lives. They might start to define themselves by their success at school and to show more independence in their schoolwork. The other way they do it is in peer relationships, so for a child to have a crush or to want to put himself out there and write another child notes or write a little girl a love letter, is really indicative of him trying to complete his task of being autonomous.

Showing this initiative is really developmentally appropriate. It’s healthy for that age group, as long as there are no overtly sexual undertones.

Your child is taking those steps to try to form his sense of self. His actions are saying, “What qualities do I like about her?” or, “How is she different from me?” When your children are able to start looking at other people and choose to like them because they are different or the same, that means they’re developing a sense of self. As their “self” becomes more cohesive, they are able to form relationships with other people.

In this case, you could also try to engage him and say, “Tell me her qualities — what do you like about her? Is she nice? Is she pretty? Is she funny?” Identifying these qualities also helps your child develop his sense of self.

Normally during this time period, boys will want to form friendships with boys and girls will want to form friendships with girls. If you go to a second-grade class, you’ll generally see the boys playing together and the girls playing together.

When a child decides to be friends with a member of the opposite sex, he looks to the world around him to see how other people do that. If he sees Dad buy flowers for Mom or he’s watching television shows where boys and girls are sending each other flowers, then he learns by social referencing. He realizes when a boy likes a girl and wants to be friends with a girl, this is what he needs to do to show her that. Frankly, in a healthy marriage, he probably does see his dad buy his mom flowers or say nice things, so he is just doing what Dad is doing — but he doesn’t understand the sexual connotation of that.

There is interesting research that suggests that children, during this developmental period, who show more initiative, who show more industry, who try to do things on their own and who put forth the hard work to make the friend, tend to do that as adults, too, and are more successful.

If he has put himself out there by showing this initiative and she is responding well to it, then he is conquering that task. He is learning that, wow, when I take this chance, when I do show initiative, it really pays off. I’m going to keep doing this.
Crushes are pretty normal and psycho-sexually he is in a latent stage right now, so he is probably not even thinking about it that way. As long as you do not suspect any sexual undertones — which it did not sound like you did — I think this is not only appropriate but developmentally healthy for him. It is up to you to set boundaries with which you are comfortable. For example, you might say, “Let’s limit it to one note a day,” or tell him, “We don’t need to spend money to make friends — you don’t have to buy her something.”

If your child needs behavioral health services, contact Presbyterian Behavioral Health Services’ 24-hour ACCESS line at 704-384-4255.

Nicolle is a clinical neuropsychologist at Presbyterian Hospital Rehabilitation Center and part of the adjunct faculty at Queens University of Charlotte.