One night last spring, as I was tucking my seven-year-old daughter in at bedtime, she started telling me about a boy in her class who liked her.
“He told me he wants to go on a date with me,” she said, smiling.
“Uh-huh,” I replied, trying to sound nonchalant.
“And that he wants to kiss me at sunset!” she exclaimed, dissolving into giggles.
How do you feel about him?” I asked after she’d recovered, remembering my own first crush in grade one, and the games of kiss-tag my girlfriends and I initiated with far-less-interested boys during recess in grade three.
“He’s OK,” she said. “But I think we’re too young to be kissing.”
Well, thank goodness! I thought, feeling rattled and totally unprepared for talking about crushes with my little girl. Over the next couple weeks, conversations with other parents revealed that who-likes-whom in the classroom had suddenly become important.
“It’s a normal phase of development,” says Allison Bates, a registered clinical counsellor who practises in Burnaby and Coquitlam, BC. Her son, age six, has just started asking about relationships and saying things like, “Mom, who’s my girlfriend again?”
“Between ages six and eight, our kids start to think about their classmates in a different way, maybe liking a boy or thinking he’s kind of cute,” Bates explains.
This developmental shift, says Calgary parenting coach Julie Freedman Smith, coincides with an awareness of the social conventions around privacy and their bodies—kids this age will start requesting to change in the gender-appropriate dressing room after swim lessons, for example. “They learn that there’s some kind of a ‘should’ and ‘shouldn’t’ around nudity and sexuality,” Freedman Smith says. “This is a time when you’re more likely to walk in on two kids behind closed doors playing doctor.”
Also influencing first crushes are the fairy-tale messages children receive from books and movies, such as stories about a princess and her prince. “It’s the idea that you fall in love with someone,” says Freedman Smith, whose nine-year-old son has been crushing on girls since he was in grade one.
Kids this age are also just doing something they’ve been doing since birth: copying their parents. “They start to mimic relationships that people around them have,” says Bates. “They start to ask questions like, ‘How did you and Dad meet?’”
It can be a challenge for parents to react appropriately. “You still see them as your little babies,” she says. For that reason, it’s important to have a plan. “This is the beginning of talking about relationships. Parents should be calm about it, because you’ve got to keep that door of communication open.” Bates says parents shouldn’t laugh it off, or tell their kids they’re too young to be interested in the opposite sex. If they start to feel embarrassed, they might not be honest with you in the future.
Instead, be curious and ask questions: “Why do you like that boy?” or “What interests you about him? Is he funny? Is he really good at soccer?” she suggests. Focus on what they value about their crush. This will help kids see the importance of their own inner qualities.
Freedman Smith says it’s a delicate balance between validating the child’s feelings while not putting too much attention on the crush. “The feelings are real, even though the relationships aren’t adult relationships,” she says. “I think we still need to honour and respect our kids.”
A version of this article appeared in our December 2012 with the headline “First crush,” p. 74.