Childhood Crushes — and How to Talk to Your Kids About Them
While cutting out dozens of red, pink and white paper hearts with my kids at the kitchen table this past Valentine’s Day, I discovered that my 6-year-old daughter likes a boy in her class. With a shy smile, she told me his name and even used the term, “crush,” which I’d never heard her say before.
Alternately talkative and bashful, it appeared that she both wanted — and didn’t want — to talk about it. I asked a few questions as we continued to cut and paste our homemade Valentines and learned a few things about the boy: He’s a first-grader who thinks my daughter makes funny jokes. They sometimes play together at recess. I also discovered that one of my daughter’s friends asked if it was OK to tell the boy about her feelings (kudos to respectful kindergarteners!), and that she gave permission.
Recalling Past Kid Crushes
I admit to feeling a bit surprised by my daughter’s announcement, but after a moment’s reflection, I easily recalled my own strong feelings for a boy in kindergarten. His name was Aaron, and he was cute, silly and nice to me — you might say the complete package. Aaron and I liked playing together at recess, as my daughter does with her first-grade friend. I remember telling my mom about him, too.
Then one day, Aaron told me that his mom said that my mom said that I had a crush on him. “Does that mean we’re boyfriend and girlfriend?” he asked with a shrug.
I was horrified. While I don’t remember what I said to Aaron, I confronted my mother about her betrayal that afternoon. She told me that it was nothing to worry — or get too excited — about. What I felt was “puppy love,” she said, and it would soon pass.
I do remember feeling like something had changed between Aaron and me after that. The emotions that I hadn’t quite known how to define suddenly felt exposed and pigeon-holed. While I did want him to like me back in the same way, I didn’t want to do anything about it necessarily, or for the relationship to change. I certainly didn’t want to become boyfriend and girlfriend.
My embarrassment and confusion caused me to start ignoring him, and Aaron and I eventually moved on. I have no idea what he did for the intervening decades since we were in kindergarten together, though I may have looked him up on the internet while writing this article. (In case you were wondering, I don’t think our relationship would have made it far.)
Overreacting and Underreacting
While my mom did a wonderful job recognizing and validating emotions in certain childhood situations, in this one, she was doing what a lot of mothers of her generation did. Some might call it Americans’ tendency to overreact or underreact, or both, to kid crushes, and it’s part of our cultural inheritance. But Bonnie J. Rough, author of “Beyond Birds and Bees: Bringing Home a New Message to Our Kids About Sex, Love, and Equality,” wants to change the way we approach kid crushes.
A few years ago, Rough had the chance to closely observe third-grade classrooms in the Netherlands. There, she found that teachers impart a number of important lessons about love — including familial love, the love of friendship and pets, and also the feeling of being in love. Dutch teachers let kids know “that this is a valid and expected feeling for people of any age to have, normalizing the idea that anyone can feel love and romance,” Rough says.
She also observed that, in general, Dutch parents seemed more open and accepting of bodies, sexuality and love than their American counterparts.
Sometimes, adults tease children about their romantic feelings or wrongly ascribe amorous overtones to platonic friendships. Rough cautions against both of those, as they can instill shame and make children clam up.
Rough also noticed that teachers and parents in the Netherlands discouraged teasing among classmates about crushes. It’s all part of the Dutch approach to normalizing — even welcoming — romantic feelings and sexuality in general.
How Young Is Too Young?
Just as preschoolers like to play teacher, doctor, mommy, daddy and a whole slew of other roles they see adults in, child development experts say that when very young children talk about having a boyfriend or a girlfriend — or who they’re going to marry — it’s, to some degree, an indication of adult-mimicking behavior. Some parents feel alarmed when very young children express romantic feelings, but it’s best not to jump to conclusions about what they’re really feeling.
While they can indeed have special feelings for certain people, pets or toys, they don’t have the context yet to organize and categorize a number of different behaviors and feelings. In a few months’ or years’ time, they won’t really want to marry their mom, dad, babysitter, teacher, best friend, dog or favorite stuffed animal.
Sometimes, preschoolers do develop crushes similar to those of older kids, and that’s OK, too. People develop at different times, and there’s a wide range of “normal.”
Experts stress that validating feelings, while remaining open, curious and neutral about younger kids’ emotional lives, is the way to go.
Ways Into the Conversation
Around ages six to eight, parents can elicit thoughts and opinions around the general topic of crushes. Try asking, “Have you heard anyone at school talk about crushes?” or “Do kids in your classroom have crushes?” If your child does let on to special feelings for someone — which, it bears mentioning, can be between same or differently gendered children regardless of future sexual orientation — Rough says, “I like the approach of not being superficial about it.”
In other words, don’t focus your interest on looks. She suggests asking questions such as, “What do you like about them?” “What’s fun to do with that person?” and “What makes you happy about being around them?”
When kids are on the younger side of elementary school, like my own daughter, Rough emphasizes relishing the feeling of having a crush with your kids. You can say something like, “Isn’t it great to have these kinds of feelings?” without projecting too much meaning or future actions (like dating or marriage!) onto their experience.
Talking about crushes with younger children can be a great way to teach about touch in healthy relationships, which will set the stage for discussions about consensual sex later. If your elementary-aged child tells you about holding hands or even sharing a kiss on the cheek with his or her crush, it’s a wonderful time to ask questions like, “How did it feel to hold hands with Jenna?”
It’s also a good time to remind your child that it’s OK to say yes or no to touch, and to change one’s mind. “Did you ask Liam if he wanted to hold hands, too?” is an age-appropriate way to show the importance of consent.
I’ve certainly noticed that my own two children show gender-stereotyped behaviors when it comes to crushes — like the fact that my 6-year-old daughter is forthcoming with her romantic feelings, and my 9-year-old son appears reticent to share. “Where do they pick up these gender-stereotyped behaviors when they’re being raised in an egalitarian household?” I ask myself once in a while, and then I remember, “Oh yeah, from pretty much everywhere.”
On Valentine’s Day, I discovered that my son is aware of crushes in his classroom and that he has special feelings for someone. But that’s about it. Rough cites research showing that American boys crave emotional intimacy at the same rates that girls do, but fears about appearing un-boy-like can get in the way. Conversations around crushes can help acknowledge the wonderful complexity of emotions that all humans — regardless of gender or sexual orientation — can have.
Following my son’s lead, I expressed interest and acceptance of his feelings and asked a couple of questions about the subject while keeping it light. That’s all he seemed comfortable with, and he now knows that we can talk more about it if he wants to.
There’s no need to pepper your child with daily questions about his or her crush, but when the subject does come up naturally in conversation, great. That teaches kids that romance and relationships are a normal part of life — neither the most nor the least important thing.
If your child expresses interest in spending time outside of school or other activities with his or her crush, you can also reach out to the parent about an age-appropriate playdate, like meeting at a local park. However, I don’t recommend confiding in the other parent that your kid has a crush on their kid — even if the crush appears mutual — unless you know that parent very well and can trust them not to embarrass the children, tease or blow it out of proportion.
They Don’t Have to Do Anything
Having a crush is a pleasurable feeling for many of us — adults and kids alike. The object of a crush doesn’t have to be told, nor does a relationship have to be defined in order for that pleasure to be real.
In most cases, kid crushes eventually change or wane in importance on their own without a lot of intervention or drama.
Keep the Conversation Going
“When it comes to healthy sexuality, one of the most important things — perhaps the most important thing — that a child can have is an open, accepting, compassionate, shame-free line of communication with their parents,” Rough says.
Before you know it, younger kids will be tweens, teens and adults — with all the joyful, exhilarating and, sometimes, painful parts of relationships that those stages bring. If at all possible, savor your child’s crushes, and keep the communication flowing to set the stage for a future of healthy relationships.