How many of you have stories to tell of when you were a young child and either your parents, older family members, or friends of the family teased you about having a “boyfriend” or “girlfriend”? Do you remember how it felt when at first it was just a question, to when it became a topic that was brought up and laughed about regularly? I do. Back in the day, which for me was the late 70’s, I was a young child and if the question was not being put to me it was being put to one of my siblings or my friends. At the time I remember feeling embarrassed, uncomfortable, and not understanding how to respond. I also remember the feeling of not knowing how to talk to my Mom and Dad about it.
When I first started my teaching career it was pretty common for my colleagues to “joke” about the students they saw forming friendships to be “boyfriend and girlfriend”. Sometimes the people joking about this were really just joking, yet other times I was around co-workers who were not joking. They would continue to make comments about how certain children looked like they were in a real romantic relationship, and yes, still laugh about it. I admit that early on in my career I also took part in joking about this topic, but the difference was I really was just joking. Young children are new to the world. Being new to the world also means they are new to relationship building. Social skills are complex and young people are consistently working on these skills daily with whoever they interact with. Young children’s emotional growth is still formulating and has years to grow, understand, and master. I am so happy that I stopped “joking” about young children having boyfriends or girlfriends almost as soon as I joined my older peers who were engaging in this toxic behavior. Implying even in a joking manner that young children of the opposite or same sex are involved in a romantic relationship is toxic and harmful to young children’s psyche.
When children grow up in households in which they see their parents and loved ones expressing their love for one another, they observe how to show affection. They are witnessing hugging, snuggling, and telling each other how they feel. And children are experiencing these same affectionate actions from their loved ones. This is healthy growth and development for children to be a part of. What is not healthy is when adults choose to tease young children about their very sensitive, fragile relationship-building skills, and their emerging emotional senses. If you have ever been around when a young child is being questioned about their new “boyfriend or girlfriend” you may have witnessed the child becoming red, shouting back, “he’s not!”. The child may also look down and away, fidget, and reluctantly seem to agree with the person teasing. At that moment in time, the child is stating through pure body language that they are very uncomfortable with the interaction. Romantic relationships are not in the world of a young child. Friendships are the only types of relationships outside of their familial roles.
Social skill development takes years to master. Emotional development/ intelligence also takes years to master, and quite frankly not all adults have matured in those areas often lumped together. For young children making friends is a delicate and time-consuming process. Firstly, young minds tend to focus on more concrete characteristics of the person they are becoming friends with, such as, the color shirt they wear, the types of play interests they have, and the sheer joy they feel when interacting with this child. Emotionally children are figuring out how to read what they are feeling and how to respond to those complex emotions. Sorting out likes, dislikes, feelings of laughter, etc. are all a part of this process. When children have found a “friend” that they play often with it may mean both children are on the same level of building their relationship. However, there are times when through the journey of building friendships one child may be more interested in getting to know another child than that child is about getting to know them. An example is currently happening in my class. I have one student who I will call Emily, and another child I will call Tommy. Emily really wants to get to know Tommy better. She recognizes they have similar personalities, they both enjoy quieter play. She also is a very empathetic child, so when Tommy has been quieter than his peers Emily thinks he is sad and wants to help him feel better with a hug. Tommy is not comfortable with his personal space being invaded without his permission, which is a good thing. Emily is learning to ask permission before she comes up and hugs him. There is disequilibrium in their early stages of friendship building, yet the disequilibrium is different for both.
For Emily disequilibrium is not as steep a hill to climb, she already has decided Tommy is her friend and that they have similar interests. Tommy on the other hand has a much steeper mountain to climb. The disequilibrium for Tommy is wider than for Emily. Tommy is still figuring out how to take steps towards building a friendship. Making friends is new to him and he does not know how to respond to another child who is more advanced in the friendship building department. For these two children, the level of learning how to be friends is very different. Each rung on the ladder that is being formed takes time, positive interactions, practice communicating, and internal interest in both children wanting to get to know each other. At the heart of this process is trust. Trust takes years to develop in young children when it involves other children. Young children automatically and unconditionally trust their parents, guardian, and teachers most of the time. Trusting peers is a different story. Just as easily as trust can be formed it can quickly come crashing down with one word, look, or action. Misunderstandings are very common in the early years because social and emotional skills are in their infancy. Emily and Tommy are on their way to becoming friends, they are not boyfriend and girlfriend. The “love” Emily shows towards Tommy is her way of saying I am ready to be friends and get to know you better. She is communicating that she has fun when she is playing with Tommy and likes how she feels when she is with another person who has similar interests as hers. I love watching these types of friendships develop, but no matter how adorable, sweet and wonderful I find this life process, I do not see it in any way as a romantic relationship. And I would never tease that they are boyfriend or girlfriend.
Returning to the topic of body language. My school is inspired by the Reggio Emilia Approach to Early Education. I follow the school of thought that children have 100 ways of expressing themselves. One hundred ways of communicating what they are curious about, what they want to discover, in what ways they want to learn more about their topic of interest, and making all of those discoveries. through play. Think about any time in your life when either you experienced this or you have witnessed a child reacting in an uncomfortable way when someone teases them about having a boyfriend or girlfriend. How did you feel when this happened to you or how did you feel when you observed this happening to another child? As I mentioned earlier, when a child turns red, gets angry, smiles laughs, fidgets, or tries to hide, these are body languages the child is expressing, which is the only way the child feels they are able to respond. It is up to us adults to understand how to read those signals and stop teasing in this manner. If you are an adult family member or friend, step in to make sure the child involved is being not only protected but respected. These uncomfortable situations for young children are also much worse if the teasing is coming from their own family or a close relative or family friend. In our society, we tend to give in to the “guest” rather than step up and protect a child who is being unfairly treated. Our society pressures us to bend over backward to make the “guest ” feel comfortable, yet when the child involved in this type of teasing is clearly uncomfortable, society wants the child to not only comply in a kind and complicit manner but to put up with it because it is deemed polite.
In today’s day and age, we must stop encouraging and supporting those who romanticize friendship building in young children. Instead, we must support children emotionally and socially. We must not be afraid to offend another adult who thinks it is okay to teas in this manner. We must be committed to helping those people understand why it is not okay to romanticize young children’s early and new friendships. As children grow they see their parents, grandparents, extended family, and friends all engage in romance to a certain degree. From these experiences, they learn what is acceptable and what is not. Let children be children. When they grow into teenagers and are ready for romantic relationships let’s support those new experiences as well by not teasing them when they are showing how uncomfortable they are with it. If we want children to form healthy relationships we must first support and respect them in the early years and throughout their developmental journey. Let us always step up to support young children and be there for them when they need us. If you want to joke about “boyfriend and girlfriend” stuff make sure you know it is a joke and do not share it with the young children it is in reference to. And if you are a parent of young children please make sure you are not dressing and setting your child up for such teasing. I am not shaming the different styles young children wear, but I think most of us can agree that certain styles of clothing are simply not meant for young children. Children are children so let them be the young carefree people they deserve to be at this point in their lives.
Please feel free to share your experiences with this particular type of teasing. And I will say that if you disagree with my posting explain the experiences you had that cause you to feel differently. We only grow and learn frome understanding different viewpoints.