When your child becomes interested in the opposite sex
Not long ago your child was disinterested in the opposite sex – or even actively derisive of them. But all that changes when the first stirrings of romantic feelings arrive

Somewhere in cyberspace, a wise child is quoted as saying: “If falling in love is anything like learning how to spell, I don’t want to do it!” And in truth, many parents, who well remember the pain and the potential dangers that come with first love, rather wish this aversion would last a little longer.

But there will come a time (and soon) when your little girl or boy is going to feel the first stirrings of love, infatuation, lust and the more enduring kind of love – friendship.

Gender differentiation

While babies may be blind to gender, children soon learn to differentiate. In Gender, Nature and Nurture, Richard A Lippa asserts that boys and girls play differently and with different toys, and that as a result boys tend to hang out together in groups, while girls form friendship clusters or pairs with other girls.

When does it start?

He says, “Starting at around age 3, children interact more with children of the same sex than with children of the opposite sex, and as childhood progresses, children play and socialise more exclusively with members of their own sex ... Childhood sex segregation does not dwindle until puberty approaches and children begin to experience the romantic and sexual attractions that will entice them back into frequent interactions with the opposite sex.”

Cheryl Jordaan, a life orientation teacher at Weltevreden Park Primary in Johannesburg, comments: “Children associate with each other regardless of gender at first. They play together and then slowly start seeing each other in a different light. In Grade 3, children start having an awareness of one another, friendships blossom and the first inklings of romantic interest flourish.”

Cheryl notes that this interest starts younger and younger. “Girls reach puberty faster these days and kids in general mature earlier, yet very few are aware of the implications and true meanings of having boyfriends and girlfriends,” explains Cheryl,“They’re talking, hanging out and maybe have a ‘crush’ on a person, but a lot of this behaviour is driven by the peer group.”

When does pairing up happen?

Durban child psychologist Anneline van der Westhuizen explains that children will typically start “pairing up” from about 10 or so, but it could be younger. “Kids are influenced by media images more than ever and are more sophisticated now than we were. Don’t be surprised to learn that your 8-year-old has a crush on a boy.”

The influence relationships have on your child

While they may look like child’s play, the relationships that kids form with their peers from the age of 6 months through adolescence, exert enormous influence on their lives – whether fostering positive feelings through friendship, or contributing to school-adjustment and later-life problems through bullying and rejection.

Early cross-gender experiences are influential, too, according to a study by the American Psychological Association. It looked at 78 people, who were studied from infancy. At the first checkpoint, when the participants were 12 months old, caregivers reported on the children’s attachment and exploratory behaviour.

At the second checkpoint when the participants were 6-8 years old, the participants’ teachers were asked to rate how well the children interacted with their peers. A key finding in the study showed that the way in which individuals think, feel and behave in adult romantic relationships is governed not only by factors in their immediate surroundings, but is also a result of their past relationships and personal attachment extending all the way back to childhood.

How this relates to adulthood

Where adult participants were secure and confident in relationships, it was found that they had been socially competent amongst peers in childhood. Participants who were closer to friends as a teen were more expressive and emotionally attached to their romantic partners in early adulthood.

Commenting on this study, Anneline says, “It might be a bit of a stretch to completely validate this line of thinking. Plenty of children who have had bad experiences of crushes and infatuations, indeed friendships, go on to have substantial relationships in adulthood. But,” she points out, “childhood infatuations and first love can be sweet, tender experiences and you should never discount the importance they play in your child’s life.”

Pairing up, semi-dating and crushing

Pairing up, semi-dating, crushing, whatever the kids are calling it these days shouldn’t send you into a spin, but you do need to be aware of what is going on and discuss age-appropriate boundaries.

“Parents have a right to be concerned, of course you don’t want your child indulging in grown-up behaviour, but you can allow certain freedoms like chatting on the phone for a bit. Remember, it’s up to you as a parent to decide what is age-appropriate,” says Anneline.

She advises acknowledging the child’s emotional and cognitive developmental level and the nature of the relationship. So, while in Grade 2 the boyfriend/girlfriend scenario may play out as someone to play with, in Grade 6 it might be the onset of proper dating – wanting to go to movies, school dances and group dates together.

For the kids themselves, this is a time of exploration and learning. Says Pilaar Hassen 12, a Grade 7 learner at Weltevreden Park Primary, “I have had a boyfriend and my parents allow me certain freedoms but I’m not allowed to go on dates alone.”

Tyler Pakos, 13, a fellow classmate, is also allowed to have a “girlfriend” but his parents must approve. Other learners mentioned similar guidelines and rules set down by their parents.

What does it mean to have a boyfriend or girlfriend

But what does it mean to have a girlfriend or boyfriend? It seems that initially, the term just refers to a special friend of the opposite sex. “It’s someone to talk to,” relates Pilaar, “someone to hang out with, be friends with.”

Peer influence is a major factor. Most of the learners agree that the push to date or “go out” with someone has a lot to do with what their friends are doing.

The fall-out

Then there’s the ugly side of children’s relationships at this tender age. The fall-out. Sometimes there’s name-calling and bullying. “Some girls do get called nasty names,” one of the learners admits, “you don’t really know if it’s true, it could be because she’s seen to be doing grown-up things or it could be untrue. But there is definitely name-calling that goes on when a girl has too many boyfriends.”

Cheryl has seen this sort of behaviour at school. She says, “I sometimes catch kids name-calling and when questioned, they don’t even know what the words actually mean. In most cases it’s caused by jealousy, but a lot of children at this age are merely reacting and using phrases they hear on TV, on the radio and so on.”

Romantic relationships

Romantic relationships bring with them a whole new set of dangers, and present a new set of emotional and social demands. There is so much to learn – how to ask someone out, how to accept or reject such an offer, how to let someone down gently, and so much more.

There is potential for heartbreak, which is hard for children to go through and for parents to watch. Says one learner, “Some boys are so immature, they actually break up with you through their friends!”

The time for friendships

Infatuation and first love relationships aside, this is also a time for friendships. Says Anneline, “Between the ages of 3 and 7, your child thinks of friends as those with whom he is playing at the moment or often. Friendship is not thought of as a relationship that endures over time. Somewhere between ages 4 and 9, children slowly become aware that other people might think differently than they do. Then a friend becomes someone who pleases him and he enjoys ‘doing stuff’ with.

“Still, there’s no real focus on the two-way relationship. It’s not until ages 6 through 12 that kids begin to understand the reciprocal nature of friendship. And it’s usually not until teen years that friendship is understood as a process in which different people with different ideas and personalities learn to cooperate.”

The importance of parenting during this time

During this time, parenting is key, and you probably have much more influence over your child’s attitudes and behaviour than you might think. Lead by example, but talk to your kids, too.

De-emphasise choosing friends based on popularity, don’t interfere without good reason, encourage him to stand up for himself if challenged, and teach him how to reciprocate by doing little things like sharing food, toys, playing together and so on.

The roots of good friendships start at home and early communication skills are used later with friends, and then with boyfriends or girlfriends.

Friendships and relationships during the teen years

As children head towards the teen years, be aware of potentially damaging friendships and romantic attachments.

Educational psychologist Ken Resnick says, “When a child loses trust in the authority figure in his life, he could sometimes turn to friends who have similar issues and this often leads then down a very dangerous antisocial road where they become codependent on each other, show no interest in sport or other extracurricular activities, spend hours playing computers, or watching TV and perform poorly at school. If they’re in a relationship with the opposite sex, they become more co-dependent on each other and tend to indulge in risky sexual behaviour.”

The skills and attitudes that make a child a good friend will stand them in good stead in romantic relationships, too, so encourage those behaviours.

Says Anneline, “It’s a cliché of course, but relationships may come and go, but the sweetest ones are the friendships that last a lifetime. So encourage your child to pick friends that she can see herself growing old with.”

We need to talk...

If you haven’t already broached the subject of sex by the time your children start showing a romantic interest in the opposite sex, don’t delay! Here are some ways to make the experience educational and informative for your children:

  • Create a comfortable atmosphere and invite children to ask questions.
  • Decide, with your spouse, what you will chat about. Let your child’s age and level of maturity be an indicator of the type of information he can absorb and understand.
  • Talk about the responsibilities and consequences that come from being sexually active. Pregnancy, contraception, sexually transmitted diseases, HIV and feelings about sex are important issues to be discussed.
  • Use words that are understandable and comfortable.
  • Incorporate elements of the “talk” into daily life. Issues might come up when you’re watching TV and you can start a conversation. Those two seem to fall in love quickly. What do you think is going on? Or Why do you think she doesn’t want to move in with him?
  • Don’t just stick to the physical issues surrounding sex and puberty. It’s important to be open about the emotional and social issues, too. Acknowledge the difficult feelings and decisions that come with relationships and talk about some of the specifics your kids might come across. Talk about what makes a good relationship or friendship.
  • Talk about your own experiences. If you were shy about kissing or had an unrequited crush on a boy at school, tell your kids. Older children love to hear stories about your growing pains and it gives them the space to talk, too.

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