There was a struggle at bedtime at my house the other night, but it didn’t involve the usual “one more story,” stalling or “can I have a glass of water?” Nope. The struggle went a little like this:
“Mommy, Lucy’s boyfriend Noah is going to Kindergarten with me. He doesn’t even know me, but I know who he is because she showed me a picture of him.”
“You know, there are no boyfriends in Kindergarten, right? Everyone gets to be buddies.”
“No mom. He’s her boyfriend. Lucy LOVES him.”
“Is this something you’re seeing on TV?”
“It’s not on TV mom! Everyone says.”
“Everyone says what?”
“Like Zoey and Anna and Sasha and Olivia. They all say.”
“What do they say?”
“I don’t know. Tell me.”
“Well Nate used to be Sasha’s boyfriend, but then they broke-up.”
“What does that mean?”
“They just broke-up! Forget it…”
“It doesn’t sound very nice to ‘break-up’ with someone. Does that mean you’re no longer friends? Girls and boys can have a lot of fun being friends together, right? You have just as much fun playing with Olivia as you do with Jack, don’t you?”
“Yeah, I know, but Noah’s Lucy’s boyfriend.”
“Well maybe you know something some of your friends don’t know. Maybe you can tell your friends that boys and girls can be just friends – everyone can be buddies.”
“Mom…..Can I go to bed now?”
And just like that, my five-year-old shut it down. Thinking back on it, I can see why – she was really excited about this “boyfriend/girlfriend” idea, and I was clearly not supporting her new game. Typically, I’m all for imaginative play, but this boyfriend business does not sit well with me. If my five year-old starts to believe that interacting with a boy means he’s her “boyfriend,” there’s really no room for a true friendship to grow. There will, however, be room for discomfort, embarrassment and avoidance.
I think it’s important to model healthy, balanced and loving relationships. But I also think it’s important to model age-appropriate friendships. When we jokingly impose the idea of romance on children’s relationships and exaggerate their feelings towards one another - “Look at those little lovebirds over there playing so nicely. Can’t you just see them walking down the aisle?” - we make it pretty difficult for boys and girls to see each other as viable playmates let alone feel comfortable with one another.
Sometimes it just takes one child to turn the tide in a group setting, ensuring that the gender lines are drawn. We all remember our peers turning innocent friendships into something they weren’t – “Hillary and Jason sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G….” If boyfriend/girlfriend games go unchallenged by adults, they can easily affect the norms of a classroom or a group. Without interference, it’s easy to see how these beliefs snowball among peers – especially if kids lack another way to think about other-sex friends.
And the thing is boys and girls should be friends! Research has shown that kids who have positive mixed-sex friendships prove to be better socially adjusted, more comfortable approaching and interacting with other-sex peers and feel more competent in mixed-sex environments. As parents and teachers, we can help normalize the boy-girl friendship dynamic. We can arm our kids with alternative ways for referring to other-sex friends, and prepare them with retorts, like, “He’s not my boyfriend. He’s my buddy.” We can be mindful of the messages our kids receive about friendships and relationships (from media, peers, and siblings as well as from ourselves), and seek out examples of healthy balanced relationships and images that depict boys and girls interacting in positive ways.* We can intentionally plan opportunities for boys and girls to work, play, cooperate, collaborate and have fun with each other WITHOUT insinuating that there is anything romantic about it.
I acknowledge the fact that at a certain point in development (aka “puberty”) many boys and girls do become interested in romantic relationships. But whether or not girls and boys grow to become romantically interested in one another, they will grow to be women and men who will interact in many different ways – school, work, communities, families… So think about how much more positive, successful and productive those interactions would be if boys and girls grew-up as buddies,sharing the important experiences of working, playing, problem solving and communicating WITH each other.
*There are some great parents and organizations working hard to create positive images of boys and girls and communicate healthy messages about relationships. I’d be remiss if I didn’t give a shout-out to the fine work being done by our friend Melissa Wardy at Pigtail Pals and Ballcap Buddies. Definitely check out her new Cannonball line of designs featuring boys and girls playing together!