In August, 2016, a 10-year- old girls’ letter to her teacher went viral after she implored the school to let students have boyfriends and girlfriends. During the previous term, staff had spoken to students and discouraged relationships because they were ‘too young’ and they should not display affection at school.
The 5 th grade student argued in her letter that boyfriends and girlfriends should be allowed at school because it helps children learn to handle big emotions. Secondly, she suggested, love is normal and natural.
So… is she right? Should we be ok with children having love interests at a young age? Should we encourage it? Or should we ban it?
This 10-year- old makes two reasonable points. Children learn about relationships by being in relationships and by watching others in relationships. Secondly, it’s natural to want to be close to others, and it feels important to be wanted.
1. Boyfriend and girlfriend relationships can be a big distraction at school.
2. Friendships are usually affected in significant ways when relationships start (and stop). Because children are less socially and emotionally mature, they can hurt their friends by ignoring them, being insensitive to them, and leaving them feeling isolated while they have their 2-week relationship with the new boyfriend or girlfriend. This can be painful, and can rupture otherwise healthy and positive relationships.
3. Children who begin relationships at an early age may not have the maturity to be able to handle the big emotions they encounter in close relationships. Dealing with being ‘dropped’ can sting, and leave young children feeling worthless, or even used.
4. If those relationships become intimate, there is the risk that some harm may be done. Researchers have found that children who become sexually intimate at a younger age are more likely to have more of those such relationships, and are at greater risk of experiencing anxiety, stress, and depression through their teens and even into their twenties and thirties.
5. With the increasing pornification of our culture, combined with the average age of exposure to porn being around 10-11 years, the risks to our kids are real and significant. Expectations in relationships are different today compared to when we were kids. And while an innocent relationship is cute, it can turn ugly or dangerous very quickly.
6. While most primary school (and early high-school) relationships are pretty light-on in the intimacy department, kids really are too young to be getting frisky and engaging in any kind of intimate touching or kissing. If they don’t have boy/girl friend relationships, they’re not going to be doing those things.
These cons are not unique to young children. Anyone who has been through relationship start-ups and break-ups will recognise them as consistent at all ages and stages. But there is the possibility that greater harm may come to our young children when they get involved in these relationships too young.
What do I do if my child wants a boy/girlfriend too young?
As with most questions about parenting, children, and development, the right age to have a romantic interest really depends on the maturity of your child. Rather than set specific age-limits, it may be best to encourage our children to think about what relationships are about, and identify what makes them positive or negative. Ask questions like,
“What have you noticed when your friends get a boy/girl friend?”
“How would you deal with it if your boy/girl friend asked you to do something that you felt uncomfortable about?”
These questions can help them to make safe, healthy decisions when it comes to relationships.
Most important, keep your children close. They will find other friends, other romantic interests, and new relationships. But when they need advice, support, or a shoulder to cry on – whether they are 8 or 28 – they need us to be there for them.
We are born to be close others. It’s in our DNA. We are ultra-social, and our children are the same. By teaching them good principles about relationships and always being there, we can provide them with the support and love they need regardless of whether things are good or bad.