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Child Caring

Staying sane when your little girl is boy crazy

By Barbara F. Meltz
Globe Staff / February 13, 2006

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With a brilliant smile and a sweep of her arm, 10-year-old Sakai Arty of Cambridge displays her wall of tribute to Chris Brown, the 16-year-old R&B sensation who's on the cover of this month's Vibe magazine. "I used to be in love with Bow Wow," she says. "When I heard he was engaged, I was like, `It's over, it's done.' Chris Brown, he's the one." She runs her fingers over the heart-shaped drawings on her wall which she made one afternoon when she was supposed to be cleaning her room. "Chris Brown," she repeats, as if caressing the very syllables. Luckily her mother, Malika, is there to keep her feet on the ground.

"Chris Brown," she scoffs, albeit gently. "The day she was supposed to be cleaning, I came back in the room and the clothes were still all over the floor. Instead of picking things up, she spent hours drawing, `I love you, Chris.' "

Arty was aggravated that her daughter shirked her responsibility. But as she heard Sakai call him her "boyfriend" and tick off his likes and dislikes down to his favorite dessert, make plans to "think of something really nice" for his birthday (it's May 5), and go on about Chris Brown being "the last thing I see at night and the first thing I see in the morning," annoyance morphed into something else: "She's too young to be boy crazy!"

Arty, a family mentor for at-risk teen girls, knows better than many mothers how slippery the path can be from premature interest in boys to sexual involvement. "Videos, reality TV, rap lyrics it's all teaching young girls to flirt themselves into corners they don't know how to get out of," she says.

For some parents, Valentine's Day may be a tip-off to a preteen girl's interest level. But it's not the singling out of a particular boy that's a red flag; it's what the singling out looks like.

"Does she want to give a boy her picture, or does she want to shop for a heart-shaped frame to put the picture in? Is she 8 or 13?" asks developmental psychologist Harriet S. Mosatche, director of program development for Girl Scouts of the USA.

As long as anyone can remember, preteen girls have had crushes on oblivious boys. It's a normal, healthy part of a girl's development, says parent lecturer and author Margaret Sagarese. "It's not about the boy; the boy is just a prop," she says. "It's about discovering that you have a romantic side to yourself." Her newest book, "Boy Crazy!" (Broadway), with co-author Charlene C. Giannetti, is due out, not coincidentally, tomorrow Feb. 14.

Girls haven't changed, but the culture in which they're growing up has.

"It's providing the script before they have the hormones to go with it," says Nancy Gruver. "Girls today as young as 9, 8, even 6 and 7 may have the information but they don't have the developmental equipment to process the messages that girls do at 12 or 13." She is founder of New Moon: The Magazine for Girls and Their Dreams (newmoon.org), designed as an antidote to fashion magazines like Cosmo Girl!, Elle Girl, and Teen Vogue, which target preteen girls. Gruver also is author of "How to Say It to Girls: Communicating With Your Growing Daughter" (Prentice Hall).

Just because preteen girls may be unaware and uninterested in the sexual messages skimpy clothes, grown-up makeup or celebrity-wannabe behaviors may send doesn't mean they aren't getting a troublesome message nonetheless. "It goes something like this," says Gruver: " `Getting a boy to pay attention to you is very important to being a successful girl."

Diane Wignall of Dorchester was shocked when her daughter, Lauren, also 10, told her recently at bedtime that two boys had fought over her on the playground and that she liked it. Wignall says, "I wanted to protest: `You're too young!' "

Instead, she asked as nonchalantly as possible, "What was it about the fight you liked?" Lauren's answer: "The attention."

Days later, Lauren asked for belly-dancing lessons.

"It made me gasp, literally," says Wignall. Again she kept her cool. "Why do you want to do that?" she asked. Again, a stunning answer: "So I can dance for someone."

It's important not to shut a girl down, affirms Sagarese. "To tell her she's stupid or too young forces her to go underground in order to express her changes. You're closing the door to influencing her," she says. If you simply say, "No makeup to school," she's more likely to put the makeup on once she gets there than if you ask her, "Why is this so important to you?" Once she tells you, a good answer is, "I'm not saying you never can, I'm just saying it's for when you're older." (Depending on the issue, that answer will still work in succeeding years, as long as you negotiate compromises and concessions along the way, for instance, lip gloss at 13 for special events, lipstick at 15.)

Being interested in makeup; giggling about boys on a three-way call or instant messaging about who said what to whom in the cafeteria these are off-the-chart symptoms of boy crazy fever only when they crowd out everything else, not just homework but extracurricular activities, family, athletics, says Mosatche. She is co-author of "Getting to Know the Real You: 50 Fun Quizzes Just for Girls" (Three Rivers Press), written with her daughter, Elizabeth K. Lawner.

On Valentine's Day, it used to be enough for an 10-year-old girl to fantasize about a cute boy. Today's preteen may think she needs a boyfriend to fit in and be cool, and that she needs to give him something lavish and romantic. She may even expect the same in return. Having a boyfriend, though, may not mean anything more than saying, "He's my boyfriend." The boy may not even know, let alone be part of a relationship. In other words, there's the real possibility for a girl to be hurt.

If your 8- to 12-year-old has plans to single out one boy over another for Valentine's Day, Gruver suggests asking, "Why do you want to do this?" If it's because he invites her to play four-square at recess, a parent might say, "It's nice to thank friends for their friendship. What about your other friends? Are you giving them your picture in a heart-shaped frame, too?"

If the daughter says it's because she wants him to be her boyfriend, the response should be more firm: "You're too young for a boyfriend. You can give him the same that you give to your best girlfriend."

Mosatche would also raise the possibility that the boy might be embarrassed: "What do you think he will think when he gets a card that looks so serious? What do you think other kids will think?" The possibility of being rebuffed or teased probably won't occur to her. If you lay out possibilities and she proceeds anyway, Sagarese wouldn't forbid it. She also wouldn't say I-told-you-so if she comes home in tears. "I would hug her and say, `That must have been terrible. I'm so sorry.' "

Many girls' first crush is on a celebrity. "It's a safe way to have romantic fantasies," says Sagarese, but she warns that the crush can be no less intense or important than if it was a person in a girl's life. To a girl broken-hearted because Bow Wow was engaged, for instance, instead of insisting that she wasn't exactly going to marry him anyway, Gruver would grant the wish in fantasy: "What would your life be like if you could marry him?"

Despite how crazy her daughter is about Chris Brown, Malika Arty knows that Sakai isn't in a boy-crazy danger zone. "She still loves cheerleading, she's a poet, she loves to read," she says. Sakai also is not getting Brown anything for Valentine's Day, and she's not expecting anything from him, either.

"One of my friends, she was like, `I hope he gets something for me on Valentine's Day,' " she says. "I was like, `I don't think that's gonna happen.' "

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