I have a six-year-old girl who has a six-year-old male classmate in Kindergarten. Our daughter has told us the boy is her boyfriend and she wants to marry him and he has told his parents the same thing. They both want to get together for playdates (one on one) and I see nothing wrong with it but my wife (vehemently) disagrees. They appear to practice safe social skill for their age (no kissing, etc) and like playing together. Your thoughts?
From: Chris S, Edgewater, MD
There are so many ways in which the culture is prematurely pushing young children today to become sexual that I can well understand your wife's concern. But I do think she's over-reacting. Opposite sex children can -- and should -- be able to play together without parents having to worry about inappropriate sexual play. In fact, it's developmentally healthy and typical for boys and girls to want to play house or school or hospital -- whatever -- together because it's through that kind of dramatic play that they work out and come to understand the details of the world in which they live.
Ban the play? Not in my book. And not, it turns out, in Diane Levin & Jean Kilbourne's literal book, "So Sexy So Soon."
But here's what I would do: monitor the conversation around your home about boyfriends and marriage and anything else that smacks of adult behaviors. Sometimes, without meaning to, family and friends (grandparents, for instance) send a message that the boyfriend/girlfriend thing is "cute," ("Isn't that cute?") which become a kind of reinforcement and approval. In a phone interview the other day, Diane Levin said that if your daughter talks about this boy as her "boyfriend" or that she wants to marry him, ask her such questions as, "What makes him fun to play with?" "What do you like to do together?" so that you are re-directing her to think about him as a person who has a good imagination, or likes to play board games, or likes to finger paint. In effect, ignore the issue of boyfriend/girlfriend. Chances are that in her 5-year-old lexicon, wanting to be married simply means wanting to play together. But because of the culture, she's assumed that's the way it needs to happen. "It's possible that she thinks that a girl and boy can be friends only if they are girlfriend/boyfriend or if they are married," says Levin. "Or that the only way girls and boys have fun is to be flirty or kissing."
If a child keeps coming back to the kissing, Levin might say simply, "Kissing is not for kids. It's something for grown-ups, for when you're older, like maybe a teenager."
Also, pay attention to the media she's consuming, to the toys she plays with (no Bratz dolls!) and to the cultural messages in general that she's getting. These ideas typically come from screen content. That, not banning her play or her playmates, is much more important response.
When they do play together, it's reasonable to monitor the play. At this age, it would be a red flag if they wanted to play behind a closed door, for instance. Or if she tells you before or after that she wants to kiss him, "because we're going to get married." Tell her that's it's fun to play pretend, but real-life kissing or playing with body parts is for grown-ups. Over-reacting, banning the play, scolding -- all those responses tend to backfire.
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