Ban 5-year-old boys and girls from playing together?

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  November 1, 2009 06:00 AM

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Hi Barbara,
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

Hey Chris,

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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18 comments so far...
  1. I spent the entire summer when I was 3 'marrying' the boy down the block. We just liked playing dressup, and we had a big light up snowman in the garage from Christmas that we decided looked just like a priest (don't ask, we were weird kids). We must have gotten married about 20 times between the time we were 3 and 5. The rest of the time, we played War, legos, Hospital (my dolls were always getting injured) and "Let's see how much mud we can get in before mom freaks". Neither of us became promiscuous, engaged in sexual play or anything like that. Unless you have been letting them watch X rated movies 24/7, it's just innocent age appropriate stuff which they will grow out of.

    Posted by BMS November 1, 09 08:11 AM
  1. Barbara, I really don't see this as an issue of an overly sexed up culture. When I was a young child, we did the same thing and societally, we weren't nearly as sexualized as we are now. I'm there with BMS - I was "married" a lot by the age of 5, but then usually the Cootie Shot wore off. This seems to be very typical, toddler and childlike play/behavior that isn't going to lead to the de-flowering of either child any time soon.

    We really, really need to lighten up. We discourage this kind of play in young kids but encourage 5 year old girls to get their ears pierced, carry little designer bags and wear heels? Really? Talk about a whacked out standard...

    Posted by phe November 2, 09 10:14 AM
  1. It's also worth keeping in mind that, at that age, most kids with a healthy home life think that "being married" is synonymous with loving someone. And, at that age, "loving someone" who isn't in your family is limited to enjoying spending time with that person.

    Now, if the kids were 16, well... the wife's reaction would virtually guarantee that those kids would spend every second together possible (while hiding it from the parents).

    Posted by Been There November 2, 09 11:07 AM
  1. Perhaps if something like this was 'encourage' or even not frowned upon, there would be better interaction and more respect for each sex come their teen and adult lives?

    Posted by newman November 2, 09 11:09 AM
  1. I would agree with Barbara's comments - my 7 year old daughter has always had a lot of boy friends, because it's fun playing with boys, they like to play Pokemon and run around outside a lot. Her best friend in Kindergarten was a boy, and interestingly enough, we've this year had to deal a with the fact that he is getting into playing with boys now and has less interest in playing with my daughter. With older siblings of both sexes, we did ask them to tone down the "is he your boyfriend?" talk, but mostly it's a non-issue. Let her play with the boys - this time of boy-girl playdates is very fleeting before they each start to identify with their gender groups and be less interested in each other. Give it a year or so and all she'll want to play with is girls.

    Posted by JackieK November 2, 09 11:23 AM
  1. I think the wife needs to take a xanax and calm down. It's totally natural and they're mimicing healthy behavior in their family.

    Posted by C November 2, 09 11:27 AM
  1. Wife needs to calm down. Been There makes an excellent point. In my experience, kids think that you marry someone when you love them. Hence, my son thinking he is going to marry me, his dad, or his brother when he grows up. Daughter saying she is going to marry this boy probably doesn't have anything else behind it--I bet if you asked her what she means, the explanation would be pretty milquetoast. There is also a tendency in our culture to do things like ask very young children about "boyfriends" and "girlfriends" if they have a friend of the opposite gender, or dividing everything into "girl things" and "boy things." I encourage my boys to be friends with girls as a way to help them develop healthy relationships with females as they get older.

    Posted by anita November 2, 09 11:29 AM
  1. When I was in first grade, about 30 years ago, having crushes was a normal part of my experience. I played house and talked about getting married. Why? Looking back, because that was part of the normal world -- people got married; marriage happened when you wanted to be with someone. At 6 I did not understand the differences between an adult married relationship and a friendship -- I simply saw men and women who enjoyed each other's company as married. So, I wanted to be married to my best friend.

    I agree that the culture today is saturated with sex, even at young ages. But I don't think we need to go there to figure out why LW's daughter might be talking this way. I think it is fairly normal, and even developmentally appropriate.

    Posted by jlen November 2, 09 11:37 AM
  1. My mom still has pictures of my pre-school girlfriend. We held hands outside the local pre-school and had our picture taken (by both parents). I went to her house for playdates, she came to my house. We both said we wanted to get married.

    This was in 1972.

    The funny thing is we went through school together K-12. We weren't close friends, but both us remembered the other from pre-school.

    Posted by Mike Y. November 2, 09 11:48 AM
  1. These are some of the most special and sweet comments ever! So cute hearing about memories of innocent days of childhood.

    Posted by Luvit November 2, 09 04:25 PM
  1. I remember my sister "marrying" Simon in 1976 and I caught them "kissing" in the garage! They were both 4 years old and played together all of the time. I agree with the others -- while gyrating hips and suggestive dance moves in a 5 year old may be a problem, wanting to be married is probably a good sign :)

    Posted by Cathie November 2, 09 06:44 PM
  1. One of my daughter's best friends was a boy from infancy to around 10. It was a great friendship and there were never any issues. They would often play house and she'd be the mom and he'd be the dad. It seemed that being opposite sex actually avoided a lot of conflicts that I would see when having other girls over. As they reached about age 10 they began to separate and he socialized with all boys and she with all girls. Now at 14 they see each other in school and certain social events, but that's about all. I think this woman is way over thinking things and she needs to lighten up.

    Posted by Mom of 3 November 2, 09 09:27 PM
  1. I would be more concerned if the little girl is watching so-called kids TV programs and movies like Hannah Montana and High School musical which have teenage content peddled to preschoolers. If she is watching these types of programs and dressing in the Hannah Montana outfits, then I would be weary about her playing alone with boys, too.
    If she's watching PBS then there is nothing to worry about. Parental supervision should be provided in all situations.

    Posted by Bambinosmom November 3, 09 08:18 AM
  1. it is agreed all over this post that your wife is overreacting! She's 6 and has no idea what sexuality really is. She sees what you and your wife have and it's about love. Sit your wife down and have a conversation with her. If she is like this now, when your daughter hits about 15 or 16 or so, she WILL BE going out with all the bad boys and WILL be doing it just to spite you as the parents!!! Kids need to be taught appropriate behaviors. It is normal to have friendships of the opposite sex. I mean, really, what kind of relationship do they haev at age 6? They don't know what it means to have a rea relationship at that age. Tell your wife to relax!!!

    Posted by jadee November 3, 09 08:34 AM
  1. Chill out,

    I told my mother at 13 that I would marry my 12 year old girlfriend. She smacked me in the face and walked away from me. I married the girl and I've been married to her for 43 Years.

    Posted by Stephen J Guido November 3, 09 06:06 PM
  1. Your wife must have had a very scary childhood to cause her to react like that!

    Posted by cosmogirl November 4, 09 09:14 AM
  1. LOL. I'm only 12, but when I was first grade, I had a boy friend. I asked him what girls he liked, and he said a few girls, and then said, I kind of like you to! I was SO happy, and we were hanging out, and we both "promised" that we were going to keep it a secret. "Mom! Guess what!" "Hunter! Guess what!" "Dad! Guess what!" "Jeff, guess what!" Well, you have to tell your brother Jeff, and your Dad, and your mom, and your best friend Hunter! She's the only one who could start blabbing about it! Whoops. He did the same thing, and back in first grade, every girl had to have a girl friend! LOL.

    Posted by Samantha February 13, 10 01:28 PM
  1. When I was in kindergarten, I had a best friend who lived around the corner. He had sisters and I had a brother. We played at each other's houses until one day I went to his house and his Mom told me I could not play with him anymore - no explanation beyond our gender differences. Decades later, this is still a dark and sad memory.
    Funny thing is...we spent many friendly years in grammar school and then despite separate high schools and colleges, had the same social group.
    I attended his wedding and gratefully, we are still good friends today.
    His mother on the other hand......

    Posted by Hometown Girl July 14, 12 07:43 PM
 
18 comments so far...
  1. I spent the entire summer when I was 3 'marrying' the boy down the block. We just liked playing dressup, and we had a big light up snowman in the garage from Christmas that we decided looked just like a priest (don't ask, we were weird kids). We must have gotten married about 20 times between the time we were 3 and 5. The rest of the time, we played War, legos, Hospital (my dolls were always getting injured) and "Let's see how much mud we can get in before mom freaks". Neither of us became promiscuous, engaged in sexual play or anything like that. Unless you have been letting them watch X rated movies 24/7, it's just innocent age appropriate stuff which they will grow out of.

    Posted by BMS November 1, 09 08:11 AM
  1. Barbara, I really don't see this as an issue of an overly sexed up culture. When I was a young child, we did the same thing and societally, we weren't nearly as sexualized as we are now. I'm there with BMS - I was "married" a lot by the age of 5, but then usually the Cootie Shot wore off. This seems to be very typical, toddler and childlike play/behavior that isn't going to lead to the de-flowering of either child any time soon.

    We really, really need to lighten up. We discourage this kind of play in young kids but encourage 5 year old girls to get their ears pierced, carry little designer bags and wear heels? Really? Talk about a whacked out standard...

    Posted by phe November 2, 09 10:14 AM
  1. It's also worth keeping in mind that, at that age, most kids with a healthy home life think that "being married" is synonymous with loving someone. And, at that age, "loving someone" who isn't in your family is limited to enjoying spending time with that person.

    Now, if the kids were 16, well... the wife's reaction would virtually guarantee that those kids would spend every second together possible (while hiding it from the parents).

    Posted by Been There November 2, 09 11:07 AM
  1. Perhaps if something like this was 'encourage' or even not frowned upon, there would be better interaction and more respect for each sex come their teen and adult lives?

    Posted by newman November 2, 09 11:09 AM
  1. I would agree with Barbara's comments - my 7 year old daughter has always had a lot of boy friends, because it's fun playing with boys, they like to play Pokemon and run around outside a lot. Her best friend in Kindergarten was a boy, and interestingly enough, we've this year had to deal a with the fact that he is getting into playing with boys now and has less interest in playing with my daughter. With older siblings of both sexes, we did ask them to tone down the "is he your boyfriend?" talk, but mostly it's a non-issue. Let her play with the boys - this time of boy-girl playdates is very fleeting before they each start to identify with their gender groups and be less interested in each other. Give it a year or so and all she'll want to play with is girls.

    Posted by JackieK November 2, 09 11:23 AM
  1. I think the wife needs to take a xanax and calm down. It's totally natural and they're mimicing healthy behavior in their family.

    Posted by C November 2, 09 11:27 AM
  1. Wife needs to calm down. Been There makes an excellent point. In my experience, kids think that you marry someone when you love them. Hence, my son thinking he is going to marry me, his dad, or his brother when he grows up. Daughter saying she is going to marry this boy probably doesn't have anything else behind it--I bet if you asked her what she means, the explanation would be pretty milquetoast. There is also a tendency in our culture to do things like ask very young children about "boyfriends" and "girlfriends" if they have a friend of the opposite gender, or dividing everything into "girl things" and "boy things." I encourage my boys to be friends with girls as a way to help them develop healthy relationships with females as they get older.

    Posted by anita November 2, 09 11:29 AM
  1. When I was in first grade, about 30 years ago, having crushes was a normal part of my experience. I played house and talked about getting married. Why? Looking back, because that was part of the normal world -- people got married; marriage happened when you wanted to be with someone. At 6 I did not understand the differences between an adult married relationship and a friendship -- I simply saw men and women who enjoyed each other's company as married. So, I wanted to be married to my best friend.

    I agree that the culture today is saturated with sex, even at young ages. But I don't think we need to go there to figure out why LW's daughter might be talking this way. I think it is fairly normal, and even developmentally appropriate.

    Posted by jlen November 2, 09 11:37 AM
  1. My mom still has pictures of my pre-school girlfriend. We held hands outside the local pre-school and had our picture taken (by both parents). I went to her house for playdates, she came to my house. We both said we wanted to get married.

    This was in 1972.

    The funny thing is we went through school together K-12. We weren't close friends, but both us remembered the other from pre-school.

    Posted by Mike Y. November 2, 09 11:48 AM
  1. These are some of the most special and sweet comments ever! So cute hearing about memories of innocent days of childhood.

    Posted by Luvit November 2, 09 04:25 PM
  1. I remember my sister "marrying" Simon in 1976 and I caught them "kissing" in the garage! They were both 4 years old and played together all of the time. I agree with the others -- while gyrating hips and suggestive dance moves in a 5 year old may be a problem, wanting to be married is probably a good sign :)

    Posted by Cathie November 2, 09 06:44 PM
  1. One of my daughter's best friends was a boy from infancy to around 10. It was a great friendship and there were never any issues. They would often play house and she'd be the mom and he'd be the dad. It seemed that being opposite sex actually avoided a lot of conflicts that I would see when having other girls over. As they reached about age 10 they began to separate and he socialized with all boys and she with all girls. Now at 14 they see each other in school and certain social events, but that's about all. I think this woman is way over thinking things and she needs to lighten up.

    Posted by Mom of 3 November 2, 09 09:27 PM
  1. I would be more concerned if the little girl is watching so-called kids TV programs and movies like Hannah Montana and High School musical which have teenage content peddled to preschoolers. If she is watching these types of programs and dressing in the Hannah Montana outfits, then I would be weary about her playing alone with boys, too.
    If she's watching PBS then there is nothing to worry about. Parental supervision should be provided in all situations.

    Posted by Bambinosmom November 3, 09 08:18 AM
  1. it is agreed all over this post that your wife is overreacting! She's 6 and has no idea what sexuality really is. She sees what you and your wife have and it's about love. Sit your wife down and have a conversation with her. If she is like this now, when your daughter hits about 15 or 16 or so, she WILL BE going out with all the bad boys and WILL be doing it just to spite you as the parents!!! Kids need to be taught appropriate behaviors. It is normal to have friendships of the opposite sex. I mean, really, what kind of relationship do they haev at age 6? They don't know what it means to have a rea relationship at that age. Tell your wife to relax!!!

    Posted by jadee November 3, 09 08:34 AM
  1. Chill out,

    I told my mother at 13 that I would marry my 12 year old girlfriend. She smacked me in the face and walked away from me. I married the girl and I've been married to her for 43 Years.

    Posted by Stephen J Guido November 3, 09 06:06 PM
  1. Your wife must have had a very scary childhood to cause her to react like that!

    Posted by cosmogirl November 4, 09 09:14 AM
  1. LOL. I'm only 12, but when I was first grade, I had a boy friend. I asked him what girls he liked, and he said a few girls, and then said, I kind of like you to! I was SO happy, and we were hanging out, and we both "promised" that we were going to keep it a secret. "Mom! Guess what!" "Hunter! Guess what!" "Dad! Guess what!" "Jeff, guess what!" Well, you have to tell your brother Jeff, and your Dad, and your mom, and your best friend Hunter! She's the only one who could start blabbing about it! Whoops. He did the same thing, and back in first grade, every girl had to have a girl friend! LOL.

    Posted by Samantha February 13, 10 01:28 PM
  1. When I was in kindergarten, I had a best friend who lived around the corner. He had sisters and I had a brother. We played at each other's houses until one day I went to his house and his Mom told me I could not play with him anymore - no explanation beyond our gender differences. Decades later, this is still a dark and sad memory.
    Funny thing is...we spent many friendly years in grammar school and then despite separate high schools and colleges, had the same social group.
    I attended his wedding and gratefully, we are still good friends today.
    His mother on the other hand......

    Posted by Hometown Girl July 14, 12 07:43 PM
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Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer, parenting consultant, and author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World." She won several awards for her weekly "Child Caring" column in the Globe, including the 2008 American Psychological Association Print Excellence award. Barbara is available as a speaker for parent groups.

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