It wasn’t long after my son started preschool that he picked up a new social concept: having “girlfriends” and “boyfriends.” At first, it was just other kids in his class engaging in pretend romances, but then one day he got in the car after school and my 5-year-old son announced he had a girlfriend. I thought it was kind of cute, but really no big deal. It’s just what kids do at that age. They emulate. They play pretend. Who cares?
Well, apparently some parents did. Some parents cared a whole lot, like the dad who was incensed over the fact that his daughter had the idea of dating in her head already. He was already obsessed with the notion that it was his responsibility to take charge of her romantic life, even if she was 5 and simply holding hands with a friend on the playground. “She can make those decisions when she’s out of my house,” he said proudly, going on to relay a story of how his son couldn’t wear his sister’s princess Band-Aids until he was out on his own, either. Screw giving them any room to play innocently — that’s not what parenting is about.
That father decided to make the talk about having a girlfriend or boyfriend one of negativity and control. And while I was appalled by how he was reacting to a little bit of make believe, it helped me decide that maybe it was important to talk a little more about boyfriends and girlfriends with my son.
My parents definitely had the same sort of attitude with me as the dad I witnessed that day on the playground. I wasn’t supposed to date or talk about dating, even when I started my first “real” middle school romance. My relationships were not supposed to be mine to choose until I was out of the house (nevermind the fact that I literally started dating my husband when I turned 16). I was told that I was too young for all that, and it was a subject that was swept under the rug at home as I struggled to navigate some really big feelings.
I want to make sure my kids don’t feel shamed for their feelings or hide their choices because I refuse to talk openly about their relationships. I don’t want them to think there is anything wrong with the way they feel — or that dating is a taboo subject until they reach a certain age.
I wish I'd had someone other than my peers (who were as clueless as me) to bounce my questions off of. I wish I'd had someone with a wider understanding of the world to help me understand myself and the relationships I was entering and exiting without much thought.
That’s not the kind of experience I want my kids to have. I want to make sure the conversations I have with them are different from the silence and condemnation I knew as a kid. I want to encourage them to talk to me about their relationships instead of shutting them down. I want to make sure my kids don’t feel shamed for their feelings or hide their choices because I refuse to talk openly about their relationships. I don’t want them to think there is anything wrong with the way they feel — or that dating is a taboo subject until they reach a certain age.
Talking with my son about "girlfriends" and "boyfriends" made me realize that these subjects can and should be talked about at an early age, especially if I don't want my kids to grow up with the same shameful sexual stigmas I knew.
So yes, I let my 5-year-old have “girlfriends” and “boyfriends” instead of telling him he's too young to explore that social construct. And to be honest, doing so has opened up some amazing conversations about gender, consent, and sexuality — all things I never imagined I'd be talking with a 5-year-old boy about. It’s given us opportunities to talk about why it’s important to listen to others, to respect their boundaries, and to show kindness to them. It’s allowed us to easily talk through normalizing same-sex couples and transgender peers, whose existences and experiences were hidden from me growing up. It’s taken me into areas I never thought about in my youth, like the construct of marriage or the importance of autonomy. Talking with my son about "girlfriends" and "boyfriends" made me realize that these subjects can and should be talked about at an early age, especially if I don't want my kids to grow up with the same shameful sexual stigmas I knew.
In a way, that father on the playground was right. Having a boyfriend or girlfriend on the playground is bigger than just make believe. It gives us, as parents, the opportunity to shape the attitude they’ll take into relationships for the rest of their lives, and I want to make sure my kid’s is positive.