When his mother asked him one day after class if he had a girlfriend, 4-year-old Nicolas looked at his father curiously and said, “Dad, do you have to have a girlfriend?»
While Olivia, 7, when one of the parents, at a birthday party, asked her which of the guests was her boyfriend, she immediately knelt down and walked away embarrassed, away from the group of children she was playing with. The next day at school, she avoided hanging out with them because she was embarrassed that someone might think she was dating a friend.
These two situations are likely familiar to you, as it is common for adults to ask children such questions. Although it is clear that they are only looking to observe the child’s reaction, this seemingly innocent question may have consequences on the way the child behaves to others.
The concept of friendship with children
Interacting with peers is a very powerful way to learn. The concept of friendship develops through stages of development and therefore varies depending on the age of the child. Robert Selman, a professor at Harvard University, proposed one of the most famous theories of the evolution of friendship.
He suggested that while preschoolers maintain an egocentric view of friendship and consider friends as they share games and equal physical space, for school-age children with similar preferences and cooperation will be even more important. During adolescence, mutual cooperation is more important.
Read more: How do children choose their friends?
Peer relationships contribute to each other’s emotional and social development by developing a sense of belonging to a group. In childhood, curiosity about one’s own body and the body of others is normal, while in adolescence sexual exploration is common.
Behavior change in peer relationships occurs in adolescence, with increased interest in sex. Then the friendship becomes a more emotional bond.
The influence of adults
From an early age, there is a preference for same-sex peer relationships that persists into adolescence. Although it is common for children to prefer to play with peers of their own sex, this variation can influence their relationships with others.
Adults, through their comments, agree or disagree with children’s relationships with their peers, conditioning them. We influence, perhaps indiscriminately and without malice, the relationships between men and women.
Read more: Primary school: how to help a child make friends
Even if there is a proven preference for same-sex friendships, children from an early age do not honor their relationships with anything other than friendship. In fact, a 4-year-old can barely explain what a boyfriend or girlfriend is; he could even compare this idea to his closest friends. If an adult uses the expressions “boyfriend” or “girlfriend” to point to a good friend of his or her child, it creates confusion for the child, who, at a young age, has learned to recognizing his emotions and those of others. .
Can’t we be friends?
Asking children if they have a boyfriend or girlfriend can influence how they treat their friends. By asking such questions, we convey the idea that men and women cannot be friends, but by playing on the environments of the opposite sex, the relationship becomes something more. In this way, we encourage them to associate only with people of the same sex, which marks the difference between the two.
Also, we encourage them to avoid cross-sex friends to avoid abusive comments from other parts of the group. The innocent question “Who is your girlfriend?” can cause an 8-year-old boy to reject the female friend he shares with in games, because he doesn’t want to be identified from the group by having close friendships, which is often associated with embarrassing behaviors to children, such as kissing or holding hands.
Read more: Do children’s games have gender?
By asking children if they have a boyfriend or girlfriend, we warn them that people have a different way of behaving, which encourages them to change the way they treat their friends.
No need for hypersexualization
When we ask children what man they like or who their boyfriend is, we normalize the idea that at their age they can have a close friend like adults, which encourages hypersexualization in children. We allow behaviors to take no place in childhood, endorse them with our feedback and encourage them to take on roles that are not commensurate with their developmental stage.
In conclusion, adults should encourage children’s friendships because social connections are one of the most powerful protective factors for psychological well -being.
However, interpreting children’s social behavior, such as sharing time and games, because romantic relationships create differences between them, interfere with their learning of emotions, and can cause them to drift from the right friends where they have many interests and wants.