My 6-year-old daughter loves to dance, but when she saw New York City Ballet’s “Nutcracker” for the first time this winter, the talk afterward wasn’t about the performers, the elaborate staging or the special effects.
Instead, she spoke adoringly of the child who happened to be seated next to her, a young fellow of similar age. He was kind, a good conversationalist, and had an appreciation for ballet — or at least his parents did.
At the theater, my daughter later explained giddily, they had fallen in love.
The next day she took out her crayons and drew a picture of The Boy, as he had come to be known, his smiling face surrounded by red hearts. She taped it to her bedroom wall.
“Do you think he’s drawing a picture of me right now, too?” she asked.
Starting in kindergarten, it became fashionable among my daughter’s classmates to discuss who had a crush on whom and declare their intention to marry one another. Sometimes the boys and girls would even give each other a quick kiss on the cheek or a peck on the lips. At one point, my daughter began teaching her friend the dance steps that they would perform at their future wedding.
I found it curious and — when it came to the kissing — somewhat concerning. Was my 6-year-old really having her first crush? How should parents react when their young children say they have “fallen in love”?
To learn more, I spoke with experts in sexual health, elementary school education and psychology, who all reassured me that this type of behavior was perfectly normal. But, they added, children may need guidance from their parents to navigate their newfound feelings — and it is the ideal opportunity to start having conversations about consent, if you haven’t already.
For parents of the littlest romantics, here is some advice on how to attend to matters of the (young) heart.
What it means when little kids say they have a crush
Experts say that what we traditionally think of as a crush — an intense infatuation with someone we idealize — often begins in older children who are undergoing the transition to puberty.
It’s “partly driven by emerging sexual attraction, and yet lived out in a fantasy world,” said Jennifer A. Connolly, a professor of psychology at York University in Toronto and an expert in adolescent development and romantic relationships. “I think of it as a safe way for them to start exploring their own passions toward someone.”
When elementary school children talk about crushes, however, it’s not quite the same thing. Young kids may express strong feelings for one another that are more akin to admiration, and because they are influenced by societal expectations, television and movies, older siblings and their own peer groups, they can start to view their affection for one another through a romantic lens.
“A lot of it is modeling what they’ve seen from media and adults, and wanting to seem older and more sophisticated,” said Mitch Prinstein, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who studies peer relationships from early childhood to adolescence. When young children develop a fascination with other children and start using words like “crush,” he added, it is their way of experimenting with more complex relationships.
How to respond when your child tells you they are in love
While it can be tempting to dismiss a child’s crush as silly or trivial, the feelings they are experiencing are real, and can be powerful.
“It seems passionate in a kind of platonic sense,” Dr. Connolly said.
When discussing a crush with your child, it is best to focus on their friendships rather than playfully tease them about a budding romance, said Amy Lang, a sexual health educator in Seattle. This teaches them the importance of friendship (it will set the foundation for future healthy romantic relationships, after all) and helps them fixate less on adult rituals like marriage and kissing.
For example, if your child confesses to having a crush on a classmate, try to avoid saying things like, “That’s so cute — do you want to get married to each other?” Instead, Ms. Lang suggested saying: “What are the things that you like about Timmy? Do you want to have a play date?”
Also, refrain from assigning mature labels to their relationships with questions like: “Is that your new boyfriend?”
Idealizing a boyfriend-girlfriend dynamic can suggest that “these relationships are critical to being a complete person and to being happy,” said Amanda J. Rose, a professor of psychological sciences at the University of Missouri who has studied peer relationships from childhood through young adulthood. In addition, she added, “it really reinforces traditional gender roles.”
Encourage your child to share more of what’s on their mind by asking open-ended questions. Christy Keating, a parent coach in Redmond, Wash., suggested asking, “What does that mean for you to have a crush?” or “What did that feel like?” Or you could use the classic prompt “Tell me more.”
You might even consider sharing a similar story from when you were younger, Ms. Keating said.
“Make sure you’re not shutting them down,” she added. “If we laugh, downplay or mock it when they’re 5, they’re going to remember that when they’re 15.”
Use the opportunity to discuss consent
Laura Eagle, who taught kindergartners for more than a decade in Washington State, vividly recalled one class in particular where romantic overtures were “a huge thing.”
“I remember thinking, ‘Wow, that’s a little early to be writing love notes,’” she said.
Some of the girls enjoyed chasing certain boys — their crushes — at recess. On the surface it all seemed harmless, she said, but she pulled the girls aside and gently asked them to consider how these actions might affect their classmates.
“It was a real light conversation,” she said. “We all want to make each other feel safe.”
Young elementary school students are still learning how to respect other people’s boundaries, including personal space, so explaining the concept of consent — the need to ask for permission and then respect the answer you receive — is essential, she said.
Kim Rieley, who spent 17 years teaching first graders in Montana, would ask her students to pay attention to how their friends were feeling. What did their body language say? What did their faces convey? And, finally, what were they saying verbally?
And if a child tried to kiss another child, she said, she would remind them that this type of behavior was for adults.
As a parent, Ms. Rieley added, you can say: “It’s great you like that person and that you want to explore that friendship. But that’s not how you show that when you’re 6. Let’s talk about what you can do instead.”
There are many children’s books that help explain why it is important to respect another person’s wishes, such as “Don’t Hug Doug (He Doesn’t Like It)” or “C is for Consent.”
You may also find teachable moments when you’re watching shows together. For example, in one scene of the movie “Frozen,” Kristoff asks Anna for permission to kiss her, which could start a conversation about how everyone is in charge of their own bodies.
One of the best ways to teach your child about consent and healthy boundaries is for them to practice having conversations with their peers.
If your child loves to hug other classmates, for example, you could play out a potential scenario, Ms. Lang said.
First, instruct your child to say, “Can I give you a hug right now?” Then you can respond with different types of answers: “No, thanks. I don’t feel like getting a hug.” Or, “Maybe another time. I’d rather do a thumbs up.” Or, “Sure! I love hugs!”
Then switch roles so that your child is the one responding to the request.
If your child is feeling uneasy because of a classmate’s behavior, have them practice asserting themselves, Ms. Lang said.
Make sure they understand that it is OK to tell someone not to touch them. For example, they might say, “I don’t like it when people touch my hair.”
It’s not only touch that can violate someone’s boundaries; words and actions can, too. Another useful statement: “I don’t want to play this way.” Or, “When you say things like that, it makes me feel uncomfortable.”
Be sure to speak with the teacher if the problem doesn’t improve, she added.
“A good friend will say OK and stop,” she said.