Recently a friend wrote me. While her daughter was in preschool, she witnessed two kids kissing and came home to proudly profess that she was going to ask a boy out the next day and wondered if he would kiss her. Trying to remain calm, cool, & collective (although inside going through the roof), she told her daughter that we save our kisses and then got online to ask me what to do.
My work with Pam means that I help provide a lot of relationship counsel to teens and their parents. Sadly, tweens are becoming a more and more popular age group with serious questions. But, to hear that four year olds have "ask him out" in their vocabulary gave even me pause.
I suppose it should come as no surprise. We live in a culture that promotes dating relationships from the get go. I've witnessed mothers say to their toddler child, "Is she your girlfriend?" or "That one is your boyfriend?" numerous times.
Because of my work in the CPC, we've avoided this. I've seen what happens to a girl who from the beginning gets the message that her value comes from being claimed by some boy and that having a boyfriend is necessary. They are the ones glued to their boyfriends while their friendships fail. And, they are the ones crying in fear as they await their pregnancy test result all the while explaining that they thought "love" meant crossing all sorts of dangerous boundaries.
From the time our children are born, we are sending them messages. Some would argue that these jokes are harmless, but I would say quite the opposite. Think about all the messages we send them when they are toddlers: how to sit still at the table (manners), to address others with care (respect), to act nicely to the people around them (love). The list goes on and on. Their brains are like sponges and we know this so we teach them when they are young attitudes and behaviors to live out through adulthood. Why do we think dating should be any different?
Society's model of dating shows that this attitude is prevalent. Kids talk about boyfriends/girlfriends before they even know what it is. Young girls are wearing future Mrs. Bieber shirts prior to understanding what makes a good spouse. They carry on into real life the "joke" adults laid before them early on. Boys feel macho because they can say they have a girl. Girls feel valued because she can say she's caught someone's eye. They date whoever asks, lack boundaries and make mistakes or realize once they are into this relationship that their values are being pressured and, ultimately, they walk away feeling hurt that "love" didn't feel so good.
Hence we don't joke about it or wear clothes that aren't age appropriate.
But all of our kids are going to hear the words or see children model something they heard or saw on TV. So then what?
I advised my friend first and foremost to tell the teacher what her daughter saw. No matter what, day care providers, teachers, playground safety, etc. NEEDS to know what is happening so the behavior can be stopped. I'm fairly confident that no facility with children this young would view this behavior acceptable.
And then there is the message for all, whether you've been the parent that "joked" or not. You can use these opportunities to send messages about what you DO want your child's dating to one day be.
Last week Grace heard the word "boyfriend." Apparently a little boy had his lips a-flappin trying to kiss some girl who said, "Don't. I have a boyfriend." When I asked if she knew what boyfriend meant and she said "no," I knew I could start sending messages to mold her future.
"Boyfriends are people you think that you could marry and until we are old enough to think about marriage God wants us to just be friends and not kiss."
As she grows older and can understand more, we will expand on that, talking about the ages that dating is appropriate, only entering into a relationship with someone that shares a deep love for Christ and genuinely respects her, and, of course, Godly boundaries.
Surely this doesn't mean that she (or her sisters) will never make mistakes, but it does mean that from a young age her dating mentality will run contrary to the "whoever asks" model. She is free to continue finding joy in being claimed by the One who made her and experience peace knowing she has caught the eye of her Savior. And, if she continues to trust His definition of love she will avoid the pain so many of her peers won't.
Clearly the message is setting in. She heard the word again the other day in a book about her student teacher (who is engaged) and said "That means he would be the kinda boy she would marry. Right, mom?" And, when that little boy with his lips a-flappin tried to get near my girl, he was immediately told "no" and then given a talking to about appropriate behavior by an adult.
Our words matter. Send messages to your children today that will build the framework for a healthy tomorrow.