I love you SOOOO much.
Our first attachments are to our caregivers. This is a unique form of love, with need and safety and deep power differentials, that will impact us our entire life. It is also one of the first relationships were we begin to “practice” with a child’s mind the idea of romance, and its connection to love. Children learn by playing, enacting scenarios and seeing how it feels. This can be empowering even though the play is “not real” as the child imagines that they could handle themselves in that scenario.
It is very common for children around age 4 to 6 to develop crushes on adults in their life, more commonly a parent. This can be an icky and awkward phase for the parent who is the focus of their attention since it feels very inappropriate. Children in this stage may profess their love, get jealous of the parent’s partner, ask for extra attention, and even try to kiss the parent the way they saw in cartoons. For the child’s development though it is entirely appropriate to imagine and pretend and to get information from adult’s responses. It makes sense for a child to try these new possibilities out with someone they love, look up to and feel safe with, so they are actually making a good choice in play partner. It is helpful if adults are calm and kind about this phase (remember it will pass soon enough). Gently saying something like, “I love you too, so much. You are my beautiful little boy. But romantic love, when people get married or kiss passionately or XYZ, happens between two people who are close in age. So I will be with an adult, like me. And you will eventually find someone your age to be with. And you and I get to love each other as mommy and son and that is a really special love”.
What can happen, in large part because most adults have a healthy internal taboo against sex with children, is that adults overreact to a child’s natural style of learning – experimentation and play practice. Children may get shamed or unintentionally scared by an adult’s negative reaction. It is important to set firm boundaries as the adult about how you do and don’t want to be touched and also about the limits of your relationship (as true with children as with other adults, right?). There is no need to scold or punish a child for having their version of a crush, in fact this could cause them to feel uncomfortable or to doubt those feelings when they arise later in life. There is also no need to encourage the feelings and adults should be careful that they are not using the child’s affection to manipulate the child’s behavior or to create triangles or alliances in the family. Just remember that the child is trying on adult roles, not having adult feelings.
This is the same age that many kids will play house, acting out family dynamics, patterns, and habits in ways that can be dismaying or adorable to those being mimicked. Adults are role models, even when we are not aware of it, and children look to us for guidance on how to do this thing called life. They are taught early on, in fairytales and stories, TV shows, and magazine covers in the checkout line, that romantic love is something to be desired. One of the crucial things they seek to learn from us is how to love and be loved. Let’s strive to show them love can be kind, understanding, and unconditional but also with clear boundaries. Not a bad thing to remind ourselves of too.
Andy & Misty are 6 years old. They are playing in Misty’s backyard while her parents make dinner. The game of the moment is to climb on top of the picnic table and jump off. While jumping off you pull your pants down to flash your friend. Both kids think this is hilarious. They also know they are doing something that is not allowed if adults are around and that is part of the fun. They are each fascinated by the fact that their bodies look different under their clothes.
For awhile this is their favorite game. But after a few weeks of it, they will get bored and move on to something else. If they are really comfortable with each other, they may admit their curiosity and take closer looks at each other’s genitals while standing still. Maybe at some point they may play a game with kissing or even touching, but that’s not this game. This game is about jumping, and flashing parts you aren’t supposed to show, and getting a peek at a differently shaped body. It’s not a game about sex; that is an adult framework. It is about exploring and risking and your body being your own. And it is perfectly common and healthy.
Kids find all kinds of creative ways to explore their world and bodies are a part of that world. Many of us will have our own stories of exploration with childhood friends. And for most of us, if there is shame attached to this memory it is because of adult intervention from being caught and scolded. Healthy kids, who have not been abused or traumatized, will engage in explorative play of genitals without fear. They may be embarrassed if caught, because they know it is “naughty”. If they are following natural curiosity, no one will be bullied or pressured into anything and the play will feel mutual. There may be giggling and silly questions. None of this tells us anything about Andy or Misty’s sexual orientation, nor would it if it was Andy & Arthur playing or Misty and Monique. It certainly doesn’t mean that the kids will be overly interested in sex or that they have any trouble with impulse control. What it actually might mean is that they are not afraid of their body and so they let it be a part of their play.