When Gina’s* nine-year-old daughter announced that she had a crush on Dylan and – how exciting! – he was crushing on her, too, her friends were horrified. Their shock grew when Gina agreed that Jessica could invite Dylan to her house for a play date, and they were absolutely aghast when the young ‘couple’ was spotted walking to the school gate holding hands. “Aren’t they too young for all of this?” one asked.
Gina was slightly baffled by their outrage. “Too young for what, exactly? It’s not like they’re going to be sitting in her room, kissing. Jessica might think she’s smitten, but he’s really just another friend.”
Normal developmental phase
According to Joan Tindale, ECD expert and principal of Greenpark Nursery School, Gina’s reaction was spot on. “Many people don’t realise this, but crushes are a normal developmental stage,” she says. In other words, your little one is just as likely to develop a crush as she is to, say, suffer night terrors.
Usually, these passing fancies are just that – fleeting. What’s more, they could be rooted in the most seemingly inconsequential details. “Kids don’t just get crushes on their classmates. They can also develop what seems like an obsession with animals or even food – although, other children are, of course, usually the target of their interest. And that can be because they share something apparently obscure, whether it’s a liking for particular vegetable or a TV character,” Joan explains.
Of course, for a child of Jessica’s age, the dynamics tend to be a little more complex – but, even then, says Joan, there’s no need to panic that your child is growing up too fast. “Even amongst tweens, a crush is purely innocent, and the very best way to handle it is by allowing it to run its course – which it inevitably will.”
That means resisting the temptation to tease (which will turn the crush into a source of embarrassment and therefore something negative), playing it up or turning it into something it’s not – like an adult romance.
“Even amongst tweens, a crush is purely innocent…”
Playdates vs dates
This is precisely what Jo* did when her daughter, six-year-old Lily, excitedly informed her that she and her classmate, Toby, were getting married. Toby’s mother was similarly tickled by the news, which both found “adorable”. Rather than arranging an ordinary play date, the moms organised for the children to go to movies; the next week, it was pizzas at a kids’ restaurant – just like a mini date.
“I know that she wasn’t heartbroken in the traditional sense, but she still experienced the pain of being rejected by a friend.”
These little get togethers continued for months, until Toby’s mom suggested he ask her to his brother’s school disco. Lily was thrilled – and heartbroken when Toby, like any other little boy, wanted to hang out with his friends rather than dance with her. “Looking back, I can see that letting her go to the disco was a massive mistake,” Jo says. “I know that she wasn’t heartbroken in the traditional sense, but she still experienced the pain of being rejected by a friend.”
Joan agrees that Jo should have taken a firmer stance. “There’s nothing wrong with letting your child have play dates with their crush but keep it at a play date – if she wouldn’t usually go to movies with her friends, don’t let her go with her crush,” she advises.
Is there ever a time to worry? If you can see that the ‘play’ has developed into something inappropriately physical, Joan says. “If, however, you can see that your child simply enjoys another child’s company, let them do so. Everyone – from three to 33 – has crushes, after all.”
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