When his mother asked him one day after school if he had a boyfriend, 4-year-old Nicolas looked at his father strangely and said, “Dad, are you going to have a boyfriend?”
As for Olivia, 7, when one of the parents at a birthday party asked her which of the guests was her boyfriend, she immediately lowered her head and walked away embarrassed 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 one of her friends was her boyfriend.
You are probably familiar with both of these situations, as it is common for adults to ask children such questions. While it is obvious that they are only seeking to observe the child’s reaction, this seemingly innocent question may have implications for the way the child behaves towards others.
The concept of friendship in children
Interacting with peers is a very effective way to learn. The concept of friendship develops through the developmental stages and is therefore different depending on the age of the child. Robert Selman, a professor at Harvard University, has proposed one of the best-known theories about the development of friendship.
He suggested that while preschoolers maintain an egocentric view of friendship and see friends as those with whom they share games and the same physical space, shared preferences and cooperation become more important for school-age children. In adolescence, mutual support is valued more.
Read more: How do children choose their friends?
Peer relationships contribute to everyone’s emotional and social development by fostering a sense of belonging to a group. In childhood, curiosity about one’s own body and the bodies of others is normal, while sexual exploration is common in the pre-adolescence.
The change in the nature of peer relationships occurs in adolescence with increased sexual interest. Only then do friendships develop into a more emotional bond.
The influence of adults
From an early age, there is a preference for same-sex couples of the same sex, which continues into adolescence. Although it is common for children to prefer to play with peers of their own gender, this separation affects their relationships with others.
Adults, through their comments, approve or reject the relationships children have with their peers condition them. We affect, perhaps naively and without malice, the relationship between boys and girls.
Read more: Primary school: how to help a child make friends
Although there is a proven preference for same-sex friendships, children from an early age do not attribute their relationship to anyone other than friendship. In fact, a 4-year-old can hardly explain what a girlfriend is; he can even equate this notion with that of best friends. When an adult uses the terms “boyfriend” or “girlfriend” to designate a good friend of his child, it creates confusion in the child, who at a young age learns to identify his and others’ feelings.
Can’t we be friends?
Asking children if they have a boyfriend can affect how they behave around their friends. By asking such questions, we convey the idea that boys and girls can not be friends, but by playing with peers of the opposite sex, the relationship becomes something more. In this way, we encourage them to only have relationships with people of the same sex, which marks the differences between the two.
We also encourage them to avoid cross-sex friends to avoid derogatory comments from the rest of the group. The innocent question “Who is your girlfriend?” can make an 8-year-old boy reject the female friend with whom he shares games because he does not want to be separated from the group by having an intimate friendship, often associated with behavior children are ashamed of, such as kissing or holding in the hand.
Read more: Do children’s games have a gender?
By asking children if they have a boyfriend or girlfriend, we warn them that there is a different way to behave with people, which encourages a change in the way they are with their friends.
When we ask children what boy they like or who their boyfriend is, we normalize the idea that at their age they can have a close friend as adults, which encourages hypersexualization of children. We tolerate behaviors that have no place in childhood, support them with our feedback, and encourage them to take on roles that do not correspond to their stage of development.
In conclusion, adults should encourage children’s friendships because social connections are one of the most powerful protective factors for psychological well-being.
But interpreting children’s social behaviors, such as sharing time and play, as romantic relationships create differences between them, disrupt their learning of emotions and can cause them to drift away from just friends with whom they share more interests and preferences.