Lorsque sa mère lui a demandé un jour, après l’école, s’il avait une petite amie, Nicolas, 4 ans, a regardé son père d’un air étrange en disant : « Papa, est-ce qu’il faut avoir little girlfriend? »
As for Olivia, 7, when, at a birthday party, a parent asked her about her boyfriend of the guests, she immediately lowered her head and awkwardly walked away from the group of children she played with. The next day at school, she avoided hanging out with them because she was embarrassed that anyone might think that one of her friends was her boyfriend.
You will probably be familiar with both cases, since it is common for adults to ask such questions to children. Although they are clearly just looking to watch the child’s reaction, this seemingly innocent question can have consequences for the way the child behaves with others.
The concept of friendship in children
Interacting with peers is a very powerful way to learn. The concept of friendship develops during the stages of development and therefore varies according to the age of the child. Robert Salman, a professor at Harvard University, has proposed one of the most popular theories about the development of friendship.
He suggested that as preschool children maintain a selfish view of friendship and view friends as those with whom they share games and the same physical space, cooperation and shared preferences of school-aged children become more important. In adolescence, mutual support is more valuable.
Read more: How do children choose their friends?
Peer relationships contribute to the emotional and social development of everyone by promoting a sense of belonging to a group. In childhood, one’s curiosity about one’s own body and the bodies of others is normal, while in pre-adolescence sexual exploration is common.
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.
From an early age, there is a preference for same-sex peer relationships that continue into adolescence. Although it is common for children to prefer playing with peers of their own gender, this separation affects their relationships with others.
Adults, through their comments, approve or disapprove of the relationships that children have with peers, and impose conditions on them. We influence, perhaps naively and without malice, the relationships between boys and girls.
Read more: Elementary school: How to help a child make friends
Although there is a definite preference for same-sex friendships, children from a young age do not attribute their relationships with others to anything other than friendship. In fact, a 4-year-old can hardly explain what a boyfriend or girlfriend is; He might even balance that idea with best friends. When an adult uses the expressions “boyfriend” or “girlfriend” to designate a good friend for their child, it creates confusion for a child who learns at an early age to recognize their own feelings and those of others.
Can’t we be friends
Asking children if they have a boyfriend or girlfriend can influence their behavior with their friends. By asking such questions, we convey the idea that boys and girls cannot 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, making the differences between the two.
Also, we encourage them to avoid cross-sex friends to avoid degrading comments from the rest of the group. The innocent question “Who is your girlfriend?” It can cause an 8-year-old boy to reject his girlfriend with whom he shares toys, because he does not want to be distinguished from the group by developing camaraderie, often associated with behaviors that children are ashamed of, such as kissing or holding hands.
Read more: Do children’s toys have 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 how they treat their friends.
When we ask children which boy they like or who their girlfriend is, we print the idea that at their age they can have as close a friend as adults, which encourages hypersexuality of children. We tolerate behaviors that have no place in childhood, support them with our observations 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 bonds are one of the strongest protective factors for psychological well-being.
However, interpreting children’s social behaviors, such as sharing time and games, as romantic relationships creates differences between them, disrupts their learning of emotions, and can cause them to distance themselves from friends who share more interests and preferences.