Dr. Claire McCarthy is a primary care physician and the Medical Communications Editor at Boston Children’s Hospital. Along with her blogs here on Thriving, you can find her at the Huffington Post and Boston.com. Follow her on Twitter @drClaire.
Recently, the 10-year-old daughter of my friend Dana came home from school and told her that a boy had been teasing her and had recently pushed her off the monkey bars. “I think he likes me,” the girl said.
Dana didn’t know quite how to react. 4th grade boys haven’t quite got charming down yet, and she didn’t want to over-PC the situation. But she didn’t want to condone the pushing, either.
She saw the boy’s mother shortly after that, and mentioned in as offhand a way as possible what was going on at school. “Oh, I know,” said the mother. “Isn’t it cute? His first crush.”
No, Dana thought, it’s not cute. “There was something about the way the mother was so dismissive that made me know I had to do something,” she told me. So she sat her daughter down and made sure she knew that it was never okay for someone to push her. And Dana went to the school guidance counselor, told him what was happening and asked for help. The pushing stopped. (Now the boy follows her daughter around and sings to her, which doesn’t bother her daughter as much.)
“I still don’t know if I did the right thing by stepping in,” said Dana. “But I didn’t want my daughter to get the message that it is okay for a boy to hurt her, even if he’s doing it because he likes her. I also didn’t want the boy to think pushing, and other negative attention, is an appropriate way to express your interest in a girl. They just seemed like a really bad messages for them to take into adulthood.”
Parenting, really, is all about messaging. Whether it’s teaching kids to say please and thank you, or reading a bedtime story every night, or making sure they know to look both ways before crossing the street, we are always giving kids messages. When you’re delivering them, they seem like little messages, but really, they are not. They each have a broader message, like about the importance of being polite and respectful, the value of reading, or the need to think about safety. In the little things we do, we teach life lessons. And sometimes, in the little things we don’t do we can end up teaching something too.
Life is full of teachable moments, and I think that the first crush is one of them. After all, this is a child’s first foray into relationships, that first time of feeling vulnerable—or desirable. It’s about wanting someone to like you, about embarrassment, about attractiveness, about power.
All the sex and violence in the media, and the marketing of sexy clothes to really little girls, make things even more complicated. All those messages get mixed up in how kids think about relationships and attractiveness and how they are supposed to behave.
Parents have the opportunity to change the conversation, to send different and better messages—little messages that can become big messages later.
“Make sure your child knows it’s never okay for someone to hurt them, physically or with words.”
When Dana and I talked about this, she said that she thought it was hard for parents to know what to say and when to step in. “We’re not therapists, or doctors,” she pointed out. That’s true (unless you happen to be a therapist or a doctor). But you are people who have loved and been loved. You’ve lived through joy and humiliation, and been at the side of friends through their joy and humiliation. You’ve given your heart, and had your heart broken. So teach from there.
Like Dana did, make sure your child knows it’s never okay for someone to hurt them, physically or with words. Talk to your child about understanding, and respecting, how other people feel. Talk about attractiveness and how it’s really an inside thing, not an outside thing. Make sure your child knows that he or she is special, beautiful, and worthy. Talk about gentleness. Teach them that power is something that should always be shared.
They are just little messages now, but some day when your child is grown, they may be huge.