The unexpected knock at my front door brought up images of a door-to-door salesman. But resisting my urge to hide, I opened the door and found the person standing on my porch was not a stranger, nor was she selling anything. It was a classmate of my 10-year-old son, and she had made him a gift … complete with a love letter! Honestly, I would have preferred a long spiel from a vacuum salesman.
To say I felt shocked and unprepared would be an understatement, but the situation led to an important conversation with my son. When I presented the gift to him, I did not tell him who it was from (to protect them both from an awkward encounter the next day), but I did talk with him about girls and feelings. I shared that he had arrived at the age where girls start to admire and have special feelings about boys. Even though he was not having reciprocal feelings yet, I explained he should be sensitive to those who are and treat them with the same kindness and respect that he would want to receive if the roles were reversed. I’m sure he would have preferred a talk about baseball and lizards.
Even if dating is years off, it's never too early to teach our children how to communicate and interact with members of the opposite sex in a healthy manner. As I found, the subject may literally come knocking on your door much earlier than you expect.
One way to encourage healthy interactions is to provide opportunities for your children to develop friendships with members of the opposite sex. This will benefit them now as well as in their future dating relationships. The Focus on the Family Guide to Talking with Your Kids About Sex says parents should emphasize friendship skills with the opposite sex: “True intimacy in later years will require friendship skills, not just romantic emotions.” When children know and are comfortable around the opposite gender, they are less likely to develop the kind of curiosity that can lead to very early dating.
Keep it positive
As parents we can help our kids cultivate healthy attitudes by paying close attention to how we talk about relationships with the opposite sex. Boy-girl relationships should neither be put on an altar nor talked about negatively. Sheila Wray Gregoire, Christian author and parenting expert, says that negative talk about dating and sex can lead kids to decide “boys are yucky” or “girls are scary,” causing them to end up with a negative perception of members of the opposite sex. Instead, parents should try to maintain a positive attitude as you help your kids find ways to experience healthy platonic relationships.
Model healthy relationships
It has often been said that children learn what they live. Modeling love and respect within our families is where healthy relationships — including those with the opposite sex — start. Show affection to your spouse and your kids, and don’t stop being affectionate with your children as they age. Hug them, wrestle with them, lean against each other while you watch a movie. My children are now 17, 14 and 11, and they all still love to be tackled and tickled. Kids who aren't receiving healthy physical affection from family members may be more likely to seek out physical attention elsewhere.
Give kids opportunities to practice loving and respectful behavior and good manners by planning mother-son and daddy-daughter date nights. My daughter loved getting dressed up for dates with Dad, and my boys enjoyed being given cash to keep in their wallets so they could pay for dinner with me.
Family is the perfect place to combat the steady flow of information in the media about what our culture considers healthy and acceptable. Study the Bible or read a Christian book together and create the safe space your kids need to learn what God’s Word says about relationships.
It’s important to draw a few boundary lines for your children as they navigate the waters of boy-girl friendships. Teach them that there are certain discussion topics that should be saved for same-sex friends. For example, it would be inappropriate for a young girl to talk with a male friend about shopping for a bra or getting her period. Those subjects should be saved for “girl time.” The same goes for boys, who should limit conversations about their own body development to “guy time.”
During the tween years, conversation with anyone can be tough, and talking with the opposite sex can be downright overwhelming. Give your kids an outline for talking to others so they don’t just sit in uncomfortable silence. Tell them that a good rule is to ask a question about the person, then ask a follow-up question to show they are listening. After that, they can share something about themselves or what they like. Practice this pattern of conversation with your kids, encouraging them to sit or stand up straight and look the other person in the eye. It may feel awkward at first, but the practice will serve them well when they find themselves in a potentially silent situation.