There comes a point in every mother’s life when the flowers aren’t for her.
When 5-year-old Anna of Downers Grove came home from kindergarten recently, her mom, Katie Main, went to unload Anna’s backpack as usual. But Anna unexpectedly bolted straight for her room—backpack in hand—and shut the door.
A confused Main followed her instincts and her daughter up the stairs, finding a flustered Anna with her arms welded behind her body.
"I said, ‘Anna, what’s behind your back?’ and she said, ‘Nothing! Nothing!’ " Main remembers their conversation. "Then she showed them to me. They were flowers. And I said, ‘So, are those for me?’ "
But Anna shook her head. Blushing, she confessed that a fellow kindergartner, a boy, had given her the small bouquet. Not knowing what else to say, Main suggested they put the flowers in a vase.
Six-year-old Patrick is another Downers Grove kindergartner who needed a vase recently. His mother, Karen Crowe, recalls the "dreamy, sleepy look in his eyes" as he held onto a clover, which she thought he had picked for her.
Crowe laughs remembering Patrick’s explanation of the weed’s origin. "He said, ‘Shea gave this to me and she said that our friendship will always be alive inside this flower.’ " He and fellow classmate, 6-year-old Shea, have been buddies since birth.
Do these budding romances reveal a new trend of kindergartners falling in love?
Hardly, says Karen Gouze, director of training in psychology at Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago—at least not in the same sense that adults interpret romantic love.
To understand their motives and mind-sets, Gouze explains that, for very young children, "gender is a fluid notion." For example, most 3-year-olds—when pressed—don’t understand that their gender is an unchangeable characteristic. Once kids reach ages 5 and 6, though, they know that gender is a permanent condition. "Experimenting with heterosexual flirtations may be related to this newfound sense of identity," says Gouze.
During this same blossoming, children are also immersed in highly creative and imaginative play. It’s only natural that love becomes a theme during play. When kids are exchanging furtive glances and flowers, "they’re imitating adult romance," says Gouze. Whether playing house, dressing up or rocking a baby, children are busy practicing adult roles—and seeing adults act in loving ways sometimes works its way into the land of pretend.
Let’s (not) get physical
Unlike older elementary schoolchildren who think that the opposite sex is covered in cooties, kindergartners tend to play in mixed-gender groups both at and away from school. Ruth Freedman, associate professor of elementary education at National-Louis University in Chicago and an expert in child friendships, explains, "In kindergarten and first grade, kids are still able to have that opposite-sex-peer relationship."
As a result, pairing off during playtime is just convenient for play—it allows a boy to play daddy.
Jayne Miller, a kindergarten teacher for 17 years, currently teaches at Hawthorne Elementary School in Wheaton. She often sees couples forming and thinks the interaction between students reflects the loving relationships modeled at home.
"Role-playing lends itself for them to express themselves in these loving ways," says Miller, adding that it’s often the girls, confirming the stereotype of being the nurturer, who instigate physical contact.
But sometimes, even in play, young kids need instructions about what’s appropriate.
Miller tells of her niece’s daughter, a cuddly kindergartner at home, who had to learn how to put some limits on her love.
"The first day of school … she was just so excited about this boy, in saying ‘goodbye’ to him, she just gave him a big kiss because that’s what she does to her brothers," says Miller. She says the girl’s mother explained that not everyone is comfortable with kissing and touching, and there are different ways of telling someone "I like you." Her daughter thoughtfully considered the dilemma then asked, "Would it be OK if I just tapped his knee?"
Becoming too touchy is often just part of the territory of being a little kid.
As Miller sums it up, "I can say it a hundred times: Kindergartners are very physical." Just this year on the playground, she’s had to break up an involved game of "kissing tag" and intervene when boys and girls alike tackle and tickle one another.
"For what reason? Not for the reasons we’re thinking," she concludes. She states that there are rarely serious romance problems at school and that most physical problems are resolved by reciting the tried-and-true mantra: "Keep your hands to yourself."
Ever an inkling of impropriety?
Shea’s mother, Lauri Wast of Downers Grove, remembers the time Shea and Patrick were playing a game they call "real mommy and daddy."
She heard noises from behind a closed bedroom door, where she discovered the two of them jumping on the bed—in their underwear—shouting, "We’re playing ‘real mommy and daddy!’ " Wast says, "We were laughing, thinking ‘This is the real mommy and daddy?’ " Both mothers were amused and not at all concerned. Wast explains that neither child thought that being in your underwear was part of being boyfriend or girlfriend—terms neither mother ever utters.
And then there was the kiss at the park. Wast noticed the children behind a pillar being unusually quiet. Later that day, Shea matter-of-factly told her mother that Patrick had kissed her, just as she might tell her mother about anything else that happened during her day. Taking a cue from her daughter’s nonchalance, Wast didn’t dwell on the event, which is just how Gouze recommends parents should act.
"You should just be neutral about it, and sort of neutral-positive, the way you would treat any other friend," Gouze advises.
Testament that a family’s environment of affection often influences friendships, Crowe explains that Patrick is an affectionate boy who kisses her and family members on the lips throughout the day. She thinks that kissing Shea was just part of his routine of showing love to others.
Is media ‘upping the age?’
Freedman agrees that there is nothing sexual about the play between small kids. "Cognitively, at 5 or 6 years old, it’s developmentally appropriate to be innocent," she says.
As a mother of 5-year-old twin girls herself, Freedman believes that when interactions aren’t innocent, it’s more an influence of older siblings or television. As a result, Freedman is suspicious of television and curtails how much her girls watch.
But Gouze says that portraying young love in the media is not a new phenomenon. "If you look at any of the old ‘Little Rascals’ movies, there’s all this cute interaction between boys and girls," she says. She reassures parents that all children do is imitate what they see, and that "it has no more sexual meaning to them than it did for my mother’s friends 50 years ago."
Miller, now a grandmother, also dismisses concerns that media is corrupting kindergartners. She thinks that her mother had the same concerns she had as a mother, and that "each generation brings its new freedom and ways of thinking."
When to worry
There are times, though, when a parent needs to step in and call a stop, which is just what Woodridge resident Samantha Lawrence had to do recently.
As a single working mother, Lawrence sometimes relies on neighbors to watch her 5-year-old daughter, Jolene. One of the neighbors has a 7-year-old boy, and for fun Lawrence would tease Jolene by asking, "Is he your boyfriend?" The teasing stopped when Lawrence learned the two were snuggling under a blanket, and the play dates ceased altogether when she found out the boy’s father kept pornographic material in the home. She believes nothing inappropriate happened, but she’s not taking any chances.
Should parents use a child’s curiosity about the opposite sex as an opportunity to discuss sex? Gouze responds simply: "It’s unrelated to sex."
Parents should instead treat their child’s "romance" as innocent and like any other friendship the child has—which in itself presents many challenges.
Miller knows firsthand how fleeting friendships are at this age, and advises parents not to not blow any pairings out of proportion by using terms like "best friend" or "girlfriend/boyfriend" at home.
Main’s strategy for Anna’s situation is right on target. She says she wants to "make it as low-key as possible, because I know in two days he could give the flowers to someone else." Should a big breakup happen, Gouze says parents should handle it like any other loss in friendship, with lots of empathy and tender loving care.
Early animal attraction?
Is there any substance to a kindergarten crush or attraction? Biologically, it makes no sense that prepubescent kids are attracted to one another, says Gouze. But the feelings surrounding the crush—the excitement, the secrecy and the sharing of it with friends—create positive memories. Parents contribute to these happy emotions as well, Gouze says. "Whether wittingly or unwittingly, they laugh, they smile, they think it’s cute, and so I think it gets remembered in a positive way."
Which is why it must be that all of the mothers interviewed smiled shyly when asked to conjure up their first love. Main remembers "Zach." Crowe remembers "Glen." Wast remembers "Tom," who bravely protected her from bullies and brought her flowers. "I don’t know that I knew what romantic love was, but there was definitely a connection that was different than family and different from friends," she says. Lawrence recalls her first kiss came from a boy down the street when she was in first grade. She quickly snaps out of her trance and jokes, "That was OK for me, but not for my kid."
Love, without the hormones
Instead of worrying about innocent exchanges of affection, parents are better off to save that energy—because puberty is coming.
Gouze says after kindergarten and first grade, gender play becomes segregated, typically from ages 7 to 11. After that, all bets are off because hormones rule. "Kids can imagine romance in a real way; all these things have a much more sexual and romantic warrant to them," explains Gouze. "That’s when you really have to worry."
In the meantime, parents should savor the sweet gestures exchanged between small friends. And that’s just what Jenny Tenorio, Downers Grove resident and mother to 4-year-old Ally, intends to do. Ally adores her preschool love interest, sitting next to him at story time and smoothing out her hair when she sees him. The little boy’s mother tells Tenorio that the feelings are mutual, and that her son spells out Ally’s name with the magnetic letters on the refrigerator.
"Right now I just think it’s sweet," says Tenorio, smiling. "She has a little, sweet, loving heart."
Jill S. Browning is a writer living in Downers Grove. She has three children, all of whom were born on the same day.