When I heard my 6-year-old, Samantha, giggling about a friend being in love, I was thrown for a loop. But experts say this kind of talk is normal. "Your child is beginning to understand that gender is permanent -- if she's a girl now, she'll grow up to be a woman," says Aron Janssen, M.D., clinical director of the gender and sexuality service at NYU Child Study Center. As a result, kids try on the roles of "boyfriend" and "girlfriend" just like they may play teacher or chef. How you handle these first situations is important, says Dr. Janssen. Consider these reasonable responses to four typical scenarios.
Your child says she has a boyfriend.
Best Approach: Ask her what she means. "Even though there's a lot of talk about boyfriends at this age, it's all pretty innocent," says Paul Donahue, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and author of Parenting Without Fear. Having a boyfriend may mean sitting together at lunch or buddying up on a class trip. Don't adultify their relationship, even if you're being tongue-in-cheek. "You might say, 'It's great to have a friend who's a boy. It's wonderful to have someone you feel special about,'" says Dr. Donahue. There's no need to be concerned unless the friendship becomes too exclusive or possessive.
You catch your son trying to kiss a girl.
Best Approach: Talk about it in private. You don't want to grab him away or embarrass him. When you're alone, say: "I know you really like Sophie, but there are better ways to show her how you feel." Explain that holding hands or giving a hug is fine if the other child likes it, says Annye Rothenberg, Ph.D., a child and parent psychologist and author of I Want to Make Friends. You can also suggest more age-appropriate gestures, like creating a secret handshake together or drawing her a picture.
Your daughter is having a coed playdate, and they head to her room alone.
Best Approach: Don't jump to conclusions. Kids this age still have a lot of curiosity about bodies, but they have learned about respecting one another's privacy, so "playing doctor" is less likely to happen than it is with younger kids. "If you say, 'Keep the door open when you're in your room,' you might give them ideas that weren't even there," says Dr. Rothenberg. Of course, be aware if play becomes too quiet or a pair often shuts the door; it may mean they're doing something they shouldn't -- like jumping on the bed or sneaking candy up to her room.
Your child describes a friend as "sexy" or "hot."
Best Approach: Kids will pick up this type of vocabulary from YouTube, commercials, and older siblings, but they don't necessarily understand what the terms mean, says Sharon Lamb, Ed.D., professor of counseling psychology at the University of Massachusetts Boston and author of Sex Ed for Caring Schools. Explain that these words are only used by grown-ups, and they don't really describe kids his age. You might suggest that he compliment others on qualities they'll care about, like being a good singer or a kind friend, instead.
Originally published in the February 2014 issue of Parents magazine.