It's so tempting when parents see little toddlers holding hands to say the wrong thing, says Wendi Prescott, the mother of four in Hardin Valley, Tennessee. "I was guilty of this—the preschool parent saying, 'Oh, look at the little couple.'" When parents say stuff like that it isn't because they're thinking about dating, Prescott admits. "The moms are really just thinking, 'Look, my kid is liked!' You don't realize you're already setting them up to worry whether a boy or girl likes them, or if they're 'popular.'"
By making a big deal of a mixed-gender friendship, it really does "become some sort of suggested precursor to valued popularity," says psychologist Sylvia Rimm, author of Growing Up Too Fast (sylviarimm.com) and director of the Family Achievement Clinic in Cleveland. Children won't think anything of playing with the opposite sex until they hear you telling your friend, "It's so cute to see my daughter with a boyfriend," she says.
Another downside of this "childhood sweetheart" legend in the making: If you're super focused on how cute your 4-year-old is with his "girlfriend," you may miss out on important details of how your child is actually doing—how he interacts with others, who his friends are (or could be), and his learning style, says Dayton, Ohio-based Montessori teacher Angel Cottom.
Many of us experienced a single awkward (and frequently vague) "sex talk" from our parents. But we now know it's a good idea to start talking about relationships and sexuality early and often: "Parents who start talking to their children in the early years with simple facts can then build on those facts as the years go by and can more easily handle the complicated issues when the time comes," says Mary Flo Ridley, of Just Say Yes (JustSayYes.org), a national educational organization geared to motivating teens to avoid the risks of sexual activity. "You'll have the credibility to talk to them as they mature if you initiated conversations when they were young," she says.
Lots of cultural attitudes about sexuality and gender sneak into our everyday vocabulary and we hardly notice, says Mandi Lawson, a certified holistic doula and mother to Jude, age 5, in Philadelphia. As a single mom, she's particularly aware of attitudes her son is picking up about his own gender and about women. "It's so easy for a preschooler to get into very rigid thinking—thinking that things in his world are supposed to be a certain way, and then getting very attached to that," she says.
Lawson listens carefully to what her son says and speaks up, calmly, when she feels the need. "For example, he'll say, 'Boys don't kiss boys,' or that boys only like a certain color," she says. "I don't call him down when he says these things, or make him feel like he's in trouble. But I'll say, 'Actually, that is okay,' or, 'You know, sometimes a girl will wear brown and a boy likes pink.'"
Lisabeth Slate of Salisbury, North Carolina, met her future husband when she was very young, so she understands that crushes at any age can involve strong feelings. "I know that we shouldn't necessarily dismiss 'puppy love,'" the mother of three says. Her approach is to simply listen to her children, a tactic that Amarillo, Texas, family therapist Ron Deal, author of The Smart StepFamily, approves. Avoid the impulse to chat about "how guys are" or ask for constant progress reports, he says. "You don't have to discourage or encourage the crush. It's enough to just let the child know it's okay."
It starts out all in good fun—"Girls Rule, Boys Drool" and other catchy girls-versus-boys phrases—but those sweeping statements about either gender start chipping away at your child's attitudes without your even noticing. Discourage the insults and instead help your child see members of the opposite gender as valuable individuals, not just part of a mocked group.
Whether you like it or not, your child may start thinking about "going with" someone a lot earlier than you would wish. If you've established your home as a kid-friendly hangout for all genders early on, you'll be more able to keep an eye on what's happening and encourage group social activities, says psychologist Sylvia Rimm. "Make it a friendship group rather than a couples group at your house."
Motherboard Mom Lisabeth Slate started hosting gender-neutral get-togethers early: "I think having friends of both genders is important, and I encourage it. It gives kids a much better perspective if they have someone of the opposite sex to share ideas with. It's important to have a counterbalance." But don't wait until the kids are older or they won't be at ease with each other, she says. "Mixed-gender gatherings should start when your child first begins forming friendships."
Had a bad relationship? Your children don't need to hear it. Whether you're dating, recently divorced, or you just get frustrated with your mate every now and then, it's not a
healthy strategy to make negative comments about men in front of your children. You don't want to bias your daughters against men or prejudice your children against relationships, says Sylvia Rimm, the psychologist. You also don't want to talk to your children as if they're adults, she says: If you're having relationship problems, "Mom needs to chat with a counselor or her close adult friends instead of her children."
Parents can't control everything their children hear and see, but it becomes easier later if there are family traditions or rules when the kids are young, says family therapist Deal. Keep computers and TVs out of kids' bedrooms and in shared areas, for starters. A child watching television or trolling the Internet by herself is likely to pick up all sorts of messages about relationships and how they "should" be—from wearing guy-magnet outfits to making out. But watch with your kids and you'll be surprised how chats about sit-com families can turn into important conversations about values.
So much of modern technology encourages children to segregate and be consumed by media messages without parental supervision, says Deal. "It's another part of the great illness in our culture in parenting, which I call 'affluenza,'" he says. "Parents give kids too much because they take pride in being able to give." And when they give their young children a cell phone (22 percent ages 6-9 have their own phone; 60 percent ages 10-14 do), they're moving into a dangerous area, Deal says. "Technology is a marvelous tool, but you need to ask whether this is something the child has the maturity and wisdom to manage himself or herself." Developmentally, for a tween or younger, the answer is usually "no," he says.
Motherboard Mom Prescott's older children do have cell phones, but she is vigilant about checking their text messages, and the phones get handed over to mom at bedtime.
Over a third of 11- to 12-year-olds say they've been in a boyfriend-girlfriend relationship—and more than one in four tweens say that having sex is a part of dating, according to a 2008 study commissioned by Liz Claiborne Inc. and loveisrespect.org. Yet parents, even when they know their child has been in a relationship, don't think their child has gone further than kissing, the study reports. That in spite of the stats that show 47 percent of tweens in a relationship report sexual activity among their peer group, including 31 percent who know a friend or peer who has had oral sex and 33 percent who know a friend or peer who has had sexual intercourse.