I used to make jokes about my own toddler flirting with kids her age. That was until I realized just how damaging that can be—even though I meant it in a playful way.

baby with hearts on his eyes
Credit: Photo illustration by Sarina Finkelstein; Getty Images (1)

While on vacation at the beach several years ago, we met up with some old friends and their children. I was tickled to see my then 2-year-old daughter bonding with their 6-year-old son. He got a kick out of making her laugh—she was a relaxed and cheerful audience. I saw how the two kids got along so well, and my brain fast-forwarded 25 years to a daydream of their inevitable fairy tale wedding. I mentioned the fantasy to my friend. I might have even said, "She's in love with him."

I may have also giggled when my preschooler told me about her “boy friend” two years later. He was literally a boy and a friend; she didn’t have any intention of romantically bonding with another 4-year-old. She was confused and annoyed by my pressing questions about this boy friend. That’s when I recognized I was saddling her with a connotation she didn’t understand or welcome. I vowed to back off. I realized how little comments like mine snowball into a culture of romantic expectations based on gender.

A few years later, I was lost in thought in a busy waiting room, and an unfamiliar pre-school-aged child started inching toward my lap. "He's a flirt," said the adult with him. And then even the Duchess of Sussex herself, Meghan Markle, said her 5-month-old son Archie “likes to flirt” after the tot chuckled with a female human rights activist. Though I might have once made a similar comment, this all sounds incongruent to me now. It also really solidifies my stance on calling kids flirts.

Flirtation implies romance or sexuality in a context that is neither cute nor appropriate for children too young to even understand what those words mean. It also supports a notion that is particularly harmful to female children: that attracting a mate will be a primary life objective. Thinking back, I really do feel embarrassed. I had muddied a sweet childhood interaction with my own ingrained expectation that people must be coupled up to be happy. This indoctrination that romance makes life complete is an idea that overshadows any complex emotions my daughter was feeling.

"Projecting romantic scenarios on young children may become harmful once children begin understanding the comments of adults around them," says Emily W. King, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist in Raleigh, North Carolina, who specializes in working with children of all ages. “While comments about 'flirting' with a playmate might go over the head of a baby or toddler, preschoolers are going to notice. These labels can be confusing when their intention is to just play with a friend, male or female, because they're having fun."

And of course babies aren’t flirting at all; they are simply enjoying natural parts of their development. "Babies who appear to 'flirt' with you are building brain connections through social interactions,” says Dr. King. That’s also the case when babies interact with other tots during playdates. “By this point in development, babies have developed some motor skills so they can turn or move their bodies towards other babies and smile or giggle at one another,” adds Dr. King.

I’ve completely stopped tying any romantic language to my daughter’s friendships with other kids her age. I don’t want her to grow up feeling every interaction she has is simply an opportunity for a romantic relationship or make her feel pressured to seek a partner. Instead, I’ll take expert advice and let her take the lead on describing her relationships to me, whenever she's ready.

“When talking with our child, just listen and emphasize kindness, fun, and learning,” says Dr. King. “Most children will hear these romantic labels soon enough, opening up the conversation for the difference between friendships and romantic relationships."