The Sexualizing of Preschool Friendships

Justin and Sarah play together all the time.  They both like building with blocks, doing puzzles and playing in the classroom’s pretend kitchen.  They are both of the same calm temperament and gravitate toward each other in the busy classroom. They are friends. 

Preschool friendships are so innocent and sweet.  When preschoolers find someone with whom they feel comfortable, they tend to gravitate toward that person every day.  Gender, though often noticed by preschoolers, doesn’t matter when it comes to everyday interactions.  They will happily play with anyone who enjoys the same activities and causes little or no stress.  They do not care if their favorite companion is of the same gender.  Because they hear the terms in their world on television and in their families, they will sometimes say that “he is my boyfriend” or “she is my girlfriend.”  It does not have the same meaning as adults apply to those words.  In the classroom, when they identify their friendship in those terms, we simply smile and say that it is nice to have friends.  Far too often, however, we see well-meaning adults place emphasis on a relationship that doesn’t really exist.

It was time to go home and Sarah’s mother arrived with her grandmother.  “Look,” she said pointing to Justin and Sarah as they played, “that’s her boyfriend.”  The word “boyfriend” was said coyly and with a wink of the eye.

What message are we sending to young children when we talk about their friends as “boyfriends” or “girlfriends”?  Children innately want to please.  They seek attention and approval.  We send a message of expectation. We want our children to be popular and we place value on them having relationships with the opposite sex.  Though they cannot understand that sort of relationship yet, they do understand that spending time with the opposite sex will receive our attention and that we encourage it.  Is it any wonder that children who received this message at a very young age feel “less than” when they aren’t among the first to actually have a partner as a preteen or teen?  Is it any wonder that children who may find themselves attracted to the same sex are afraid to tell their parents?

Mrs. Smith’s preschool class walked down the hallway.  Justin and Sarah were holding hands as usual.  Justin’s mother remarked to Mrs. Smith, “Those two are always together” and Mrs. Smith replied, “Oh yes – that’s your son’s girlfriend.”  The adults looked at each other knowingly and laughed.

Children need to feel accepted in their own right.  They need to know that they only need to be the best version of themselves.  Of course, we want them to have friends and socialize.  We need to be careful not to place special emphasis on opposite gender friendships.  When our young children imitate that which they see on TV or in their home lives by saying “he’s my boyfriend” or “she’s my girlfriend,” our reaction needs to be the same as with any other friendship.  We need to be neutral.  “I’m glad you have made friends…”  That is all.



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  1. I so agree with this article. I have always been a bit annoyed by people's comments about my own children when playing with children of the opposite sex. I have always taught my children that dating, i.e. boyfriends/girlfriends, are "adult" relationships between two people who desire "to marry". It's not casual. It's a prelude. So in my own classroom, I have ALWAYS been neutral. It sends the wrong message. We say "boyfriend" or "girlfriend" in reference to their playmates, but how do you justify "Aunt Susan's boyfriend" living in her home? As trivial as it may seem, these standards are being set in childhood. People encourage it when they are preschoolers but want to strangle the little boy down the street just 10 years later! lol Is that not what has been taught and encouraged? I'm sharing this article immediately! =)

    1. Thank you! I'm glad you are sharing it.

  2. I agree, very good information for teachers and parents alike.

  3. There are many underlying factors in the situation you describe, popularity, gender and sexual issues, self concept -- none of them well served by adults placing special emphasis on different gender friendships. Thanks for reminding us.


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