February 14th, the day to celebrate love in all its forms, is again approaching. With my youngest son in his final year of elementary school, the sweet rituals of elementary school will soon become a part of my family’s past. And I am bracing for less-innocent Valentine’s Days to come.
My husband and I agree that there is no need to have “girlfriends” until, um, college. And since our boys are 13 and 9, we expect a few more years before we have to address any serious romantic issues. But there have been a few crushes already, and we’ve learned that a delicate balance is required. We encourage friendships with girls, not wanting the boys to think of girls as “icky” or peculiar creatures. But we also want them to know that there is no reason to rush into emotional entanglements.
Lately, I’ve been wondering just how much youthful romance has changed since I was in school. Clues have already emerged. Last year, my older son claimed to be “going out” with a certain female classmate. Of course, this did not include any actual going out—as dating in any form will be discouraged for as long as possible.
From what I gathered, the entire “relationship” consisted of saying “hi” to each other in the halls at school and the exchange of about a billion text messages. The young lady eventually grew bored of the fact that my son was not allowed to go on “dates” to the mall or to the movies—as many of his friends do—so the virtual “couple” parted ways.
But the text messages have hardly slowed down. Since this seems to be the preferred method of communication between young people, my husband and I had to establish a whole set of rules and protocols that neither one of us had when we were growing up.
Many involve appropriate communications with girls, or about girls. My son has strict rules, and if rules are broken, the phone is gone. And I am not ashamed to say that as long as my husband and I are paying for the phone plan, his text messages are subject to review at any time.
Clandestine communication was much more difficult—and therefore, much less frequent—when we were in school. Hastily scribbled notes on scraps of loose-leaf paper, snuck into lockers or passed through mutual friends, triggered palpitations and sweaty palms. Phone calls were a big deal, because calling almost always meant dealing with a parent who would be answering. Yep, calling your “crush” required a bit of bravery—and this certainly was not lost on us girls.
Today, parental intervention seems rarer. Kids text their classmates at any time of day—or night. During one recent school break I heard my older son’s phone—stored in a common area at bedtime—at some point in the wee hours. It was a young lady who was on vacation with her family in the Bahamas. Apparently, news about her friend’s interest in him simply could not wait until she had returned from paradise.
And for more timid Romeos and Juliets, texting is a gift from the techno gods. You don’t have to ask a friend to pass a note; you don’t even have to actually write a note. Interestingly, it seems boys still choose to use a go-between when communicating their interest in classmates. They just do it with a text message—or hundreds of them.
With my younger son, my concerns are not about the secrets he keeps, but those he does not. He’s all about the grand gestures when it comes to the girls he likes. When he was in first grade, he once rose an hour early just to make sure he had time to pick a particular flower to bring to a girl. There was no talk of “love” or anything inappropriate. He simply wanted to do this kind gesture and I saw no reason to question his motives.
Three years later, we did have to revisit the topic of generosity, when he used his lunch account to purchase snacks for his current favorite female friend. Understandably, the girl’s parents did not want her to accept the treats. Despite this snag in his plan to win the girl’s heart through her sweet tooth, his fondness for her is undiminished.
I casually ask him about his feelings—making sure he is not bothering the girl or putting too much emphasis on what their friendship means. It seems he simply feels a connection to this particular classmate—whom he describes above all else as “kind”—and feels inclined to treat her a little bit special. It’s hard to discourage that.
All parents think that their children are too young to have romantic feelings for another classmate. But were we really any older? Note passing was an everyday occurrence in my late elementary school years, and I distinctly remember a “special” boy calling me for the first time when I was in fourth grade—the same age as my youngest. And, if memory serves me, I had my first real kiss by the time I was 13—my older son’s age. I was hardly the first of my classmates to do so.
I recently asked my older son why kids his age think it is necessary to single out a “special” person. “Why not just be friends with everyone?” I asked. “It’s not like you will be dating any time soon.”
He thought for a moment and said, “I don’t know, really. I guess if you feel a connection with someone—even if you can’t date—you want to call it something special.”
I probed further: “What kind of connection?”
“Well, I would never be interested in someone just for looks,” he said. “I’d have to be friends with them first.”
Well, we may be years away from the next generation of true romance in this household, but I’m doing what I can to keep the lines of communications open and encourage healthy ideas about love and relationships—and Valentine’s Day—when the time comes.
Award-winning writer Tammy DiDomenico lives in DeWitt with her husband and two sons.
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