Categories: Feature Story
      Date: Jan 27, 2011
     Title: A Little Romance

The highs and lows of elementary infatuation

By Tammy DiDomenico

With two teenage boys in the house, it’s natural for talk of “girlfriends” to creep into Polhamus family discussions. But it’s usually not the teens at the center of the discussions—because 8-year-old Carter is the household Romeo.



Michael Davis Photo

With two teenage boys in the house, it’s natural for talk of “girlfriends” to creep into Polhamus family discussions. But it’s usually not the teens at the center of the discussions—because 8-year-old Carter is the household Romeo.

“For as long as I can remember, he has just been drawn to women,” Dawn Polhamus says of her youngest son. “We don’t know where it came from.”

Indeed, Polhamus describes her husband, David, and her older boys as rather reserved. But Carter—blond, bold and armed with a big smile—can charm most anyone. “He has this presence. I can’t tell you how many people we’ve met because Carter goes up to them and just starts talking. He just has that knack. Women flock to him.”

Now a second-grader at Cazenovia Elementary School, Carter often enjoys the company of at least one of his female classmates. Yet he still talks about his “true love,” a girl he met in preschool.

“If he’s in, he’s in there deep,” Carter’s mom says with a laugh.

Children in elementary school can develop surprisingly strong feelings for individual classmates. And schools, and individual teachers, vary in how they handle classroom crushes.

Nancy Mahr-Tyler of Manlius, a preschool teacher and mother of two elementary school-aged children—a son in fifth grade and a daughter in second—said she discourages any kind of “pairing up” in her classroom. “Parents may think it’s cute, but I nip it in the bud as soon as I notice it,” she says. “I don’t play into the boyfriend/girlfriend idea at all.”

Mahr-Tyler says that earlier in the school year, there was a situation in which a little boy was describing one of his classmates as his “girlfriend” and starting influencing what she did at school. After talking with the parents, Mahr-Tyler decided it was best to redirect their focus.

“I definitely see (these children) modeling behavior they see in their own lives,” Mahr-Tyler says. “When there is this idea of possessiveness, or an expression of ownership of another classmate, I find it to be concerning. I stop it right away.”

Mahr-Tyler says, luckily, there are only a very few instances of in-class crushes at the preschool level.

Mahr-Tyler is no less tough with her own children. “I’ve always said, ‘When you graduate from college, then you can have a girlfriend or boyfriend,’” she says. “Actually, with my daughter, I say, ‘When you have your Ph.D.!’”

Mahr-Tyler adds, “When my kids are in school, that’s where I want their mindset to be.”

In her preschool classroom, she follows the same policy with students in her care. “I want them to know that our goals for school time are about learning—not romantic. It’s not that I don’t want kids holding hands in the classroom; it’s more about teaching the children that we are all friends with each other. I explain this to the parents and they seem to appreciate it.”

As children get older, teachers have other concerns when it comes to male/female interaction in school. JoMarie Vespi, a fourth-grade teacher at Mott Road Elementary School in Fayetteville, says addressing in-class romances requires a delicate touch.

“One of the things that comes up with the older kids is the language they use to talk about each other,” she says. “At this age, they are hearing things from older siblings, or friends, and they start using words that are not always appropriate. We don’t tolerate that. We keep reinforcing positive interactions and the idea of respecting each other.”

Vespi, a mother of two, says by the time children are a little older, they often become more clandestine about their feelings—not wanting to cause undue attention from their peers. If a boy likes a girl, he often doesn’t make it obvious. A teacher must adopt a bit of strategy in order to redirect more covert relationships.

Just recently, one of Vespi’s co-workers found a small package—left on the floor—that had obviously been intended for a young man’s “special someone.” There was no name on the gift, but there was a sweet note. “With fourth-graders, there was no way we could embarrass the young man by holding it up and asking, ‘Whose is this?’ The owner never would have come forward.”

Instead, the teachers discreetly mentioned to their classes that a package had been found, and that the owner could approach the teachers after class to claim it. Shame averted, gift returned, hearts unbroken.

Typically, schools address classroom romances on a case-by-case basis. “There is not a protocol,” says Brian Kesel, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction for the West Genesee Central School District. “If the issue becomes a distraction, the teacher and the parents discuss it.”

Generally, elementary school teachers establish the ground rules for classroom behavior and interaction early in the school year, and many even include their students in this process. Youthful crushes are not permitted to infringe on these rules or the school’s own code of conduct.

Vespi admits that it is not always easy for teachers to address these issues with students. The emotions are very real to the students involved, and young egos are easily bruised.

Sometimes, the best approach is to let it pass naturally; don’t deny the legitimacy of the child’s feelings, but don’t encourage it either. That worked for one DeWitt mom. Her daughter—now a fourth-grader at a local public school—developed a very strong attachment for a boy her age who rode her school bus.

“This started when she was in kindergarten,” says the mother, who asked to remain anonymous to avoid embarrassing her daughter. “She would see him sitting somewhere and just boldly go sit with him. Thankfully, he was never rude. But he did not return her interest. She took it hard at first.”

Month after month, the crush continued. The girl’s parents were careful in talking with their daughter; they could see that she truly believed she was in love with the boy. Asking her to “forget it” didn’t work. No matter how many times the boy made it clear he was not interested, she remained steadfast in her devotion. “I didn’t want her to think it was OK to bother this boy. But I also didn’t want to feed the situation by overreacting,” the girl’s mother says.

The mother ended up reaching out to the young man’s mother, and the two parents observed from a distance—making sure no serious heartbreak occurred.

Now three years later, the girl still thinks of her classmate as her “perfect boyfriend.” But the intensity has diminished. She has accepted the possibility that her feelings may never be reciprocated, and the two are able to coexist on the bus and at school without any problems. Meanwhile, her mother says, over time a sweet friendship has formed.

Polhamus says her son Carter has, thus far, approached his romantic life in a precociously astute manner. She attributes that to good communication. “If he comes home and says he has a girlfriend, I ask him what that means to him,” Polhamus says. “Usually, it means they play chase on the playground; that’s about it. He’s not calling girls on the phone, or bothering them.”

Polhamus adds that she frequently checks in with Carter to make sure he maintains balance in his relationships. “We talk a lot about his feelings, and about the importance of not hurting anyone else’s feelings,” she says. “We make sure he is being fair with all his friends.”

Teachers note that young students who show romantic interest in their classmates at the elementary age level are often imitating behavior they see at home, from an older sibling, or on television.

Mahr-Tyler points out that some television programming aimed at elementary school-aged children includes material better suited to young teens, in her view. Much of the content focuses on clothes, appearance and “getting girlfriends or boyfriends.”

Polhamus says her teenage sons have been much less eager to talk about girls at home, so she doubts they have influenced Carter’s romantic notions (although from time to time one will remark, “Way to go, Carter!”). But Carter’s older cousins are quick to give him a high-five or call him a ladies’ man. So, like Mahr-Tyler, Polhamus does what she can to make sure that kind of reaction doesn’t overly influence Carter.

“He’s very kind and fair in all his friendships, so I can help him focus on qualities like respect and appreciation,” Polhamus says. In fact, she believes his experiences recognizing and thinking about his feelings toward girls will make him a more thoughtful partner in the future, and may serve him well in all his relationships.

For the DeWitt mother guiding her daughter through the wrenching feelings of unrequited love, parental guidance—and a lot of patience—have been key.

“To her, this is very real, and as parents we understand that. But it was also our job to make sure that she did not get too caught up in something that she is far too young for,” she says. “Luckily, it’s only been one boy—so far.”

Award-winning writer Tammy DiDomenico lives in DeWitt with her husband and two sons.