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Young Love: A Guide for Nervous Parents

Outside a classroom where my daughter, Katie, attended an after-school arts program, a pack of girls, ranging in age from about 6 to 8 years old, surrounded another girl and began teasing her about her supposed affection for a boy in their class. She and the little gentleman  -- who luckily got to observe most of this fierce chiding from the sidelines  -- were, of course, thoroughly embarrassed, as was intended.

Not long after this incident, my wife, Lynne, and I found ourselves serenaded at dinner by my daughter and her girlfriend with this familiar little ditty: "Doug and Lynne, sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G. First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes Katie in a baby carriage!"

This is where the road to romance begins. During a long prelude to adolescent romance, boys and girls warily circle each other for years, then gradually mix together in groups, and eventually begin to pair off in very brief relationships under the watchful eyes of their peers. In this way, the education of our children in the ways of love proceeds along a fairly predictable course.

AGES 5 to 7
"We're Getting Married!"

Children in kindergarten will sometimes profess their undying love to a playmate. The separation of the genders, which is later enforced by the children themselves, has not yet become the law of the land. Adults tend to minimize such attachments, says Barrie Thorne, Ph.D., professor of sociology and women's studies at the University of California Berkeley and the author of Gender Play: Girls and Boys in School (Rutgers University Press), but to children these romances can feel quite meaningful.

Parents may even come across children at this age kissing and fondling each other, as did my wife one day when she discovered our daughter, then age 5, crouched behind her bed kissing her friend Max. Such behavior is usually fleeting  -- and harmless, unless one child displays an obsessive preoccupation with sexuality.

Boys and girls continue to remain extremely aware of each other, but soon an invisible barrier begins to separate them. During free time on the playground or in the classroom, they simply prefer their own gender's company and activities. Physical contact and gestures of affection (publicly at least) become taboo. Yet boys and girls, even among themselves, are learning the fundamentals of friendship  -- trust, intimacy, loyalty, companionship  -- that later become the basis for romantic relationships. "It's much easier and safer for them to form their own identity and to develop these social skills within their same-gender group," explains Katherine Hennighausen, a researcher at the University of Minnesota Institute of Child Development. "When you move from same-gender relationships to romantic relationships, you make yourself very vulnerable to rejection and other hurt feelings."

AGES 7 to 9
The Great Divide

Children strictly observe the separation of the sexes, except under very specific circumstances. Generally, violators of these unspoken rules are taken to task by their peers (especially among boys). And perhaps for good reason: Research has shown that children who do not conform to this gender boundary in middle childhood are more sexually promiscuous and have less success in romantic relationships during adolescence, notes Hennighausen.

At the same time, children engage in a ritual that Thorne and others call "border work." Here the idea is to deliberately make contact with the opposite sex in quick skirmishes that involve teasing, chasing, and, by around age 9, passing along notes or messages (such as, "Donna has a crush on you"), often through an intermediary. "These highly charged, energetic interactions," notes Hennighausen, signal a heightened interest.

Some children continue to develop close friendships with members of the opposite sex, but usually in less public settings  -- say, at playdates in their homes  -- so they do not get teased.

Children's concepts of romance at these ages  -- despite the awful abundance of sexual messages in the culture and the media  -- remain pretty basic: Romance is thought to involve love, companionship, hugging, and kissing (and perhaps other physical expressions of affection). In actual practice, of course, this is all put off until later.

AGES 10 to 12
Getting Reacquainted

Boys and girls still carefully guard the border that separates them at age 9, but the opposite sex inevitably becomes a prominent and frequent subject of discussion and speculation, particularly for girls.

"Graham has nothing to do with the girls  -- zero," says Lisa Berland of Lexington, MA, about her 11-year-old son. "Supposedly they all have crushes on him, but he doesn't know and he doesn't care."

But Berland has witnessed firsthand the flirting rituals. "They do irritating things. The other night, one of the girls in Graham's class doused him with Coke; then she hid his shoes."

In the later elementary-school years, boys and girls start socializing together in what researchers call "mixed-sex groups." "They've spent the last three or four years avoiding the other sex and don't know much about them anymore," says Bradford Brown, Ph.D., professor of educational psychology at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, "so now they have to learn how to relate again to each other."

There are coed birthday parties, outings, and school dances. Girls and boys begin to wonder (mostly among themselves) about what it is that makes you attractive to someone. Social activities among mixed-sex groups allow children to posture, and even to pair up  -- if ever so briefly  -- with someone of the opposite gender. All of this behavior is scrutinized and strictly governed by the peer group. "They're creating contexts that are public enough that it's less likely that things are going to get carried away," notes Jennifer Connolly, Ph.D., professor of psychology at York University in Toronto. "This is where children can try stuff out without it going anywhere."

By age 12, children who share an affection for each other may become a real item, but their dealings still occur mostly in a group setting. Indeed, boys and girls who prematurely form what researchers term "dyadic relationships" away from the crowd may need to be more carefully monitored. Premature involvement in such one-on-one romances "is correlated with all sorts of negative behaviors later on," says Brown, including early sexual relationships, drug use, and poor academic performance.

Romantic interests are inevitably fueled by the onset of puberty and the accompanying rush of hormones. Children experiment with holding hands, hugging, and kissing. (Of course, this varies; some children do much more, even at age 12.) This is why it becomes especially important for parents to be aware of their children's social activities and, if necessary, to intervene. "Parents still have quite a bit of control in determining the kinds of activities their children are involved with," says Brown, for instance, where they socialize and how much autonomy they are given.

It can be overwhelming. Justine Blair Carroll's 11-year-old son recently admitted to her that he "French-kissed" a girl as part of a spin-the-bottle-type game they were playing  -- alone. Afterward, her son moaned, "I think that's what's making me sick to my stomach."

"I don't think so," his mother replied. "I think you might be feeling funny in your stomach from nervousness."

Carroll made sure to tell her son that she was glad he shared the information with her. Later, he reported to her a subsequent conversation with the girl, who had talked the incident over with her mother. "I guess Mrs. W. is right," he said to his own mom. "Kissing is too special to just give away in a game."

"Yeah," his mother answered, with palpable relief. "I think that's right."