Generations of parents have been repeatedly surprised when a 4- or 5-year-old son or daughter announces a boyfriend or even a betrothed. This announcement is so common there must be something important to being 4 or 5 that children are expressing. Below is information on some of the ways children explore relationships that shed light on these surprising announcements.

Expanding horizons

 Up through age 3 or so, children see their current family unit as their entire world. Although they may have some vague idea that they will grow up, they don't really have a concept of what that means. They focus on establishing the basic relationships that provide a sense of security and safety and, particularly at the age of 2, on becoming an independent person within their own family.

 With these tasks successfully achieved, feeling more secure and capable, 3-year-old children begin to use their growing cognitive abilities to project themselves into the future. They begin to wonder what they will be when they grow up and imagine the families they will have and the work they will do. Children begin to see themselves as parents, truck drivers, teachers and doctors.

These imaginings are not always realistic. For example, some children imagine themselves as superheroes. They are also planning their future, not yet fully understanding that superheroes are imaginary, even if they say they know it! This period of intense imagining is a vitally important time during which children develop an identity as someone who will grow beyond the family unit. This realization can lead to confidence that they can achieve distant goals and dreams.

Mommy, I have a girlfriend or boyfriend

This announcement is an indication that a child admires the life that he or she sees his parents having and would like it for himself or herself. Some children express this desire by sitting in front of a dollhouse, setting up families and activities, silently pretending that he or she is the daddy or mommy. Others express their fantasy life through interactions with real people. Such a child is more likely to "have a girlfriend or boyfriend" than sit in front of a dollhouse. Both activities are ways of expressing the wish to be in a partnership and have a family. Even if a child and his chosen one have talked the matter over and have some kind of agreement, it is still just a version of playing house.

Our advice is not to make too big a deal about this phase. If parents wish, they could ask their child what he or she likes about his chosen, affirming their good qualities as a way of conveying their support for their child’s good choice. This establishes a roadmap for parents’ future communication about their child’s choices in boyfriends or girlfriends and strengthens their child’s expectation that his parents will have confidence in their choices.

There are two potential pitfalls for parents in this situation:

Parents can become worried if they misconstrue the meaning of a girlfriend to a 4-year-old and feel the need to provide instruction. For example, parents might tell their child that he or she is too young to have a boyfriend or girlfriend or discuss appropriate relationships at this age.

Parents may respond as if this announcement was not a serious one by laughing or quizzing the child about what a girlfriend or boyfriend is. These reactions are likely to humiliate a child who is taking the brave step of imagining himself to be like his father or herself to be like her mother.

Also note that our advice assumes that the children are either not paying each other much attention or are acting just like good friends without sexual overtones. Four-year-old children are sexually curious and exploratory, so an occasional exploratory experience is not something to be concerned about (although it should be addressed).

A different approach is needed if there is a pattern of either sexual exploration or charged excitement. In those situations, the parents of both children ideally will confer, and everyone will keep an eye on the children. This is a more complex matter that may be connected to seemingly innocuous overstimulation of a child in his or her home environment through inappropriate videos and TV, bathing/showering with siblings or parents, open access to bathrooms when being used, parental nudity, and parental involvement in child's toileting. Curtailing these activities is always a good idea, particularly when there are signs of overstimulation.

Chances are that a child’s shocking news about his relationship is actually a wonderful (and typical) way of exploring the world of relationships. Once the child and his chosen one move on, parents will most likely have many years in which their child’s attention turns to other matters before he or she returns anew to the world of peer love relationships.

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