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Can't They Just Be Friends?

I was chatting with a friend of mine
yesterday, discussing her daughter’s impending start at
preschool. The mom is a bit nervous and already sad at the thought
of missing her daughter, and thinking to comfort her with how much
fun her daughter will have, I said, “Well, just think –
your daughter may well be in Maxum’s class and they can play
together!” Maxum is one of the boys in our playgroup, and
definitely at the top of Maddie’s friend list here in Dallas.

The other mom shrugged. “I don’t know – we played
at the park the other day and my daughter and her friend all ran
from Maxum as much as they could – oh no, a boy! Run
away!” I laughed and said, “That’s definitely not
Maddie!” The other mom said, “Oh, I know.
Maddie’s always saying, ‘I want to sit next to
Maxum!’ I swear, Jennifer, I’ve never seen a toddler
with such a crush on a boy as your Maddie on Maxum.”

Let me say right now that I know I’m
about to read way more in it than she intended. But having said
that, her statement bugged me a bit. And the longer the day went
on, the more irritated I became. Was she implying her daughter and
friend were more emotionally advanced – more developed
– than Maddie, because they’d already discovered boys
and were two steps away from the Cooties phase? Is Maddie stunted
because she doesn’t realize girls aren’t supposed to
enjoy playing with boys?

That’s just a side issue, though – the real gripe
I’ve got is with the whole crush thing. Why are we in such a
rush to define our children’s relationships in a sexual way?
Maddie had a great friend in New York, Danny, and she simply adored
playing with him. She became a bit awestruck around him, simply
because he was a year older and, let’s face it, pretty darn
cute. I think that she sees her Danny in Maxum –same blond
hair, same blue eyes, same boy-ness. But more than that, I think
she just likes playing with Maxum. He’s funny, he’s
creative, he’s up for anything, and – most important on
Maddie’s list of friendship requirements – he’s
happy to let her tell him what to do. “Maxum! Let’s
play in the ball pit! Maxum! Let’s run up the slide!”
“Dokay, Maddie!”

Maddie also has girl friends – she loves hanging out with
Ella and Maya any chance she gets, and they are definitely girly
when they’re together, playing Pretty Princess dress-up and
dollhouse for hours at a time. But the three girls also dig playing
with the giant train set in Maya and Ella’s house, since
Maddie loves Thomas the Tank Engine – whom she met at
Maxum’s house. Maddie loves going to Maxum’s house
because she can play with the boy toys – elaborate trains,
big trucks, sports equipment galore. But she equally enjoys digging
through his book collection.

I’m not saying there’s not a difference in the way boys
and girls interact: Maddie really likes to play with Cody in our
playgroup, who is all boy and refuses to enter a tree house if he
is only allowed to do it by ladder, but she’ll sometimes
stare at him when he’s in the midst of full-on boy-ness,
jumping off balconies and swinging down poles, with complete
incomprehension in her eyes, trying to figure out that alien
creature. So she knows boys and girls are different, but that
doesn’t mean she sees a need to divide the way she treats

I’m as tempted as the next parent to do cute cupid things
when I see a toddler boy and girl together: when Maddie was playing
on the playground with Maxum the other night, she climbed up after
him on a particularly tricky piece of equipment and exclaimed,
“Oh, Maxum, you’re so strong!” I had an insanely
strong desire to interpret that as flirtation, complete with cooing
and fluttering eyelashes, when I know my girl was simply stating a
fact – and handing out a generous compliment to a friend.
When the two toddlers hold hands together as they’re walking,
it’s hard for me to not throw meaningful glances at his mommy
– and in fact, we often stand behind them saying, “I
can’t stand how cute they are together!” but I do mean
it in a beautiful, childhood picture way, not a man-and-wife way.

And when we saw Maddie with her beloved Danny in New York, the
parents were hard-pressed to resist a bit of match-making: since
his parents were dear friends of ours, we’d all four love to
see them grow up close and marry and keep us all close by. But we
know that’s unlikely, and that the concept of a budding
romance has no place in the nursery.

So every time I hear parents joke at the playground about “my
two-year-old has a little boyfriend!” I know it’s all
harmless, but it still rubs me the wrong way. I love seeing Maddie
and Maxum hold hands because it represents the
un-self-consciousness of toddlerhood, the enjoyment of
relationships before they get so complicated by sex and innuendos
and intricate mating rules. I hope she can choose her friendships
without any thought of sex any more than she allows race to enter
into her pal picking.

As I said at the beginning, I know I’m reading WAY more into
it than the mom intended; it was a harmless comment, not really
meant, and par for the course in most conversations around the
sandbox in this society. But I wish we’d think a bit more
about the direction we’re shoving our kids: the Hannah
Montana mid-riffs and hot pants are only a couple years down the
road for our toddler, and there’s plenty of time for age
inappropriate sexual innuendo then. Let’s wait until at least
kindergarten for dating, ok?


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