Sometimes I feel like I'm going to be a scared, old man shaking my fist at the confusing world before I turn 40. The question I recently heard is this: "Should I let my 7-year-old daughter have a sleepover with her 10-year-old boyfriend?" I really don't know where to start with this one. Am I taking crazy pills?
Talk about burying the lead. I'm not positive, but I think his first question should have been "should my 7-year-old daughter have a 10-year-old boyfriend?" I never really knew it was up for debate, but I don't think kids should say they are dating when they're seven, or ten for that matter. I know, I know - they're just pretending, and it's healthy to play house, and dating doesn't mean the same thing you think it means, and you're projecting, and yada, yada, yada. I get it. Playing house is cool beans. But that's not what I'm talking about.
“Kids are bombarded with advertising and gender norms and societal expectations and peer pressure from a very young age.”
Pairing Off at a Young Age
Kids are "pairing off" in school far too young, and they're doing it oftentimes because they think they are "supposed" to, and almost always because of peer pressure. There is a big difference between how they are indefinitely labeling themselves as boyfriends and girlfriends and playing house in the backyard for an afternoon. If you think it's all make-believe to them, you haven't been paying close attention. They're already unhealthily defining themselves by who they're romantically paired off with in elementary school, and certainly middle school, and it's stressing out a bunch of kids who want to be kids.
Do you mind if I pause to shake my confused fist at the scary world for a second? How come seemingly the only thing on the Disney Channel these days is middle school kids dealing with drama? Doesn't Disney own the rights to some pretty famous cartoons? Ok, just making sure, thanks. Back to the question.
Societal Expectations for Our Kids
Kids are bombarded with advertising and gender norms and societal expectations and peer pressure from a very young age. Can't we all just agree to give them a break for crying out loud? There are many parents who try to protect their kids from such things, but the strange thing is that there are some parents who actually press these expectations on their kids from a very young age. They take their elementary school kids on dates, help them buy presents for boyfriends and girlfriends, and dress them up like adults for dances.
Kids seem to really latch onto these expectations for "how people should be" and "how people should look", and it's basically the most powerful fuel for peer pressure and bullying in kids I've ever seen. Little boys that tell other little boys they aren't allowed to wear pink or grow out their hair don't just grow on trees.
Can the Peer-Pressure be Avoided?
If my 7-year-old daughter came home and asked if she could have a sleepover with her 10-year-old boyfriend, I would not feel conflicted about whether or not to allow the sleepover. I would probably have an existential crisis worrying about the environment that she is spending her childhood in. But, thankfully, I think this situation can be avoided.
Kids are much smarter than we sometimes give them credit for. I believe that sometimes we can be more honest than we think we can. And we need to have more conversations with our kids, and expose them to more thoughts and experiences. It might look like this: What is marriage, Dad? Marriage is something that people do when they want to spend the rest of their lives together. They come from different families and decide to become their own family. What is dating, Dad? Before marriage people have boyfriends or girlfriends and go on dates. They like to spend time together and they may decide to get married and become a family.
Young kids are very interested in that kind of knowledge, they can certainly compute it, and they are perfectly capable of quickly comprehending that dating is not something young kids are supposed to do, or really have any need for. Similarly to the way I don't have to forbid beer or coffee for my 5-year-old - it's simply a daddy drink - I don't foresee having to forbid my 7 or 8-year-old from dating. They can understand (very innocently) that it's simply not something kids do, and that in no way ruins the innocence of their childhood. In fact, I would argue that it helps to preserve it, because hopefully they are more knowledgeable and self-confident and much less likely to be convinced by their friends (or a 10-year-old boy) that they are supposed to have a boyfriend or girlfriend.
“Kids seem to really latch onto these expectations for "how people should be" and "how people should look", and it's basically the most powerful fuel for peer pressure and bullying in kids I've ever seen.”
Of course none of that helps the person whose 7-year-old just asked if she can have a sleepover with her 10-year-old boyfriend. At that age, I would treat the two "issues" - the dating and the sleepover - completely separately. As far as my 7-year-old telling me she has a boyfriend is concerned, I would probably try to very casually and non-judgmentally work the above hypothetical conversation about marriage and dating into a conversation pretty soon, because clearly she doesn't yet know what dating means in this hypothetical Bizarro World.
As far as the sleepover is concerned, I certainly wouldn't want to forbid it for the same reason I might veto it for a teenager. This certainly strikes me as the kind of situation you don't want to be projecting your adult thoughts onto. It truly seems like it would be a very confusing message for young kids to process if you say no to a sleepover because of gender. We personally think it'd be best to veto or allow the sleepover for the same reason we would veto or allow any sleepover: How well do we know the parents and the other kid and how much will the parents be monitoring? In fact, I see us asking those same important questions all the way through teenage years, regardless of gender. Quite frankly I would be far more concerned about the 3 year age gap than gender difference or the fact they say they are dating.
What would you do if your 7-year-old girl asked to spend the night with her 10-year-old boyfriend? Do your kids have co-ed sleepovers? Please let us know all your thoughts and experiences in the comments.