My oldest child is just out of college, but when my daughter hit late elementary school I found it hard to know whether the boy she kept talking about was a boyfriend or just a boy friend. My education and training taught me that it's an important aspect of healthy development for the child between the ages of ten and twelve to have non-romantic friendships with pre-teens of the opposite sex, so I did my best not to ask,"Do you like him?" "Do you think he's cute?"
Still I worried that this friendship might encourage a more advanced (read sexual) relationship than she was ready for. Perhaps you worry about that with your child too.
Here's the good news. You can encourage and support these friendships between boys and girls without encouraging romantic interest. To do that, first you have to understand the normal evolution of friendship between boys and girls.
Remember when your child didn't even recognize that her best friend was a boy? From the toddler years through the preschool years, your child enjoys playing with other children regardless of gender. Sure some gender preferences exist, but boys play with dolls and girls play with trucks and neither boys nor girls make judgments about it.
It's during the preschool period that children start to recognize differences between boys and girls. Not just in play but in the way bodies look and what bodies do. Once your child recognizes these differences, there's an expected shift in desire to play with each other. Typically, girls and boys suddently want nothing to do with each other, and that lasts for a period of a few years.
Then comes the late school age/early adolescent period of development, and just when you'd rather they didn't, boys and girls become interesting to each other again.
The upside of boy-girl friendships
Parents often fear this time in development because to them interest equals romance, romance equals sex. But in today's social scene, (contrary to what you read in the media) boys and girls can form meaningful friendships without the sexual dimension.
Initially you may see some flirting going on because this is a time when boys and girls are curious about all aspects of the opposite sex, much beyond just sex. "How do I fit in with boys and girls?" "Do both boys and girls in my group like me?" "Can I have a conversation with a boy (or a girl) and not implode?"
These are the kinds of things running through your child's mind early on, so parents and teachers who provide good social coaching around boy/girl friendships—and lots of supervision—help a child's future relationships by building a solid foundation.
There are a number of benefits to your child having opposite sex friendships. The first is that your child will get a lot of practice learning to talk and interact with the opposite sex without having all the highly charged emotions that come when a relationship has a physical component.
More importantly your child gets to continue with his or her own identity development. She learns what's important to her; he learns what he finds interesting; she doesn't define herself by what a boy thinks of her. Sure your child still identifies with what friends think but the bigger and more varied the group, the more your child has a chance to see what's best for him or her.
What's a parent to do?
My goal when both my children hit this developmental milestone was to foster healthy boy-girl friendships without rushing the dating scene. Certainly in middle school they weren't ready to handle that—frankly, neither was I.
Here are some strategies you can use for teaching healthy relationships that will lay a good foundation for later boy/girl dating.
Talk to your child
Your child will look for the information he needs, so if you don't take the time to talk to him, he'll simply look elsewhere including magazines, TV and the Internet. Not only will that information perhaps be incorrect, it won't have your values attached to it. Boy-girl friendships provide an opportunity to teach the full spectrum of what healthy relationships should look like. You should be the teacher.
Listen to your child
As your child approaches adolescence, it's so important that you listen to her ideas, opinions and feelings. You can have a conversation with your child without letting go of your limits. Never tease or lecture your child about her friendships with boys, she'll be less likely to hear your important messages or talk with you again about her feelings.
Your presence and the presence of other adults will go a long way toward keeping your child's friendships appropriate. Every child benefits from the social and emotional coaching that makes friendships work well. And when your child and his friends know adults are around, they feel safe, secure and are less likely to find themselves in situations beyond their emotional capabilities.
Know what your "house rules" are for spending time with boy and girl friends. Let your child know what you expect her to do or say when she has friends over. Offer acceptable options for hanging out that both you and she can be comfortable with. Be sure to talk about these before your child makes plans.
As your child gets older, he'll make more of his own decisions about what friends to make and which friends to keep, but your child still needs your guidance in learning how to form strong friendships of all kinds.
Talk on a regular basis about what makes a good friend. Point out the strengths your child already has in making good friendships and offer to help him with the parts of socializing he still needs to learn.
No need to fear your child's opposite sex friendships. Encouraging healthy boy/girl friendships is the best way you can teach your child about healthy adult relationships. Remember, commenting on how cute your child looks with her boy friend or asking questions about who is "seeing" whom gives your child mixed messages about what others expect from boy/girl friendships at this age.
Listening to your child without judgment, talking to him or her without pushing makes it more likely that your child will come to you for the guidance he or she needs to have the best friendships possible regardless of gender.
Now that my children are young adults and dating, (one just finished with college, one is still attending) I love seeing them be thoughtful, compassionate partners in their relationships with the people they care about. The hard work I did when they were younger nurturing non-romantic relationships with friends has been worth my efforts.
Lynne Griffin teaches family studies at the graduate level and she's the author of the parenting guide Negotiation Generation, and the novels about family Sea Escape and Life Without Summer. Her third novel The Last Resort will be published by Simon & Schuster spring 2012. You can find her online here and at www.LynneGriffin.com, and you can follow her at www.Twitter.com/Lynne_Griffin and at www.Facebook.com/LynneGriffin.