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Young Love

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Recently, my four-year-old’s preschool teacher overheard an adorable chat between two buddies. My son asked his friend why he was smiling so much, and his friend admitted he “loved” Carlie (a fellow classmate). “You should draw a heart, cut it out, and give it to her,” my son suggested. He blushed, and they both giggled.

It seems that love is in the air in my son’s preschool. Friends and fellow parents share stories of affection and budding unions: One friend’s daughter reports back on boys she thinks are cute and ones to marry — she and her little sister recently dressed up and had a pretend wedding. Another draws pictures and collects tiny treasures for an adored classmate.

My son’s teacher laughed knowingly when I brought it up and says it’s typical, especially in the last year of preschool. “It’s a big theme right now,” she says. “A lot of talk about boyfriends and girlfriends.” She swears it’s in full bloom as spring approaches. Just the other day, she tells me, a little boy wrote a tender note to a girl in class saying he was her boyfriend. Apparently, the girl had first declared that they loved each other — then helped the boy along with the spelling.

She interprets the love talk as kids testing out and understanding roles (mom, dad, friend, special friend). “Kids this age are starting to grasp the different parts people play and the fact that one person can also have multiple roles,” she says. It’s the same reason little kids play “house” and role-play as other family members. She also suggests that mini infatuations are part of peer bonding. When I watch the boys-chase-girls game after school, I understand what she means.

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Preschool crushes also spring from our kids’ general tendency to copy. Before their own genes and hormones kick in, they watch older siblings, parents, television, and movies and replicate what they find. This is why my one-year-old opens her play phone and says, “Hi!” just like I do, or why my son has adopted my husband’s signature expressions and mannerisms. Kids are sponges; they copy us and they also copy their peers. When someone in the class starts to flirt and hold whispery, giggly conferences in the corner, classmates learn from each other, and the behavior spreads.

To me, it seems like evolution talking. One theory that biologists offer for certain kid behaviors is that they’re rehearsals for adult life. Think about how children do other grown-up things, like take care of toy dolls or even wrestle and play-fight. Feeding and tucking babies into play bassinets is good practice for parenthood, and roughhousing is a way to develop adaptive fighting skills. Maybe preschool love is programmed in our little one’s biology as a testing ground for romance later in life.

To clarify, the proclamations of love “do not mean to the kids what they mean to us,” says our teacher. Yes, curiosity about the other gender exists, but sexuality in the grown-up sense is clearly not on the radar for many years. Hormones will eventually kick off this process, but chemically, boys and girls are very similar until puberty (boys have a big surge in testosterone before birth, but it plummets shortly after and doesn’t rise again until adolescence).

My absolute favorite moments are when the innocence of toddler love comes through loud and clear — moments in which it’s obvious that most of this stuff is going straight over their small, beautiful heads. A few nights ago at the dinner table, my son announced he wouldn’t marry anyone until his baby sister was old enough to get married, at which point, they would tie the knot. My friend’s three-year-old says he wants to marry his sister or his best friend. On a recent Modern Family episode, both dads throw a pretend wedding and walk down the aisle with their preschooler. To me, it all seems like a way to express big, devoted love for your special person. It’s similar to when my son and I try to one-up each other with how huge our love is: “I love you up to the moon and back,” “I love you around every planet, “I love you to the end of the galaxy…”

Whether it’s for practice or just for play, one day this will all change, and our kids will love someone else for real. I don’t have to explain the mixed feelings I have about this. It’s adorable to hear the stories of my son providing relationship coaching in the form of heart cut-outs to his buddies, but the thought that he’ll one day be taken over by the actual thing makes my heart ache. It’s just impossible to imagine. Thankfully, we’ve got a decade or so before that is the reality. For now, I get to hear him say his feelings for me wrap around the universe, accept his marriage proposals (even if I have to share him with his sister), and generally soak up all the love for myself.

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