In fifth grade, a boy named Jeff decided to make my life a daily hell by teasing me, snickering whenever I spoke up in class, and giving me a gentle shove every time he passed me in the hall. One time his shove made me trip on my own shoes and I stumbled through the hallway, spilling my book-bag all over the floor. At the age of 11, nothing seems worse than being embarrassed, and I was humiliated.
When I went to my teacher to complain about Jeff’s nonstop harassment, she laughed and patted me on the shoulder, saying, “He probably just likes you!” This filled me with a shame so profound, I never again told an adult about something a boy did to me.
You’d think blaming bad behavior on a crush would be dead and gone by now, but it’s not. In fact, when Merritt Smith’s little daughter was hurt by another child, Smith decided to make their story public on Facebook with a photo of the little girl’s sweet face marked with a bleeding wound and bruised eye. Smith wrote:
“‘I bet he likes you.’
Dear man at the registration desk at Children’s hospital, l’m positive that you didn’t think that statement through. As soon as I heard it I knew that is where it begins. That statement is where the idea that hurting is flirting begins to set a tone for what is acceptable behavior. My four year old knows ‘That’s not how we show we like someone. That was not a good choice.’
In that moment, hurt and in a new place, worried about perhaps getting a shot or stitches you were a person we needed to help us and your words of comfort conveyed a message that someone who likes you might hurt you. No. I will not allow that message to be ok. I will not allow it to be louder than ‘That’s not how we show we like each other.’ At that desk you are in a position of influence, whether you realize it or not. You thought you were making the moment lighter. It is time to take responsibility for the messages we as a society give our children. Do Not tell my 4 year old who needs stitches from a boy at school hitting her ‘I bet he likes you.’ NO.”
I’m not sure how the “dipping her pigtails in the inkwell” trope started, but it’s time it ended. Here are four reasons why:
1. You shouldn’t teach your kids that love equals abuse.
Love equals kindness and respect, and it never, ever means touching someone in a way that will hurt them.
When you tell your child that they were harmed because another person likes them, you’re connecting pain with love. That not only normalizes being abused, but also abusing others.
Dr. Lisa Kaplin, a psychologist and life coach, explains how important it is that we make clear to our children that this is not what love looks like. “Depending on the child’s age we can add some explanation of why some kids might punch, hit, etc. We would explain that that is about control, not liking or caring for someone.”
2. Kids’ friendships shouldn’t be romanticized.
Kids need the opportunity in childhood to have friendships with boys or girls, regardless of their gender, without grownups introducing the adult notions of romance or attraction.
Strong friendships with kids of all genders are important for kids, and parents shouldn’t make their kids feel funny about them.
Sure, some kids get crushes, but they are innocent and should remain as such. And one child’s crush should never become a burden to another.
3. Don’t victim-blame a child for being picked on.
Your child did not ask for this negative attention, regardless of the aggressive kid’s intention. Even if your child was acting flirty or teasing, nobody asks to be hurt.
Putting the blame on your child for being hurt tells them that you are not a source of support for them when they need you most, and they may not tell you when they’re hurt in the future.
Being available to listen and support is a very important job for a parent. Dr. Kaplin explains, “If someone is hurting a child, even if it is a friend, they need to tell an adult as soon as possible.”
4. Dismissing a child’s bad behavior is bad for the bully and bad for the victim.
Bad behavior is bad behavior, regardless of the reason why. A child — whether it’s a boy or a girl — who is harming another needs intervention so they don’t continue the behavior.
Kids want boundaries, and they need to be taught empathy. Instead of asking the child who is doing the hurting if they like the other, grownups should ask the child to imagine how their friend felt when he or she was hurt.
Asking the child to recall the sad face of their friend after they were hurt will help them connect their actions with the resulting pain or sadness, and that’s very important for kids.
As parents, we have the ability to change the world by putting an end to harmful old traditions. So let’s put an end to the pigtails in the ink well, shall we?