Dear elementary school teachers,
My daughter is dating. I know she’s dating because she told me. We talked about it.
I asked her what dating meant to her and what it meant to her dating partner. I asked if they had talked about it before they agreed to date, if they’d discussed what that word, that concept meant to them, what they wanted from their relationship, why they wanted to add this label to it. I asked if they had discussed boundaries and expectations. I asked if they had talked about what this label would change about their relationship with each other – and what it might change about their relationships with other people.
I made sure that my daughter understood that dating someone should not mean that you have to give up other friendships, and that if the person she is dating asked her to stop being friends with others or got jealous of other friendships, it was time to have The Talk – to remind her partner about mutual respect and trust, and boundaries and expectations, and the fact that we don’t own each other, not even when we’re dating.
I know this is unusual, for a parent to have this kind of conversation with their elementary school student about this topic. I wish that wasn’t the case.
Because, you see, this is the exact same conversation I have with my daughter every time she tells me she has a best friend.
At this age, in this setting, there is very little difference between having a bestie and dating someone. Both need to be grounded firmly in open, honest, respectful communication. Both need to start with conversations about what this label means and why each person entering into it wants to take their relationship to “the next level.” They need to talk about what they want from this next level relationship, what it means for them, what it looks like and how it will affect things like recess activities, lunch time, class activities, etc. Often I even ask if they’ve considered what will happen if/when they “break up” because best friendships rarely last forever. (I always assumed that was the reason all the “best friend” necklaces came with the hearts pre-broken…)
Today my daughter came home and told me that dating had been banned at school. That the teachers had gotten everyone together and announced that there would be no more dating, that school was for learning and that they were all too young to date anyway. “Maybe when you’re in high school, or college…” As if human beings are ever too young to form and negotiate relationships.
I asked her if “best friending” had also been banned. Her eyes got wide as she made the connection I’m making here. No, they hadn’t. And wasn’t that odd? Why was she being taught that one kind of relationship forming was something she was too young for, too immature to handle? Why was she being taught that romantic love was too complex for her to navigate, while still being allowed, encouraged even to create “best friend” relationships that often devolved into battles for control, bullying and trauma. Why was one form of relationship being legislated away while another with equal potential for harm was being lauded and upheld? Why was she being taught that this one way of identifying with and relating to other students was “bad” or “inappropriate?”
She wanted to know why her teachers seemed so hung up on this word, this concept: dating.
I could only assume that it was because somehow we’ve equated dating to sexual intimacy, and that might scare teachers who are unprepared to see their elementary school students as physical beings who crave physical affection (not sexual attention, just physical touches like hand holding and hugs and heads resting on shoulders – and yes, even kissing because those things feel good…) Or perhaps it was because teachers thought about what dating meant to them as adults, or even high school students when hormones and a lack of real information pushed it toward the sexual and they couldn’t bear to think about their sweet elementary students in that way. That’s fair, but… elementary students by and large aren’t there yet either.
I told her I could only imagine it was because they had forgotten the sweet innocent puppy love of elementary school, the tender hand holding, the doe eyed looks, the silly gifts, the little ways of learning to say I love you, the little ways of learning how to hear I love you, the little ways that felt and what it meant.
I told her I thought maybe her teachers had forgotten this age of exploring, dabbling, trying on new words, new identities… What does it mean to date? What does it mean to be a best friend, to have a best friend? What does it mean to be a girlfriend, a boyfriend? Is it okay to have more than one dating partner? Is it okay to have more than one best friend? What do these words mean? How can be negotiated so that everyone gets what they want from the relationship in a respectful and mutually affirming way?
What does rejection feel like? How can they handle it? What can they do if someone they like doesn’t like them back, or doesn’t like them as much, or not in the same way? What are appropriate responses?
These are all really valid and important questions and skills that students need to practice and learn before they become adults, before they become tweens and teens even, before the hormones kick in and flood their brains and make them forget that before they get sexual, they need to get real. They need to check in and make sure that they are operating under the same set of assumptions, expectations, desires, goals and boundaries as their partner. Whether that partner is purely platonic, romantic or physical is irrelevant IF students have learned to start their relationships from a place of open, honest, respectful conversation and IF they’ve learned how to handle rejection when it comes, because it will come.
I know you all have a lot on your plates already and I’m sure that the idea of having this kind of conversation about dating with your students is terrifying. I imagine you are already hyperventilating over imaginary phone calls from outraged parents.
But what if we simply backed it up. What if we went back to that moment when you heard that students were dating. What if, instead of banning it, you asked the students what it meant to them? What if you led them with questions like the ones I led my daughter with, the same ones we should be asking of students who are forming best friendships, and listened to what they had to say? What if you helped students to think critically about it themselves?
What if you used this moment to remind your students that all relationships – friendships, work partnerships, relationships, marriages, benign acquaintanceships, all of them are founded on the same basic principles, the same foundation of mutual respect, trust and vulnerability. If those are in place, the rest can build from there, but without those it all crumbles.
What if you used this moment to remind students that if they aren’t comfortable having those challenging conversations and being honest with each other about what they want, what they need, what their boundaries are and listening to and being respectful when someone else tells them the same – they aren’t ready to take that next step – whatever it is.
It’s not their age that limits them, it’s their skills.
So let’s help them practice, now while it’s safe, now while the stakes are low, now while we’re not actually worried about the sexual aspect or the physical aspect. Let’s help them build their emotional relationship skills so that when they start dating “for real” and those hormones have kicked in, communication is a habit, respect is a habit, honesty is a habit, listening is a habit, setting and respecting boundaries is a habit, coping with rejection in healthy ways is a habit…
Why not use this time to make sure that all the elements of forming healthy relationships are there, ready to be utilized before things get messy.
We talk about “teaching to the test” so often, but we forget, life has bigger tests with higher stakes than any politician could dream up. When I look at the statistics on teen dating abuse, on teen sexual abuse, on teen pregnancy and STI rates – what I see is that we are failing our students. I know there is all kinds of weird baggage around the idea of teaching elementary students sexual health education – I get that. (I hate it, but I get it.) But this isn’t that. This isn’t about sex education. It isn’t about sex. It’s about relationships.
How to negotiate them. How to form them. How to maintain them. How to renegotiate them as they grow and change. How to end them if they become toxic. How to spot if they are becoming toxic.
This is about the health of our students.
Banning them from interacting with each other in ways that feel natural to them, ways that they see modeled all around them is a failing strategy. But teaching them how to interact in healthy ways, that is something we can all pitch in and do. Helping them slow down and think about the words they are using and the meanings they are creating, that is a life long skill, and its one they desperately need. We all do.
Imagine how much pain you would have been spared if someone had only taught you this lesson instead of making you piece it together on your own.