You Can't Un-Hurry Love: When Crushes Start Early

02/11/2012 01:54 am ET | Updated Apr 11, 2012

My daughter calmly informed me that she'd broken up with her boyfriend Miles. I asked how Miles had taken the news, and she shrugged, "I didn't tell him Papa; I just did it." This is all fine, of course, because he didn't know they were dating to begin with. And his replacement doesn't know either. Niceties like awareness and agreement aren't really important to my daughter -- she is only six, after all.

Too young to understand what dating really means, she doesn't get all tangled up in her feelings. Like many children her age, she is smitten with the idea of romance and she's heard about crushes in a million places, from Disney princesses (her old role models) to Supah Ninjahs (her current obsession). Her pre-crush, as I'll call it, is like a real crush in just one way: it's all in her mind. It has no wounding link to her self-esteem and it can't invite rejection, seeing as the subject remains clueless. As a writer for the New York Times put it, "The essence of a crush is that the relationship is fantasy. Children control both halves within their imaginations. They are safe. There are no consequences to their actions."

So Miles is out of the picture, while Cole, her very first crush, is back at the top of the list again, despite having moved to Paris, where he eats fromage and remains blissfully untroubled by l'amour. This distance notwithstanding, she is adamant that she has a boyfriend, an attitude which alternately amuses and terrifies her dads. There is a part of us that just can't understand why she has to be obsessed with boys already. Must we do a dry run for her teen years?

Actually, she's right in the ballpark age-wise for having an infatuation with infatuation. My first crush and my first kiss were in the same year, 1973 -- and, guess what? I was six, too. I wanted to try kissing because I kept seeing people kiss on soap operas and even after-school specials, so I talked a neighbor boy into doing pretend play that ended with us running to each other in slow motion, them smooching when we met. The kiss itself didn't live up to billing, in part because the slow motion did not look like it did on TV, and there was no music playing, which killed the mood.

The first crush was a different boy, a schoolmate who absolutely did not know, but of whom I drew adorable pictures. All of six years old, I envisioned myself someday growing up and getting married to this kid. That didn't pan out, of course: both the neighbor boy and the schoolmate grew up to be straight dudes, while I alone grew up to be a gay guy. Neither the kiss nor the crush were in themselves meaningful.

But here's the thing: both of those moments correctly foretold my future. The people I would later want to kiss would always be male. The fact that I would want to replicate the most schmaltzy TV kisses I'd seen also reflects the person I would become: a sappy romantic, occasionally given to a touch (dare I admit it?) of the melodramatic.

So while I can't read too much into my daughter's insistence that she has to have a boyfriend, I know that I am getting a first glimpse of the future that will unfold for her and for us as her parents. Our job now is to raise her with healthy messages about how to handle her feelings, needs, and (God help us) desires. When the theory becomes practice, hopefully we'll have helped nurture enough self-esteem that real crushes won't be cripplingly painful. And let's face it: the only thing that will be harder than watching our baby enter the world of romance is seeing it hurt, as sometimes it surely will.

I feel a little a bad for the boys in her future, what with the two dads who will be staring them down. We like to joke that we're going to move to a mountain compound with a perimeter fence: boys will be welcome to visit, but only after they fill out the paperwork in the guard house and survive the dual interview. I'm not quite suggesting we'd build Rapunzel's tower, but I admit to understanding the impulse.

Now, around Valentine's Day, I'm sure she'll have plenty more to say about her imaginary love life and that's fine by me. She can have all the boyfriends she wants -- I'll just be happiest if none of them ever find out.