THE BLOG
09/09/2013 06:29 pm ET Updated Nov 09, 2013

The Problem with Puppy Love

The is cross-posted with permission from Role/Reboot.

This falls into the category of "it's never too early..."

A boy in my 8-year-old daughter's third grade class developed a crush on her. He followed her around the playground, talked about his love for her (in those terms), drew her pictures and wrote her songs. At school, she was embarrassed by the boy's attention and by other children talking about them being in love and teasing her. She avoided him when possible. When he told her how he felt, she told him she felt differently. She went out of her way to ignore attempts, by him and other kids, to cajole her into liking him and being his "girlfriend." In third grade.

One day, she came home and ran into the house, tightly gripping a torn-up note in her fist. It was a love note. She was not interested in love notes. It was upsetting and made her uncomfortable. I called the teacher to say that it had now gone too far -- she was unable to freely and comfortably attend school and should not be subject to his overwhelming 8-year-old desire and its consequences. I was heartened because the teacher was aware of the situation, did not think it was "cute" or "harmless," and said she would speak to the boy and his parents.

She did, but his attentions continued unabated. So, I called his parents and asked them to please ask him to stop and explain why. Their response took me aback:

"Could your daughter please write him a letter?"

No, I said. She does not want to write him a letter.

"But, can't you get her to do it? He's gone to the trouble of writing her, not once, but several times."

No, I explained. She'd already expressed her lack of interest. She was not obligated to respond simply because he wanted and expected her to. She had an equal and competing right to not communicate further.

But, he meant no harm and this would be a good lesson.

The lesson, I pointed out politely, was that when a person avoids you, does not respond to your attentions and makes no effort to engage in communication, she is not interested. That is the lesson.

But, it would be a nice thing to do -- for him to get a response.

My daughter, I explained, while a kind person, was not obligated to overcome her discomfort and frustration and be nice in order to make this boy feel better about himself.

But, he would be crushed.

In other words, "Because of this, he will be sad and hurt." Or, really, "It's her fault."

Remember, these were 8-year-olds. This was a great family, whose kids and ours are friends. It was their job, and our job together as parents -- not my daughter's -- to teach their son these lessons. He eventually stopped.

Here is what concerned me so much about this exchange. One, their son was "nice." Two, he "meant well" and had made a huge investment in expressing his feelings. Three, she should do what he wanted because of these things. Four, that would make her "nice." And five, his behavior and expectations weren't just tolerated; they were encouraged -- he was a "ladies man," his behavior was considered "cute" and her reciprocating was a role she was meant to fulfill. Their classmates especially seemed to feel comfortable with these ideas and some advised him and my daughter about what to do. It became, in the way these things can, a communal activity.

No one but the teacher seemed to be thinking about my daughter's wishes this equation. The boys' attention persisted long after it was clear she did not consent to the faux puppy love affair he'd generated to the delight of their classmates. The ways in which we talk to children and other adults about love are important. The lessons we teach children, even this young, and the conversations we have around consent are critical. They set dangerous precedents, cultivate bad habits and perpetuate some seriously undesirable ideas about boys, girls, love, consent and affection.

In 1988, Day One (formerly the Sexual Assault & Trauma Resource Center of Rhode Island and Rhode Island Rape Crisis Center) conducted a study of adolescent dating attitudes. The same study was again conducted in 1998. In 1988, 1,700 students in 6th through 9th grade participated. In 1999, 2,467 in the same age group.

The study asked the following question: "Does a girl/boy on a date have the right to kiss against the date's consent if she/he spent a lot of money on the date? Yes, No, or I Don't Know?" In 1988, 51% of boys and 41% of girls answered Yes. In 1998, those numbers were 53% of boys and 48% of girls.

They asked another, related question: "Does a man/woman on a date have the right to sexual intercourse against their date's consent if he/she spent a lot of money on the date? Yes, No, or I Don't Know?" In 1988, 24% of boys and 16% of girls said Yes. In 1998, 23% of boys and 20% of girls say Yes.

There were several other related questions, notably, this one: "Does a man on a date have the right to sexual intercourse without the woman's consent if she is drunk?" In 1988, 28% of the students in 7th through 9th grade said yes. In 1998, 24% of the 9th graders did (no information on the other two grades). The researchers explained, "a significant number of our young people believe that, under certain conditions, it is acceptable to take advantage of a date," that children were not being taught that incapacitation is not a legal defense, that intercourse without consent is rape, that victims weren't responsible for what happened to them, that victims of sexual assault may be less likely to report their assaults if they feel they are "responsible" or "deserving" of their treatment. In 1998, a question was added: "Have your parents ever talked to you about sexual abuse prevention?" Half of the boys and 36% of the girls said no.

Why am I talking about studies conducted almost 20 years ago? Because these kids are how having children. More than half of teens surveyed today say they know someone who has been sexually abused or experienced dating violence. Fifty-three percent of them say they would not know how to intervene. Conservative estimates say that 1 in 6 women and 1 in 19 men are stalking victims -- essentially a crime where the stalker refuses to take "no" or "I'm not interested," for an answer. Nearly 46% of stalking victims experience a minimum of one encounter of unwanted contact with their stalker per week.

Obviously, I am not saying that kids who experience puppy love become stalkers. Attitudes like the ones revealed in the studies, like the ones illustrated by this example, are a huge education problem. It requires teaching kids lessons far in advance of their being teenagers with interests in dating and sex.