Archana (name changed), mother of a 9-year-old girl, enjoys her morning walks. Even as she jogs to remain the perfectly-fit mom, she leaves her child to play with a group of friends in the park. While burning her own calories, Archana could observe the great sense of companionship in her daughter’s group. ‘The wonder years’, she thought, mildly envying their sense of freedom.
The beautiful routine for Archana was snapped a few days later when she got the shock of her life. Her daughter had attempted running away with a 10-year-old boy from that same group. The ‘lovebirds’ hadn’t made it past the second bus stop, having run out of mango juice, crisps, money… and bravado. And, after being spotted by a neighbour who promptly towed them back home, they confessed to their undying love for each other.
Upon further investigation, shocking amounts of blush-inducing love notes were found hidden in the homes of the ‘little ones’. The contents of the letters weren’t odes of innocent puppy love either. The unsuspecting parents didn’t know what had hit them. They weren’t expecting the hassle of crushes and infatuation for another four years, but were caught unawares.
Well, blame it on the media, globalisation, westernisation or environmental factors; but don’t run away from the new reality. Children are growing up much faster than before, both physically and mentally. That’s why ‘it certainly isn’t thirteen anymore’.
‘What I saw hit me hard’
Parents need to accept that the 21st century, with the surge of social media and changing demographics, presents specific parenting challenges. Gone are the days when worries relating to infatuation were confined to teens. Parents have to grapple with situations like the one Archana faced, more often these days.
“When I was nine years old, I thought the only difference between boys and girls was that boys had much shorter hair and wore half pants instead of frocks,” laughs Anu Joseph, mother of a 10-year-old girl, who already has her eyes on a ‘special someone’ at school. Of her daughter’s case, Anu says, “She’d been spending an inordinate amount of time in front of the mirror, grooming and preening. Once back from school, my young lady would grab my mobile phone and start texting away non-stop. When the phone would come back to me at night, there’d be no trace of use whatsoever. I was too scared to probe. One fine day, however, her cover-up job wasn’t so perfect. What I saw hit me hard... a series of flirtatious messages, with all sorts of implied meanings. The boy was a classmate we’d had over at our home several times,” shudders the mother.
“Even if there were telling signs, I’d been blind to them. When I confronted my daughter, she nonchalantly said that all her classmates were already ‘hitched’. Can you imagine?” adds Anu, with a resigned look on her face.
Peer pressure bigger than ever
One of the key determining factors of changing tween behaviour in today’s context is peer pressure. Says Vishesh Shah (name changed), an 11-year-old student, “All the popular kids in my grade already have boyfriends/girlfriends. The secret smiles, the hand-holding, and the going-behind-trees to canoodle… us lesser mortals want to be in action too.”
And, then, there is the double-edged sword - ‘media’. Leading psychologist and family counsellor, Brinda Jayaraman, states, “Youngsters watch movies from the West and assume it’s alright to jump into premature liaisons. Even children in Class 3 are talking about girlfriends, these days! But, they don’t recognise the implications. By the age of 9 or 10 years, children now are very aware of the fact that there is another gender. This leads to curiosity. ‘What is a girl’s/boy’s body like?’ ‘How will it feel to touch them?’ These are some questions that make them experiment.”
Brinda adds that the increase in the instances of early puberty is also to blame. “Once they attain puberty and the hormones start secreting, it is natural for them to want to pair up. The sexual feelings cannot be stopped and it is very natural for them to fall in, what they call, ‘love’.
Sensitise, don’t punish!
A study found that boys and girls who start dating too young are more likely to have behavioural problems.
Pre-teens find themselves unable to cope with the emotional strain that comes with pre-age dating. The results can have exceedingly damaging effects.
“Children who start dating when they are very young are likely to abuse alcohol, indulge in risky acts and practice unsafe sex. They will tend to lie to their folks and cheat,” says school teacher/counsellor, Jayashree Chandra.
Each time Jayashree comes across cases of underage ‘love’, she sets up meetings with the respective parents, not to get them to punish their wards, but to sensitise them. “Pre-teen love can be pretty intense too. The wave of emotions can be overwhelming to the kids themselves - discounting their feelings will make them feel abnormal. The most effective remedy is to just listen; to lend a shoulder. Whatever the inputs, they must be put forth in a practical, non-judgemental fashion. For this, as a parent, you need to cool down first before approaching your children. Once a comfort level is reached, when your pre-teen is comfortable confiding in you, half the battle is won,” she points out.
“My first reaction was to ground my daughter for the rest of her life, and never let her see another boy,” chuckles Anu. But, her husband urged her to understand their daughter’s state of mind. “In a friendly manner, we asked her about the boy and what the relationship was like. Turns out, she was comically misinformed about what constitutes physical intimacy,” Anu says, adding that while they made it clear to their daughter what she’d been doing was wrong, she wouldn’t be punished this time.
Certain ground rules were laid, such as:
- When a boy comes over, all doors are to be kept open.
- Online and texting activities will be supervised for a while till the trust can be re-established.
- All outings with boys will be supervised till she attains the age of 14.
- Choice of TV shows and movies will be supervised.
Schools can play a role too
Schools can help by conducting periodic programmes that concentrate on physiological growth and its impact on a student’s psychological make-up. Brinda adds, “There are books on growing up, which can be given to students. Girls and boys should be dealt with separately in school, and this should be done by a psychologist, as only they will know how much information to give for each age-group.”
“Schools are better equipped these days to deal with it - they must give their children the right information and warn them about the pitfalls. They can say that touching someone of the opposite gender in their sensitive parts is not acceptable behaviour. Even though at that age, there is no love - it is only infatuation, NEVER tell them so,” she elaborates. When two kids fall in love, they have no control over their emotions, and all their decisions are driven by those emotions. Therefore, parents must teach their wards to regulate their emotions from a very young age - this will save them from being hijacked by their own feelings.
At the end of the day, remember that it isn’t your children’s fault that they’re growing up early. It is the kind of world you and I have created for them. So, employ utmost empathy in helping them tide through this time of crazy, cupid confusion.