As children grow, they develop a range of friendships, with boys and girls often playing happily together until their interests diverge at around six. But in most nursery classes, there will be at least one boy/girl pairing that is more affectionate than the usual friendships. Psychologists shy away from saying that a child is ‘in love’ and there is, therefore, very little research into childhood romance.
But one study, carried out over 100 years ago, did distinguish romantic relationships from normal childhood friendships. By looking at behaviour such as hugging, kissing, talking about each other, grief at being separated, and jealousy, researchers deduced that by the age of three-and-a-half, love is most certainly in the air.
Quite why Cupid should strike a decade before puberty is a puzzle. One theory is that it’s practice for later on – a test drive for the heart. American psychologist Elaine Hatfield, who has carried out studies into all forms of love, believes that it could be to do with creating a sense of security. “Children who are highly anxious tend to be more susceptible to getting a crush on someone,” says Hatfield. And, with the world opening up and children attending nursery or school for the first time at this age, a romantic attachment would seem to be a very sensible move.
Voltaire wrote that love is a canvas furnished by nature and embroidered by imagination. And if there’s one thing young children have in abundance, it’s imagination. From the ages of three to five, children’s social horizons are rapidly expanding, and the ability to imagine is vital because it allows them to empathise. They are also working out how they fit into the world, and their gender becomes more important.
Many of them will have just begun to grasp that their sex is constant, so, for example, a little boy will now know that by putting on a dress he won’t become a girl. Taking their experience of their parents’ relationships, along with fairy tales about princes marrying princesses, children construct their own romantic stories. Five-year-old Posie and her friend Jack have their future worked out. “We’re going to get married,” says Posie. “I’m going to be a train driver and he’s going to be Spider-Man.” If only all marriages were so well-planned.
But what attracts one child to another? During the teenage years, choice will usually be defined by shared interests, but a mutual appreciation of In the Night Garden probably won’t do it for the very young. And don’t hold your breath for kindness or a good sense of humour counting for much. Even babies can be just as superficial as the rest of us. At just one day old, babies have been demonstrated to prefer attractive faces. By school age, research shows that attractive children are still more popular and socially accepted. But we can’t blame our children’s shallowness – even teachers apparently favour better-looking children. Four-year-old Alfie, who has black shoulder-length curls and towers over his peers, is a legend among the reception class girls. And, as for his equally tall, dark and newly single father, well, let’s just say Alfie gets lots of playdates when his father comes to collect him.
Parents are a huge influence on their children’s experience of friendship and love. “All children have a need to be liked and be part of a group,” says Rudkin. And we can show them how. “Model positive relationships yourself,” she says. “If your child sees you chatting to your friends, having people over and buying birthday presents for people, you will reinforce your child’s ability to form loving relationships.” So you don’t have to be perfect, you just need to look for ways to nurture your child’s sense of joy about the wonders of love.
More psychology from Junior:
Bring out your child's inner performer
Five reasons why it's great to have a daughter