My nine-year-old daughter came to me recently, an excited but nervous expression upon her face.
I am always reiterating to my children that they can tell me anything, at any time, and she often prefaces what to her are difficult confessions or conversations with, “Mama, I can tell you anything, right?”
This day she began, “Mama, I don’t know if I should tell you this. I don’t know how you’re going to react.”
“Okay,” I replied, recognizing in her expression that this was important and setting my laptop aside. “I won’t react.”
She took a deep breath then started to speak but paused again, looking worried.
“Promise,” I said. “You know you can tell me anything.”
“Welllll,” she took another deep breath and paused, then finally blurted out, “A and I are dating.”
It took everything in me to not react. She’s nine. I calmly asked, because I was not familiar with the name, “Is A a boy or a girl?” (She’s got a bisexual mom, a pansexual and genderfluid older sibling, and has herself declared that she’s going to marry a girl and have ten kids when she grows up, so it was simply an honest inquiry.)
“He’s a boy. Are you mad at me?”
“No, baby, I’m not mad. You look very happy so I am happy for you. Can you tell me what dating means to you?”
“It means you’re like, really really best best forever friends. Not like kissing or any of that stuff.”
“Okay, good. You are very young for kissing, right?”
“Yes, Mom! (I got an exasperated eye roll here.) We’re only in third grade!!”
“Does dating mean holding hands?”
“No…” as she glanced down at her hands and blushed. “Well, not yet.”
“So how did you start dating?”
“Well, I told him I liked him, and he said he liked me, and then he said, ‘So is it yes, or what?’”
“Is what yes?”
“Dating, I guess. Like going with him. He went with another girl at the beginning of the year and I asked if she was the first one, and he said, ‘Oh, she doesn’t count.’”
I couldn’t help but laugh a little at that, but I simultaneously worried about my little one who lives with her heart on her sleeve being crushed. I certainly don’t want her to be another one who doesn’t count in a month or two, but still, I held my tongue.
We talked a bit more. I asked what he was like, and why she liked him, and she related that he’s funny and nice and cute and he always wears a blue scarf. She said she told a few people, “Okay, pretty much my whole class,” and that they were surprised but mostly happy for her.
She was beaming and animated and blushing and so freaking adorable in those 10 minutes that we talked, and so many thoughts and worries and emotions crossed through my mind and heart as I gazed at this beautiful girl, so open and loving and innocent.
Do I want my daughter dating at age nine?
Not at all. However, I didn’t think to have a conversation with her at such a young age about when an appropriate age to start dating might be, so I can’t exactly tell her now that she’s forbidden to. I know from experience that the forbidden is oh so desirable.
In that moment, I chose to put my concerns (and shock) aside, and prioritize the connection between my daughter and myself, to really hear her, to empathize, to celebrate with her and to confirm, once again, that she really can tell me anything at any time. She gave me an excited hug as she ran off to leave with her dad and sibling. A minute later she came running back in, unexpectedly, and gave me a huge hug. With eyes closed and a big, contented sigh, she whispered, “I love you, Mama.”
“I love you too, baby.”
She ran out again, but turned at the door and flashed a radiant smile at me.
“I’m happy for you, my love. Now go have fun.”
I will celebrate each and every first with my children, regardless of if they are happening well before I’d like them to. And when that day of first heartbreak arrives, be it from this relationship or some other down the road, I will simply hold her, and cry with her, and do some restorative yoga together, and have a cup of tea or hot chocolate while we talk about it.
I’m sure I will silently curse the young man or woman who is seemingly so careless with hearts, but I will quickly push that aside and send some love out to him or her, for I know that they too are young and learning and possibly simply emulating what they see going on in the adult lives around them. I will not hate anyone for breaking her heart, for I know that she will not always be in the role of “heartbreakee.” I will simply teach her, through example, how to care for her own heart; how to find that balance between wholeheartedness and guardedness, how to heal it when it hurts, and how to learn from each experience.
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Photo: George Eastmans/Flickr