My 6-Year-Old Has A Boyfriend ... And I'm OK With It

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baby girl kissing a baby boy

My daughter is just about 7 years old and, like a lot of little girls, is enamored with hearts and flowers and the idea of love.

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"I'm not in love with anyone," she complained the other day from her car seat.

"That's okay," I told her. "You have lots of time to be in love."

"Well, I was going to get married to someone," she said, emphasizing the past tense. "But now I'm not."

She told me his name, this little boy from our neighborhood — my almost son-in-law. She detailed their courtship, which seemed to have lasted for about 2 hours. There was no hand-holding, no playground kisses, no grand declarations of love. There wasn't much of anything, from the sounds of it. He was funny, she said, though they barely even spoke. I'm glad she didn't settle.

Like most parents I know, I do worry about my daughter growing up too fast. I don't want her to be the 13-year-old teetering around the mall in enormous wedge heels and a mini-skirt, making out with her pimpled boyfriend while standing in line at Pinkberry. I see those girls and I want to throw my jacket over them. When did kids start acting so old?

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When my daughter had her first brush with young love last year, in kindergarten, I freaked out. She came home after school one day and, over a peanut butter and jam sandwich, mentioned that she had a boyfriend. Um ... sorry, what? A boyfriend? At 6 years old? I panicked. Is this how it all starts? I peppered her with questions, trying to sound nonchalant.

By the time my head stopped spinning, the romance was over. They "broke up," she told me very matter-of-factly just a day or two later. I wondered how she suddenly knew what that meant, this little girl who still sneaks drawings of rainbows into the mailbox for me to find. It wasn't all that long ago that she wanted to marry her little sister.

Her "boyfriend," I later found out, had an older brother who had recently been through a breakup. It started to make sense.

There are things I can shelter her from — Bratz dolls, Rihanna, Hannah Montana — but she's still going to get glimpses of the grown-up world. And as much as I sometimes want to (and believe me, sometimes I do), I can't make her stay little forever.

At nearly 7 years old, she's in so many ways still my baby girl, but she's also trying to figure out the sometimes complicated business of growing up.

The difference between love and being in love; why some people seem to make her heart beat just a little bit faster. I want her to know that there's nothing wrong, nothing shameful or inappropriate about the way that she feels. I want her to know that she can always talk to me, whether she's 6 years old or 16. I'm not sure I can convince her of that if I always have one finger on the panic button.

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That's not to say I'm about to set her little heart loose. I want to give her enough space to ride the waves of puppy love and grade-school heartache, but be there to guide her when the waters get too rough. Some of this stuff is still hard for grown-ups to figure out — there are shelves of self-help books to prove it — so she'll need some help to translate how she feels.

Besides, didn't we all at one point have that first schoolyard crush? All of this has had me thinking back to my own. His name was Michael. He was 7 years old with dark brown hair and blue eyes, and he sat quietly across the row from me in class. I was sure that I loved him.

I carefully printed his name in my diary; I told my mom all about him and she listened, interested but not interfering. At the end of the year, his family moved away, and I cried knowing he was gone.

It was the first of an endless string of crushes and briefly broken hearts, each one a tiny milestone, collectively teaching me a lot about myself and my capacity to feel everything from adoration to utter devastation. Looking back, puppy love was an essential and important part of my childhood; it didn't spell the end of innocence, it was part of it. I hope that my own daughter will one day be able to say the same.

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Carolyn Robertson is a writer who focuses on marriage and family matters.