My daughter is in the first grade. It’s a fun age, and an exciting time to see kids learn how to make friends, interact with others, and figure out not only new things intellectually, but socially as well.
Throughout the year the kids in her class have made things for each other; my daughter colours pictures for friends, they make little bead crafts for each other, and sometimes the girls even let the other girls borrow their bracelet or necklace for a day or two.
Seeing these early friendship bonds forming, and watching kids figure out how to navigate the social and emotional aspects of existing in community is a neat thing to experience as a parent. It’s been a delightful experience to watch my kid learn with whom she feels safe, what personality types she enjoys, and what she looks for in friendship. I’ve never been the mom that expects her to be ‘friends’ with everyone, recognizing that some personalities just don’t mesh, though we have consistently held up the expectation to be kind and respectful. So far I think she’s done fairly well.
In the past few weeks though, she has been coming home with a few more treasures from school. There are a couple boys in the class who seem to be quite smitten with her, and aren’t shy about professing their admiration. She’s had perler bead hearts, snowflakes, and stars, and cards with hearts and declarations of love handed to her – which she promptly comes home to talk about and show us.
The first couple times she seemed to think it was kinda funny, and had a light-hearted attitude about it. As a parent, I thought it was ridiculously adorable, and was a little touched that something about my girl made others really appreciate her.
But Friday she came home with the above pictured haul, all crafted by two boys in her class. She told me how during dodgeball in gym these same boys spent the whole half hour only trying to hit her. The lightheartedness was gone. I offered an empathetic comment, and carried on.
Later that evening, as I was painting her toes as part of ‘spa night’, I asked her again about the cards and attention. Specifically asking how she felt about it. “It’s annoying,” was her response. I pushed a bit, “Does part of you find it annoying, and another part kind of enjoy that they obviously think you’re great?” Nope. It was all and only annoying to her.
That gravity of this moment tucked in between my kitchen cart and dishwasher where the foot spa could still reach the plug in on the wall, daughter on the stool and me with her little foot in my hand, was immediately apparent and it felt like one of the most important moments I’ve had so far as a mom.
She didn’t like their attention.
She didn’t want their attention.
That they weren’t intending to make her uncomfortable was completely and utterly irrelevant. How I responded to her in this moment about undesired, unwanted attention from boys was going to set the stage for what she learned was acceptable and unacceptable from the opposite gender going forward.
I did not say, they don’t mean to make you annoyed, or boys will be boys, or they’re just doing it because they like you. Trust me, those things went through my mind. I know those messages. Deep to the core of my bones I do, because as women those are the messages that we have heard and internalized our whole lives. Those are the messages I fight against when I walk up to windows of guys who catcall, or take to Facebook to rant about the latest insensitive and demeaning experience of “attention” from men.
These are not the messages I was going to give to my daughter.
How I responded to her in this moment said much about her worth as a girl, who will one day be a woman. It said much about the boundary she gets to hold around herself. It said much about her role in society and how she owns or absorbs discomfort that does not belong to her.
“How do you think we can let them know that you’d like them to stop?”
We came up with a plan together to address this unwanted attention, and talked about strategies she can use in the classroom to help let the boys kindly know she isn’t interested in their love notes. She suggested I email her teacher and ask for help. So I did. Because she knows what she needs to feel safe in the world, it is simply my job to listen and help make that happen.
And we put all the loves notes in the recycling bin.
I know those boys don’t mean any harm. I don’t want them to be reprimanded or punished. I realize they likely think my girl is amazing (which she is!), and are trying to express their admiration – but positive attention, even with good intentions, isn’t positive if it is unwelcome by the receiver.
As a mom, I couldn’t be prouder of my girl for expressing what she feels and telling me what she needs. As a counsellor, my heart explodes when I see her setting good boundaries for herself. And my hope moving forward is that this sets the trajectory that my girl takes in regards to how she deals with unwanted and unwelcome attention, respectfully owning her space and rejecting that which feels unsafe.