What to do when your 5-year-old announces he's in love

Feb. 9, 2012 at 9:23 AM ET

My 5-year-old son and I were walking to the kitchen that November night for a snack. “Something happened, Mom,” he said. I looked back at Sam, thinking maybe he’d dropped his Matchbox car, or his pajama bottoms had fallen down.

Diana Sugg /
Sam+Emma. True love... in kindergarten? Don't laugh, the experts say, their feelings are real.

Instead, he stopped and looked at me for a moment. An impish smile spread across his face. “I fell in love,” he announced. “I’m in love with Emma.”

I didn’t know what to say. For weeks, Sam had been bringing up his classmate Emma. They’d been playing and hugging and having a grand time. My husband and I laughed and thought it was adorable.

But was it love? How could it be? They were only in kindergarten.

In fact, experts say, age 5 or 6 is the moment when romantic love first arrives. Boys and girls begin to notice each other. They develop loyalties. They start to share secrets.

“These are really strong feelings that kids actually have,” said Dr. Barbara Howard, a nationally known developmental behavioral pediatrician and assistant professor of pediatrics at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. “They really do love each other.”

Sam and Emma both have big imaginations and lots of creativity. They’d hit it off during recess, digging for dinosaur fossils in the sandbox, and running across the field, searching the sky for hawks.  

Diana Sugg /
Emma made this card for Sam, her kindergarten sweetheart.

Kindergarten is the moment when kids are in school full-time, and moving away from their primary caregiver. It’s natural and healthy to attach to another person for comfort and security, said Dr. Joyce Harrison, director of preschool psychiatry programs at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center.

Children also start trying out adult roles. As kindergartners, they realize they’re in the big school and think they’re supposed to act like a grown-up, said Harrison. “It’s all a part of sorting out, ‘Who am I, and what am I supposed to do?’” she said.

Some boys propose to girls. My sister got a cigar band from her classmate. A friend’s aunt actually had a boy in her kindergarten bring in his mother’s two-carat diamond engagement ring. Honored, the girl wore it on her thumb all day.

But this role-playing is often more than play. Parents and teachers shouldn’t laugh at it – or make it into a big deal. These are genuine feelings that should be respected and accepted.

Because it’s also an age when children are naturally curious about their bodies, Howard noted that parents should supervise these kids, because sometimes they want to know how girls’ and boys’ bodies are different.

But rarely does anything need to be done about these relationships. They run their course. Just when things seem to be getting too intense, teachers and doctors say, interests change. Usually, by first and second grade, boys just want to be with the boys, and girls want to play with girls.

For now, Emma and Sam have decided they’re going to get married. They’ve practiced their wedding dance. They’ve named their five children. More importantly, they have fun, and they watch out for each other. She makes him cards; he brings her the water bottle she left behind.

When Sam first told me, I think I mumbled a few comments. Mostly, I tried to say it was nice.

Now, seeing them together, knowing that he wants me to pick him up later each school day – so he can savor just a few more minutes sitting next to Emma  – I find myself smiling. And I think to myself, “Good for Sam.” He’s lucky to have this special friend.

The other day, when Sam was getting a ride with Emma and her father, I bent inside the car to hug him good-bye. I noticed that Sam and Emma, each in a car seat, had stretched out their arms toward each other. They were holding hands over the empty space between them.

When I looked into Sam’s face, it was lit from within, with excitement, with happiness, with something I’d never seen before. Dare I say it? Love.

Diana K. Sugg is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who has covered medicine, crime and other issues for newspapers around the country. She is now a freelance writer in Baltimore raising two young sons.

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