Do you remember the first time you liked someone of the opposite gender? For me it happened at the beginning of sixth grade. There was a girl in a lot of my classes who I thought was the most perfect girl ever. She was smart, pretty, quiet, and confident. My face turned red and my heart raced whenever I got close to her. I didn’t know what to do or say, so I resorted to acting awkward and abrasive when I was around her. Long story short: It never worked out between us.
Figuring out how to relate to the opposite gender is tough! It’s one of the most complicated parts of the teenage years, and one reason why most of us never want to return to middle school. However, as adults we have the chance to help middle school boys as they begin to navigate those same tricky waters that we faced years ago.
This is not a post about middle school boys and dating. That would be unhelpful because 6th-8th grade boys are all over the place when it comes to girls. The breadth of their collective attitude toward the female gender is fascinating and a little entertaining:
- Some boys are already “going out” with girls in fifth and sixth grade. They try to impress girls with their hair and clothing choices. By eighth grade they are even brave enough to sit next to a girl they like and maybe even…GASP! hold her hand.
- On the other hand, I know a lot of boys in eighth grade who, I’m convinced, aren’t aware that girls exist. In a large group of boys and girls, they’re content to hang out with their buddies, play catch with a football, and get sweaty while never stopping to acknowledge or realize that they’ve been running circles around girls the entire time.
There are, however, a handful of things adults can do to help all middle school boys develop healthy relationships with girls, whether it’s as simple as friendship or as serious as the middle school version of dating:
- Set a good example. This might be the most powerful way for you to affect a boy’s interactions with girls. When Dad treats Mom with respect and vice-versa, that speaks loudly. When older men talk to women with the dignity they deserve, he is learning, even if it’s at a subconscious level.
- Allow him to spend time in public with mixed-gender groups. This is the best and most healthy way for boys and girls to develop friendships with one another. Every part of this recipe is important. The public aspect helps reduce the temptation to do naughty things. The mixed-gender aspect allows boys to learn how girls think and act and vise versa. The group aspect means there are multiple boys and girls, which removes the pressure that exists in one-on-one time.
- If he doesn’t appear to be interested in girls, don’t push or pressure him to get involved. Life is so much simpler when girls aren’t on his radar. That moment when he first notices a special girl is a beautiful moment, but it instantly complicates matters. Let him be oblivious if that’s where he’s at. He’ll come around eventually. Don’t rush it.
- Don’t freak out with excitement once be begins to show an interest in girls. I know it’s fun, scary, and exciting for you. It reminds you of your first forays into dating. I’ve seen adults revert to nearly middle school levels of giddiness when kids start mingling with the opposite gender. I’ve been guilty of this myself. Even if you’re freaking out internally, play it cool. Don’t be a weirdo just because you’re excited.
- Don’t freak out with disapproval once he begins to show an interest in girls. You knew this day would come eventually. Maybe it came sooner that you had expected. Maybe he seems too young. It doesn’t matter. Once that switch is flipped, there’s no going back. Embrace it. He’s going to need your help and guidance.
- Set clear boundaries and expectations regarding his interactions with girls. Can he “go out” with a girl? If so, what does that mean to you? When is he allowed to start dating? Can he bring a girl home? If so, what can and can’t they do while at home? Can he hang out one-on-one with a girl, or does it need to be in groups? How do you expect him to treat her? Can he hold her hand? Kiss her? Make out with her? Share these expectations in a conversation—he can’t read your mind. Don’t expect him to follow unspoken expectations.
- Once he shows an interest in girls, don’t prod too much. If you constantly bombard him with questions about who he likes, who his friends are interested in, who is dating who and so on, one of two things will happen. It will either turn him off to the idea of having relationships with girls or he’ll shut down and stop sharing things about girls with you. Neither of those is necessarily healthy.
- Be a good listener. Girls are complicated! Be ready to drop everything and listen when he starts talking about girls. Listen more than you talk. Help him process his new novel thoughts and emotions. If you listen well, you’ll probably earn the opportunity to provide valuable insight based on your own teenage dating successes and failures.
Overall, the best thing you can do is love each individual middle schooler regardless of his level of interest in girls. We don’t have a lot of control over when and how he’ll enter that realm of life. Fortunately we can control how closely we walk with him before and during the process. Boys need older men as well as older women to help them navigate this most complicated area of life. Give him the love and support you would have wanted when you were his age.