Children are naturally curious; they are in the business of learning: from learning to sit to taking their first steps. They are constantly mirroring behaviour and figuring out social cues…

Sooner or later children are introduced to the idea of romance; whether it’s from watching people around them or from TV and the movies they watch. Children naturally become curious about romantic relationships and may even believe they are in relationships themselves.

Johannesburg-based relationships counsellor Michael Kallenbach says although it is important for parents to set boundaries, children playing at relationships is usually just another game of pretend.

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Why playing pretend is important

According to The Center for Parenting Education there are three main stages of play that children learn through.

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  • The first is functional play where children figure out what objects are and what they are used for.
  • The second is constructive play where children combine function with creativity and learn to build and manipulate objects to serve their purposes and the third is dramatic play.
  • Dramatic play is where children explore social situations by imitating interactions and things they have seen.At this stage this generally happens after the age of three and can range from a child playing mommy with the doll to acting out a scene from a movie they watched.

“Just as children play pretend-nurse and doctor, or patient and doctor so they will also act out playing girlfriend and boyfriend. They will obviously have seen family members or friends who are in such relationships so naturally they will have imaginings of what someone does if they are a in a romantic relationship and what that entails,” says Michael.

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Gently set boundaries

Although playing at relationships is a natural step in a child’s development, parents still have a role to play in making sure their children’s play stays safe and appropriate. Parental input at this stage can contribute to children forming healthy ideas about relationships and how to interact with others.

Michael says parents can offer guidance on the appropriate behaviour and save mention of undesirable behaviour for if or when it actually happens and only then guide children away from that specific behaviour.

“When kids play girlfriend/boyfriend I think it’s advisable for parents to set the rules and say for instance what is and isn’t allowed – i.e. you can go to the movies together and buy popcorn etc. – I wouldn’t mention anything about kissing or smooching,” says Michael.

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Keep your children informed

When children start thinking about romantic relationships and even start playing at being in romantic relationships it may be time to slowly start introducing ‘the talk ‘and talk to them about their bodies and sex at an age appropriate level.

This opens the door to important conversations your children may want to have and also helps in setting boundaries for their games. This also helps children set boundaries for others based on the information and knowledge they have and respect the boundaries set by others too.

“I think it’s always best for parents to be up front and honest with their children. Nothing wrong with telling them about the birds and the bees, for instance, and also explaining that not all couples are male and female – that society comprises of different things today and it’s good to respect people for the choices they have made,” says Michael.

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