He's mean to you because he likes you.
Why is this still being taught to our daughters today?
And not just our daughters. Our sons hear it too. She's mean to you because she likes you.
I remember being much younger, first grade, and having a crush on this boy, Lewis. I wrote his name and bedazzled it with hearts and stuck it in my Lisa Frank notebook. He was the bee's knees as far as I was concerned.
That was until the day he pushed me off the monkey bars and ran away laughing.
Oh, he just pushes you because he likes you, honey.
And then as if my heart couldn’t take any more, the next day he called me ugly in front of his friends. He said my front was as flat as my back.
Oh, he just says mean things because he likes you, honey.
Did he actually like me? I don’t really know. But what I do know is that these messages confused me. Far beyond that first-grade chair, I wondered some pretty deep questions.
Was like or love supposed to hurt this much?
Is this how people show affection and is it okay for them to hurt me in the name of love?
Into my teenage years, I dated the boys who treated me the worst.
Into my young adulthood, I dated the men who disrespected me most.
I was taught this was love. But it’s not. And we have to stop programming our children to believe that it is.
The Internalized Message
Dating violence affects women regardless of their age, but teens are particularly vulnerable. In fact, women aged 16 to 24 experience the highest per capita rate of intimate partner violence. In a study of eighth and ninth graders, 25 percent indicated that they had been victims of dating violence, including eight percent who disclosed being sexually abused.
We may not think about it at the time, but the messages we send to our children about respecting others’ boundaries and being bold enough to set their own, and about what it means to express feelings of love and affection toward another, shape our children’s belief patterns about social and romantic relationships.
“Maybe he just likes you” are dangerous words that seem to condone bullying behavior under the guise of affection. But let’s be clear here: name-calling, unwanted attention and remarks, violence, harassment, and abuse are not acceptable. If anything it puts young children in a position to think that 1) it is okay to be treated that way or 2) that they deserve to be treated that way. Essentially, it programs them to accept abuse.
And these aren’t the only unhealthy messages we are sending here. What are we communicating to the children who are doing the hurting, like Lewis on that first-grade playground?
- To love is to overpower and control?
- Consent is irrelevant?
- Behaviors don’t have consequences?
Add to that, we are actually doing very little to address and support the emotional health of either child, the child who is being bullied and the child who is doing the bullying behavior.
Guiding Our Children
Here are some things we do want our children to know.
1. It is okay to set boundaries
We can teach boundaries by modeling them - setting and sticking to empathetic limits ourselves. But also empowering our children to set and stick to their own. This means trusting your child’s intuition when they don’t want to hug Grandma Sue or stopping when they say “no more” during a game of tickle. Communicate with your child that “no” and “stop” are important words and that they can advocate for themselves and others.
2. It is okay to separate from those who hurt you
Chat with your child about their internal guidance system. We are all wired for it. We all get a feeling when something feels off or wrong or not right. Teach them to tune in to that voice and trust it. Encourage them to verbalize that voice, knowing that they don’t have to be friends with everyone, and they don’t have to be around those who hurt them.
3. It is okay to just be friends
Explain to your child that there are different types of relationships. Saying that a boy likes your daughter so he hits her indicates to her that bad behavior is associated with romance. But truth is, opposite-sex relationships don’t always have to be romantic. Invite your child to have healthy girl/girl, boy/boy, and girl/boy relationships across the board, regardless of sex. Boys and girls alike are all working on their emotional regulation and your child deserves to be treated well - whether it is from a friend that is a boy or girl or from a boyfriend or girlfriend.
4. It is okay to not give consent
There is a lot of talk on how to teach children about consent. This goes back to setting boundaries and helping your child trust their inner guidance system. The way they feel about something will inform and guide them. For example, that pit in your stomach you may get when someone says an unwanted sexual remark or the feeling you get when someone is following you … those are signs from your body that danger is near.
Consent is not when someone smiles, blushes, or wears certain clothing types.
Consent is not an unconfident/forced “yes” and it isn’t not saying “no.”
Consent is a confident “yes.”
Help your child know the difference.
(And that includes reading body language. In our home, we teach that if someone says “yes” with their words but “no” with their body such as trembling hands, not maintaining eye content, shaky tone of voice, etc then the answer is “no.” This distinction is especially important for older kids who have the capacity to notice and understand such cues).
A Safe Base For Our Children
We are our children’s safe base. As a parent, for me, initially, it seemed weird to have these conversations with my boys at such a young age, mostly because these things weren’t talked about when I was a child. But this conversation creates awareness and awareness creates change.
There is no place for comments like, “He's mean to you because he likes you.” It is time to end the perpetuation of abuse and honor our children's autonomy.