My Tween Has A Crush And I Have Big Feelings

by Rachel Garlinghouse
Iurii Golub / 500px/Getty

I hadn’t spoken to my tween in hours. She’d met a boy, just a year older, at my cousin’s wedding reception. They were joined at the hip for the night, teaching adults how to do the floss, sneaking more soda, and running around giggling.

I didn’t think much of it. After all, there were very few tweens at the celebration. My daughter had to find someone to hang out with, because dancing with your siblings all night isn’t cool.

But it’s been over a month since the wedding, and my daughter keeps bringing up the boy. Of course, I have feelings about this. She’s my oldest, my first baby. How dare she grow up?

In the past year, my daughter has grown several inches taller, her feet just one shoe size behind mine. She’s long and lean with legs for days. She’s begging me for a cell phone and knows the lyrics to the most popular songs. Those adorable toys she used to play with for hours in her bedroom are now put away in containers because she’s “over it” now.

I’m realizing there’s no turning back. I used to believe I’d have long years with my little girl, but now I’m acknowledging that the old ladies who used to stop me and my kids at the grocery store were right. Time really does fly by.

There are so many changes, so quickly. As a mom, the tween years are disorienting. But there are upsides.

Tweens don’t shut out their parents as readily as teens. Tweens are caught between being little kids and adolescents, so they vacillate between clinging — literally — to their parents and sulking for not getting their way. We still have the opportunities to sit and talk openly about their lives.

When my daughter experienced her first crush, it was my chance to have some necessary and meaningful conversations. We’d lounge in her bed where she’d ask me questions about my past.

What’s the deal with kissing? When is it OK to kiss? Who should you kiss?

I told her about my first kiss. I was in middle school, and my boyfriend planted one right on my lips when the chaperones weren’t looking. Tootsie Roll was blasting in the background. I went home and wrote a play-by-play in my diary.

Kissing should happen, I told her, between someone you really like, respect, and trust. And if someone wants to kiss you but you don’t want to kiss him, it’s OK to say no. But what if I hurt his feelings, she asked.

This led to a conversation about consent. I’ve long told my four kids that their bodies belong to them, taught them the anatomically correct terms, and repeated that no adult should ever insist that my kids keep a secret. Surprises are OK. Secrets aren’t safe.

We talked about dating. What is dating, exactly? Did I date anyone before her dad? How many boyfriends did I have before I got married?

Even for me, a “good girl,” these conversations were awkward. Reflecting on past relationships brought up some surprising embarrassment and shame. Why did I date so many crappy guys?

I told my daughter the truth. I had a handful of boyfriends — and many crushes — before her dad, and there were good reasons I broke it off with them.

We talked about the boyfriend I had who always smelled like French fries. He worked four-hour shifts at a fast food restaurant and never could quite get the smell of grease out of his skin and clothing.

He ran away from home once when he got mad at his mom for making him do chores instead of sitting on his butt playing video games. He hitchhiked to my house in the middle of the night and then slept in my childhood tree-house until dawn. Then he knocked on the front door at six in the morning, shaking from the cold. My mom was pissed, to say the least.

My next boyfriend was a serial love-them-and-leave-them kind of guy. After dating about a month, he told me he was taking me on a weekend camping trip. I was fifteen and my parents responded to the invite with a hard no. We all knew that a weekend trip meant lots of terrible sex in a tent. My daughter giggled, knowing her grandma would never consent to me going on a two-day getaway with a fellow teen.

I also told her how both boys never paid for anything. I always paid for anything we did, sometimes paying for the both of us. Why couldn’t they pony up sometimes? I worked multiple part-time jobs, earning a whopping $5.15 an hour. If I could work hard, why couldn’t they? Where was the chivalry, or at minimum, good manners?

Each of these conversations led us to discuss what qualities make a good boyfriend. I want my daughter to date someone who is loyal, kind, trustworthy, and respectful, someone like her dad.

Though having one evening of fun with a boy at a wedding reception doesn’t constitute as having a boyfriend, my daughter’s time is coming when she’ll be “going out” with someone. They’ll see each other at school or church or wherever they met, maybe hold hands. But then the years will go by, just as quickly as they already have, and she’ll go on real dates and make big decisions about relationships.

I want her to be informed, empowered, and confident. So we talk and talk and talk some more. The conversations are give-and-take, tit-for-tat, as they should be. I listen with empathy, and I’m not afraid to lay down my opinion or experience. We have so much ground to cover. I also encourage her to talk to her mentor, because sometimes chatting with someone other than mom or dad can be incredibly helpful.

None of us want our kids to make the same dating mistakes we did. Whether we gave up months or years of our lives to a person who didn’t deserve it or we were way too picky, never allowing ourselves the pleasure of exploring our options. Perhaps we repeatedly made the wrong choice or will forever regret “the one who got away.”

Talking to our tweens about relationships is our honor, but it’s also incredibly difficult to navigate. There’s no rule book. The conversations can arise out of the blue, rendering us unprepared. And watching our kids grow up so abruptly is terrifying.

No matter how I feel about my tween showing interest in finding a boyfriend, it’s happening. So I’m choosing to step onto this new path with her, sight unseen.