What's a "Pretend Ex-Boyfriend"? | Mary Beth Bonacci | Ignatius InsightWhat's a "Pretend Ex-Boyfriend"? | Mary Beth Bonacci | Ignatius Insight


It's never too early to start teaching little girls about the difference between a boyfriend and a husband

My five-year-old niece informed me the other day that she has a "pretend ex-boyfriend."

Her mother and I are both at a loss as to where she picked up the whole idea of an ex-boyfriend in the first place. Of course, I highly doubt she's particularly clear on the concept. If she really knew what an ex-boyfriend was, I'm not sure she'd be pretending to have one.

Still, it makes me a little sad to see her picking up on such grown-up concepts at such a young age.

Every parent (and loving aunt) dreads the day when the sweet little girls we love start showing that excessive girly interest in boys. We want them to choose wisely and well. We want them to gravitate towards the boys who will respect them and avoid the users and manipulators. We don't want them to define themselves or their value by what boys think of them. And most of all, we don't want to see them have to go through the seemingly endless trauma and drama of teenaged dating.

But how do you explain that to a five year old? I think I muttered something about how it's nice when boys can just be friends, and left it at that.

It wasn't until later that I realized what a teaching moment that had been.

My niece doesn't know what a "boyfriend" is. She doesn't much understand the whole concept of dating or marriage. This, after all, is the girl who held a pretend wedding with her hapless little brother as the groom, and then returned from the "honeymoon" 30 seconds later to announce "I want to marry someone else now."

But she's going to start learning about all of it very quickly. Where she learns and what she learns first will go a long way toward shaping her later attitudes. If she learns about it from her little friends and from the popular culture, she's going to learn that having a "boyfriend" means somehow "taking possession" of a boy she likes -- kind of like seeing a toy that she wants at the store and then getting it. As she grows older, she'll start to associate it with "status", as all of the cool girls start bragging about their fabulously perfect and attentive boyfriends. (Of course, six weeks later the relationship with Mr. Fabulous and Attentive will be over, but young girls tend to live in the moment.)

I so don't want her to associate "teen-age fulfillment" with "boyfriend." So I though, "What could I tell a five year old?"

Well, I could start by asking her what she and her "pretend ex-boyfriend" do. If she told me that they have long sad talks about how "It's not you, it's me," then I'd know she really knows what she's talking about. More likely she'd say something about how they love each other and do wonderful things together. That would tell me that she's a normal little girl who is in the very early stages of developing a healthy attraction to men.

And as a parent, what's your first instinct when a little girl starts talking like that? We don't want that unrealistic fantasy to take root in her little mind, so we're tempted to say "Well, having a boyfriend isn't always fun, you know. Sometimes you argue. Sometimes he's an inconsiderate jerk who is late to pick you up and completely forgets about your birthday and calls his old girlfriend Brittany when he thinks you're at the gym but really you didn't go because you were too tired from cleaning his kitchen for the fiftieth time and he never even thanked you and . . ."

Way to ruin a little girl's fantasy.

It occurred to me that it might be better to say, "That's great, honey. But when you think about that wonderful man who loves you so much and stays with your forever– that's not a boyfriend, that's a husband." And then you can talk about marriage and how two people promise to stay together forever and how they help each other and love each other. You can talk about how important it is to choose a good man who is loving and kind and who will be a good father, etc.

And then "You know why women have boyfriends? It's to help them decide who's going to be their husband. They spend time together so they can see if he is a loving and good man who would be a good husband and daddy."

That way she can keep her very normal childhood fantasy without pushing her toward early "romantic" involvement.

I always tell teenagers that dating is "interviewing for the job of spouse." But by that time, I'm fighting years of ingrained thinking that has them convinced the boyfriend is the one who will give them the unconditional male love they crave right now. That's bad, because dating is the ultimate conditional relationship. "I'm here until I break up with you."

If we can, from a very young age, teach girls that dating is supposed to be about figuring out who they're going to marry, they'll avoid some serious pitfalls. First of all, it'll be more obvious why we don't want them to start dating too young. Why interview when you won't be hiring for ten or more years?

Second and more important, they'll be less inclined to "romanticize" dating – to see it as a way to get their need for unconditional love met now. They'll go into it with less "please, please love me" and more "Who are you? Are you a good and loving man?"

I know, the pressures will still be there. I know they'll still grow up in a culture where boyfriends are "status symbols." I know they'll still crave male attention. The conversations need to continue. They need to be reminded that God made them to be attracted to boys, and that the dating years are about figuring out what kind of boy they want to marry – or even if they're called to marriage.

If you continue to do that, there will be another voice in their heads in the midst of the pressure, one that says "This isn't permanent yet. This isn't the best place to find the real love that I need in my life right now."

And that's a very good start.

This column originally appeared on RealLove.net on July 10, 2008. Click here to read more of Mary Beth Bonacci's columns.

Related IgnatiusInsight.com Articles and Book Excerpts:

Focus Groups and Marriage: A Match Made for Heartache | Mary Beth Bonacci
Parents Love the Chastity Girl | Mary Beth Bonacci
The Challenge of Marriage Preparation | Dr. Janet E. Smith
Entering Marriage with Eyes Wide Open | Edward Peters
Human Sexuality and the Catholic Church | Donald P. Asci | Introduction to The Conjugal Act as a Personal Act
Who Is Married? | Edward Peters
Marriage and the Family in Casti Connubii and Humanae Vitae | Reverend Michael Hull, S.T.D.
Male and Female He Created Them | Cardinal Estevez
The Meaning and Necessity of Spiritual Fatherhood | Deacon Harold Burke-Sivers, MTS
Practicing Chastity in an Unchaste Age | Bishop Joseph F. Martino
The Truth About Conscience | John F. Kippley | An excerpt from Sex and the Marriage Covenant

Mary Beth Bonacci is internationally known for her talks and writings about love, chastity, and sexuality. Since 1986 she has spoken to tens of thousands of young people, including 75,000 people in 1993 at World Youth Day in Denver, Colorado. She appears frequently on radio and television programs, including several appearances on MTV.

Mary Beth has written two books, We're on a Mission from God and Real Love, and also writes a regular, syndicated column for various publications. She has developed numerous videos, including her brand-newest video series, also entitled Real Love. Her video Sex and Love: What's a Teenager to Do? was awarded the 1996 Crown Award for Best Youth Curriculum.

Mary Beth holds a bachelor's degree in Organizational Communication from the University of San Francisco, and a master's degree in Theology of Marriage and Family from the John Paul II Institute at Lateran University. She was also awarded an honorary doctorate in Communications from the Franciscan University of Steubenville, and is listed in Outstanding Young Women of America for 1997. Her apostolate, Real Love Incorporated is dedicated to presenting the truth about the Church's teaching about sexuality, chastity, and marriage.

Visit the Insight Scoop Blog and read the latest posts and comments by IgnatiusInsight.com staff and readers about current events, controversies, and news in the Church!