Playing A Game Of… Playground Romance

Playing A Game Of... Playground Romance

It should not be news. But yes, women and men CAN be just friends.

And I say this without making reference to the dreaded male ego-punch of the ‘friend zone’ (in which men who have never offered anything but friendship expect that it will earn them our love and then get annoyed when we’re not mind-readers). A little boy and a little girl can be friends.

Something suddenly occurred to me yesterday, while I was on a long car journey in the rain. My first ‘boyfriend’ was when I was in year two (age 6-7 for any non-Brits). It wasn’t what anyone could call a relationship now that we’re older and wiser, but it involved the sort of furtive hand holding before Assembly and writing love letters in big felt tip pens that always ripped through the paper onto the table and let the person who sat in your seat next know that you LOVE [NAME].

Aside from the hand holding, the notes and the occasional peck on the… hand, what did I do with that first ‘love’, and any subsequent youthful games of romance that I didn’t do with my friends? Come to think of it: nothing. We still played games of tiggy it. We still played pretend games in which, inspired by a brilliant supply teacher, we pretended to be apprentice workers at a Victorian cotton mill in the heart of the industrial revolution. We still went to each other’s birthday parties, except when a girl went to a boys’ party (or a boy to a girls’) the parent had a minor panic attack about the suitability of party favours and pass the parcel prizes (as boys invariably got little water guns and girls some form of plastic jewellery).

When I was a little older (I could not have been more than eight) I bumped into one of these boyfriends whilst out on a family trip. I giggled and promptly introduced him as ‘my boyfriend’. The grandparents shared that knowing look, my younger sister giggled more. As far as I recall, he did not explain who I was to his family.

And thinking back, on that rainy journey on motorway going nowhere, I realised something. I had often thought that I had more male best friends than female all the way back to that obscure point in my childhood in which a magical switch was flipped. Hadn’t it been, in that infant playground pretending we were spinning cotton, a girl who crawled under my imaginary machine to remove stuck fibres? Hadn’t it been, in the longest-seeming assembly in which the head teacher ranted over a subject I still don’t appreciate, a girl who whispered jokes back to me? And hadn’t it been, every day until I first arrived at the high school gates, a girl who had been the first person I thought to tell a secret?

If I had known back then what I knew now, I would have been a very different little girl. My first boyfriend wouldn’t have been announced until I had an actual reciprocated romantic feeling for a boy. Those boyfriends were just that. Boys + Friends. Friends of a different gender, whom I wanted to spend equal time with and appreciate for their own qualities but, for some unknown reason, felt compelled to lie about and claim I loved them to be allowed that time.

Lately, whenever I realise that something that is commonly accepted could be damaging to a child, I think of my own child or of future generations and think that we should try and improve our world as best we can for them. I never bothered thinking that, perhaps, the generation before me should have corrected me when I was small and told me that it was okay to be friends with a boy without pretending I wanted to kiss him. My childhood could have been a different place.

Photo: If only early childhood was more like Sesame Street