The most widespread and visible manifestation of childhood sexuality comes in the form of what adults commonly refer to as “crushes”: An erotic fascination a child develops toward a particular person.
What are crushes?
Crushes are essentially little micro-bursts of romantic desire. Kids develop a strong infatuation with a particular person, idolizing them and becoming fascinated by everything they do. This is typically accompanied by all the tell-tale signs of physical lust: They usually experience a strong desire to kiss, hug, touch, snuggle, cuddle, nuzzle, or be close to that person. If a child is older or has knowledge of s. behavior, these feelings may also manifest in the form of s. fantasies. Young children may not understand these feelings or know what they are experiencing, but essentially they are having a sexual response toward a particular person.
Is it normal for kids to get crushes?
Quite normal. In fact, it’s far rarer for children +not+ to experience crushes throughout their childhood. By the time they’ve reached the latter grades of elementary school, most children will have had a series of crushes on adults or other children. (Broderick, 1961)
At what age do children start to get crushes?
Children can experience crushes at just about any age, but they first typically begin to emerge in earnest sometime between the ages of four and seven. This is typically the age when sexual desire starts to emerge in noticeable ways, and children first become aware of their sexual orientation.
Is it normal for a child to have a crush on an adult?
Completely normal. Contrary to the ideas promoted by society, love and lust frequently transcend age boundaries, and it’s quite common for children and teens to have romantic crushes on adults. In fact, I’d wager that the majority of childhood crushes are directed at an adult or older youth, and that it’s more common for children to get crushes on someone much older than it is for them to have crushes on same-age peers.
Many of these crushes revolve around celebrities – actors, musicians, TV hosts, or YouTube personalities. Others feature people a child knows in real life. The object of a child’s crush might be a family friend, a neighbor, an older brother or sister of a friend, or the parent of one of their peers. And of course, children have been getting crushes on their teachers for as long as teachers have been around.
“When I was five or six, there was a high school girl, Mona Dollar, who went to the same church we did,” says musician Jamey Johnson. “And man, I thought she hung the moon.” Another little boy, around 9 years old or so, confessed that “I saw Katy Perry on Idol, and now she’s my crush.” He proceeded to ask the host of the show if he might know Katy’s phone number, excited at the prospect of sparking up a relationship. (NBC, Little Big Sots, 3-2-2020)
Swimmer Dara Torres says her 6-year-old daughter Tessa Grace “Came running into the room shouting, ‘I LOVE JUSTN BEIBER!” (Parenting, July 2012, p. 14) Singer Kelly Clarkson reports that her 4-year-old daughter, River, has a massive crush on Chris Martin. “I have informed her, he is not a boy anymore and has kids older than her but she will have none of it, she is determined,” Clarkson says. (US Weekly, Aug. 27, 2018, p. 10) A 5-year-old girl on America’s Got Talent confesses her love for Frank Sinatra, saying, “He’s just so classy and handsome.” (AGT, NBC, 7-24-2018)
“As a girl, I was obsessed with the program 20/20 – especially with the co-anchor Hugh Downs,” says actress Brit Marling. “I thought I was going to marry Hugh Downs for a really long time. He was so dignified. …They just don’t do newsman like him anymore.” (W Mag., Aug. 2017, p. 56) Cat Deeley, host of So You Think You Can Dance, says “My first crush was Magnum, P.I. – I was 4 and I’d say to my mom, ‘Isn’t Magnum, P.I. a lovely man?” (US Weekly, 8-21-2017, p. 72) Actress Connie Britton shared this infatuation with Tom Selleck: “The short shorts. The floral shirts. He was a sexual fantasy. I actually auditioned to play his wife in something. I remember thinking, No, Tom Selleck was a grown-up when I was a little girl. So that didn’t happen.” (W Mag., vol. 4, 2019)
Actress Jameela Jamil’s childhood crush was Ted Danson – a man nearly 50 years older than she. “As a young girl, I always fancied Ted!” she says. “Is that creepy? Am I creepy? But, my Lord, he’s still so hot.” (ibid) Emma Baty says she experienced ” a major sexual awakening” while watching Brad Pitt in Mr. & Ms. Smith. She would have been around 5-years-old at the time. (Baty, 2020)
Actor Alexander Skarsgard says, “My first crush was Jessica Lange in Tootsie. I was maybe 8 or 9 when I first saw the movie, and I had never felt anything for a girl before that. I was just mesmerized by her. I watched the film over and over again because of Jessica Lange. I’m still not over her.” (W Mag., Aug. 2017, p. 56)
Primatologist Jane Goodall had a childhood crush on Tarzan, and “was jealous that he married the wrong Jane.” (Goodall, 2017) News host Megyn Kelly went so far as to try to get John Travolta’s phone number from information when she was 7. (US Weekly, Nov. 20, 2017, p. 72) Actress Millie Bobby Brown, of Stranger Things fame, confessed an adolescent crush on then 40-year-old Leonardo DiCaprio. She tried to seek him out at an awards ceremony, only to be disappointed when it turns out he wasn’t there. (W Mag., 2018, Vol. 4) On the 2020 season of World of Dance, one young dancer, probably around 18-20 years old, discloses that she’s had a serious crush on one of the judges “since I was 5-years-old.”
This is just a sampling of the different types of crushes kids experience. We could fill an entire book with stories like these if we wanted to. So if your child has a similar infatuation, it is almost certainly within the range of what’s normal.
How long do childhood crushes last?
Most childhood crushes are relatively short-lived affairs. They come and they go, usually lasting a matter of months. That said, some can be quite long-lived and go on for years, or last all throughout childhood. There are also occasions when childhood crushes never go away and turn into something more. You’ll sometimes find married people who have been sweethearts since kindergarten, or encounter cases where a boy or girl was crushing on someone older than them, and the pair then started dating as soon as the younger one came of age. But most childhood infatuations will last 6 months to a year, before the interest wanes or they move onto someone new.
Crushes on mommy or daddy
Young children (3-7) often behave as though they have a crush on their parents. They may express a desire to marry their mother or father, or show affection in overtly sensual ways. The parent-child relationship can be a very intimate and affectionate one to begin with, and kids being sexual creatures, they’re naturally drawn toward cross-gender affection. Which is the reason for phrases like “Momma’s boy” or “Daddy’s girl.”
This is perfectly normal and nothing to worry about. Don’t make a big deal out of it and it’s bound to subside with time. It certainly doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with your child.
What should you do if a child develops a crush on someone?
Childhood crushes are a normal and healthy part of your child’s development. So there’s no need to do anything at all. In fact, go ahead and play along with your little one, asking questions or inquiring about what they like about this person. Not only will it validate your child, it’s a great way to get a closer glimpse at their developing personality. Cherish these developments just like you would any other novel experience related to their growth.
There’s certainly no need to “put a child in their place” or lecture them on how they’re just a silly little kid and it would never happen. When kids dream of being a princess or superhero, do you come along and crush these fantasies by scolding them for how foolish and unrealistic these ideas are? Of course not. You let them dream and exercise their fantasies, knowing that these thoughts bring them joy while facilitating their social and emotional development. It shouldn’t be any different here.
Along the same lines, you shouldn’t tease kids about their crushes nor shame them for having these feelings. You certainly shouldn’t make it seem like they are doing something wrong. Many adults instinctively do this because they’re taught it’s their duty to impede their child in all matters sex. Father’s are especially inclined to guilt trip their daughters, since they feel it’s their job to “mate guard” their girls and leap into action to put up a roadblock at the first sign of romance. But all this does is annoy your child while giving them a guilt complex. It also shuts down communication and teaches them to hide such interests from you.
Another thing parents often do if they suspect their child has a crush on a real-life person is try to sabotage or tone-down that relationship. They may start scolding a child for giving that person hugs or being too affectionate. They may tease, reprimand, or otherwise embarrass them in front of this person. If it’s another child they may start closely monitoring play. Don’t do any of these things. Leave them be.
If you’re the object of a child’s crush
So what should you do if a child has a crush on you? In most situations there’s no need to do anything. If it’s obvious a child is crushing on you but they are otherwise expressing their feelings in childlike ways, just let things be. Don’t make a fuss about it or call them out, and continue interacting as you normally would.
Other times, however, a child may press the issue, either by professing their love for you as Veda does toward her teacher in My Girl, or by making sexual overtures toward you. Unfortunately, many adults handle these situations extremely poorly. (For a cinematic example of the insensitive ways people often respond, see what Reese Withrspoon’s character endures in the movie Man in the Moon. Unfortunately, most real-life youngsters aren’t nearly so resilient.)
Because of the strong social taboo that surrounds the idea of sexual relationships between adults and children, such situations can put the older person on the defensive, making them feel self-conscious and embarrassed. Some might get offended or even feel angry. But reacting in such a way takes a machete to a child’s fragile self-esteem, slicing and dicing until there’s very little left.
Don’t do this. Instead, try to walk that delicate middle line between validating a child as someone worthy of your affections without leading them on or giving the impression that a romance with you is an actual possibility. You want to gently let them down while also affirming their worth and desirability as a person:
You’re such a beautiful girl, and I’m flattered that you would think of me like that. But I’m afraid it can never be.
If only I hadn’t been born too soon, we might have had something.
Any girl would be lucky to have you, but I’m afraid it’s just not in the cards given our present situation.
It’s such a shame I’m so much older and already hitched.
That’s an enticing proposition, but I’m afraid it’s also illegal. We’ll have to make do with being friends.
Most of all, if a child does come on to you or profess their love, don’t make it weird afterwards. Let them down gently, but don’t suddenly pull away or start withholding your affection. If they make themselves vulnerable like this and then you start ghosting them afterwards, it’s going to instill a complex that isn’t easily removed.
There’s no reason to make it weird or blow things out of proportion. Crushes are based in fantasy more than reality. They are a child’s dress rehearsal for the type of romantic relationships that will come later. Regard them as such. It may feel “weird” knowing a child thinks of you in such a way, but so what? Even in those cases where a child openly propositions you, it’s not like they have a well-thought-out plan for what comes afterwards. It’s a role-playing exercise; their attempt to tease a fantasy. Go ahead and let them play make-believe if they’d like, secure in the knowledge that their feelings toward you are a healthy part of their development.