<p>My mother had told me that name-calling was love and hair-pulling was affection. </p>
In primary school, after telling my mum about a standard playground spat, she told me something I’ve never forgotten: “He’s probably just mean because he likes you. That’s just something that boys your age do.”
My mum worked actively to make me a strong, resilient woman. So I can only assume that she didn’t understand the harm of her words at the time. No doubt phrases like this become so rooted in parenting that no one stops to think about them.
But shouldn’t we?
At the time, I was encouraged by her words. I felt I had been given a rare insight into the psyche of boys – a rule book, of sorts. That was, until I grew older and began to consider what that attitude actually meant.
My mother had told me to expect abuse from someone who liked me. She had told me that name-calling was love and hair-pulling was affection. In that moment, any complaints I had about my own mistreatment were overridden because I was desired.
I wonder: at what point does the belief that ‘he’s mean because he likes you’ stop?
Those who might disagree with me would say that even in adulthood, light teasing is all part-and-parcel of flirtation. Of course it is – I guarantee it’ll be on any ‘how to tell if he likes you’ listicle you can find. But being taught early in childhood that abuse and humiliation are equal to love certainly doesn’t help anyone to create appropriate boundaries.
In fact, it’s childhood lessons like this that can grow up with a person, eventually leading to ‘he hits you because he loves you’.
Well that’s exactly what 18-year-old vlogger Romina Garcia was promoting to her fans in 2014, in a video that has been viewed more than 375,000 times. “If your boyfriend or the guy that you’re with… hits you or beats you up or whatever he does, stay with him,” she told followers. “He’s risking all… for you.”
The response is so entrenched that it’s a staple reaction to any interaction between young children of different genders – even if that interaction crosses over into the sinister.
American mother Merritt Smith found this when her four-year-old daughter, who had been hit so hard by a boy in her school that she needed stitches, was told by a hospital employee: “he must really like you!”.
These might be severe cases but they are indicative of a dangerous sentiment in how parents talk about children interacting with one another. A sentiment that teaches girls, often without their parents noticing, that abuse equals love. A sentiment that will sit unaddressed in their psyche, a very much un-benign tumor, unless the problem is brought to light.
In the utterance of a single, common phrase, girls are taught that abuse is affection and boys are taught that affection is abuse.
This harms young boys too. Firstly, they are engaging in bad behaviour – teasing, pestering, physically and verbally mistreating another child – and having their behaviour justified, rather than addressed and punished. The Australian Psychological Society has warned parents to always “be consistent in applying consequences”.
There is always a limit when it comes to telling what behaviour is inappropriate; but when you don’t apply the same consequences to meanness and violence, and dismiss all negative intersex behaviour as childhood flirting, children will never learn what is inappropriate.
Secondly, in these situations, young boys are learning how to interact with the opposite sex. They experiment with their attraction, try different actions to discover how they are expected to relate to the other gender. Psychologist Jessie Prinz found that men are not biologically predisposed to violence and that it is in fact generally historical factors that have lead to the majority of male violence.
I’m certain there are many factors that can lead a person to be cruel or violent in romance but when adults are actually telling children ‘he’s mean because he likes you’, what else are boys expected to do to display their affection? It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. They are taught that simply being gentle and kind is unmanly. In the utterance of a single, common phrase, girls are taught that abuse is affection and boys are taught that affection is abuse.
Clearly, the parents, teachers and other adults in a child’s life don’t intend this fallout. No one wants a child to blur the boundaries between mistreatment and love. It’s a phrase that’s stuck around from a time when the ideal man was burly and rough and physical, and the ideal woman was submissive and quiet. It sounds stupid because it is. Children can’t understand the implications of this term until they’re older, if at all, so it’s we adults who need to understand.
This sort of nonsense needs to be addressed in childhood, in real time – in the playground, the classroom, the family gathering, the home. We need to accept that children will be rough and will experiment with how to display emotion, but we cannot explain it away as affection or they will too. Psychologist Lisa Kaplin explains that we should make it clear to children that punching, hitting and other forms of abuse are not about love. “We should explain that it is about control.”
So this is a reminder for the next time you are in a position to deal with teasing or bullying, or if you hear a child being told ‘they’re mean because they like you’. No need to be a dick about it but step right in with the conflict resolution that will teach these kids that there is no place for humiliation or violence. Don’t bring any of this romantic crap in unless they do.
Early intervention with this kind of rhetoric is a step toward preventing grown-up problems like domestic abuse, emotional repression, inability to communicate romantically, low self-esteem and mistreatment of women.
It’s hard to accept that your loved ones might be harming you when they don’t mean to. I struggled for a long time with the knowledge that my mum might have given me such potentially damaging advice. What would have happened if I wasn’t able to evaluate the underlying meaning of what I’d been told? How many people are becoming adults with this advice in mind? It’s questions like these that show us why it’s so important to call out this social trap.