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Behaviour - Dating game hits the playground

Study finds that young children feel under pressure to pair up

Study finds that young children feel under pressure to pair up

It is a familiar predicament: the pressure to couple up when everyone around you is in a relationship. Meanwhile, the terminally single worry that not having a partner means there is something wrong with them. Others put up with bad behaviour from their partners out of fear of being dumped.

But while those might be problems familiar to teenagers at school, children as young as 10 are now also under enormous pressure to have a girlfriend or boyfriend, research has found.

"Many boys and girls had little choice but to participate in. a variety of practices, such as `fancying', `dating' and `dumping'," writes Professor Emma Renold, from Cardiff University.

This is particularly the case in children's final year of primary school, her research shows: "Children described their participation as compulsory and as a cycle of endless `going out and dumping' that was subject to peer scrutiny and evaluation."

Researchers interviewed 125 children, all between the ages of 10 and 12. Several spoke about being under pressure to turn any boy-girl friendship into a boyfriend-girlfriend relationship. "At my primary school, you just had to go out with someone," 11-year-old Nico said. "It was a virtual rule. If you had a girlfriend, you were marked out as cool. If you didn't, you were a chav."

And 12-year-old Jared said that he was called "strange" by his classmates because he was best friends - rather than boyfriend and girlfriend - with Alice. "So, in the end, we made up a lie that we were cousins," he said.

In response to this pressure, girls will often go out with boys they do not actually like, while others avoid dumping "boyfriends" so as not to hurt their feelings. "Boys will say, `Well, go out with me or I will hate you,'" said 10-year-old Maisy. "And then the girls will get scared and they will go out with them."

And girls regularly interpret boys' abusive behaviour as a form of flirtation. "The playground monitors go, `The more boys hit you and chase you, the more they love you,'" said 10-year-old Kayley.

For boys, having a girlfriend confers "social status and popularity", the research shows. As a result, they will harass girls, asking them out repeatedly, or even send them abusive text messages.

Many girls also feel under pressure to dress fashionably. "I think natural is best, but you cannot go to school without make-up," said 11-year-old Hayley.

But despite popular tabloid fears about the premature sexualisation of children, most girls are ambivalent about being seen as sexy. Asked how she would react if a boy called her "sexy", 11-year-old Anwyn said: "I'd feel weird. I'd be, like, `Quick, get me a jumper'."

The academics' report calls on schools to recognise the realities of children's experiences. It also recommends offering counselling in primary schools. "Children and young people should be provided with clear information about equality and diversity issues, relationships and where they can go for advice and support about worries and concerns on these issues," the study says.

Jon Brown, of children's charity the NSPCC, which commissioned the research with the Children's Commissioner for Wales, said children faced influences today "that weren't there 10 or 15 years ago".

"The constraints on girls - what they feel they can and can't do, and how they should and shouldn't act - are coming through a drip-drip feed, from what they see online, in music videos and in games," he said.

"We're very keen for the government to take a more strident view on gender equality. There are huge opportunities to integrate counter-sexist messages into the curriculum."

"Girls and boys speak out: a qualitative study of children's gender and sexual cultures (age 10-12)" is available at bit.lyBoysGirlsSpeakOut.

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