Violence and aggression are never signs of love or affection.
When girls get teased, harassed, or bullied by boys, there’s often someone who pulls out this tired phrase: "I bet he likes you!" Many women have vivid memories of being told that by adult authorities when they were young and the same phrase pops up seemingly everywhere, including children's literature and movies. In recent years, however, people have started reexamining the toxic message this often well-intentioned phrase sends. Barbara Dee, author of Maybe He Just Likes You, a new middle grade book tackling this issue, says "I spent a lot of time following the #MeToo stories that were everywhere in the news. I began wondering: Where does this behavior come from?... Those words — 'maybe he just likes you' — are so familiar and so dangerous." In this blog post, we'll explore how this phase teaches both girls and boys to normalize unhealthy relationships — and denies them the chance to have the fulfilling, respectful friendships and romantic relationships they deserve.
The first problem with "I bet he likes you" is obvious: it teaches kids that mean or aggressive behavior towards another person is an acceptable way to show affection. That's a troublesome message, especially given the high rate of teen girls and women who report dating violence: loveisrespect, an organization dedicated to educating young people about abusive relationships, reports that "girls and young women between the ages of 16 and 24 experience the highest rate of intimate partner violence — almost triple the national average." Jess Adler, program director for the peer leadership program Start Strong Boston, says, "It can be really confusing. If a young girl talks about how some boy is teasing her at school, her guardians and teachers will often say 'oh, that just means they like you…. That's putting the women in the position of 'Okay, it's okay for me to be treated that way.'"
Brushing off this behavior teaches boys negative messages too, Adler points out: "It's also kind of giving assent to guys that are kind of picking on somebody to get their attention." When you wave off this behavior, it's a wasted opportunity to teach boys healthy ways to express their emotions and the importance of respecting the girls in their lives. In fact, Al Vernacchio, author of For Goodness Sex: Changing the Way We Talk to Teens About Sexuality, Values, and Health argues in his TED Talk that the way we talk to kids about relationships of all sorts gives boys tacit permission to cross boundaries with girls: "you're with two opposing teams, one playing offense, one playing defense…. It's competitive. It's goal-directed. And it can't result in healthy sexuality developing in young people or in adults."
Another problem with dismissing this behavior is that kids need to know it's all right to separate themselves from someone who has been aggressive or mean, and that refusing to play with someone is a valid response to being hurt. Jennifer Kalita, a women's advocate in Washington, DC, suggests explaining this to kids with simple phrases like: "We don't solve our problems with our hands or our feet, and it's not safe to play with people who do." With older kids, parenting and youth development expert Deborah Gilboa recommends that the discussion include questions like: "What’s a ‘friend deal-breaker’? What might someone say or do that would make you realize they’re not actually your friend?" Ultimately, such discussions can help kids understand that no one should accept being injured by another, whether physically or emotionally, as a normal part of a relationship.
Saying "I bet he likes you" also has another troubling implication, which is that the only possible relationship between a girl and a boy is romantic. But that's simply not true: as both children and adults, people of every gender will be their classmates, colleagues, neighbors, and more. If bad behavior from a boy is immediately associated with romantic feelings, however, kids will believe that relationships between girls and boys are inherently different than same-sex interactions. That's why girl-boy friendships are particularly important for kids' development, argues author and family life expert Lynne Griffin: "Encouraging healthy boy/girl friendships is the best way you can teach your child about healthy adult relationships" — including friendships, romantic relationships, work relationships, and more. (For more about these benefits, and tips for fostering mixed-gender friendships, see our article The Hidden Benefits of Girl-Boy Friendships and How to Foster Them Between Children.)
Ultimately, how we respond to a boy being mean or aggressive toward a girl — including any unwanted attention that makes her uncomfortable — shows her whether we respect her right to set boundaries. In the past, few children were taught that they could establish their own limits, but today, there's growing understanding about the importance of teaching kids how to assert their autonomy, especially when it comes to their body. To do so, however, we need to stop repeating what we were taught and instead urge kids to act on their own judgement, whether we're letting them choose whether to hug someone or encouraging them to speak up if they're being interrupted. You can find scripts and scenarios to help kids practice these skills in the books such as Let's Talk About Body Boundaries, Consent, and Respect for ages 4 to 7, Stand Up For Yourself and Your Friends for ages 7 to 12, and Express Yourself: A Teen Girl's Guide to Speaking Up and Being Who You Are for ages 13 and up.
The messages implied by "maybe he likes you" are insidious, and they crop up all too often and in unexpected places; however, that doesn't mean we have to let this harmful phrase lie. Instead, we can provide our Mighty Girls with support when someone is harassing them, teach them that they don't have to accept anyone's poor behavior, and give them a model for setting the boundaries they need to feel safe. By doing so, we can raise a generation that knows how to advocate for themselves and how to be respectful of their peers' boundaries — setting both girls and boys up for a lifetime of healthier relationships of every kind.
Books About Boundaries and Healthy Relationships
It's important for kids to understand that bodies have boundaries, and that everyone has a right to their own personal space. Jayneen Sanders, an experienced early years educator, provides simple and familiar scenarios — from giving a hug to pushing to get to the front of a line — to illustrate how "body bubbles" surround everyone and how to figure out when and if it's okay to cross those boundaries. Throughout, she empowers kids to speak up if their body boundaries have been crossed. Notes at the end include suggestions for adults reading the book with kids to further the discussion, building an understanding of respect and consent that will serve them throughout their lives.
Kids can find confidence and courage in knowing they control their own body! This book teaches body safety skills, from understanding and knowing how to act on feeling uncomfortable with someone's behavior, to respecting body boundaries, to knowing your body — including private parts — by proper anatomical names, to building a support network you can count on when you need to talk. Throughout, kids are taught essential body safety skills that will help keep them safe as children, and help them grow up to be assertive and confident teenagers and adults. For another excellent title by the same author, check out No Means No: Teaching Children About Personal Boundaries, Respect, and Consent.
This book from the American Girl Library is a great starting point for tweens looking for advice on dealing with bullies. Rather than telling girls that there is a “right” way to handle a bully, this book gives a variety of different options, from ignoring taunts to comebacks to involving adults, as well as advice as to how to decide which strategy to use. The book acknowledges that not all mean behavior is necessarily malicious, though, and also provides a guide to knowing how to stand up to a friend who is behaving badly without being mean yourself.
The tween years are when many girls start thinking about romantic relationships — but without guidance, it's hard for them to know what a good relationship should look like. In this updated guide from the American Girl Library, girls will get sensitive and honest advice from both girls and boys about being friends versus dating; what it's like to go out with someone; and what to do when you're not interested in someone or when it's time for a relationship to end. Throughout, the book emphasizes confidence and reminds girl that the right person will treat you well, make you feel safe, and appreciate you for who you are.
When Mila wears a fuzzy green sweater to school one day, and suddenly, several boys insist on hugging her, even when she doesn't want to. Before long, there are smirks, comments about her body, and more unwanted touching that leaves Mila feeling confused, frustrated, and a little scared. But when she talks to her friends about it, one tells her that she's being immature for overreacting to the boys "just flirting" – after all, she says, maybe he just likes you. Fortunately, a few new friends and a confidence boost from karate classes help her figure out how to set boundaries, stand up for herself, and seek out the adult support she needs to put an end to the harassment. Timely and important, this empowering book draws a clear line between wanted, reciprocal flirtation and Mila's experience, and explores issues of sexual harassment in a manner relatable to middle grade readers.
With sex education today often leaving young adults ill-equipped to make safe decisions, they often turn to peers, the Internet, and the media, where they receive problematic messages about sex: boys are studs, girls are sluts; real sex should be like porn; hookups are better than relationships. In this book, sexuality educator Al Vernacchio offers a progressive and realistic approach that challenges traditional teaching models and instead embraces 21st century realities by promoting healthy sexuality, values, and body image in young people. Filled with real-life examples from the classroom, exercises and quizzes, and a wealth of sample discussions and crucial information, For Goodness Sex offers the tools and insights adults need to talk young people and help them develop healthy values and safe habits.
"He doesn't mean to hurt me — he just loses control." "He can be sweet and gentle." "He's scared me a few times, but he never hurts the children — he's a great father..." Women in abusive relationships tell themselves these things every day. Now they can see inside the minds of angry and controlling men — and change their own lives. In this groundbreaking book, Lundy Bancroft, a counselor who specializes in working with abusive men, uses his thirty years of experience to break down the early warning signs of abuse, ten abusive personality types, what you can fix and what you can't fix in a relationship, and how to get out of an abusive relationship safely. This powerful book is an invaluable resource to help women better understand the thinking of abusive men, recognize when they are being controlled or devalued, and find ways to get free of an abusive relationship.
After surviving the heartbreak of her daughter being killed by a boyfriend, Vicki Crompton decided she had to raise her voice and educate the public about dating violence. In this book, she teams up with writer Ellen Zelda Kessner to provide specific and easily applicable tactics to address the problem, including what to say before she starts dating; how to identify an unhealthy relationship as it grows; and how to break the cycle of control while still keeping lines of communication open. Full of real stories from girls and their parents, as well as strategies from psychologists, this book passionately lays out the case for ensuring that everyone takes a hand in ending domestic and dating violence for good. For another parenting book on the same topic, check out But I Love Him: Protecting Your Teen Daughter from Controlling, Abusive Relationships.