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First comes love, then comes … wait a minute!!

Eyes grew huge around the dinner table as my son made his announcement.

“I have a Valentine … Maybe it’s a girlfriend … Yeah. It’s a girlfriend.”

My heart raced in a decidedly non-Hallmark direction. I felt pure panic when I heard that my second-grader might have eyes for a girl — or that a girl might like him.

Has the word “boyfriend” or “girlfriend” come up at your house yet? What was your reaction? “Innocent childhood stuff,” or “You’re staying home until you’re 18?”

Somehow I kept a straight face when I asked my sonwhat “Valentine” and “girlfriend” meant to him. He wasn’t sure, except that everyone had one, and he thought this particular girl was “the most interesting choice.”

Unsure what felt appropriate, I had a great discussion with our school counselor about these matters. Her advice for parents’ initial reactions: “I’m so glad you told me.” “How did that make you feel?” And, “It’s nice to admire someone for good qualities.”

When discussions of the opposite sex come up with your kids, considering their maturity levels and showing respect for any child being discussed is crucial. This probably isn’t the time to launch into a birds-and-bees talk. It’s also not a time for teasing or making snap judgments. Your overreactions can scare your child out of confiding in you.

Instead, let your child do most of the talking to find out what’s truly being said. My first-grader was upset recently about hearing girls “use a bad word.” Turns out, he didn’t know what “sassy” meant.

What a great discussion, and a lesson in restraint for me as I considered what level of “sassy” to address.

As parents, we set up a belief system with our words, actions, media preferences and openness. A lack of thoughtful conversation about the opposite gender also can form kids’ beliefs. Friends and commercials will fill in your gaps!

So is it appropriate to have a boyfriend or girlfriend in elementary school? Well, obviously dating is out, and according to most elementary school codes of conduct, so is everything else that adults would associate with those words — even hand-holding. My counselor friend said that if your child talks about kissing games or physical contact, talk to the teacher immediately. Safe personal space is non-negotiable. Here are some additional tips:

Set your own family code of conduct now, and stick to it.

Think through what you want them to be saying in a couple of years (or not saying). What’s cute for a preschooler to say sounds very different a few years later. If you’re encouraging “boyfriend talk,” you’re normalizing it. Same with using terms like “hot” or “chick.” They stick.

Explain to your children that their feelings aren’t bad.

And tell them it’s OK to like all types of people. Being dismissive of them “liking” someone may make your child feel dismissed. Take feelings to heart, even if you don’t take them too seriously.

Not all kids, or their parents, are ready for more mature steps.

So keeping things at a friendship level for now is preferred and less likely to result in hurt feelings or distractions to learning.

Know what your kids are seeing on TV.

Like second-hand smoke, commercials for shows we’d never dream of letting them watch can float in and make impressions about what’s OK to do and say.

Above all keep listening, and let your family’s values be what speaks loudest to your kids.

How to talk with your child about the opposite gender

Listen actively

Pay attention to what your elementary kids are doing and saying. Don’t overreact to or over-talk every comment your child makes.

Talk it out

Discuss what it means to be a gentleman and a lady. Talk about how destructive gossip is. “She likes so-and-so” banter can turn hurtful.

Set Boundaries

Monitor play to ensure language/activities are appropriate. And identify polite and respectful words.

Immersed in a world of all things boy, writer and MOPS speaker Susan Besze Wallace prays often for the girls in her sons’ schools, and for her future daughters-in-law.

*This article originally appeared in the February 2014 issue of Hello, Dearest magazine. If you’re not current a member, register now to get a beautiful, inspirational mom mag in your mailbox every season.

How about you? Share with your MOMSnext friends about ways your family deals with the boyfriend/girlfriend issue. Are there areas you feel inadequate in this conversation?