Chances are, if you grew up in the eighties or nineties, you heard this sentence – “He’s mean to you because he likes you!” Realistically, if you grew up before or after then, you probably heard it too, as it seems to be a sentiment that just won’t die already.
I heard it. I can remember being bothered and teased by boys at school, and when I complained, I was told not to worry about it because that was the way boys showed they liked you. I heard it from my parents. I heard it from other adults.
I heard it on TV too. How many episodes of kids shows portrayed a young boy either annoying a girl mercilessly, teasing her, being generally nasty, or even physically hurting her, and it was resolved by the end of the show that it was just because he liked her. Sometimes she came to a realization that she liked him too, and looked past that garbage. Sometimes she decided she didn’t, which usually resulted in further annoyance by the boy in future story archs, because no wasn’t enough.
I knew it was bullshit when it was said to me, even as a child. Not because I thought of the implications from such an association, but because it felt ridiculous to think that these boys had any kind feelings towards me whatsoever. And they didn’t.
I suppose the objective in telling me this was to mitigate some of the hurt I was feeling and preserve my self-esteem. If they were doing it because they liked me, I should be flattered not offended, I suppose. It meant there wasn’t anything wrong with me, I hadn’t done something to bring about such cruelty, it was simply those love-sick boys who didn’t know how to show their affection yet.
Part of that is right. I didn’t do anything to bring about such cruelty. But there was nothing affectionate about it. The whole idea of it confused me a lot. How was I supposed to know if someone genuinely had a crush on me? Was it the meanest kid? If a boy was nice to me, did that mean anything?
I don’t doubt that, in many cases, this horrible statement is true. I’m sure some children, boys and girls alike, do try to gain attention from their crushes by treating them poorly. Any attention is better than being ignored - even if it’s negative - is the rationale.
But we need to stop treating it as normal and acceptable, even if it is common. Think about the implications of making an association between cruelty, or even acts of physical violence ,and “he does that because he likes you.”
If children are taught at five or eight or ten that this is a sign of affection, what are they to think at fifteen or twenty when the person they are in a relationship with, or wish to be, treats them poorly? What about if their partner hits them, and then tries to make it up to them after by proclaiming their love?
We ask why women stay with abusers. How can they think that someone who hurts them can really love them? Perhaps one reason is that they were told from a young age that it was normal to be hurt by people who love you. We were told it was expected and flattering even to have someone feel so passionately about you they couldn’t contain it.
While this sentiment is usually reserved for girls, about boys, it applies to everyone. Not all little girls will grow to like boys. Not all little boys will grow to like girls. Sometimes the abuser is female. Sometimes it’s a friendship or a different relationship than a romantic one. No one should accept meanness as a sign of affection or admiration.
I refuse to let my two boys make this association. It is never okay to be cruel, whether you like someone or not. If you are seeking attention, do it with an act of kindness. If your advances are rebuffed, accept it graciously and move on. It isn’t an invitation to push harder or retaliate.
Let’s make sure our children know that abuse and meanness are never a form of love. Period.