I Let My Young Teens “Date”
Some of my children’s friends have started dating. We have told our daughter that we don’t want her to date. We will not allow her to have a boyfriend until she is 16. She thinks that we are mean and are trying to make her life miserable. Since you have a houseful of kids, I am wondering how you deal with this. What are your thoughts on younger teens dating?
Back when all of my children were small I always said that they could date once they were ready to get married. And I meant it. Based on my own life experiences I couldn’t see how it possibly could be a good thing. I wanted to protect them from being hurt.
As they have grown I have realized that there is no protecting children from being hurt. And that there are valuable lessons to be learned in all of our relationships, romantic and otherwise. And like so many other things that I was so certain about, I changed my mind.
Here are five reasons I let my children* date.
1) Define dating.
You may be surprised by what your 13, 14, or 15 yr old considers dating. To my ancient mind, the term dating conjures up images of unsupervised alone time. My young teen boys are perfectly happy having their “girlfriend” come over to the house and have dinner with the family and then watch movies or play games in the family room with the entire family. I can’t think of a single thing wrong with this.
2) Teens are going to do it anyway.
I know that many people think this is a horrible reason to allow your kids to do anything. Except that in this instance, I have seen time and time again parents who refuse to allow their kids to date and kids who lie, sneak around and do it anyway. Maybe you think your kids won’t lie to you, or disobey you, or sneak around and doing things behind your back, but I have been parenting long enough to know that they will. Choose the battles you know you can win. Join forces with them on the ones you can’t. Let them think that you are on their side.
3) You have more control.
They can’t drive yet. They can’t go anywhere without permission. Let them have their girlfriend or boyfriend over to the house while you are home. You will get to know the kid. Get to know the other kid’s parents and what his/her home life is like. Make plans to do things with the other family. I have gone to the movies with my son’s girlfriend’s family, out to casual dinners, the amusement park. Once they can drive they will be off going places and you probably won’t know where half the time.
4) Teens are still willing to listen to what you have to say.
The key is finding the way to say it so they will listen. One of my sons briefly had a girlfriend that was always angry at him for something. He never quite seemed to understand what he was doing wrong. To my credit, I didn’t once say, “Dump that drama queen!” The stakes at this younger age don’t seem as high. The emotional investment not as deep. It was much easier to help him realize that this girl was not really acting like a friend, which is the keypart of the word girl-friend.
A girlfriend or boyfriend should first and foremost be a friend. They should treat you the way a friend would treat you. There shouldn’t be arguing or jealousy or drama. You should have common interests and goals. This is a good age to point this out. Not just in boyfriend/girlfriend situations, but in all friendships. We may think our kids are perfect, but they are just learning to navigate this world and we need to remind them to be a kind and trustworthy friend and to expect the same.
5) It is a learning opportunity.
This is the one that I feel is the most important for our children to learn. They are laying out the blueprint for the path their future relationships will take. You wouldn’t let your teenager drive without some instruction, view this as relationship instructions.
At this age they are still very much under your control, supervision and guidance. In a few years they will be in high school and you will not be privy to much of the inner workings of their social lives. This is the perfect opportunity to teach them what being in a relationship with someone means.
As an example I’ll share this story. My 7th grade son and I were in the grocery store one day when he remarked that some purple flowers were his girlfriend’s favorite color. I asked him if he thought he would like to buy them for her. (They are $5 a bunch, hardly a huge expenditure.) He looked at me like I had just suggested he dance naked in the checkout aisle.
Apparently it would be weird. I don’t presume to understand the inner-workings of a middle school aged boy’s mind, so I dropped the subject. A few days later he had oral surgery and his girlfriend came over with balloons and ice cream for him. This was the perfect opportunity to bring up how it made him feel to have someone do something spontaneously nice for him. I never mentioned the flowers, but brought up the point that we do special things for special people in our lives–family and friends.
Later that week we were grocery shopping again– I swear I live there at the grocery store– and when he saw the flowers he asked if he could buy a bouquet. I don’t know that I have seen anything recently that I more wanted to take a photo of than him standing at his girlfriend’s front door, holding the bouquet behind his back. He told me later that she was so happy and in turn it made him so happy.
Not only are you teaching them how to treat future girlfriends and eventually a spouse, but they are learning how to expect to be treated.
My son’s girlfriend’s mother called me that night and said that her daughter told her that if they ever break up he will be a tough act for any other boy to follow because he is so kind to her. I think that is the sort of thing we all hope for as parents, on both sides–to hear your child is kind or to hear that your child expect kindness.
I am curious about all the other parents of teenagers, soon-to-be-teens, survived-the-teen-years think? How have you handled the idea of dating in your home? Do you have rules? Is there an appropriate age carved in stone at your house?
*Before middle school “dating” is basically telling everyone that you are “going out” and then consistently ignoring the other person to the point that no one would ever believe you two even know each other, let alone are boyfriend and girlfriend. I pretty much ignore all references to girlfriends and boyfriends at that age and I absolutely do not encourage it. No phone calls, no texting, nothing.
Published March 26, 2012. Last updated June 26, 2018.