Teen Dating: It Doesn’t Have To Be Scary
Got tweens/teens? We’re trying a new advice column here at Alpha Mom to address your questions for the older-kid crowd. We hope you enjoy! And if you have a question to submit, hit me up at alphamomteens[at]gmail[dot]com.
I would like to hear how your family handles teens and dating. What are the rules? What is the curfew? At what age was dating, one on one, allowed, if it is? How do their differences affect their romantic relationships, if you feel you can speak on that? How do you teach mutual respect of themselves and their partners in common dating situations? And how do you as a parent handle the ups and downs that accompany teen dating? I also wonder about your son being young but in an advanced grade and if that provides its challenges? Without the specific details or intent to pry, I’m very curious to hear your general guidelines on the subject.
I love this question, because I love talking about teen dating. Truly! It’s one of my favorite topics. I think the whole notion of your kids dating being scary and overwhelming is… well, unnecessary. Obviously everyone has to figure out their own beliefs in regard to this topic, but I happen to believe the opportunity to oversee and guide your children as they venture into more mature relationships is a good thing.
Let’s start with generalities. In general, I believe in a three-pronged approach:
1) Open communication: No topic is verboten in our house. None. I will talk to my kids about anything they want to discuss, and if I don’t know the answer to something, we’ll look it up together. I don’t happen to believe in the notion of anything sexual being “bad” or “dirty,” though of course I have my opinions on what’s appropriate both for their ages and in general (and part of open communication is me saying things to them like “some people believe…” and “I believe…”). Both of my children were raised with this open dialog; both of my children own very explicit (yet age-appropriate, if those two things can coexist) books about all things puberty and sex. Shame breeds poor decisions, in my opinion. You want to have a discussion of what, exactly, a blowjob involves? Okay, sure—but in addition to you ending up kind of embarrassed, you are going to listen to me talk about how penis-in-vagina is not the only thing that qualifies as sex (and why). My goal is for my children to understand that asking is better than not asking, and that they can come to me about anything. I know not everyone will be comfortable with this stance, but it works for us.
2) Understanding of responsibility: Romantic relationships are more complicated than friendships, and they require a greater degree of maturity and responsibility (again, in my opinion) to avoid ending in disaster (and, let’s face it, they may end in disaster, anyway). If you’re not mature enough to take reasonable steps to obtain both disease and pregnancy prevention, you’re not mature enough to be having sex. If you’re not mature enough to realize that “yay, same-sex means no pregnancy worries!” isn’t the same thing as “no worries,” you’re not mature enough to be having sex. If you’re not mature enough to discuss these things with your partner, you’re not mature enough to be having sex. If you’re not old enough to reasonably obtain a private place to do private things, hmmm, probably not old enough and responsible enough to be doing those things. And my favorite: Sexting is always a terrible idea! Etc. While “you must wait until marriage and a deity’s blessing” is not part of our belief system, “you must wait until you are comfortable, responsible, and have your own life together” is. I understand I can’t enforce these beliefs, necessarily, but it’s the framework I use. Intimacy is serious business, sex or no. Be responsible and take it seriously.
3) Consent on both sides: I know I’ve referenced this here before, but consent is a big part of what we talk about, and I love love love Laci Green’s Consent 101 video for older teens. Consent is not just an absence of “no,” but the presence of an enthusiastic “yes!” I think this is an important topic for both of my kids, and it’s extra important for them to understand that it goes both ways—it’s not just about making sure your partner is into it, but making sure that you are, too. We talk a lot about honoring your own comfort level and “because I love him/her” not being a good enough reason to doubt that. At the end of the day, consent is sexy (and pressure is not). Know yourself and know your partner… and then keep checking in to make sure nothing has changed.
So that’s the general stuff. Specifically? My kids don’t have a curfew, really, and that’s partly because they are often out ridiculously late with marching band (it’s not unusual for them not to return from an away game until 1:00 am) and partly because neither of them have ever asked to stay out “late” at anything other than a school event. Similarly, I never had to face a “Mom, I want to date!” when I felt like the kid in question was too young, so I never had to make that call. Philosophically I am averse to saying no and creating tension unless absolutely necessary; had my kids wanted to date when I felt they were “too young,” I would’ve said okay and then placed restrictions on when/where the kids could be together in such a way to feel comfortable that this “dating” was little more than “friendship and hand-holding.” (This seemed to be the norm for middle school relationships I observed in their circles, anyway.)
My son is fine with me writing about him in this context, and at nearly 16 doesn’t feel that he is ready to date. I am respectful of his choice, but we also talk about how being a good friend is good practice for being a good boyfriend, and maybe he will change his mind sooner than he thinks. He is young (both for his age and for his grade), but I don’t think that’s the impetus, here. He appreciates the “extra complications” dating may introduce in his life, and it’s simply not a priority for him right now. It helps, too, that most of his “nerd herd” is also not dating. He’s not an anomaly.
My daughter has, for the first time in my dozen years of writing online, asked me to exclude her from this topic. If I were a betting sort and given to hypotheticals, I would bet that hypothetically the Sturm und Drang of teenage girl dating is magnified by a hundred or so if you’re talking about a kid with additional issues… so… hypothetically… I would suggest a strong seatbelt and a lot of patience.
Again, hypothetically speaking, I would want to get to know any kid my child is interested in dating, and I would encourage them to spend lots of time at our house (read: under my watchful eye). I would also work at getting to know the other kid’s family situation to ascertain whether… shall we say… our families’ viewpoints were compatible. If, say, one of my kids was dating someone whose parents were never home, then my child would not be allowed to hang out at their house (but I would always have an open door here for them). Again, I believe saying “absolutely not” is a surefire recipe for rebellion, so absent true danger, all I feel comfortable doing is watching and waiting and talking. My kids are going to make poor decisions. My kids are going to get hurt. My kids are sometimes going to get their hearts broken. This is all part of life. My goal is to foster an environment that is as thoughtful and as safe as possible. (Also, not for nothing, but all of the crap we pulled as teens with “I’ll be at Debbie’s house” and then we were off somewhere else and Debbie would call if our parents called… hooray for cell phones with location tracking. That’s simply not an option, anymore.)
One last thing: I consider modeling an important component in this process, too. A big part of the reason I ended up divorced and then was willing to take the plunge at remarrying was not just me being all about me, but me wanting to make sure, first, that my kids didn’t have a poor model for relationships, and later, that they got to grow up with a good model. Dating isn’t just about the physical stuff. Loving someone changes everything, or at least it should. The kids see my husband and me working through day-to-day stuff with respect and love, sometimes being goofy, sometimes being mad at each other (but dealing with it productively), etc. Whether they realize it or not, my hope is that living in a household where love and respect is the norm is helping to shape my kids in positive ways.
Don’t forget that you can submit your own question to alphamomteens[at]gmail[dot]com.