So Your Tween Wants to Date
Dating. There’s no stopping it. When your kid starts talking seriously about really, REALLY liking someone at school, your best line of defense is to be prepared, and know that you might have to have this conversation with your kids a lot sooner than your parents had to have it with you.
When I was a kid my dad told me, in a voice steely in its reserve, that I could date when I was 16 and not a day sooner. Because we had a clear understanding that he made the rules and could repo my princess phone at any moment, I never broached the subject until I was 15 years and 10 months old. That’s basically 16, right? Wrong. A cute boy with feathered hair and a Lacoste shirt asked me out on a double date to see John Travolta own his role as Bud in Urban Cowboy. Because I’m often hardheaded and eternally optimistic, I went to my dad to see if we could bend the rules just a little bit. He said no, without ever averting his eyes from “M.A.S.H.” I was crushed, but I knew that short of aliens inhabiting his body, nothing was going to change his mind. Looking back, I have to say that my dad was wise. Two and a half years of high school dating still gave me plenty of opportunities to have my heart broken before going off to college.
In the age of smart phones and always-on media, our kids are exposed to the idea of dating at a much younger age. Many see themselves as tiny adults, and some parents treat them that way. I’ve seen some parents encourage boyfriends and girlfriends as early as elementary school. They’re almost giddy about it, and they purchase cute little gifts on special occasions and even take the kids to the movies together. That’s one way of doing it, but it’s not for me. I’m trying to squeeze in as much time as I can with my innocent little angels before dating becomes a thing.
One day your world is filled with tea parties and fort building, and the next your kids are talking about the cute boy or girl who sits beside them in math class. You can’t stop the inevitable, but you can use your life experience (and superior mind skills) to slow things down. Here’s how.
Will You Be My Friend?
In elementary school, put the focus on friends. If your child has a special connection with a kid who’s a member of the opposite sex, great! Forming bonds with others is healthy and natural. It encourages emotional intelligence, a very valuable skill to have in life. But remember, they’re always watching you. If you start using labels like “boyfriend” and “girlfriend” to talk about an innocent childhood friendship, it’s only a matter of time before your kids start to do the same.
Push It to the Limit
Take a page from my dad’s playbook and establish an acceptable age for dating before your kid even brings up the topic. Expectations are everything. When the inevitable happens, and names and hearts start appearing on notebooks, or one name seems to be mentioned more than others, try to take it in stride. This is your preview of what’s to come. Use this time to brace yourself. (Bracing yourself, by the way, may or may not include a few glasses of wine.)
The Art of Distraction
You can resort to stalking, threatening and crying, but no matter what you pull from your arsenal, it will be no match for the force of teenage hormones. Your best bet is distraction. Keep them busy with outings and activities. The more they’re having fun with friends or thinking about having fun with friends, the less time they have to think about dating. Mom tricks.
Delete the word “forbid” from your vocabulary. Using the six-letter word when dealing with a tween or teenager is the equivalent of saying, “I double dog dare you to do exactly what I just told you not to do.”
Talk to Each Other
It’s that simple. Talk to your kids and keep the lines of communication open. Launching a full-scale intervention or employing a private detective at the first sign of interest in dating will only result in what I call “the shutdown.” In order to provide the guidance tweens and teens so desperately need, you have to know where they are emotionally and what they’re thinking. If they see you gasping and clutching your pearls every time the subject of dating comes up, they’re probably not going to keep bringing it up. And just like that, the shutdown.
Kids are human beings, albeit human beings without fully developed frontal lobes. And they, like all human beings, are hardwired for progress. Once we crawl, we progress to walking and eventually running. We speak individual words, which become sentences and then paragraphs. The world of dating is no different. But by not labeling friendships with the words “boyfriend” and “girlfriend,” keeping our kids engaged in activities they enjoy, and taking the time to remain connected as a family, you can slow down the process at least a little bit.
You can’t stop them from ever dating. But you can encourage your kids to have healthy friendships, and while you’re at it, remind your son or daughter of all the beautiful and unique qualities that make them special. Work every day to instill in them a sense of self-worth that won’t allow them to settle for less than they deserve.