Parents are faced with the question of an appropriate dating age at earlier and earlier times in their children’s lives. It’s not unusual to hear about 13 year olds who are double dating with older teens or in a group. Children, as young as second grade, talk about ‘going steady’, even when they aren’t talking to the girl or guy.
Experiencing dating at an earlier age also carries with it negative consequences that affect not only the life of the teen but also the life of their family and community. Dating places a teen in the position of being alone with a member of the opposite sex. Unfortunately, although not physically present, they also are under the influence of pressure from their peer group to perform up to their group’s expectations.
There are several things that parents can do to help prepare their teen to engage in a positive dating relationship.
Discuss dating with your children as they are growing up. Include dating in your conversations about their sexuality. For instance, when you see a couple kissing in public it’s a perfect opportunity to talk about how they feel about public displays of affection, how that integrates into a relationship and why a couple might feel it’s appropriate to kiss in a public place. No answer is right or wrong. The key is to help your teen express their ideas so they can hear themselves telling you their ideas.
Be a good role model. If you are a single parent and are dating then show them solid dating decisions and how you might prepare yourself to date again. Don’t tell them necessarily. Children are very adept at watching and learning from we do – not always from what we say. If you’re married then date your husband. Show each other respect in the way you talk with each other. Model the behavior you want your teen to exhibit.
Talk with your teen about the criteria you will use in your decision about dating. Giving a blanket statement such as “When you show the maturity to go out on a date!” isn’t an answer they’ll understand. Instead use concrete examples of behavior you expect them to have. Tell them, “Maturity means you’ll do your chores without being constantly reminded, you’ll live up to your potential in school, you will be a safe driver, you’ll learn to control your anger, you’ll make strong decisions about your friends and will accept the consequences of your behavior without an argument.”
Discuss these criteria (#3) with your teen and allow them to negotiate a bit with you. Help them to understand that dating is an adult behavior and to be able to date they must have some adult behaviors.
Stress to your teen that they must earn your trust. Trust isn’t given – it is earned. If you can’t trust them in the small stuff it will be much more difficult to trust them in the larger decisions in their life. For instance, if they lie about getting their homework done so they can go out with friends or how much ice cream they scooped out the day before how will you be able to trust that they will act responsibly on a date?
Find out if your community has a teen curfew and be sure your teen is aware of the time. Knowing the legal rules first will save your son or daughter the embarrassment of being approached by the police.
When talking about your son or daughter dating include your own beliefs about dating, sexuality and how it all integrates into a relationship. Teens who have a consistent relationship with their own parents are more likely to understand their belief system and consider that in their own decisions. For instance, if the parent believes that sex should be something experienced after marriage and communicates that in a number of different ways as the child is growing and developing (including modeling that behavior if the parent is single) the child is more likely to exclude sex from their dating relationship.
Parents who work with their teens to help them determine what’s best for them while giving them gentle guidance will often find that teens are willing to work within the parents criteria, especially when they are explained in a manner that the teen understands.