Fundamentally, dating is nothing more than a teenager's spending time with another teenager. In this sense, the teenager who says "I have a date" is saying nothing more than "My friend and I have agreed to spend some time together." You need not automatically equate dating with sexual activity or romantic interest. Were it not for the apprehensions about romantic interests and sexual activity, few parents would object to their child's having dates.
From a more traditional perspective, teenage boys and girls develop physical attraction toward teenagers of the opposite sex. They spend a lot of time thinking, talking, and wondering about love in an adult heterosexual sense. Around the age of thirteen, this natural attraction combines with intense curiosity to motivate most teenagers to develop more than casual social relationships; flirting, hanging around together, doing things together, going to parties or school activities together, and finally, paying more or less exclusive attention to each other, that is dating. Letís look at how your children become involved in such dating.
Preparation for dating starts when your child is four or five and gradually progresses until she is dating a specific member of the opposite sex, around fifteen or sixteen years of age on the average. Some teenagers reach this point slightly earlier, others somewhat later. Dating does not begin at a specific chronological age. your judgment should be based on her social and emotional maturity.
How can parents help young children develop healthy boy-girl relationships in later life? First, they can set a good example in their relationships with each other and their relationships with other men and women. In addition, they can encourage relationships characterized by mutual respect, mutual rights, and mutual sensitivity.
Do not place undue importance on your youngster's relationships, nor treat them as cute. For example, the mother of a six-year-old boy thought his relationship with the little girl down the street was "so grown up." She encouraged her son to buy gifts for the girl, invite her over to play, to go on family excursions with him, and to invite her to stay overnight, with both children sleeping in the boy's double bed. The error was to encourage the children to interact in ways far beyond their age level. The mother said, "There is nothing wrong with this; they are only six." Will she still think the behavior appropriate when they are twelve, or sixteen? When a relationship is not appropriate for older children, it should not be encouraged to begin with.
Next, discuss with your child appropriate and inappropriate boy-girl behavior. Your children should learn to be assertive with each other without being overly aggressive. This includes boy-girl relationships. Girls should see it is alright to compete with boys; boys should understand girls are sometimes better at sports, and so on. You help your children learn to deal with male-female relationships by teaching them respect for social customs, by helping them relate to members of the opposite sex as people first, and by helping them to be equal participants in relationships.
Suppose your child has a healthy attitude toward members of the opposite sex, can relate in an assertive and comfortable way with them, gives and expects to receive respect and consideration, and is able to talk and work and play. Are there other ways you can help him prepare for dating? Yes, you can give your permission to participate in boy-girl parties, and to do things where boys and girls interact in groups. Older grade schoolers and young adolescents need boy-girl experiences as part of learning about more intimate relationships. Be concerned about how often these experiences occur, under what circumstances, where, when, and most importantly with whom. The emphasis initially should be on group participation, games, doing things during the day rather than at night. Help your child become involved in boy-girl relationships in a gradual but progressive manner. It reaches the point where dating is no longer new, or unusual, but is rather an extension of what he has already been doing.
Younger teenagers might ask their friend of the opposite sex to watch TV in the evening, or to go along on a family outing, or to go for a walk during the day. You also may allow her to go over to someone else's house or go on an excursion with someone else's family. In this gradual way, your teenager begins to date and to be involved with specific members of the opposite sex. Most children find this approach acceptable, although they may let you know it is not their first choice. They want to date like older teenagers. You are saying, "Yes, you can date, but with certain restrictions."
Dating is something a teenager becomes involved in gradually. This gives you ample opportunity to slow the process down, modify the rules a little, and so on. Since it is gradual, both you and the teenager can work through your feelings, learn from trial and error, and basically see how it goes, a little at a time.
This discussion assumes your teenager is interacting with teenagers of approximately the same age and socio-emotional-sexual level. Real problems develop, however, if your teenager dates people considerably older or considerably younger. For example, a fifteen-year-old girl should not be allowed to date an eighteen-year-old boy, because he is at a different place in terms of sexual behavior, sexual aptitude, social and emotional development. For the same reasons, your seventeen-year-old son should not be aloud to date a fourteen-year-old girl. Ideally, your teen should only date someone within one year of her (or his) age. This does not guarantee there will be no problems, but it does make the odds considerably better. Since the sexual development of girls is usually earlier than boys, older boys frequently want to date younger girls and vice versa. A difference of more than one year is typically unacceptable.