Question: I have an almost 13 year old daughter. She is in the 7th grade and is the youngest. Anyway many of her friends go with their friend to the movies. I have allowed my daughter to go, but then she asked when she could date? I told her when she was 16 and she complained that other friends were going to be able to date before her. What is the appropriate age to date? Rebecca
Answer: As you already guessed, there is no particular age to begin dating. The decision is based on your daughter’s maturity and what it means to “date”. You want to build a foundation now in your daughter’s ability to make good decisions. Now is the time to start having meaningful (age appropriate) conversations about boys and sexuality.
Find a common ground on which to communicate. Avoid conversation stoppers like “you’re just too young” or “I don’t care what your friends say”. This is a critical age for communication. Find out what your daughter means by “dating”. It is possible that she will describe a well-supervised outing that is different from your idea of dating. Is “dating” meeting in the hallway after school? If her notion of “dating” is safe and age appropriate, maybe she can “date” before 16. It may seem like semantics but it is the beginning of open communication. Ask her to tell you more about “dating” vs. going out in a group. If you’re a good politician, you’ll hear her perspective and be there to answer her deepest questions.
Of course, you’ll also want to know if she thinks dating is “sexual” – what kinds of sexual behavior is she hearing and thinking about. Be ready to help your daughter understand her body, peer pressure to do things to please others, and her curiosity about what she might want to do. She needs specific coaching on how to say “no, I don’t want to” while also learning her value as a person. This discussion will be on-going for years!
Set your own rules for your family regardless of other people’s choices. Teenagers are strongly motivated by peer behavior and fitting in. So, it’s natural that your daughter wants to be perceived as “belonging”. But some things will not be open for discussion. Set rules that are enforceable: what happens if your daughter goes somewhere against the rules, doesn’t call home when she is supposed to, or acts irresponsibly about her school work? Decide the rules, state the consequences ahead of time, and always follow through.
Use “creative parenting” to sidestep head-on conflicts if you can. As a teenager, your daughter needs to believe she is an active, intelligent, and responsible young adult who can express herself. You have the task of giving credibility to those perceptions by setting her up for success in “safe” ways. Hear her underlying message if you can and let her explore within the boundaries that are acceptable to you. Think as well about other interests that can challenge her at this stage of her life. She needs responsibility and wants to be treated less child-like. Change with her but help her to see all the other possibilities around her. Talk to your daughter about media images that push her into sexuality before she is emotionally ready for the responsibility.
Read and be informed. Two excellent books on the subject are: Girl in the Mirror by Snyderman and Streep and Ten Talks Parents Must Have with Their Children about Sex and Character by Schwartz and Cappello. Stay aware of your daughter’s world (it is different than the one we knew). Be available when she needs you. Trust that you can successfully guide her through this next phase of development.
Karen Deerwester, Ed.S.