In late January, I was skiing in the beautiful mountains of Vermont. It was midday. It was sunny and the lift lines were long. I was taking the triple chair to the summit, which is a long ride. I was a single, looking to hook on to a double to fill the triple chair. Unbeknownst to me, my two fellow riders were father and son. They must've started a conversation before they had gotten on the lift line. By the time they get on the chair, the conversation was pretty heated.
The father was in his early 40 s; his son was 15 or 16. They were talking about dating and male-female relationships. The son was not happy about some of his dad's rules relative to dating and having a girl over his house. The dad basically said that he did not feel it was right to begin exclusive dating until one was at least a senior in high school. The dad went on to further say, he felt most teenage boys were too young and immature and didn't know how to treat women respectfully. His son became furious and started yelling at his dad, while I was sitting next to both of them.
They went back and forth at each other, each saying that the other didn't understand, or have a clue as to what was right or wrong for the year 2009. The son then turned to me and asked me what I thought.
The silence, while only a minute or two seemed endless. I asked myself, why is this kid asking my opinion? For a moment, I thought it was because I have long hair and a beard and he thought I was a throwback to the 60s and would be on his side and agree with him.
Both the son and the dad were shocked at my response. In simple terms, I suggested that reasonable parameters for dating were appropriate for teenagers still in high school. I also said exclusive dating in high school, probably wasn't the best path to take. However, if two high school students enter a committed and/or exclusive relationship, they need to be mindful that they are not engaged, it's not a marriage and that parents have the right to set some reasonable rules within their home.
For example: sleeping over your girlfriend s house or her sleeping over your house with both of you sleeping in the same room, and possibly the same bed, would not be acceptable-I was clear that that was not an unreasonable rule for a parent to have.
We reached the summit. Our conversation was not finished. However, we each went our separate ways. I never saw them the rest of the day, but I did think about our conversation.
What is the appropriate age for teenage dating? What constitutes a date? What about exclusive dating? What about parental rules, relative to dating and hanging out in your home? I thought a lot about those questions. I asked a number of parents of teenagers what they thought and I asked a number of teenagers, what they thought.
The range of answers was amazing. They definitely ran the gamut from very narrow-minded to if it feels good just go with it. What disappointed me was that few addressed the issue of respect and responsibility in dating relationships. Many of my parent responses came from a punitive point of view. They were not interested in a conversation around what would be appropriate for their children.
My teenage responders also disappointed me. They were not willing to talk about the breadth and depth of human relationship, but rather were more interested in freedom, and not having an adult tell them what they can do and cannot do.
As I thought about all of these conversations, I realized that life and relationships have changed radically in the past 25 years. Young people are exposed at a very early age to feelings and emotions that many people twice their age did not begin to look at or embrace until their mid-20s. Teenagers today have much more freedom and access to technology that exposes them to issues that they re too often ill-prepared to manage.
Probably the most profound observation I made from all of these conversations about dating, is that too many parents really don't talk to their children about important things. How does an adolescent learn what is appropriate for a date? What are the dos and don'ts of relationships? As a parent, what do you permit in your home? Too many teenagers are learning what's appropriate or what s not appropriate for relationships from less than desirable sources. Parents need to talk to their children, but it must be a conversation that is ongoing. Our teenagers should never be afraid to raise any issue, especially those around relationships. As parents we need to listen, even when it's hard.
These are not easy conversations. However, no one said parenting would be an easy adventure. Hopefully most of us want our children to enjoy their adolescence and young adulthood. We want them to seize the day and take as much from every experience as possible.
Social dating in high school usually consists of guys and girls going to the movies, going out for pizza, hanging out with friends or at home. It's usually not that intense, but rather is usually very casual. More exclusive dating tends to raise parents blood pressure and raise other social issues around what is appropriate and not appropriate. Exclusive relationships tend not to include friends. Emotionally, these relationships tend to distract the participants from family, from school and from athletics. It's hard at 16 to emotionally balance all those important human dynamics. Yes, some teenagers can do so. However, statistical data indicates that most can't.
Exclusive dating raises the issue of love, commitment and what comes next. Isn't high school and college supposed to be a time for gaining experience, for growing up, for getting to know yourself and other people? Parents should encourage their children to be social, to date, but not become exclusive until they've lived some life and have a sense of where they want their life to go, and who they are.
It is hard to prevent our children from exclusive dating, but we should have the on-going conversation about the issue. We need to listen to our children and they need to listen to our concerns. Clearly, as parents, you should not compromise your moral principles or your house rules.
As parents, we need to respect our children and the choices they make, even if we disagree with them. Our children must respect us and the rules of our home. They should not expect us to alter our moral compass to support their social behavior.
Our teenage children should not expect that as parents, we are going to allow them to act as if they are married. Yes, we must trust them, but we as adults will have to impose certain parameters to protect them from themselves.
Relationships for adults on a good day are a challenge. Getting to know a person well is a complicated process, and at times, uneasy. Life is a journey, not a destination. Each new human experience, hopefully, empowers us to grow as human beings. The journey can be hard and the life lessons painful, but we must stay the course. Our children are counting on us.