Dating in the year 2002. What are the rules? Do parents have any rules? Over the last thirty years, dating has changed dramatically. Parents have their rules and the daters have their rules. Oftentimes they are light years apart.
What constitutes a date? For argument's sake, let's say a date is when two people go out for an evening without supervision, parental or otherwise. When should that kind of relating begin? Many parents would prefer it begin at fifteen or sixteen.
Some parents, especially Dads, have adamant rules that their daughters will not date until they are seventeen. The reality of life is that some of our eleven and twelve year olds are doing more than many of us who are four times their age.
One would be deluding one's self if one thinks that teenagers are only getting serious about dating in their late teens. Recently, I took an informal poll among a sizable number of middle school students. They indicated that they were dating. That is seeing someone of the opposite sex, unsupervised for romance and/or sex. In English, we are talking about eleven or twelve year olds who admit to doing more than holding hands.
Nationally, every day there are stories of young girls becoming pregnant at eleven and twelve by their eleven-year-old boyfriends. I hear endless stories of middle school students who are going steady for months and even years at a time. They are not sitting at home playing scrabble or putting puzzles together.
How does a parent effectively address the dating practices of one's teenager? It is not as simple as having black and white rules that you expect your son or daughter to comply with. The bottom line, like it or not, is that our kids are going to do what they want in this very delicate age of development, whether we like it or not.
However, that does not mean we should roll over, die or merely coexist with some of their reckless decision-making.
As parents, we need to define parameters. What are the boundaries? What kind of sexuality education does our son or daughter have? As parents, are we clear as to what our morals and values are? What are our social rules with our junior high and high school students?
Partying can be a great experience or a disaster. Do you tolerate your son or daughter going to parties where alcohol is present? Do you condone it in your home by allowing underage drinking? Do you allow sleepovers at homes where there is no parental supervision? Do you follow up with parents who are having sleepovers to confirm that there is appropriate adult supervision?
Most teenagers will go ballistic if they know you are going to check up on their partying arrangements. They need to know early on that this is one of your non-negotiable rules. If they know you mean what you say, most teenagers will spare themselves the embarrassment and live reluctantly within your boundaries.
What is appropriate for teenage boys and girls to do while on a date? That is a hard question. For each couple, it is different. That difference is shaped by their parents, their morals and their life experience.
Clearly respect, responsibility and accountability must be foundational in every relationship, no matter what the age. What are the boundaries regarding kissing and physical intimacy? Most parents reading this would hope that their middle school and high school age children are not active in that arena.
The reality of life, whether they are formally dating or not, is that sexual intimacy is very pronounced among our teenagers. It takes many forms, but is present much more than adults want to face.
This present generation does not bring the same baggage that we brought to dating. They have a much more open attitude about how they express themselves.
There is a whole different emphasis today. It is no longer on morality or appropriateness, but rather on safeness and protection.
The problem is that we are failing in this whole area. First of all, few parents are comfortable sitting down and talking in depth to their children about sex, sexual activity and appropriate behavior. The "sex talks" that do take place are too often shallow, incomplete and only cover safe sex issues. Rarely is there ongoing conversation about feelings, emotions and the dynamics of human relationships.
Most of our adolescents approach adolescence ill prepared to face the challenges of their own sexuality. They have incomplete information, few tools and no safe forum to bring their questions and their struggles to. Too often they learn the hard way. Some of those lessons are forever burdening and life-altering.
We need to overhaul our entire approach to sexuality education. We need to begin in pre-school and progressively expose our children to appropriate information. At the same time, we need to help them develop the appropriate coping skills as they grow and become.
Parents need a forum where they can learn how to have these difficult conversations about human sexuality and learn strategies they can use to engage with their children.
These are difficult days for parents. Needless to say, there is no one blue print that works for every family. However, I do think there are some guiding principles that might help us in the struggle to be more effective parents.
Communication is key. We need to consistently have these hard conversations around these difficult issues. As parents, we need to be clear, consistent and fair in our rules and our expectations. In the area of socializing, we need to create boundaries that hold you and your teenager accountable.
Parenting teenagers is hard work and a full time job. It should not start when your children become teenagers, but rather long before that. If it does, then teenage hood might be less of a war zone.
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