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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. Let’s 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

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.

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