How Old Should Kids Be Before They Can Date?
Hanging out. Going out. Dating. Going with. Group dating. Hooking up. Gulp. Suddenly potty training and teaching the kids to tie their shoes seems so much easier. But as a dear friend reminded me of my own words recently, we need to try to be conscious parents, and the world of teens needs us to be conscious and caffeinated-beyond-belief when it comes to dating.
And this leads to the age-old question: How old do kids need to be in order to date?
As I’ve been finding out, that answer is different for every household, and some of the answers might surprise you (at both ends of the spectrum). I know families who don’t have age minimums, even on group dating, and their 12 year-old can have an un-chaperoned date. But I also know families who believe that dating is only to be used as an immediate step before marriage – so nothing is allowed until that child is essentially no longer a child.
According to research and author David Elkind (The Hurried Child), dating – which is considered to be the change of a relationship from just friends to something on a romantic scale – should not be considered for most kids younger than 14 years of age.
- Kids younger than 14 don’t tend to have the social skills needed for dating. They try to emulate relationships based on television characters rather than on personal, healthy needs.
- Teens younger than 14 have often not yet developed their own identities. They simply are not sure who they are, so they have a much more difficult time determining who might be a good fit in their lives.
- Young teenagers and tweens have a more difficult time resisting peer pressure – which can result in poor decisions when it comes to sex, alcohol and drugs, violence, emotional abuse, and more.
- Kids younger than 14 who date lose out on the value of friendships – the guys playing ball in the yard together, the sleepovers with best friends – because these things are no longer a priority.
- Young teens are not always equipped with the maturity needed for a dating relationship, and they are at increased risks for premature sexual relationships. The younger teens are when they start dating, the more likely they are to become sexually active during their teenage years.
How Do I Know My Child is Ready to Date?
I admit that for me, it was easier to assign a number to this issue (and I felt like 25 years-old was a good age to start…), but the more I parent and the more conscious I become, the more I see that age and readiness are two vastly different points. Dr. Elkind feels that 14 years is an appropriate age for kids to be allowed to date (and many other professionals agree with him), but it is the general sense of readiness that he describes that I agree with more.
- Social maturity
- Emotional maturity
- Intellectual maturity
All of these three ingredients need to be on board in order for parents to consider the readiness of their kids and dating. Without these, our kids aren’t going to be coming to us and talking with us about these relationships and aren’t going to be able to make the safe and responsible decisions that dating requires.
Above all – we need to work to make sure that our relationships with our kids are ready for them to begin dating. Ask yourself the following questions:
- Do we talk openly about the responsibilities of dating – emotionally, socially, etc.?
- Does my child come to me with questions?
- Am I available for my child when he or she has questions?
- Are my kids and I discussing both of our expectations when it comes to dating?
Define these terms with your kids: hanging out, going out, going with, dating, group dating, hooking up
Focus more on the expectations and responsibilities than the age, and if you are honest with yourself, you will likely see that tweens just don’t have the developmental capacity for dating, just as preschoolers don’t have the developmental capacity to be left home alone.
Listen first. If you are fortunate to have your kids come to you about dating, take a deep breath and listen first. Then take some time to formulate your responses, and avoid the knee-jerk “You can date when you’re 25!” response. Otherwise it might be one of the last times your kids come to you about dating.
Talk with other parents and ask questions. While I admit that it can be an awkward conversation to have, ask the other parents why types of conversation they are having with their kids.
- What are the expectations of the kids?
- Who will be there?
- Who will be driving your kids to and from the activity?
- Is there a back-up plan? (If the movie is sold out, do the kids have plans and permission to do something else?)
Look for Red Flags
Unaware – Parents who aren’t aware that the other person exists or that they are “hanging out” with your child aren’t having conversations with their kids about the situation. This doesn’t mean that they are bad parents – it just means that somewhere along the way something went amiss. Maybe the teen thought their parent wouldn’t understand, didn’t care, or would be too restrictive. The point is that if the other parents aren’t aware of the (potential) relationship, then it is time to turn on the lights for everyone.
Secrecy – If your teen doesn’t want you to meet his or her friend, or insists that your house is too boring so the movie-watching and hanging-out time is always done elsewhere, this can be a red flag. Sure, it might just mean that your teen is having typical “my family is a bunch of aliens and I can’t relate to them” moment, but when it comes to teens and dating, embarrassment of family is just not an option. The secrecy might also mean that the teens aren’t supervised elsewhere, and have way too many opportunities for alone time.
Violence – Dating violence is a frightening reality. Parents need to have ongoing discussions about dating violence, and help their kids define the term. Some kids think that it is only violence if there is blood or bruising, but we need to let our kids know that dating violence often reveals itself as controlling behaviors and demeaning words. Make sure your kids know how to participate in a relationship without violence.