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Published February 16 2010

Parenting Perspectives: Facing the dating dilemma: How early is too early?

It’s the month of love, a time when those whose hearts have been pitter-pattering for another are encouraged to manifest their feelings.

It’s also a time for many parents to witness the reality of young love within their children.

Who among us didn’t, around age 8, pick out an extra-awesome valentine for that someone special, slip in an extra heart candy bearing the words “Be mine” and seal it with a kiss?

Love makes the world go ’round, and sooner than we can say “chocolate truffles” 20 times fast, our babies have reached dating age.

But what is – or is there – an appropriate age for dating to start?

Several years ago, I heard educator Shelly Donahue talk on this subject. After years of studying teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease, she came up with several no-fail dating “rules” for teens, including: driver’s license before dating, and stay within age range (within two years older or younger).

Though these rules may seem arbitrary, Donahue backed them with facts and explained why following them will decrease chances of heartache and turmoil.

I’m always a little surprised when I hear parents bragging about how their preteen child is “in a relationship.” I realize these young relationships might look, and be, fairly innocent, but at what point should our parenting brains kick in and screech, “Slow down!!!”?

I think of my father’s reaction to me wearing makeup in junior high, “What’s with the black junk all over your eyes?”

I had a “whatever” attitude about it then, but realize now his job was, rightly so, to question my actions.

It really wasn’t just about trying out the latest mascara, after all. I was primping to appeal to the opposite gender – and well before I was anywhere close to being emotionally ready for the possible consequences of a dating relationship.

Studies show the brain doesn’t develop its full forward-thinking capacities until around age 25. Until then, we are basically train-wrecks-in-waiting, especially where the opposite gender is concerned.

It follows that our young teens, in particular, need help seeing beyond the latest crush to avoid the chances of irreparable damage later.

I’d even argue we have the right to be nosey to a point, to hover near the cell phone and computer when they are on them and keep tabs on whom they are conversing with and what about.

They might resist it. That is their jobs. Ours is to persist.

Our children are with us for a relatively short time, and although we cannot control their every movement, this is our chance to help them form their life’s base.

We can enjoy a friendship with our grown children later, but for now, it’s more important we guide them assuredly into adulthood.

And, yes, that includes loving them. In fact, I believe the more we parents love our children by offering them our time and engaging them in meaningful conversations, the less likely they’ll be to search for love elsewhere, before they’re ready.


Roxane B. Salonen works as a freelance writer and children’s author in Fargo, where she and her husband, Troy, are the parents of five children. She also has a blog at www.areavoices.com/peacegarden.