A fine romance? What to do if your tween wants to date

By on September 29, 2011
Nine-year-old Alec Greven’s handwritten pamphlet, How to Talk to Girls sold like cupcakes at his suburban Colorado school fair recently. Then, it became a New York Times best-selling book. Packed with newbie dating advice including, “Some pretty girls are coldhearted when it comes to boys” and “Comb your hair; don’t wear sweats”, this pint-sized romance guru’s musings may get many parents wondering: “Is my tween old enough to date?”

Stacey Eisenberg was totally unprepared when her son Ben, then 12, informed her he had a girlfriend. “I actually felt nauseous,” recalls the mom of four boys. “I asked what he meant, what he did with her; he didn’t want to talk about it.”

Three years later, Eisenberg spied her son, Jonah, then 11, using deodorant. “That’s how I found out about his girlfriend; he spent time with her at recess, holding hands. My son Max is nine; he’s talked about wanting a girlfriend since he was five!”

Don’t panic
“In many cases, these relationships are minor infatuations, and nothing to get excited about,” says Dr. Derek Swain, a registered psychologist and school guidance counselor. “The notion of boyfriend/girlfriend is somewhat romantic at this age, but it’s not filled with the potential for intimacy that parents might be afraid of. These relationships tend to come and go.”

However, Swain adds, parents should be mindful of their kids’ physical maturation. “Some nine-year-olds are well into puberty, and their notions of boyfriend/girlfriend could be different from their classmates’. There’s a biological process that’s starting to unfold, so we need to make sure that we’re sensitive to that, as well as giving kids good guidance.”

Setting limits
Diane Taylor’s first chat about dating occurred when her oldest son Bradyn, then 12, began taking an interest in a female classmate. “They were entering that ‘Does she like me? Do I like her?’ stage,” she notes. “I have strict rules: no dating, going for ice cream or to a movie alone. Bradyn spends time with her in the halls and around the schoolyard. He wanted to buy her perfume for her birthday. I told him he could buy a CD.”

Swain encourages parents to establish boundaries early. “If not, in a couple of years, it will be very difficult to do so. It’s kind of like the horse has left the barn: the more parents try to impose rules that are unfamiliar, the more the children rebel against them.”

Two years ago, when Shelley Kogan’s* daughter Sabrina* was 10, boys started asking her out. “I locked her in my car and we went for a long drive,” recalls Kogan, a mom of three. “I told her it was okay to have a boyfriend, but kissing was not appropriate at this age.”

When Sabrina returned from camp that summer with a boyfriend, Kogan kept the lines of communication wide open. “I know some of her friends hold hands; some have had their first kiss,” says Kogan, who recently hosted a get-together at her home for Sabrina’s friends and their boyfriends. “They watched TV, played some board games, and that was it.”

Taylor’s son talks to his special friend on the phone and through Facebook. “I allow him to acknowledge his feelings, because I think that if you suppress that, they’ll start doing stuff behind your back.”

Clamming up

Swain warns that the more parents try to force their kids to divulge information, the more they’re going to keep things secret. “Be curious and attentive. Invite this boyfriend or girlfriend over; get to know who that person is. There’s an evolving sense of trust in parental supervision; the more parental interaction there is, the more secure kids are.”

Did the Love Bug bite your child?
* Listen, don’t lecture. Be genuinely interested in your child’s feelings. Ask, “What does having a boyfriend mean to you?”
* Outline when you will consider your child ready to date.
* Explain what is appropriate behaviour, and emphasize that you trust your child.
* Encourage get-togethers with groups of friends.

Listen up, parents! Some advice from tweens
“Parents should start talking to kids when they’re nine, because they’re probably learning the wrong things at school about dating. There should definitely be rules, but nothing too strangling, like ‘No talking to girls on the phone’.” – Bradyn Taylor

“I’ve earned my parents’ trust by being responsible and respecting myself. Parents should wait for their kids to tell them they have a boyfriend, instead of asking. They should also encourage their kids to get together in groups.” – Sabrina Kogan*

“When I got my first girlfriend, I wanted to tell my parents. But after you tell them, they get all up in your face: ‘Aw, you have a girlfriend’. So don’t get all up in our business, don’t make fun of us, just ask us to invite our girlfriend for dinner so they can know who we’re dating.” – Jonah Eisenberg

Montreal writer Wendy Helfenbaum wonders when her six-year-old son will ask her how to play Spin The Bottle.

About Wendy Helfenbaum