Long before becoming a parent, I was a teacher working with upper-elementary and middle school students. This perspective deeply informs the way I will approach dating for my own child – because it’s not about when kids are allowed, it’s about when they will and equipping them with age-appropriate knowledge to make good decisions.
What I saw teaching fifth through eighth grade is a huge leap of maturity between the ages of 10 and 13 (credit: puberty). My fifth graders were, by and large, completely uninterested in any kind of non-platonic relationships with their classmates.
Around sixth grade, you’ll notice the teasing that becomes synonymous with ‘Hey, I like like you” – but it’s still innocent. And then seventh grade hits, and those hormones are in full swing. By the time students are in eighth grade, during which most students are aged 13-14, they are in full-on teenage relationships.
Most of my students’ parents were unaware their children were in these adolescent romantic entanglements. I had some parents who flat-out forbade their children from forming romantic relationships.
None of this discouraged their kids. The pubescent heart wants what it wants, and there are about 50 social media platforms that will help them get it.
Times have changed
Unlike in my own youth, school-aged crushes are no longer punctuated by the end of the school day – kids are literally connected 24/7 across dozens of social media platforms. Some of which aren’t even able to be blocked by parent-locks on devices because these wily apps are too new and savvy to be detected for what they are.
So, I have resigned myself to the fact that there is a really good chance my own daughter may well express romantic interest in someone around the age of 13 and want to start ‘dating’. And I have decided that whether I’m ready or not is irrelevant – if she is ready, she will find a way to form a romantic attachment to a peer.
So, I will make myself ready. There are conversations that must be had and I need to mom-up and have them.
The consent conversation
With a thirteen-ager, this conversation is largely about consent, including what it means; how to give it or not give it; and how to recognize what healthy relationships and boundaries look like. And consent is not just sexual in nature – consent could mean asking if it’s okay to give someone a hug or hold their hand.
Teaching kids to ask for consent to approach a physical boundary; teaching them to feel comfortable and confident saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’ (and that is OK to change their mind if that answer moves from one to the other at any point).
And teaching those asking for consent to respect whatever answer they get, at whatever point they get it, are critical interpersonal skills we should be developing a lot earlier than we are.
While I think 13 is the most realistic age that parents should start supporting, or at least accepting, their kids romantic interest in other kids their age, I don’t think that means there should not be boundaries. I plan to be very clear about my expectations. I won’t, for instance, allow her to go out on unsupervised outings or stay on her phone after bedtime/during no-phone hours or host any unsupervised visits to our home (among other things).
My support does not come without trust that must be earned and kept.