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I'm afraid to let my children get into relationships(i.e. girl-boyfriendships) too early just in case it did them no good. At what age would it be safe to allow our children this liberty?

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Can you define what you mean by relationships and the age range? Maturity level really matters in this. –  MichaelF May 12 '11 at 11:47

8 Answers 8

up vote 7 down vote accepted

To preface, my answer is based on a personal belief in abstinence before marriage, and on guidance I received from my own parents and church leaders when I was a teen on how to structure relationships in order to make that goal attainable. It worked for me, and I plan to encourage my own children along the same lines when they are older. My intent isn't to start a debate on the merits of abstinence, merely to answer the original question from the point of view of someone with that goal in mind for their children. It might also be useful for people who only feel abstinence is important up to a certain age. If such a goal offends you or you find it anachronistic, feel free to ignore my answer.

  • No dating before the age of 16, defined as pairing off in social contexts. Chaperoned group activities or dances are okay as long as you aren't exclusive in who you pay attention to during the event.
  • After age 16, double dates or group dates are allowed, but not "steady dating." That term wasn't clearly defined for me, so I defined it myself as more than two dates in a row with the same person.
  • After age 18, standards are self-imposed, but parents can still encourage. I decided to continue the steady dating policy for myself until I felt I was prepared for dating to potentially progress to marriage. I started single dating, but made a point to never be completely alone with my dates. It's much easier to avoid temptation if someone, even a stranger 100 feet away, can always see you.

Overly restrictive? Maybe. I chafed at it myself a few times, but then I realized I was having dates more often, with a larger variety of activities that most of my more "liberated" friends. Ironically, because I was specifically avoiding looking for something serious at first, I didn't worry about going on a date that might not work out. My friends were more reluctant to ask someone out because of increased expectations.

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Abstinence before marriage is a value just like honesty, and it is attainable even today. The problem is when people buy into the belief that it is not attainable. The important thing it to talk with your kids about your values and why they are important. If they agree with you then you can talk about what that looks like in practice. Great answer! –  Jim McKeeth May 13 '11 at 0:45
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+1 because @Karl took the time to explain that the suggestion is based on a specific value system, which gives much needed context as to whether this answer might apply to any specific family. –  HedgeMage May 13 '11 at 2:36
    
@Karl, I don't even think dating is good anymore. Thanks for your great response. –  Cryst Jul 6 '11 at 6:36
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This is a fine answer if the question were about abstinence, but it's hardly a universally applicable answer for the question that was asked (which is admittedly incredibly vague). –  DA01 Dec 29 '11 at 1:56
    
IMHO it is important to note that this may only work if a) it is self-imposed by the teenager, not forced upon him/her by parents, and b) the teen is only likely to make such a choice if (s)he had consistently experienced this behaviour in the family (not only in words, but in deeds), thus internalized this ethos and values from his/her early years on. –  Péter Török Jan 7 '12 at 13:19

In contrast with the other answerers, I think that it's reasonable and healthy to restrict a child's ability to go out on dates and engage in romantic relationships in accordance with their age. You have to strike a balance: romance, dating and sex are dangerous and difficult to get right, but practically speaking you can only learn how to successfully negotiate them with a certain amount of trial-and-error. You need to help your child by making an informed judgement of their ability to make good decisions and handle heartbreak.

That said, here are some general guidelines:

  • Children under the age of 12 or so should not go out on dates at all, period. They may say that they have a boy/girlfriend, but at this age it's little more than a schoolyard crush, and I see no reason to encourage it. But there's also little reason to stop children from saying that they have a bf/gf if they want to. This is when you should start educating your child about sex and adult relationships.
  • Children from the age of 12 to 15 or so might have moderately serious relationships, and will probably do fine in group dates or chaperoned dates. One-on-one dates are probably premature at this stage, especially since kids at this age have relatively little money or means to get around by themselves. I would still be wary of parties and group situations with inadequate adult supervision, though, as emotions and hormones far exceed wisdom at this age. Your guidance in this period may prepare your kids for more serious and independent relationships later.
  • From 15 to 18, kids get the ability to drive themselves (in the US, at least), may have their own cars, or at least probably have friends with cars and mobility. So in practical terms, your ability to restrict your kids' movement and relationships goes down a lot at this point. The good news is that by this point most teens will be able to handle one-on-one dates and more serious relationships by this point on their own. They'll probably hurt themselves a few times, but will hopefully avoid catastrophe.
  • After the age of 18 kids are effectively adults, and you can't manage their life anyway. Any mistakes at this point are their own.

Of course there are exceptions to all of this. I know a couple that began dating when they were 13, and dated continuously with a few breaks until they were 18, at which point they married.

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For children under 12, how do you distinguish dates from other social visits? While I agree that at that age, any claim of relationship is almost certainly nothing more than a school yard crush, is there any reason to actively forbid the children to spend social time together (chaperoned, of course) if they honestly have a friendship? –  Beofett May 12 '11 at 18:03
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@Beo, I'd probably allow that, especially if the kids had been friends beforehand. It depends so much on the individual kid and the individual situation, though. –  JSBձոգչ May 12 '11 at 18:20
    
Fair enough :) +1 for a well thought out answer. –  Beofett May 12 '11 at 18:32
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Great answer. I would suggest talking with your kids that you are not trying to restrict them, but are working with them to help them be happier. Talk to them about the dangers of sex and how even if they are not intending to have sex, spending time alone with a person they are attracted too can lead to unintended sex. Help them plan what they want, and then work with them to be successful. If that means chaperoning them, then do it. –  Jim McKeeth May 13 '11 at 0:41
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I don't think the expectations set are generally unreasonable, but I'm unclear on how you suggest implementing them -- you seem to suggest explicit restriction (i.e. "you are 11 you can't go to a school event with that girl/boy"), and yet hint at teaching kids to have age-appropriate expectations, and not counting all social contact as a "date" just because it is with the object of a crush. Could you clarify please? –  HedgeMage May 13 '11 at 2:42

Why would you want to restrict your child's attempts at a romantic relationship? It is not alcohol, or smoking: there is no fundamentally negative effect from dating.

If you are worried about your child becoming sexually active, trying to restrict it won't help much there, either. Such attempts will likely have the opposite effect: teenagers can and do rebel.

As for the possibility of a broken heart - you can't have any affect on it at all. What is important is that your child has your support and trust, and trying to restrict their (totally normal) forays into puppy love or romance won't earn you their trust or encourage them to come to you for support.

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+1 Yet another thing some parents try to control, but no one really can (or should). Better to teach your kids good lessons (especially by example) and let them jump in and figure it out like the rest of us. Romance is never "safe" even for us adults, but it's often worthwhile anyway. :) –  HedgeMage May 12 '11 at 13:03
    
@HedgeMage - thanks for editing :) The answer looks nicer indeed. –  Nikita Barsukov May 12 '11 at 13:22
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@Jim: The logical fallacy you just succumbed to is called "building a straw man". That is, characterizing a point as something other than what is stated, in order to make it easier to oppose. At no point did I suggest that an 8yo ought to be sexually active. I did say that attempting to restrict normal forays into e.g. puppy love, isn't going to teach your child that they can come to you. An otherwise healthy 8yo isn't interested in sex (hint: that doesn't happen until they hit puberty) -- he/she may want to have a picnic with a crush, or make him/her a special valentine... –  HedgeMage May 13 '11 at 2:27
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...This is a normal part of social development: they are practicing social scripts (like how to make someone feel special with a sweet gesture) that they will benefit from in later developmental phases. It's better than trying to figure out how to tell someone "I really like you" for the first time as a teen with raging hormones! –  HedgeMage May 13 '11 at 2:29

Nothing says "I think I love you" like "my parents don't want us to be together."

I'm not certain what you mean by "just in case it did them no good." Not every relationship is going to work, and this sounds dangerously close to setting the expectation that you should only enter into a relationship if it will result in long-term commitment.

Early dating should be a learning experience. It is just as important to learn how to identify and get out of a relationship that isn't working as it is to learn what makes a relationship work.

As Nikita mentioned, attempting to restrict your child's romantic relationships will most likely not work. In fact, attempts like that all too frequently backfire. At best, you're fighting against peer pressure and your child's desire to exert control over their life. At worst, you're fighting all that plus hormones. Your best bet is to educate. Make sure they understand the pitfalls of dating, and give advice on how to deal with various situations (how to show appreciation, be willing to listen, how to apologize, how to draw boundaries if necessary, etc.).

I think dating is generally a tough topic for parents because it is one of the biggest signs of the approaching end of childhood. It reminds us that we won't be the most important people in their lives forever, and that they are becoming more and more capable of looking after themselves and making their own decisions. It is very easy to lose sight of the fact that that is the ultimate goal of parenting.

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+1 I know this from my life experiences and a very inappropriate girl ;) –  Hairy May 12 '11 at 13:19

When is it safe? Relationships and dating are never safe. Even at 25 it's like running headlong into a minefield of extreme emotion and high passion. That's what makes it great, after all.

Now that you've taken the bubble-wrap off, it's time for an opinion from a lefty. Coincidentally, science and statistics have shown that these methods actually work better at delaying pregnancy and sexual initiation.

First, both genders need to know about sex. No, of course they're not going to be having sex right now! (what? You're asking this question when they're 16? Oh shit, too late!) They should have already gotten the biology-of-reproduction and the "why adults like it" bits years before they start dating. By now, they should have all that down pat. If they haven't gotten it from you by the time they're 11 or 12, then they've surely learned something on the playground, and now it's an uphill battle because they don't want to listen to practically anything you say anymore. Unless you're really lucky.

Both genders also need access to birth control, or in the case of girls, be on birth control, "just in case". Think of it like making your 4 year old wear her bike helmet, even though she still has training wheels on and she's still not riding faster than she can walk. Good habits are easier to make than bad habits are to break. And besides, people don't always plan things a month in advance. Or plan things at all.

For girls, these are prerequisites:

  1. Does she know what coercion is? She'll probably get this a lot as a teenager, and not just from boyfriends or potential boyfriends, but peers as well. She needs to recognize it for what it is, and bolt when she sees it. It means that person is an asshole that she wants nothing to do with.

  2. Jealousy and anger are not signs he loves you. They're signs that he's a psychopath. There are other red flags that she needs to run from and talk to you about. Generally speaking, if something makes her feel uncomfortable, she should go with that feeling.

  3. She can't make him love her. She can't make him feel any feelings (including but not limited to rage, jealousy, guilt, or any of the other abusers like to blame other people for). They're his feelings. Also, having sex with him won't work either.

  4. She can always come to you with hurt feelings or questions. You promise not to be an asshole about it, even if it's about something you find abhorrent. Keep that promise.

  5. Don't let strangers handle your drinks, and prosecute the offenders. It's not because she's a slut, it's because he's a predator. Back her up on any criminal proceedings.

For boys:

  1. Does he know what coercion is? It's when he's not open about what he wants, but instead tries to be sneaky about it. Openness and honesty will always win, even if it loses him some girlfriends. It's better this way, because if she doesn't want what he doesn't want, the relationship will always fail. Even if it's a taste in music.

  2. Speaking of which, rejection isn't bad either. It means she's not into him, and he probably won't be into her for the same reasons. Embrace rejection. It's the only path to happiness. Dating is a process of elimination.

  3. He can't make her love him. See above.

  4. I don't think this can be taught, but don't be the jealous psychopath, or the stalker. Seek professional help if necessary.

Now you get to let them loose and catch them when they fail miserably. That's generally your job once they're teenagers anyway.

Coincidentally, abstinence before marriage is a recipe for marital disaster that starts young and ends early (hopefully before kids, but often and even usually, not). For god's sake, find out what they're really like before you get married.

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Apart from the (unnecessary?) "lefty" remarks as you call them, this post is fantastic. Should go on the fridge of any tween/teen parents :) –  Torben Gundtofte-Bruun May 19 '11 at 6:01
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-1: I find the sexist split here very old-fashioned and close-minded for a self-proclaimed 'lefty'. Why do only boys get counseled on rejection in these lists? Can't girls pursue? Why do only girls get tutored on recognizing coercion, and only boys on avoiding those behaviors? Can't girls be coercive, and boys coerced? Can't boys have hurt feelings, and need to talk about something abhorrent to parents? And where are links to these studies you claim back you up that "these methods" work better at delaying pregnancy and sexual initiation? I've seen the opposite information out there. –  Ethel Evans May 25 '11 at 21:31
    
@Ernie .. do you have the slightest bit of support for your final assertion? I think you have it exactly wrong ... the divorce rate and promiscuity seem to go hand in hand. Further, the inability (or unwillingness) to control one's sexual desires before marriage is a pretty good indicator that one will be unwilling or unable to remain monogamous during marriage. –  tomjedrz Oct 27 '11 at 0:59
    
@Ethel .. seriously? There are aggressive girls and sensitive boys, but they are the outliers. Boys and girls (and men and women) are different, and how they respond to sexual desires and emotional entanglements are among the differences. –  tomjedrz Oct 27 '11 at 1:02
    
Lots of assertions, but little evidence. Downvoted. –  j.rightly May 24 '13 at 3:20

I can be considered a very oddball example, but this is just my view, feel free to ignore it. I had absolutely no rules on dating, but have decided on them myself. I met my soulmate when I was 16. Now if I had someone impose rules on me then I would have never met that special someone. At the same time I have enforced abstinence before marriage. I felt that not being physically attached to someone can help keep a clear mind when it comes to thinking about the big commitment.

I do not enforce any rules on my kids. Life is a test, you will never learn by following someone's advice. We are all different people, and what works for some might not work for others. Additionally I think that if I enforce rules on my children, then they will still try to do things and be secretive about it. I would rather be my child's best friend and trusted adviser, than a tyrant who is trying to prevent him from (in his eyes and opinion) having fun. I did notice that allowing a child to try whatever they want and just giving advice here and there is better rather than forcing them to do something. Additionally advices are usually followed, whereas rules are made to be broken.

So my two cents would be not saying anything, and only speaking when spoken too. Trust me they will come to you asking for help when you have an open and helpful mind waiting for them rather than a judgmental mind.

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I think a good solution is to not allow or encourage early dates (or seeing forbidden movies, or smocking cigarettes, or sneaking out of home at night), and let these activites be on the "transgression" side of the life of the kids.

In these times of so-called transparency, I might be even more old-fashioned than the abstinence proposing answers, because I don't think it is possible, and not even desirable, to be fully transparent with our kids.

They want to have their secrets, so just let them believe you do not know about what they did last night.

Another consequence of this controlled semi-opacity: I will lie when my kids will ask me if I ever tried drugs.

So if my boy comes back from a romantic walk in the fields at 2am, I'll not be waiting for him with a loaded gun, nor will I offer him a last beer. I'll sleep (on one ear, and be envious of him). And if he get caught, I'll tell him it is not ok, even if I think it actually is ok.

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Friendship and dating are completely separate things. It's clear you are referring to dating, in which case there is absolutely no harm in not allowing your children to date until they are almost old enough to get married. When you do allow them to date, the dates should be chaperoned. Chaperoning your children's dates indicates you support them and are there to guide them through the new territory. If the relationship is taking a bad turn (fighting, disrespect, violence) you as a parent are more likely to be able to see it coming and step in if necessary.

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+1 for "Chaperoning your children's dates indicates you support them and are there to guide them through the new territory" –  Beofett May 12 '11 at 19:07
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-1 for "not allowing your children to date until they are almost old enough to get married...dates should be chaperoned". It's important to develop relationship skills long before considering marriage, especially in a heterogeneous society where one must negotiate differences in backgrounds and expectations. If an adult child requires a chaperone, he/she lacks vital social skills that should have been picked up prior to adulthood. –  HedgeMage May 13 '11 at 2:33
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Wow, somehow I missed that "until they are almost old enough to get married" part. Reading fail :( –  Beofett May 18 '11 at 23:30
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So what exactly are "old enough to get married" and "almost old enough to get married"? –  tomjedrz Oct 27 '11 at 1:04

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