If you are concerned about your brother and what his friends are doing, FX thinks it might be helpful for you to start out by getting a better idea of what “dating” means for his peer group. For younger kids and pre-teens, having a “girlfriend” or “boyfriend” might just be a way of identifying the person they like, or it may just mean they spend a lot of time during recess together. Dating in 5th grade may not necessarily mean that they are spending time together outside of school – time that is both supervised and unsupervised. If your brother’s friends are using these terms but are not getting physically intimate or dating outside of school, the use of the terms “dating,” “boyfriend” and “girlfriend” are probably relatively harmless.
If it seems that by “dating,” your brother’s peer group is interacting in a way that is similar to how high school students may be dating, FX suggests that you speak to your parents about your concern so that they can decide how to handle this in a way that is best for your brother.
As for your question, when the right age is for children to start dating, FX will assume you are referring to dating as two people spending unsupervised time together outside school or community activities due to a romantic connection, and that there will most likely be some level of physical intimacy – holding hands, kissing on the lips, etc.
FX is going to refer to David Elkind, who is a professor at Tufts University and the author of The Hurried Child. Elkind believes that people younger than 14 should not date because they do not have the social and interpersonal skills required for dating situations. He refers to various problems that can be associated with dating younger than 14:
· Relationships stay superficial: Early dating often gets in the way of boys and girls learning the skills that they will need to have healthy relationships later on. They may simply model relationships after relationships they see on television and in the movies rather than learning with time what is really appropriate dating behavior. In other words, they will act the way they think they should act rather than developing a real relationship with the other person.
· Less time with same-sex friends: Dating often means less time and fun with same-sex friends. These friendships allow young people to learn many skills about getting along with others that will be valuable in dating experiences later on.
· Personal identity is underdeveloped: People need a sense of personal identity before they can be really close to another person. What this means is understanding who you are, what you like and dislike, what you value and believe in, and more, so that you can relate to someone else in a healthier way and find someone else who truly complements who you are as an individual. People who date before they have had enough personal growth often get talked into feelings and actions that are not really true to who they are (because they are not sure of who they are), and they may end up in situations where both people feel as if they are really in love, but are actually just keeping the other from growing and maturing.
· Premature sexual involvement: Research is clear that young people who start dating early are more like to become sexually involved. One factor is peer pressure, since the younger you are, usually the more likely you are to be affected by peer pressure. Studies have also shown that young people who get involved sexually at early ages tend to have more relationship problems than those who wait.
While Elkind uses the number 14, keep in mind that his main points about dating readiness have to do with intellectual, social, and emotional maturity. People mature both physically and emotionally at different rates, so while it is possible that some teens might be ready to date at 14, others may not be ready for another couple of years. People are different, so it is important to focus on the maturity and emotional readiness of an individual before dating is considered – not just age. In addition, different religions, cultures, and individual families will have their own beliefs when it comes to dating – so it is important to take these considerations into account as well.
If a teen would like to start dating, FX recommends that teen start by speaking to a parent about it. The discussion should include:
· Are you old enough for dating? When it comes to age, as well as social and emotional maturity, is dating something you are ready for?
· What are your parents’ rules about dating? For example, do you have to be a certain age to date according to your parents’ rules, introduce your dates to your parents before you go out, go on double dates for a while before you can alone on your date?
· Are you well-educated about sex, do you know your limits when it comes to physical intimacy, and do you feel comfortable asserting yourself if your date wants to be more physically intimate than you do?
· Do you know about safe dating practices? Dating violence definitely can occur in teen dating situations, so it is important to know how to stay safe in the teen dating world.
FX would hope that you can speak to your parents about any questions or concerns, but if you do not feel comfortable with this, please speak with some adult in your life. It can be an extended family member, friend’s parents, family friend, school counselor, or whomever you feel comfortable with – just make sure you are talking with someone trustworthy and caring so that you can go into dating in as healthy way as possible.